Saturday, March 10, 2007

Sin, Repentance and Grace

11 March 2007 * Lent 3C

Luke 13:1-9 * The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

Sin, Repentance and Grace

Sin, Repentance and Grace – that is what this pithy little story is all about. Sin, Repentance and Grace sit at the heart of Christian living and this season of Lent.

What may be surprising is just how Jesus addresses these core issues of faith.

He is approached by some who want to play one of the oldest and still popular games of human existence – The Blame Game. When bad things happen our first impulse is to blame someone.

For instance, if Lucky our whippet steals a jar of peanut butter off the counter and eats it all, which she loves to do, my first impulse is to blame her, yell at her, call her a bad dog and so on. I rarely stop to think first. I rarely stop myself long enough to remember that I left the jar within her reach. Blaming Lucky helps me to feel better about myself, or, even better, not even consider my complicity in the lack of peanut butter for lunch.

The Blame Game gets taken to extremes. Note that implicit in the question to Jesus is laying the blame for the death of those offering sacrifices at the hands of God. “Did they die because they were particularly bad sinners,” is code for, “God killed them, or allowed them to be killed, because they were not good enough…or faithful enough…or offered their sacrifices in the wrong manner or with the wrong attitude.”

This is a particularly insidious version of The Blame Game – Blame the victims and Blame God all in one fell swoop. It would be virtually breathtaking if it were not such a common every day occurance.

We may as well face it, when we say things like, “God won’t give you anything more than God knows faithful people can handle,” it is still at the end of the day saying that God causes the deaths of the worshipers at the temple, or the person who has cancer, or the dog hit by a car.

Jesus, being God incarnate, knows that this not only hurts God’s feelings but is just plain wrong. So wrong that Jesus calls playing The Blame Game Sin. I don’t know about you, but I just hate it when he does things like this. It really means I have to change, or perish like the people upon whom the Tower of Siloam toppled.

Having images of toppling towers etched into our eternal memories, we should be able to tap into what Jesus is saying at some dimension or other.

What is interesting is that Jesus is saying that playing the Blame Game, to blame the victims for not being Holy enough, or to suggest that God is behind their misfortune is the greater Sin. As Timothy Shapiro a commentator on this puts it all too well, “The sin is found in those who think the sin is found in those who have misfortune fall on them.” [Timothy Shapiro in New Proclamation (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2006) p.199]

So when he urges us to Repent, what we are to repent of is playing The Blame Game and to show some mercy toward those like the unfortunate worshippers and the good people near the Tower of Siloam.

Part two is even more humbling, and for those listening in on Jesus it would have been hilariously funny. It seems there is a joke in the Greek. The word for manure is in fact not so refined – it is street slang, or what we in some more innocent era called a swear word. So think of the harshest possible word for manure, and imagine the gardener – read tenant farmer – saying it to the wealthy absentee landowner, followed by “and if in a year you are still not happy YOU cut it down”! There would be serious snickering among the tenant farmers and servants in the crowd who only dreamed of ever shooting back at their superiors in such a fashion.

And what the story means to convey in part is that the absentee owner does not get his hands dirty, knows little of how to tend fig trees, and is trying to tell someone who knows the tree, the soil and the kind of care necessary how to do his or her job.

And it is the gardener who introduces the notion of Grace – “Sir, let it alone.” Don’t blame the tree, don’t order me to cut it down – give it another chance. Give it a moment of Amazing Grace. Give it a chance and it will bear fruit in its own time.

Laughing at the first part of the story and recognizing our need to play The Blame Game makes us the landowner. This is meant to break us down and open us up just enough to laugh at ourselves, repent and show a little more grace toward others, since God only knows every day we wake up and get out of bed God is bestowing upon us a great deal of Amazing Grace whether we deserve it or not. Another way to put this, we are all, at the end of the day, complicit through what we do or don’t do in the misery of others and the very planet God created and calls “good.”

“Or not,” however, is the operant phrase. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table. But it is God’s primary attribute to have mercy upon us as long as we keep on repenting of our various sins, most especially it seems playing The Blame Game. The Good News is that God does not want to blame us, God wants to save us and so came to live among us as one of us to teach us about Sin, Repentance and Grace.

There is plenty for all of us to chew on in this otherwise enigmatic little episode, so I share with you another take on the Good News of God in Christ. It comes from William Countryman’s little book, The Good News of Jesus (Cowley, Cambridge:1993):

The new life of the good news is like this: There was a woman who lived in Sonoma County, near Sebastapol. She had no relatives there – not even any close neighbors. The nearest was an elderly man who lived a half-mile away. Behind her house she had a garden, and at the foot of the garden, two apple trees that were her pride and joy.

Once she was called away to care for her only living relative, who was sick and lived very far away. She gave a key to the elderly man, who promised to look in on her house every week or so; but he was too infirm to care for her garden. She thought she would be away a few months, but she was gone two years. From far away, she heard about drought and storms.

When at last the woman came home, she found her house had lost some shingles, and there was a little water damage inside. Then she went through the house and out into the garden. It was overgrown with tall grass and nettles. At the foot of the garden were her two apple trees. They were in bloom – at the height of their bloom, when apple trees look like white clouds with a touch of pink and the petals are just beginning to fall and carpet the ground with white as well.

She stood awhile and drank it all in, and her heart filled with delight and thanks. Then she unlocked the tool-shed, took out her pruners and, wading through the weeds, went down to the apple trees and began cutting out the dead-wood. And she thought of the day when she would have apples for herself and her neighbor.


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