Photograph by Ruth Smith
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scipture: Luke 13:1-9
There was once a painter who heard that the Methodist church in his town was seeking bids for the painting of their building. It was a fairly significant job and the painter really wanted his bid to be the one that was selected. Knowing churches are often apt to pick the lowest bid, he estimated what the other painters would be bidding and bid below them. Sure enough, he was the painter the church hired. Now, in order to turn a profit, the man knew he was going to need to cut corners. So, he decided it wouldn't hurt to thin the paint a little – that way he could stretch it out and make it go further. Initially, all seemed to be going well. He stepped back to look at his work and didn't think anyone would be able to tell the difference. But, near the end of his job, a sudden rainstorm struck. And the paint, already having been compromised, began to run and streak. The man was beside himself and blurted out loud: "What am I going to do?" He was shocked when a voice booming from the heavens responded: "Repaint and thin no more."
Repent and sin no more – that's the biblical call we hear frequently during the season of Lent. Lent is a time to assess our spiritual health. It’s a time to recall and reflect on what our human sinfulness cost our Savior – his very life. But sin and repentance are not very popular topics. Perhaps it’s no accident that Ash Wednesday worship is one of the lowest attended services of the year. I suspect that most of us don't really want to hear about sin or our need for repentance. But there's another equally distressing focus in those Ash Wednesday services; a topic even less popular than sin; a topic addressed in this morning's gospel lesson from Luke. It is a question/ a concern about the frailty of human life and the inevitability of death, particularly a death that may come without warning. As Wednesday's ashes are smeared on our foreheads, we're told "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Therefore, repent and believe the gospel." Those are words – a sentiment – we’d rather not remember.
In this morning's gospel story from Luke, Jesus has been teaching a crowd of people and they interrupt to tell him about a tragedy that occurred. Some Galileans were preparing to offer temple sacrifices – a normal part of Jewish religious practice – and Pilate had mingled their blood with the blood of their sacrifices, meaning, we can only assume, that in the course of them devoutly practicing their faith, they were slaughtered by Pilate, whose acts of terror and destruction were infamous. Now, that's hardly the kind of treatment any of us hope for when we sincerely practice our faith. But it is a situation we’ve become all too familiar with: mosques, synagogues and churches being subject to terrorism and acts of violence towards worshippers. We, too, can identify with the terrible and senseless sorrow of people slaughtered in the midst of worship.
Now, Jesus' response to his listeners might sound a little odd to us. They have asked a question about human suffering and Jesus responds by talking about sin. But, Jesus' response would not have been odd for his audience for, in Jesus' culture, it was a commonly held assumption that people who prospered – that is, those who were the proverbial healthy, wealthy and wise – were in that position because God had blessed them for their righteousness. And, it was also a commonly held assumption that people who suffered – those who were poor or sick or had a family member who embarrassed them or burdened them – well, they were in that position because God was punishing them for their sin. Even today, many of us more enlightened, sophisticated folks still have fears that nag at us when calamity strikes. Is God testing us? Is God angry with us? If only we could be a better person, maybe our troubles would just go away.
However, we ought to notice that Jesus does not perpetuate that kind of thinking by his response. He challenges the assumption that it was a punishment for their sin by asking a very obvious question – a no-brainer, we might say. "Just look around," we might paraphrase. "Do you think those Galileans were any worse sinners than other people we know?" We all sin. If every sin was responded to by God with such exacting revenge (tit for tat, quid pro quo) then we'd all be done for. If that were truly how it worked, we'd have all been struck down for something by now. There'd be nobody left to sit in the sanctuary this morning.
The title of this morning’s sermon is “More Than Metes the Eye” and the spelling of “mete” (m-e-t-e) isn’t a typo in the bulletin. The meaning of the word “mete” – m,e,t,e – is to allocate or measure. Most of us would like to think that, when we sin, our sin is punished with the appropriate allocation or measurement: little sins, little punishments; big sins, bigger punishments. But again, if we look around, it’s pretty obvious that isn’t how it works. Sometimes people commit horrible sins and seem to get off scot-free while the infractions of others seem so slight and insignificant and yet their lives are filled with sorrow and suffering. So clearly, there’s more going than meets the eye.
So Jesus does not support that common assumption that we all get exactly what we deserve in this world. Just look around and you’ll see that’s not true. But instead, Jesus redirects the ponderings of this crowd gathered around him. Jesus uses this occasion to call all of those present to repentance.
Now, what Jesus has to tell us about repentance in the gospel of Luke may take us a little by surprise. The Greek word for repentance in this story means "to think differently" or "to reconsider," in other words, to consider things in a different way. Subsequently, Jesus tells his listeners a parable about a fig tree and fruit. But, if we are to get a good understanding of repentance in Luke, we need to read more than this morning's verses. As I always say, it’s never a good idea to make theological decisions based on one isolated scripture. And in Luke’s gospel, we need to understand the on-going connection between repentance and fruit bearing. How does Jesus want us to think differently and how is our fruit an indication of the sincerity of our repentance? Let me repeat that: How does Jesus want us to think differently and how is our fruit an indication of the sincerity of our repentance?
Early in Luke, John the Baptist responds to those who are coming to him for baptism. He tells them that they are to “bear fruits worthy of repentance… for every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down.” That sounds a little like Jesus’ parable, doesn’t it? When the crowd asks John the Baptist for specifics, he instructs them: those who have two coats must give one to those who have none; they must also share their food. Tax collectors shouldn’t take more money than is required. And soldiers shouldn’t extort money from people. John makes clear that the “fruits of repentance” involve living in a way that promotes justice and mercy; the fruits of repentance have to do with living in a way that promotes justice and mercy for others.
In Luke, chapter 6, Jesus also speaks of trees and fruit. He teaches that trees are known by their fruit. Good trees don’t produce bad fruit and bad trees don’t produce good fruit. So, a good person out of their good heart produces good. Such “good” Jesus identifies with things like loving one’s enemies and doing good even to those who hate you. At this point, it might be helpful to take note of what Jesus says just before this morning's scripture. In the final two verses of chapter 12, Jesus says these words: "Therefore, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny."
In other words, says Jesus, don't be so concerned with pleading your case and justifying your own actions, or it may just come back to bite you in the backside. Instead, be motivated by a desire for reconciliation and mercy. Be merciful in the same way that God is merciful to all of us. This is what Jesus means when he speaks of “good fruit.” Good fruit means forgiving others, rather than standing in judgment over them.
The Gospel of Luke, from beginning to end, is a gospel infused with this message of forgiveness and mercy. This morning’s art is a photo provided by Ruth Smith. It’s a picture of her two oldest children. Any of you who have had young children close in age know that there are inevitable spats and disagreements. I’ve spent a lot of time with Ruth and the kids. Ruth is consistent in that, when they do something to hurt or upset the other, Ruth reminds them to say they’re sorry and to make up with one another. So Jonah is putting his mother’s advice into practice as he leans in to kiss the cheek of Aida… who seems reluctant to accept it. Most of us are older than Aida, but we also have to confess that we are sometimes reluctant to “lean in” and receive gestures of reconciliation from those who have wronged us and hurt our feelings.
Yet Jesus in Luke’s gospel reminds us that he wants people to think differently about getting what they deserve because, thank God, none of us ever really do. We would all fare much, much worse if our God were not so lavish with his mercy and forgiveness.
People of God: Jesus, in this morning's reading and throughout the gospel of Luke, calls people to repentance – and it is a call that we all need to answer for all of us are in need of God’s grace. We all need to repent. Not because God wants to make us feel miserable and have low self-esteem; not because we’re so much worse than our neighbor. But because, it is only by realizing just how much we all need God’s grace that we open ourselves up to receive God’s grace. God offers it as a gift. He doesn’t shove it down our throats like medicine. When we truly repent – when we can admit to God that what we think and how we see things may not be the end all and be all –then God is truly able to bring about change in our thinking, in our living, and in our loving.
We live in a sinful world encumbered with comparisons and score-keeping and often religion becomes just another part of it all. We may be bad (we tell ourselves), but not as bad as some people. We may make mistakes, but not as big as the mistakes others make. But there’s more to religion than meets the eye or fits the “crime.” God calls all of us to repent; to admit our need for forgiveness and grace. God offers us his mercy for mercy is God’s way of bringing about change within our lives and within the world. Let me repeat that because it is the most important thing I’ll say this morning. Mercy, mercy is God’s way of bringing about change in our lives and in the world. Only by repenting do we receive forgiveness. Only be opening ourselves up to thinking differently and considering things in a different way – God's way. Only by repenting, do we receive God's forgiveness. And, through the granting of forgiveness God showers us with his mercy. And, experiencing God’s mercy changes us. It transforms us into people of mercy and compassion. “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful,” that’s what Jesus said.
Repent, lest we perish, Jesus reminds us; not only because life in this world can be random and life can end unexpectedly. But because, everyday that we live with closed minds and resistance to God’s mercy, we impose death upon ourselves. God is not eager to condemn us. God does not want anyone to be lost and perish. God is eager to transform us by his grace. God is eager to pour his forgiveness and mercy into our hearts so that we may produce fruit… good fruit from good hearts – fruit that demonstrates God's mercy and forgiveness to others. So this morning’s scripture provides a great opportunity to ask ourselves: who are the people with whom we struggle to show mercy? Maybe they have wounded us deeply. Maybe their repeatedly poor choices have brought painful consequences to us and others. Maybe they are people whose lifestyles offend us. Oh how we wish they would change, we think. But as we journey through this Lenten season, as we seek to live more deeply immersed in the flow of God’s grace, let us consider: how might we follow the example of Jesus by demonstrating mercy? Remember mercy – not judgment – is God’s way of bringing change into our lives and our world. We are all sinners; but mercy is God’s way of bringing change into our lives and our world.
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