Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

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A Sermon by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I am a big fan of Westerns.  Most mornings I get up and make coffee and breakfast and sit and watch “Gunsmoke” or “Bonanza” on the Western Channel while I eat.  I know these shows aren’t high art but I enjoy them.  I imagine it’s because they permit me a nostalgic moment with my childhood more than anything else.  Of course, when one gets older one notices things you didn’t really think about as a kid.

Like religion for instance.  Most of the settler religion shown on westerns is nominally Christian.  There are a few Mormons thrown in occasionally and for movies set in the Southwest or Mexico you often have Catholics, usually Hispanic.  But the interesting thing is that the Christianity is not very Christian – it is very law centered, very law based.  You hear a lot about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and almost nothing about grace and mercy and forgiveness.  Even when they talk about forgiveness it has to be earned.  Why, in the famous Gary Cooper movie “High Noon” the sheriff has married a pacifist Quaker woman who has convinced him to hang up his badge and guns and leave town.  But circumstances won’t permit it, and in the end, she ends up taking up a gun to defend him and help save the town.

Now, I’m smart enough to know that conflict and revenge are a whole lot more entertaining than grace and forgiveness, at least in movies and on TV shows.  Where would Westerns be without angry men seeking to shoot one another as a point of honor?  But still, I do occasionally yearn for a minister who sounds like a preacher of grace and salvation, not a puritanical legalist.

The people who come to talk to Jesus about the “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” would have fit right in to the old west.  Since Pilate was the Roman governor, we can assume the killing had political overtones.  Perhaps the people not only wanted to know if Jesus thought that the sins of the Galileans had caused their killing – they also wanted to sort out whether Jesus might call for some sort of revenge and rebellion.  And he did not.  He invited them to turn their minds away from the possible sins of the Galileans and their murder by Pilate.  Jesus led them to think about their own sins and their own death and where God might be in all that. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”

Then he doubled down by pointing out another tragic situation where many people died – an industrial accident when the tower of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed. Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “Do you think they were the worst offenders in Jerusalem?” before answering it with the same words as before – “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

It’s a frightening thought, isn’t it?  All this talk of “If you don’t repent, you will perish.” I grew up attending a church in which it did not matter where the sermon started, every week it took a detour through Hell and ended up at the foot of the cross.  In those days I wasn’t clear about much but I was clear that if I didn’t straighten up and fly right, not only would my Daddy spank me but the Good Lord above would see to it that I spent eternity frying in Hell.

The thing that the writers of old westerns and my childhood preachers in that little mountain church failed to pick up on was that while there is judgement in the Bible; there is also grace.  Yes, there is vengeance; but there is also mercy; while there is much Law, there is much more Gospel.

And strangely enough, these things are not in conflict with one another, not really – rather they are opposite sides of the same coin; you really can’t have one without the other.  They work in tandem, helping us find our way to God.

The little story Jesus tells about the unproductive fig tree is instructive on this point, especially if we don’t get confused about who is who in the story.  Too often, we identify the most powerful person in the story as God, or perhaps God the Father.  That’s not necessarily so.  If we look at this story with God as the owner who walks through the Garden and sees an unproductive tree (that would be us) and orders it cut down; then we have a judgmental, vengeful, uncaring God and a prophet trying to plead with God to spare the people.

But what if we think about it another way?  What if we see the owner as, well, the owner of a vineyard and the fig tree as a fig tree and the gardener as gardener. That is, take the story as it is and then work out what it might mean for us.  This way the owner is being reasonable – the tree is unproductive, it’s taking up space, water and fertilizer and giving him no return on his investment.

The gardener sees something in the tree and things he can do, like heaping manure on it, to get it healthy again. So the owner relents, but only for a year.  The tree has been rightly judged; it has also been given a moment of grace, a bit of mercy.

So it is with us. We are all called to take a look at our lives and to consider where we might need to change, to turn in a new direction, that is, to judge ourselves and to repent where necessary.  None of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, can say that we are everything God made us to be, none of us does all that God invites us to do. All of us would benefit from being cultivated, from having our faith freshened up, and most of us could use some “manure,” that is – spiritual instruction and prayer.

Our God is a god of grace, a god of love, a god of mercy, a god of forgiveness.  As Isaiah says, “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7) But the parable teaches us that we must not presume upon God’s indulgence too long, “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Some years ago I read in Christian Century magazine a piece by future bishop Will Willimon about attending a funeral in rural South Carolina at which the preacher turned from conducting the funeral to preaching a sermon on the theme, “It can get too late.”  I imagine that for such a sermon a corpse in an open casket is an effective object lesson.  On the way home, the young Pastor Will fumed to his wife about how terrible, unconscionable, ignorant, and tacky that was.  And she agreed with him; then she said, “The worst thing about it is that it is true.  It can get too late to repent.”

This day Jesus invites us to turn away from worrying about and judging the faith and fate of others.

We are invited to look instead at our own lives, our own faith, our own fate.  We are encouraged to repent, to turn in new directions, to seek opportunities to serve God in new and exciting ways.

Amen and amen.

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