Third Sunday of Lent Grace Church, Newton • Luke 13:1–9 • 11 March 2007 On the face of it, there is something disjointed about the gospel reading we have just heard. For one thing, there are two pieces, two topics, two ideas, and it seems as though they are just thrown together, like an apple and a banana. First, there‟s a question about violent death — Pontius Pilate and a tower that fell down. Then, a parable about a tree. Is there a connection? There doesn‟t appear to be. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 2 That‟s one thing. For another thing, the second piece, the banana, seems like only half a banana — half a parable. We get the beginning, but not an ending, a point, a punch-line. In short, this reading makes it look as though Jesus needed a speechwriter. Either that, or St Luke got distracted while he was writing it up. (We‟re told that St Luke was a doctor. Maybe when he was working on this part of his gospel he got an emergency call, and lost his train of thought.) That‟s what it seems like, on the face of it. And it could be that what you see is what you get. But I want to suggest that maybe what‟s more going on here is more than meets the eye, or meets the ear. What we‟ve heard isn‟t two separate pieces (an apple and a banana); and the second piece isn‟t just half a piece. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 3 Let me start there — with the parable. Somebody had a fig-tree, but no figs, no fruit. Zero productivity. So what‟s to be done? Get rid of it. Cut it down. But the vinedresser (pay attention to the vinedresser) says: Well, no. Let me mulch it and fertilize it. Wait and see if that helps. Maybe there will be figs next season. Now, what you‟ve got to have in mind, as you read that, is something St Luke already wrote, right at the beginning of his gospel. You need to think back to Advent, back to John the Baptist. Remember John the Baptist? He comes on the scene saying: “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down . . . ” (Luke 3:9). Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 4 And by “fruit” he means — and he says it — “fruit that befits repentance.” That‟s what ties the two piece of today‟s reading together: repentance. Jesus just isn‟t interested in the idea that the tower of Siloam fell down and killed eighteen people because they were worse sinners than everybody else. As far as I can tell, he never was interested in seeing disasters as divine retribution. That‟s just not on his screen. What he is interested in is repentance. The „gospel‟ in today‟s reading — the „good news‟ in today‟s reading — is what the vinedresser says: Give it another chance. Don‟t get the ax out yet. Nourish the tree. There may yet be fruit. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 5 It‟s as though the vinedresser were saying: Give the tree a chance to repent. No image is perfect, and at that point the image of the fig-tree stops being helpful. Trees bear fruit — or they don‟t — but they don‟t decide whether they are going to or not. Trees can’t change their minds. They haven‟t got minds to change. We have. We have minds. And changing them is what repenting is all about. That‟s what the word „repent‟ means: it means to have a new mind, to be „new-minded.‟ I don‟t mean „mind‟ in the sense of reasoning and solving problems. That‟s just a corner of what the human mind is. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 6 I mean „mind‟ in the sense of outlook and attitude and orientation. I mean „mind‟ in the sense of how you „see‟ things — how you „see‟ everything. I mean „mind‟ in the sense of how you rank your priorities, how you judge what‟s truly important, how you discern what really matters. If you want a computer analogy (which is always dangerous), I‟m not talking about the program that does calculations. I‟m talking about the entire Operating System — the „whole‟ that informs all the parts. That’s „mind,‟ in the relevant sense. That‟s „mind‟ in the sense St Paul is using when he says: “Have this mind among you, which also was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 7 And the point is: MINDS CHANGE. Your mind can change in the trivial sense that you thought you wanted strawberry ice cream — but no, what you really want is chocolate chip. But your mind can change in the profound sense that you see yourself and your neighbors, your world and your life, differently. That shift, that change, is repentance. That‟s what today‟s gospel-reading is about. And I have two things to say about it. (If you invite a theologian to preach to you, you can expect to hear some theology. Here it is.) Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 8 FIRST POINT. I said that „minds change,‟ and I meant it in the most serious sense — the sense of conversion, the sense of making a U-turn, the sense of loving what you didn‟t use to love, and wanting what you didn‟t use to want. What I didn‟t say was: „You can change your mind.‟ Because you can‟t. Not in the most serious sense. In the last resort, repentance is a gift. It‟s not something we do. It‟s something we receive. It‟s something that happens, something given. That‟s what „grace‟ means. The only power than can change anyone‟s mind, anyone‟s goals and values and priorities and attitudes, is the power that made it in the first place. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 9 Minds change (in the most serious sense) because God changes them. Repentance is a turn-around. It happens. We turn. But we turn because we are turned. That‟s my first point about repenting: It‟s a gift, not an achievement. You can‟t make it happen. You can‟t earn it. It isn‟t a reward. You can accept it — or not. But that‟s a different thing. And so there‟s a SECOND POINT. It‟s not first, it‟s second; but it‟s important none the less. The fig-tree in the parable needed to change. If that happened, the evidence would be — figs. There would be fruit. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 10 Now the vinedresser (remember, I said the vinedresser is important) — the vinedresser didn‟t just say, “Well, let‟s wait and see.” He said, “Let‟s give it one more chance,” but he didn‟t stop there. He did something. He dug around and threw on some fertilizer. What the vinedresser did was set some conditions. He didn‟t change the tree. He did change its environment. Environment doesn‟t make figs. Trees make figs. But they don‟t do it without an environment — without soil and water and air and fertilizer. Now, the way to apply that part of the parable, it seems to me, is this: Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 11 Repentance is a gift. Conversion is a gift. A change of mind is a gift. It comes from a Giver, not from effort. And we don‟t have to accept it. God offers it all the time — constantly. We‟re drenched with grace. To accept it (or refuse it) is entirely up to us. God never forces anyone. Force just isn‟t God‟s „thing.‟ Whether we do accept it — whether we accept the invitation to be turned around— depends partly on “environment.” It depends a lot on “environment.” It depends on who our “vinedressers” have been. It depends on the nurture, and the nourishment, we get. It depends on the “atmosphere” we breathe, and the “soil” we are rooted in, and the irrigation and the fertilizer, and all the rest of it. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 12 What I am saying is, God alone changes people‟s minds, converts people; but God is not above letting others cooperate. That is what the church is for: ‟ to be an environment in which there can be trees that bear fruit such as befits repentance. You were waiting for the preacher to get to the point. Well, that was it: What the church is for is, to be an environment in which there can be trees that bear fruit such as befits repentance. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 13 To put it less metaphorically, you belong to a „formation community.‟ You are, collectively, a „formation community.‟ The purpose of the formation is repentance — „new-mindedness‟ — and everything that follows from that, in terms of bringing in the reign of God. The church is a cooperative effort at setting the conditions — not for God‟s grace to happen, because it‟s going to happen, one way or another, but — setting the conditions for God‟s grace to be accepted, and owned, and built into lives that are Christ-like. Now. I am supposed to be preaching about baptism. That was my assignment. The problem is, baptism isn‟t something you can preach on, by itself. Baptism is one star in a whole constellation of things; and what I‟ve tried to do is mention some of them. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 14 Baptism is for „repentance,‟ for „conversion, for „new life.‟ And yet most of the people who get baptized are little babies who don‟t have much to repent of, yet; and they couldn‟t repent of it, consciously and deliberately, even if they wanted to. So isn‟t there a disconnect there? No. There‟s not. The service of baptism is like Arbor Day (if anybody observes Arbor Day any longer). On Arbor Day, people take little seedlings, and plant them, locate them, put them into an environment. The idea is, it‟s an environment where they can grow and flourish and when the time comes (if they‟re fruit-trees) bear fruit. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 15 It‟s an act of hope (because there‟s no telling whether the seedling will flourish); and it ought to be a promise — a promise to keep watering and fertilizing and so on. There‟s a rather sentimental poem that ends, “Only God can make a tree” — which, as a matter of fact, is true. But for reasons that God only knows, human beings can help or hinder the making. It‟s the same with baptism. I don‟t know whether infants are “innocent” or not. St Augustine didn‟t think so, and I know some mothers who don‟t think so either; but that isn‟t the point in any case. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 16 The point is that for someone baptized in infancy, there will never be a time — or, there should never be a time — when the church isn‟t cooperating with almighty God to encourage the acceptance, again and again and again, of the gift of a new mind, a new aim, a new direction. We have a responsibility for those we have baptized. We‟re the vinedressers in that parable. Nobody is a Christian by him- or her-self. We make, and we are, the „environment‟ in which the promises that go along with baptism are — or are not — likely to be kept. For those of us who were baptized before we could say anything about it, part of „owning‟ the promises made on our behalf is encouraging others to be what they already are. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 17 That‟s the great paradox that St Paul is always wrestling with in his letters: God has done it all — done everything, already. In Christ we have been brought „out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.‟ Only God can do that, and has done it, once and for all. And yet we‟re always, each of us, making that transition out of error, out of sin, out of death, into truth, into righteousness, into life — always negotiating that U-turn, always accepting what we have been given. What have I said? We say, “The church is the community of the baptized.” That‟s true. We say, “Baptism confers full membership. It‟s complete initiation.” That‟s true too. Lent 3 • Grace, Newton • 18 My point has been: The church is a community of baptizers. The church is the community that fulfills conditions, that sets up an environment to encourage and promote repentance — „new mindedness‟ — and the fruit it bears for the sake of the world. That‟s what you are. Now go and be what you are. Let us pray. Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.