Delicious Word, by Pastor Fred
Many people remarked on how delicious the figs tasted at the Gallery Opening last week! How many got to taste one (show of hands)? We got them in honor of Younan Shiba, our featured artist, and a refugee from Iraq. A number of folks had never had them before, and weren’t sure which of the dried fruits were figs and which were dates? They're exotic imports from the Middle East after all! I tasted one of each, and they were as delicious, I’m sure, as the figs and dates the Israelites have eaten, since the time of Abraham. Later, I saw the left-overs reappear briefly on Wednesday night, at our Soup Supper, but didn’t have time to grab one, unfortunately, so I’m hoping they may be resurrected at Coffee Hour today, one more time!
God’s word for us today is nutritious and wholesome, though initially, hard to digest. But the fig tree in the gospel story has not yet produced any figs, while the most uplifting news appears to be from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament!
But I’m getting ahead of myself! For Jesus really does have some good news for us, though difficult to digest, until we get what he’s talking about. So first, let me tell you a story.
Ben Larson was a seminarian, the son of pastor, a bishop in fact, and had a passion for global ministry, and song, and found himself volunteering a second time in Haiti, in 2010. As you may recall, that was the year when the massive earthquake hit, and at that moment, Ben was on the second floor of an orphanage, leading a worship service. His wife and cousin were volunteering with Ben too, and were in the same room when everything started shaking so violently, and they instinctively ran for the doorway nearby as the concrete came raining down. But Ben grabbed hold of the pillar in the middle of the room, no doubt hoping it would be a safe place. Unfortunately, the structure completely collapsed on top of him.
I still remember the fundamentalist talk show host who denounced everyone who died in the earthquake in Haiti, as deserving it, as God’s punishment – and being so very angry and upset.
Jesus talks about the tragedies of his day, like when the tower of Siloam, probably a part of the structure of the wall around Jerusalem, fell unexpectedly on an innocent crowd of people, killing 18 of them. He also tells of the ghastly news of how Pontius Pilate took sport in the death of some Jews at the Temple, who were offering their prayers and sacrifices in normal everyday religious ritual, and mingled the blood of the sacrifices, with the blood of the worshipers, terrorizing the population! Other historical accounts of Pilate bear-up this image of his brutality, and so, it could very well be true.
Terrorism continues today, domestically from San Bernardino, to Kalamazoo, to LaQuan McDonald, and of course, across the Middle East, inflamed waves of retribution and revenge. And even the candidates who are running for the highest office of our land, blame whole religions, for individual acts of terrorism, stoking our worst fears and exhibiting great comfort and satisfaction in thoughtless violence.
When the disciples bring up the terrorism and natural disasters of their day, Jesus in turn asks them a question,: Do you think that the victims were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, or those living in Jerusalem? We’re not sure if the disciples attempted to answer or not, because Jesus answers his own question for them, saying, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
That may seem a bit hard to digest, at first, but Jesus is pretty clear. Unlike fundamentalists, presidential candidates, and those who reflexively seek revenge, and are quick to point the finger, not noticing the log in their own eye, Jesus says, sin does not make atrocities come. They just come. And, I might add, God does not have to send us punishments – we’re capable of hurting one another all by ourselves!
But tragedies like this do tell us something, says Jesus. Life is fragile! And just because we have survived thus far, doesn’t make us better, more blessed, or exceptional. It tells us, there is no time like the present to confess; to repent; to ask for forgiveness; and get right with our Maker. I don’t mean to be doctrinaire. But, if we take it to heart that life is fragile, that can help us to, not take our lives for granted; To learn to live in the moment; To understand the utter gift of grace life is, that God has given us; and be thankful.
When Ben Larson’s wife, Renee, ran back toward the building, after the ground quit shaking, back to where she’d last seen her husband, and stuck her head into the hole where the orphanage had been, she heard Ben. He was singing with his dying breaths. The tune was a hymn, “Where Love and Charity Prevail, there God’s love is found.” The words he was singing were a prayer: God’s peace to us we pray. And Renee told him she loved him, and to keep singing.
Unfortunately, since the Twin Towers fell, we have been reacting – not out of God’s graciousness and peace – but out of fear, falling into a bad theology whenever we blame tragedy and terrorism on whole groups of people we decide are “bad”, or less-than, and deserving of divine retribution, forgetting that Jesus says, No, to this Way, that those who died in NY and DC, and all the way to San Bernardino, California, are no better, or worse, than we are. And, reacting out of fear and asking for retribution, is not an answer, or a creed, we subscribe to. It is, in fact, the shortest road to more tragedy. Unless we repent, says Jesus, death will continue to rule.
But if this is still hard to digest, says Jesus, let me tell you a parable, the story of the master’s fig tree that wasn’t bearing fruit. The really curious thing about placing this story here is, there was a Levitical law at the time, against doing exactly what the master asked for, cutting it down after three years. The law stated that no fig trees should be cut down in their first 3 years to give them time to root and grow, and even the fourth year was designated as the year of first fruit offerings, that is, the master had to make an offering of the fourth year crop, and not eat them himself until the fifth year.
But there is a gardener in Jesus’ parable, who intervenes on behalf of the fig tree. He could have reminded the master that he would be in violation of the law, to cut it down, but instead, the gardener craftily asks for a reprieve for the fig tree, to allow one more year of growth, so that it can be taken even better care of, to personally pamper it and fertilize it, instead of killing it. In effect offering a pardon for this fig tree, a repentance, before the master decides whether or not to cut it down. A very nutritious and wholesome approach, I’d say, though perhaps somewhat hard for the owner to digest!
Life is fragile, and it doesn’t often respond well to bullying and retribution. We all respond better to forgiveness and love, and a gardener who is not afraid to get down in the dirt with us and get their hands dirty in the dung of life, to live where we live, understand our burdens, responsibilities and griefs, and give us a second chance.
Life is fragile. And there is absolutely no reason for us to wait to repent. For, Siloam or Haiti, could happen at any time. And if we do not repent and find the wonderfully gracious gift of life God has given us, we are all the more likely to join the self-satisfied, or angry-wounded, in a discipleship of retribution, instead of a discipleship of Jesus.
Our God is a God of mercy and love. A God who never gives up pursuing us and forgiving us. God is the giver of all good gifts, as the prophet Isaiah says of our Great Gardener: “Attention, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
God’s word for us today is like a fig, nutritious, delicious, and wholesome, and actually, easy to digest, when we internalize – that though Life is fragile, its an awesome gift, and present to us right now!
“Listen carefully to me, …eat what is good… and come to me…”