Luke 12:54-56; 13:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-9
Has life ever thrown you a curve? I would be surprised if any one of us would answer “no” to such a question. In fact, what would life be like if it were completely predictable, running in one straight line? Safe, perhaps. But probably not very much fun. Life would be flat. No highs or lows. No moments of inspiration, insight and ecstasy. It is the twists and turn which give life its depth.
Perhaps this is why the symbol of the labyrinth is so ancient and so pervasive through all cultures. Our lenten image on the front of the bulletin is a labyrinth in the pattern of the one found in the floor of the cathedral at Chartres in France.
Have you ever walked the labyrinth? We have one in the backyard which you can walk after the service today. (Just remember that the path is the grass, not the stone.) Or, if you can’t do that, just pick up a pencil and follow the path on the front of the bulletin. Do it slowly, consciously. I have a desktop labyrinth which I can follow with a stylus, when I need to take my work into the heart of prayer and let it be twisted and turned until it comes back out changed.
The first time I walked a labyrinth, I was surprised by how the path led me back and forth, all over the circle. Just stay on the path, I was told. There are no forks in the road, no tricky decisions, in fact, no decisions at all. Just keep on the path. I seemed to make no progress toward the center whatsoever, until suddenly, I was there. It was a surprise, that I had come by such a circuitous route to the destination. And, that was the next surprise. The center can also be a trap. There is no way out of the center but to retrace my steps through all the hairpin curves.
Unwinding my way out was more difficult. There was not the same wonder or mystery. I recognized the turns where I had been before. The question for this phase of the journey was: will I be able to take the heart of God, found in the center, with me all the way out into the world of my day-to-day life? Or, will I lose it in the wandering path?
I have grown to appreciate this twisted journey image for Jesus this Lent. He goes from his vision-quest high, at the center of the heart of God, back out into his ministry. He is centered and passionate. But the people don’t understand him. Not just the religious, or the political leaders, but the people who flocked to him, even his disciples, didn’t understand. They are stuck in their human rut and don’t see that God has taken a hairpin curve.
In the gospel of Luke, right around chapter 11, Jesus’ message seems to become more harsh, in-your-face. Not so much the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” who welcomes the children; not even the peace-loving Jesus of the hippies and pacifists (like me). He has turned confrontational, it seems.
In Luke 13 the people bring to Jesus the latest news report from Jerusalem: Pontius Pilate just had a bunch of Galileans murdered while they were bringing their offerings. “If we don’t know how to read the times, Jesus, help us out with this one. Was that an act of God? Did those Galileans deserve that?”
It is easy to assume that we live in a universe of rewards and punishments. The Bible has many examples, preeminent among them is the book of Job. It is a long poetic argument between Job and his friends who insisted that he must have done something wrong to deserve his suffering. Job claims that he is innocent. In the New Testament, the disciples meet a blind man and ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Job and Jesus are going against the grain in teaching that these sufferings have nothing to do with sin or punishment.
The crowd is posing the same kind of situation here. “Tell us, is Pilate the instrument of God’s judgment,” they seem to ask.
Jesus’ answer was unexpected and unsatisfying. He declares that the murdered Galileans were no worse sinners than anyone else. And he went on to say that the same is true of those 18 people who were killed when the tower collapsed in Jerusalem. The suffering was random. In our labyrinth metaphor, while tragic, these were just hairpin curves on the journey of life.
But then Jesus seems to say the opposite: “unless you repent, you too will all perish” (v. 3 & 5). First Jesus says that death was not judgment for sin. Then he warns the listeners to repent or perish. These seem to be opposites.
Just a few verses earlier in Luke, Jesus noted to the crowds following him that they are good about interpreting the weather. Then he asked them, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56). In other words, you know how to see consequences – a cloud brings rain, a south wind brings heat – don’t you understand that your actions are just the same? The things you do in your lives have their consequences in the same way that the skies predict the weather. It is not a judgment of God. But things you do or think can lead you down paths of destruction. You think political maneuvering will bring the kingdom of God, but it will only lead to a deadly clash.
Repent, metanoia in Greek, primarily means to change one’s mind, see things differently, adopt a new perspective. In this case, quit looking for political solutions to bring the kingdom of God and simply enter it, for it is right here. Change your perspective, open your eyes.
Maybe a parable will help, Jesus seems to think. A farmer has a fig tree planted in his vineyard and after 3 years, expects to find fruit, but the farmer is disappointed. He orders it cut down. The field supervisor appeals for one more year of excellent care for the fig, and it is spared.
Odd that this fig tree is planted in a vineyard. Figs and grapes are different. Figs normally take four or five years to produce their first crop, whereas vines will produce a crop in the third year. One might think that this farmer is more familiar with vines than figs, and expects the fig tree to do what the vines do. The wise farm supervisor knew this. Wait another year. I will give it wonderful care and we will see what happens next year. As he knows, most likely at least fruit will appear.
I have never before noticed this contrast between figs and vines. And I am not totally sure what to make of it in understanding the parable. None of the commentators I have read seem to notice this distinction. Each growing thing requires different care. Gardeners and farmers know this. Jesus’ listeners would have known this. They would have realized that the judgment of the farmer against his poor fig tree was unwarranted.
So what if the parable is about the people, who aren’t reading the signs very well? What if the people are like a farmer who doesn’t read the signs of his own crops, and thus nearly cut off their life out of misunderstanding. Of course the fig tree will never bear fruit if it is cut down. On the other hand, the wise one, the one who actually, hands-on cares for the plants, steps in and saves the tree from destruction, almost certainly guaranteeing a crop. Could this be God’s grace in the parable?
This actually makes perfect sense as a follow-up to Luke 12:54-56 where Jesus marvels that the people don’t know how to read the signs of the skies; here he has a parable about them not knowing how to read the signs of their crops. And in between he tells them that they need to change their perspective, or they will perish. Could he be saying that they need to get their perspective right or they are going to destroy their own life source?
Jesus was sent to turn the world as we know it upside-down. No more relying on apparent power centers. Power is not in institutions, not in numbers, not in weapons. What power did Jesus have to offer when he emerged from the desert? That God is still alive and well and living on planet earth. That same God has not forgotten God’s own covenant bond with creation. God has bound Godself to humans, declaring grace.
I have been reading a new book called Weird Church, by Beth Estock and Paul Nixon. They are saying that the church is in the same situation as these followers of Jesus. We are not reading the signs of the times. They introduce their work like this:
There is a Catholic church just outside the tourist gates of the Forum in Rome called Santa Francesca Romana. It is built on the ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome…. On a summer day in 2014 in a sea of tourists, the bells chimed for the 11 a.m Sunday Mass. Curiously, Beth walked in to find that the priest was the only person in the sanctuary. The ancient space was awe-inspiring and no one was there for Mass. At the epicenter of the birth of Western civilization and Christendom, no one was attending Mass…. That image of being the only one who shows up for worship lingers in the background, twisting us in pangs of anxiety and a sense of hopelessness as if all of Christianity is falling off a cliff…. In the years ahead, we will see many Christian clergy just giving up on the whole enterprise of “church-as-we-have-known-it” and finding different work….. The Christendom world we knew is gone. (Estock, Beth Ann & Nixon, Paul, Weird Church, Cleveland, Pilgrim Press, pp. v, viii)
We had better read the signs of the times, they say. One chapter of Christianity is closing rapidly. But the new ways are already blowing in from the wings. And that is what the rest of the book is about. How we can get busy with the Spirit re-creating the Jesus way for a post-modern and post-Christendom era. I was with Beth, a Portlander, at my retreat this weekend and I found our conversation to be very encouraging. She can identify in what we are doing at Mt. Tabor many of the hopeful trends of churches who are paying attention. Nice to hear, but it doesn’t make the hairpin curve easier to navigate.
We are living in a hinge time between eras, just like Jesus was. We need to listen closely to what Jesus was saying, if we are going to stay on the road when we come to those hairpin curves. It is not easy or fast. And churches will die along the way, as part of the changing of times. Is this God’s judgment? No. It just means that the path has taken a hairpin curve. This direction has taken us as far as it can, now the path turns and goes another way, to see the other side of blessing. The path has turned. Follow it. The Spirit is wild and free and will lead us into the kingdom path. Trust that.
I have been consumed with writing and reviewing annual reports for the past couple of weeks. These annual reviews of the story of God’s work among us can be enlightening. As you read yours, look for the ways God is at work among us, doing a new thing. The signs are there!
Like the farmer of the fig tree, we don’t have to cut down the tree or give up farming. Rather we can stay in it, like Jesus did, preaching God’s presence, even in his dying. For, like Jesus, we and the larger church with us, will experience many deaths along the way.
Jesus walked one massively sharp hairpin curve, which marched him from ultimate popularity entering Jerusalem to crucifixion just days later. But there was one more turn ahead, the one which we anticipate celebrating on Easter – the hairpin turn from death back to life.