Scripture: Luke 13:1–9, 31–35
Scout Sunday 2021. Worship led by Scout Troop #60.
Luke 13:1–9, 31–35
Some days, preaching is just fun! Last week was one of those days. I got to preach on a couple of passages that are favorites: the Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha. I got to let my inner sci-fi geek out: with a little Quantum Leap, a little Star Trek, a little Wandavision. It was a fun sermon.
But some days, opening up the pages of Scripture and trying to figure out what it says for us is just not fun. This week was very different from last. What is going on here? Part of the reason that I use the lectionary is so that I won’t just preach texts that are easy and straightforward. So that I will wrestle with passages like today’s. Passages that I wouldn’t pick out without a little nudge. My guess is that most of you have probably never heard a sermon on this collection of passages. I know you haven’t heard it from me! There are a lot of pieces here that are hard to understand, and even harder to figure out they have to do with us!
But let’s give it a shot, shall we? Again, I ask, what is going on here? First, let’s take a look at what we have in front of us. The Narrative Lectionary calls on us to read these three teachings…
- One about these two groups of people who seem to be victims…one group killed by the Roman governor Pilate, and another group suffering from some kind of accident, where a tower fell on them. And Jesus says some words about what that might mean.
- Two, a very short parable about a fig tree that is not bearing fruit, a man ready to cut it down, and a gardener who wants to give it one more chance.
- And three, a teaching about Herod and Jerusalem and chickens.
When I asked the Two-Way [discussion group] what they thought these passages had to do with each other, they were (as always) wise in their answer: repentance. Jesus uses that word a couple of times in the first section, and implies it in the next two. Repent from your behavior. Change your ways.
And yet, Jesus seems to use this concept differently than we sometimes use it. Often, we will assume that repentance is an individual event. I need to repent. But I think that what Jesus is saying in these passages is teaching us what it means to repent communally. In the first passage, these people come to Jesus with an assumption that these people who have died were being punished individually. But Jesus says it does work that way. They suffered, but everyone needs to repent. He doubles down on that idea in the third teaching, where he speaks pretty harshly on the entire city of Jerusalem. “You have killed the prophets and stoned those sent to you.” Which, by the way, isn’t the first time that he has done this with an entire city. Back in Chapter 10, he talks about communal repentance with three other cities: Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.
So, here Jesus has called on these communities to repent. Implied here is the southern “y’all.” Or more accurately, “all y’all.” He doesn’t specifically name John the Jerusalemite. Betty from Bethsaida. He doesn’t name specific names but the entire community, who has bound together systemically to reject God’s law of love. “Woe to All Y’all.” I think what Jesus is doing here is teaching us communal lament, and communal repentance. Like the prophets before him, Jesus is lamenting the death and destruction that comes with injustice. Injustice hurts the victim and the perpetrator. Howard Thurman named this 70 years ago…a society based on hatred for another people destroys both the hated and the hater. So, just like the Old Testament prophets before him, Jesus is naming the fact that when a society loses sight of God’s idea of justice, it will necessarily and violently fall apart. It has happened to every Empire in history, and Jesus saw it coming a mile away. Sin is communal. This brokenness is shared. You need to repent. “All y’all.”
That’s what lament is. Mitzi Smith names this for us in her commentary on this passage. She writes,
Collective lament is an appropriate and necessary response of a people or nation burdened with a history of social injustice, poverty, oppression, murder, and the privileging of lies over truth that bleed into its present.….lament is slow to come, especially when masses of people have been convinced that the violence is necessary or when the perpetrators are convinced that they are doing God’s will and acting in the best interest of the nation.
This was true of Jerusalem, of Capernaum, of Chorizin, of Bethsaida.
And this is true of Lawrence, Kansas. I spent some time this week on a Zoom call with some of the staff of the United Way here in Lawrence, who offered some painful statistics. They have found that 11% of white children in Lawrence are born into poverty, a number painfully too high, and embarrassing to acknowledge. But it gets worse. They report that when we speak of Black or indigenous children here in our community, that number jumps to 70%. Living at or below the poverty line. “Woe to Lawrence.” Just a few hours later, I was on another unrelated call with a handful of Black pastors here in town who told stories that backed up that injustice. That they were watching the struggles of their church members trying to raise children in this community was heartbreaking to hear. What makes it worse is that both groups named this dynamic—that Lawrence thinks that they are too progressive for injustice…thinks that is a Kansas City problem or a western Kansas problem. The message on that day to me was clear: “It’s all y’all.” All of us.
The next morning, I went on a run on the Burroughs Trail. I parked and measured how far I would need to run to get my mileage in. I figured I needed to turn around at the southeast corner of the Haskell campus, where a small Indian cemetery stands. I knew what to look for, as I had visited the cemetery before, and knew that it was a place where Haskell students were buried, many after being taken from their homes in the 1800s back when Haskell was a boarding school, and who died from diseases that white settlers brought with them. When I got there, and saw the graves through the trees, something hit me. I felt an overwhelming sadness and communal lament. Here, on the land of the Kiikaapoi, the Osage, the Kaw, the Oceti Sakowin, people who look like me came and conquered and killed. Before I had time to think about it, with tears in my eyes, I simply said “I’m sorry.” Over and over and over again.
As I ran back, I wondered where that emotion came from. After all, I wasn’t there when those students died. I didn’t bring disease or oppression or forced relocation. That wasn’t me. But a connection came to my mind. On All Saints Day, we stand here and we thank God for all of the saints who have come before us: generations of Christians who have brought us the faith. Giants upon whose shoulders we stand. People we have never met, who never had a direct relationship with any of us. The connection I made was this: if we can say “thank you” on that day to those upon whose shoulders we stand, is there not room in the Christian consciousness to say “I’m sorry” to those upon whose graves we stand? And can we not ask “what graves must be dug because of my actions today?” That’s a Jesus question. And it must be asked.
Jesus the Teacher has more questions for us. And more answers.
Here, in this context of a fiery call to repentance for the entire city of Jerusalem…his voice softens. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” At once he holds great anger for the community…AND great love for its people. A hen will be very protective of its chicks. If another chicken attacks one of them, she will do anything to protect it, covering it with her wings, defending against attackers. Likewise, Jesus asks Jerusalem, “Do you know how much I love you?” That’s also a Jesus question. And a reminder that even as Jesus corrects and demands repentance, he also nurtures and loves. His call for justice and repentance comes from a place deep within, that knows that the injustices that Jerusalem and these communities must give up are the things that are destroying them.
It is the same lesson that he teaches with the fig tree. There are several versions of fig tree parables in the Gospels. Each of them has a dead or dying fig tree and someone who is upset about it. But what Luke’s version does is introduce a third voice: a gardener. Jesus usually doesn’t explicitly say who his parables represent—we aren’t sure who is who. So I am going to give you my guess. I think that the man frustrated with the fig tree is the march of time….the inevitable destruction of a society who has failed to act justly to its neighbors. The coming reckoning. But then the Gardner steps in. Again, Jesus doesn’t say who the gardener is in the story, but I’d like to think that it is Jesus. The one who lovingly steps in before the coming destruction and says, “let’s give it another chance.” Let’s dig around it, and spread some manure for fertilizer, and tend it and care for it. Jesus the Gardener gives us another chance. Jesus the Mother Hen reaches down and gathers us under wings of love.
Jesus teaches us communal lament, but he also teaches grace. He names what he is up to: a gardener caring for a diseased tree…a hen gathering her vulnerable chicks. Jesus reminds us that he is not on the side of the fox, but the chickens!
As he still is today. Howard Thurman suggests that an unjust society hurts both victim and perpetrator. But when it learns justice, it heals both victim and perpetrator. He writes, “It is necessary, therefore, for the privileged and the underprivileged to work on the common environment for the purpose of providing normal experiences of fellowship…The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free.”
Which is the experience I had on these Zoom calls last week. Not only was there a clear sense of communal lament, but there was also a sense communal healing. Black pastors ministering to those who are hurting in our community, acting as God’s hands and feet, inviting white pastors to join that work. The United Way has taken a clear strategy for aid here in Lawrence. Their goal is to address injustice and improve the lives of Black and indigenous children in poverty. Now, does this mean that they don’t care about white children? Or Black adults? Or people who aren’t in poverty? Not at all. They understand that the statistics show that this is the most vulnerable population, and they believe that making their lives better, makes all of our lives better. Justice for the most vulnerable is justice for us all. Justice heals all of God’s children.
That is the lesson that Jesus the Teacher seems to want to leave his students with in this extended passage. Jesus knows his brood. Jesus knows the name of every child born into poverty. Jesus knows the name of victim of oppression in Myanmar, in Nicaragua, and in Douglas County. Jesus knows the name of every one of 500,000 Americans killed by complications due to COVID…and of every member of their family who grieves their loss. Jesus knows the name of every child in that cemetery. Every Ponca. Every Kickapoo. Every Omaha. Every Cheyenne. He gathers them under wings of love and grace. He protects them from the foxes and the wolves and the raptors who dive.
Jesus knows the name of every one of his children, including each of you, within the sound of my voice. This morning, may each of you feel the love of Jesus around you, protecting you, gathering you in grace. All y’all.