It is the 3rd Sunday of Lent, and so I will stand up here today and I will make a confession. A confession many pastors do not like to make to their congregation. It is a confession that makes some laity cringe and others smile. It demonstrates that the rumors from Carolina fans that I wasted good money at a bad school could possibly be true. I admit when I read the scripture for this week’s sermon, I had no clue what it meant.
During Lent I like to stay with the Gospel texts in the lectionary. Lent is a time to get ready for the gift of Easter and I feel to do that we need to stay close to the teachings and life of the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. Now after 12 years of preaching I may venture off into something else but for now I still I’ll stick with this. This is the first time I have had the chance to preach these pieces of scripture from Luke’s gospel. Many of these are new to me and I had read the parable of the fig tree before but I didn’t much understand it. I also didn’t get the first five verses either. But I am not one who backs down from a challenge and so I dived in and knew God would provide a word for us today. And God did.
Let me share some things I learned. In the first five verses of this 13th chapter there is some insider language going on. They are asking Jesus about some current events of their time and for us, the outsider; it can be a little confusing. They talk about Galileans whose blood was mingled with sacrifices by the hands of Pilate and then another group of people who had a tower fall on them. There is no other place where these two events are mentioned so all we know is what the writer of Luke’s gospel tells us.
Pilate is the Roman Governor of this area and who had his headquarters in Jerusalem. It seems that some people from the area of Galilee came to Jerusalem to give a sacrifice. Jerusalem was the only place to do this so it is natural to assume this is where the event was when it occurred. Pilate was known to be brutal and unjust as he reigned over this part of the world. The Romans were not known for their bedside manner. The best guess for what happened here is that these Galileans were probably causing some kind of trouble for Pilate. Maybe they were instigators in trying to start a rebellion or were revolting over the Roman taxes they had to pay. Whatever the reason it seems Pilate decides to make a point with these people. He has them killed in the same place where sacrifices to God are offered up. This is something unthinkable.
Fred Winters, 45, was preaching in the 8:15 a.m. service with about 150 people in attendance at the St. Louis-area First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., when the gunman, walked down the aisle, exchanged some words with the pastor and opened fire, shooting Winters four times in the chest. When the gunman’s .45-caliber semiautomatic weapon jammed, he drew a knife and slashed two church members as they wrestled him to the ground. You might remember this story which happened only a year ago. It is tragic because the sanctuary we come to worship in, the place where they made sacrifices to God, is a holy place and a place where we cannot conceive of evil things happening.
The tower falling was another event that happened that is only mentioned here. Siloam was an area that the city walls of Jerusalem did take a turn around. In John’s gospel the Pool of Siloam is mentioned and it is very conceivable that at this turn in the wall there was a tower placed there. It is also very conceivable that during the construction of this tower that it fell and, as the text tells us, eighteen people were killed. We know what it is like to watch towers fall and the pain that sticks with you after such an event.
Both of these events are tragic and both of them have an era of innocence attached to them. People are not supposed to be killed in the middle of worship. Towers just don’t fall on people every day; it is a horrible and tragic coincidence. But what is also happening is the idea of we are punished for our sins. If you remember Jesus is asked at one point why a man is blind, was it caused by his sins or the sins of his parents? Here the same thing is happening. The underlying question that Jesus can see them asking is, “what did these people do to deserve such an ending to their lives?” “What sins did they commit to deserve a death like being killed in church or having a random tower fall on them?” Jesus answers them, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
What Jesus draws from these two events is that life is delicate and fragile. Can I tell you with certainty that you will not be T-boned by a car pulling out of the parking lot today after church? No, it could happen but that doesn’t mean God has a certain punishment placed upon you because of something you did. We all have fallen short of the glory of God, and so just as Jesus points out, we all need to repent. Repentance is extremely important and it is what the season of Lent is all about. Even the stole I wear mentions this, “Repent”. When we place ashes on your head on Ash Wednesday we can choose two sayings, “Repent and believe in the gospel” or “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Both point to the fragile nature of our lives and the need to make our hearts right with God.
The second part of this scripture is also a little hard to hear. It doesn’t make sense to us. The owner of some land approaches a tree that hasn’t given off any fruit in the last three years. He tells his gardener to just cut it down and stop having it waste the soil. That makes sense. If you have a garden and a tree is producing, why keep that valuable soil space filled up with an unproductive tree? Remove it and then plant something that will produce some fruit. How many of would do that? It just makes logical sense to do it.
Yet that is not how God works. The gardener comes out and tells the owner; let me try one more thing before we cut it down. Let me dig around it and put manure on it and see if that will help it. The gardener doesn’t give up on that tree and is willing to try anything to make it bear fruit once again. God looks at us and sees our sins and offers us grace. Grace to dig around our soil and put manure on us to help us grow. Grace to do anything to save us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in during the rise of Nazi German. He was a very smart man and was a founding member of the Confessing Church of Germany and a participant in the resistance movement against the Nazis. When he participated in the planning of the assassination of Adolf Hitler, he was put in prison and right before the war ended he was executed. Not only is he a martyr he’s views on Christianity and the secular world are very good and have a lot we can glean from them today.
One of the things I like the best about his theology is the idea of Cheap Grace verses Costly Grace. The more I read this parable this week the more I realized that what Jesus was talking about was grace, costly grace. Not the cheap kind you can buy at Walmart or in bulk at Costco. My mind went to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship where he explains these two concepts.
Let’s start with cheap grace. Bonhoeffer says that “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.” (pp. 43-44)
Cheap grace is what we often do in our lives. It is the grace we give someone just to smooth things over and give the appearance that things are okay. Like I said it is Walmart Grace. Walmart is known to bring us the cheapest prices in town but we also know that it means it is cheap in quality too. Yes there are good things at Walmart but if you were going to purchase a nice watch, one with fine craftsmanship, great quality, and one that you can pass down to your grandchildren, you wouldn’t be buying it there. If you wanted sweat in and ruin as you exercise, that is the Walmart watch. If you are looking for a type of grace that is as deep as a puddle, cheap grace is what you are looking for.
Costly Grace is something far different. Bonhoeffer says, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son; “Ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Our Costly Grace sums up his parable by saying “If [the fig tree] bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” Within that year though the tree’s foundation will be turned up, fertilizer put down, watered and cared for, and shown love and forgiveness. That tree will understand that although the last three years have not been good ones, it doesn’t matter, it can still produce fruit.
Today as we approach the table of God, in this holiest of seasons, we need to be reminded of the grace that is before us. When we taste the elements we need to remember the cost of the grace we are receiving. We are merely trees. Some of us produce fruit year in and year out. Some of us feel God has already chopped us down. Some of us do not feel worthy of even trying to bear fruit because of what we have done in our lives. But God doesn’t care and God is ready to forgive. What God is looking for and what repentance is all about is our ability to name our sins, admit our failures and truly desire to be fruitful once again. If we simply think God’s grace will make up for what we have done in order to keep doing what we are doing, that is Cheap Grace and God doesn’t want anything to do with that.
Costly grace is sought after by the sinner and given freely by our God. If we are not willing to do the work, then off to shop at Walmart we go. If you are tired of wasting soil, than come to the table and receive true grace. It cost God everything, and it costs us everything as well.
And all God’s people said…Amen.