March 7, 2010

Most schools have a motto of some sort, and the motto – at least when I was in school – is usually written in Latin. I suppose that people think that this adds a touch of class to the coat of arms, to have a Latin tag running across the bottom of it. The high school I went to has as its motto “Scientia et Veritas”, which translates as “Knowledge and Truth”. An OK, motto, but nothing really inspiring or exciting. My cousins, on the other hand, now their school had a great motto! “Carpe Diem”, which translates as “Seize the Day.” It became really popular a few years later, when Robin Williams used it in the movie Dead Poets’ Society. But I wonder if many people really know what it means? In the movie, Williams’ character meant to inspire the boys he was teaching; he wanted them to do the things they wanted to do, before it was too late. Most people translate this into enjoying life, into doing things that will make them happy. And that’s not entirely wrong. Nor is it entirely a bad thing. However, in today’s Gospel reading, we see another interpretation of it. No surprise there, as Jesus was known to look at things from a slightly different angle than the rest of us!
First of all, a bit of background information is needed. Unfortunately, there are no records of Pilate’s soldiers killing worshippers in Galilee as they were about to make their sacrifices, but that kind of thing was not uncommon then. Jews were persecuted by Rome, and the soldiers may not have even bothered to report it. But the people heard about it, and came to Jesus to tell him. They could not believe that people who were about to honour God had been killed in such a manner, so that their own blood mingled with the blood of the sacrifices. Jesus’ reply probably shocked them, as he said, “Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than the other Galileans because they suffered that way?” Then he answered his own question with a vehement “I tell you, no!”
Next he went on to talk briefly about 18 people who had been killed in Siloam when a tower fell on them. He asked the crowd, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Again, he answered his own question in the same way. “I tell you, no!”
Now the crowd listening to Jesus assumed that, because the Galileans had been killed, they must have been sinners, or God would have prevented it from happening. And the people in Siloam, on whom the tower fell – well, as far as most people were concerned, this could only have happened if they deserved it – if they had done something bad, something worthy of punishment. We have seen this many times in Scripture – people assuming that misfortune was the result of sin. Remember the blind man whom Jesus cured? The one about whom the crown asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And by now, the reply shouldn’t surprise any of us. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus.
Now, I could take this text and preach on the whole idea of bad things happening to good people, but I don’t think that this is the point of it. I think, instead, that we need to look at Jesus’ next statement. He says, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” As I said, the world view of Jesus’ listeners that day was that sudden death was a punishment for sin, and that, since they were not sinners, they were safe from retribution. Things were going well in their lives, they had no need to repent. After all, they followed the law, for the most part; they made the ritual sacrifices; they did what they were supposed to do. So they figured that they would live to a ripe old age. But Jesus wanted them to realize that sudden death was NOT punishment – that it could happen to anyone at any time, and they should be prepared. And this brings me back to the motto Carpe Diem – seize the day. This was the point that Jesus was making. We do not know the hour or the day, so we must always be ready.
But then, after advising the crowd that they must always be ready, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree, the tree which was being given one more chance. The landowner was upset because the tree had been growing for three years, but had produced no fruit, so he ordered it to be torn down – probably to make room for a tree that would do what it was supposed to. Now, the landowner wasn’t asking the impossible of the fig tree. He wasn’t asking it to produce olives. He had planted a fig tree, and he expected to get figs from it. In the same way, God has given us gifts, and he expects us to use them, to develop them. He does not expect us to be something we are not, but rather what he intended us to be. We have spoken in the past about our gifts, about how every person has some gift or other. But we haven’t really spoken about the responsibilities that come with the gifts. Some people who are here today have nice singing voices. Some have the ability to paint beautiful pictures. Some of us are better at dealing with people. The point is that we all have some natural ability, just as the fig tree should have had the ability to bear figs. The secret is to find out what our natural abilities are, and to develop them. And the people who develop their natural abilities are recognized by others. The person who develops his mathematical ability is called a genius. The person who develops her musical ability can become a star. To become a genius, to become a star, you must first figure out your natural ability, and then put the maximum effort into developing it. And that’s what the landowner expected of the fig tree. Tonight, at the Oscar ceremonies, we will see people being recognized for developing their particular gifts. But the fig tree – well, the fig tree had not done what it was expected to do. It had not produced figs, and the owner had decided that it was time to cut his losses.
The servant, however, persuaded the landowner to wait one more year. He promised to take special care of the tree, to fertilize it. Now, the Greek word that was used was kropia, and this – to the people listening – was a truly disgusting word. It is often translated as dung, which is more polite than the word itself was, and it was not something which was talked about in polite society. So here was Jesus, first of all challenging their world view, and then, when he seemed to be easing off a bit, to be telling them that they had a chance for redemption, he tosses this word at them. We tend to gloss over it, and say that the servant was going to fertilize the tree, but people who are gardeners know that, especially in those days, there was one thing that was used for fertilizer, and that it wasn’t very pleasant to work with. Nor is putting in a maximum effort to develop your natural ability. Practicing six hours a day can make a great pianist. Training six hours a day can make a champion figure skater.
As Christians, we have the natural ability to worship God, and to live as he wants us to. But do we? How often, if God were to come looking, would he find us not living the life he expects us to live? How often would he find us like the fig tree, not producing fruit?
Carpe Diem is a good motto for all of us. A friend of mine decided this year to take the trip of a lifetime, and she and her husband went to Chile. Of course, you know what happened. There was an earthquake, which happened right at the end of their vacation. They are still in Chile, and hope to be able to fly out on the 12th, almost two weeks later than they had originally planned. But there were many other people in that country who won’t be going anywhere because they were killed – their lives were cut short by the force of nature. None of these people had any warning that they were about to die. Unlike the fig tree, they were not given time. The tree was given time – a window of opportunity, if you like – in which it could change. But people rarely are. In the case of sudden, unexpected death, the window slams shut. I wonder, if we actually knew the hour and the day, what would we do? How would we seize the day?
Our lives are filled with these endings, some expected, and some not. I have often heard parents wishing that their babies would grow up, so that they could stop washing diapers. Then they wish that their toddlers would grow up, so that they wouldn’t need baby sitters any more. The parents are too busy making a living, and trying to have their own lives, to spend much time with the children. But then, all of a sudden, the babies are grown up, and gone off to school, or to start a new life in another city. And the parents look back, realizing how short was the time they had together. There is a Harry Chapin song which talks about this. In this song, Cat’s in the Cradle, the child is constantly asking for the father to spend time with him, but the father is too busy. Then, when the child becomes a man, the father asks him to come and visit, but now the tables are turned, and he doesn’t have any time to spend with his father. I have often heard people say, “I wish I had spent more time with my parents.” Or, “I wish I had spent more time playing with my kids.”
Now, many people read Jesus’ words today as a threat. If you don’t produce, out you go! But I don’t see it that way. I see it as a wake-up call. Life is short. In the overall scheme of things, it is amazingly short. And in this parable, Jesus is telling us to make the most of every moment. He is telling us to use every opportunity we can to show our love for each other, to lessen the suffering of others.
In the book of Micah, we read in chapter 6, verse 8: What does the Lord require of you? And the answer which follows is very simple: To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. If we do this, then we will produce the fruit that God expects us to. Like the fig tree, we are living – particularly here, in this place, at this time – in ideal conditions. Even though we are in an incredibly secular society, there is no reason for us not to live as God requires. We are free to worship as we want, we are nourished each week by our faith community; we can be God’s faithful followers. But I wonder how often God looks at us, and sees that we are like the fig tree. Even under our ideal conditions, we often produce no fruit. And what do we do? Well, under the circumstances, I think that we do two things. First of all, we rely on God’s grace. We count on being given the window of opportunity which will give us time to change. And, having been given this second chance, then we act.
In our reading from Isaiah this morning, an invitation was extended to us. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” And, if we do this, Isaiah goes on to say, “The Lord will have mercy on him and God will freely pardon.” Both readings urge us to action, and both assure us that the rewards will be worth it. And the first action is internal. We need to admit that we were wrong, because this is the first step to forgiveness. We can rattle off the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, saying “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”, but this is often done carelessly, with our minds elsewhere. I think that the fig tree parable should be taken as a wake-up call, as a gentle nudge that time is running out. Jesus was not trying to frighten his listeners – or us – into repentance. He knew, as do we, that fear doesn’t work.
Think about a child being caught doing something he shouldn’t – eating cookies, for instance. Dad notices that the cookie jar has been moved, and is, in fact, almost empty. He says, “Did you take the cookies? You know that I warned you what would happen if you did that again!” That isn’t going to encourage the child to admit his guilt. Most children would deny the deed completely, or, at most, admit to eating “just one cookie”.
And as adults, we do the same thing. Well, yes, I say, I may not be perfect, but at least I am not as bad as – and we fill in names of some perfectly dreadful people. It is better just to admit our faults, and then to do something about them, knowing that God is there, waiting – not to punish us, but to forgive us.
In fact, we have already been forgiven. And through God’s love we are able to seize the day. We are able to make the changes that have to be made. On this third Sunday of Lent, halfway to the cross, let us commit to making the changes we need to make. Let us commit to being the people God expects us to be. Thanks be to God.


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