Monday, 04 March 2013 00:00

"Penance", March 3, 2013

Luke 13:1-9
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 3, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

I don’t know if you pay attention to this or not, but at the top of the bulletin each Sunday is a proverb to ponder.  As a part of our alliterative worship theme for this year, the proverbs are loosely related to the topic of the day.  Today’s topic is penance and today’s proverb to ponder is: Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid (Proverbs 12:1).  I know it sounds harsh.  Criticism usually sounds harsh, especially if it meets our own bull-headedness.  No one likes to be called stupid.  And yet, if we don’t learn from our mistakes, what does that make us?  There’s a saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The season of Lent is all about looking at our inside game.  It’s about reflecting and getting better.  People give up something for Lent as penance, but also to shift their priorities to the things that really matter.

So from what do we need to repent? What mistakes do we wish we could take back?  How might we have wronged someone?  How might we have not embraced our best self—betraying ourselves?  How might we want to change our ways and get better?  What is the proper penance for everything that we did wrong?

Let’s think about that, but first, let’s look at the scripture that the Revised common lectionary gives us to see what wisdom it brings.  There are two parts of the story.  The first part is Jesus telling us to repent or perish.  Then he illustrates this with a parable about a fig tree.  The two don’t seem very well related.


Let’s look at the first part first.  It’s a politically charged story.  Jesus was hangin’ with his Galilean friends and the Galileans said, “remember us?”  It’s not just an intellectual discussion about sin and suffering. The Galileans were poor folk, farmers mostly, who were living in an occupied land.  Roman overlords had taken control of Jesus’ hometown and what did they do?  Luke says that Pilate mingled their blood with their sacrifices.  That implies that Pilate, standing in for the army or occupying forces, went into the Temple where they were making their normal animal sacrifices.  They then murdered the Galileans so that the blood of the martyrs were combined with the sacrificial lambs.  Any good patriot, when hearing this, would have responded, “They’ll pay for this.”  Let’s rise up an army.  Let’s take out the Romans once and for all.

Not only that, but Luke 13 says that 18 people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell upon them.  We don’t know what they were doing in the tower, but the tower was likely on the wall right above the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem.  Why it fell, we don’t know.  Maybe revolutionaries were storming the walls and the wall gave way.  Maybe the wall was pushed down to stop the insurgency.  If Jesus was a good revolutionary, he would rally the troops, use the righteous anger and direct it at the real enemies, Rome.  The evil overlords.  We don’t expect him to look anywhere else.

Rodney Clapp in his commentary in Feasting on the Word wrote:

“Self-righteous anger. If emotions were cuisine, this would be the piece de resistance, the dish we love to linger over and return to, time and time again.  Anger by itself does not taste so good.  It is bitter and leaves an aftertaste.  On the other hand self-righteousness—there is the seasoning that make plain-old-hamburger anger irresistible. Self-righteous anger goes down smoothly.  It makes us feel superior.  It elevates us above lesser mortals, not to mention our enemies.  So long as we have it on our plates, the confusing grayness of the wearisome world goes away.  It is bracingly, refreshingly clear that we are the good guys and those others are the bad guys. If all this were not enough, self-righteous anger also reheats wonderfully; it tastes almost as fine the second or fifth or sixtieth time out of the oven.” (p. 92 Year C Volume 2).

But Jesus changes the rules.  He messes with our menu.  He says even though it may taste good, it’s not good for you.  It’ll clog your arteries and make you get fat and bald and sick. He says, get your own house in order before you expend all of your energy on hating someone. Is that the best use of your energy? It’s like how he said earlier, “do not worry about the speck in someone else’s eye without looking at the log in your own eye.”  Whenever you point at someone else there are three more fingers pointing back at you.  Jesus said, you will perish just like they did.  So, you should repent while there is still time.  Jesus shifts the focus from revolutionary self-righteous anger to revolutionary self-reflective penance.

One Biblical view was that if you were obedient to the teachings of the Torah, then you would be blessed and if you did not follow the teachings, you would be cursed.  Jesus, like Job, rejected this viewpoint.  “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans?  No, I tell you.” It’s as if Jesus is saying bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  Don’t look to God to bless you more because of what you believe. Remember that any day you can meet your maker.  Know that any day you can be called to account for your time on earth.  It’s your actions that matter, more than your beliefs.

The Buddha is credited with having said:

“The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings.”

So we have all of this.  We get it.  We are to do right.  We are to make up for what we have done wrong.  We are to do penance for what we are truly sorry for.  The penance can be temporary or it can be eternal.  Your choice.    I would go for the temporary one. It’s easier. That’s where we get back to our proverb for the day: Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid (Proverbs 12:1).

So what does the fig tree parable have to do with any of this?

It hasn’t born any fruit in three years, and the farmer is ready to cut it down.  It’s just taking up space.  It’s blocking the nutrition of the sun and soil from the other trees. Get rid of the offending tree.  But Jesus says, wait, let’s fertilize it.  Let’s give it one more chance.  Who knows.  It may yet bear fruit.

The book of Revelation says that there is a special status granted those who display patient endurance. Planting a fruit tree is an act of faithfulness. Faithfulness requires patience. Fruit does not come on a tree in the first year. If it does, it’s not very plentiful. It takes many years for a tree to bear fruit.

I’m no horticulturist and maybe I’m confusing it with its cousin, dates, but even four years is pretty quick for a fig or date tree to bear fruit. In fact, it likely takes ten times that long. Planting a date tree is the ultimate test of patience. It means that those who plant are seldom if ever going to eat the fruit from the tree. Those of us who eat dates or figs do so because another generation has planted them.

Planting trees is an act of faith. It is a giving to the next generation. It is more than patience. It is faith at work. But in the parable, it seems that God is the patient one.

Remember that God is forgiving and patient.  God wants us to get better.  God wants us to repent.  God does not require penance, but does penance on our behalf.  God is the gardener who tends the tree and gives us one more year, one more chance to get it right.  And so we thank God for doing penance on our behalf so that we might be able to bear fruit.

What disappointments might we need to water and feed?

How might we best approach our lives so that we can bear fruit in the seasons to come?

One of the things I keep in my pocket these days are coins that I found among my dad’s things when we were cleaning out his apartment.  I now cherish these coins. They mark the years of his sobriety.  Sobriety is not just about not having a drink.  It’s about working a program that makes you better.  It makes you more responsible and accountable. His recovery was part penance for everything that he did wrong.  It was also part repentance.  It was part discovering self-love.  Folks with addictions often feel the need to medicate away a part of them that they see as unworthy. It was also what he gave back.  At his memorial service last month, people came up and told us about how he had sponsored them.  They told us how he had helped them in their recovery.  They told us how he was a role model. We wished he would have shown us more of that, but then again, we maybe just weren’t looking close enough.  His recovery was part of God’s tending the tree so that it could bear fruit.  I guess it bears fruit in all those he loved.

What trees have we planted?

What do we leave for our next generation? What is our legacy?

How do we live with patience and purpose at the same time? What we plant now may not make a difference to us, but it will to our descendants.

So, plant hope.  Clear the soil through penance.  Water the tree with prayer and purpose.  Keep the tree from being choked out with the seeds of discord like self-righteous anger.

May they bear fruit because we have patiently tended the gardens and planted the trees with deep roots of faithfulness, we have nurtured their branches with prayer and we patiently await the day when we sit down and feast together on the banquet of their fruit.

That’s why we do penance: so that we can bear fruit and be like God the master gardener.  The proverb then makes sense: “Whoever loved discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid.”  But let’s amend it to “Whoever does penance receives a clean heart, a fresh start, and bears great fruit.  A repentant heart is disciplined and wise. Such a heart embodies the Good News.”