The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday in Lent
March 24, 2019
Have you ever had a conversation with someone that went something along these lines? “I want to tell you something I did--but don’t judge me!” And then the person goes on to reveal some sort of thing that, of course, they have already judged themselves for. Usually this is a silly sort of thing, right? “I wore two different shoes today. Don’t judge!” To the truly tragic, “I may have texted my ex last night and asked to get back together. Don’t judge!” You get the idea.
These are silly examples, but there is some truth to the way that phrase works in our culture… Don’t judge. Don’t judge me. Don’t disapprove of what I have chosen. Don’t tell me I am wrong. And outside this silly sort of communication that is tweeted, texted, or otherwise thrown into the electronic milieu that is social media, that craving for acceptance, that avoidance of judgment or criticism or anything like disapproval, comes through into our larger lives—into our real world relationships.
There is something about judgment that awakens that small child within, isn’t there? It’s as though we’ve been sent to the headmaster’s office for a scolding—and we know that detention is surely in the future for us. It’s as though someone is going to call our parents and boy, then will we be in trouble! It seems childish, doesn’t it? But I see this sort of response again and again in myself—and in people with whom I interact as a priest, as a person. Our relationships can be overshadowed by this fear of judgment.
Sometimes we locate that judgment, though, in our relationship with God. Sometimes we get stuck in a view of God as a parent—after all, we talk about God as Father, of Christ as the begotten Son—and if we get stuck on thinking of that as the limit of our relationship with God, well, we end up thinking of God as just that, a parent who tells us right and wrong, who tells us what to do, maybe even a parent who scolds. It’s a child’s perspective of God, isn’t it—and some adults—well, most adults I’d venture to say—hold onto that idea well into adulthood!
If we really dig down and look honestly at what we’ve done wrong, we may be afraid of judgment… And we make the leap quickly from judgment to punishment, just as the people in today’s gospel lesson do. In today’s gospel reading Jesus is teaching, probably in the midst of a large crowd, and someone asks about a tragedy—something that would have been on the minds of the crowd—a story ripped from the headlines, as it were. Remember that time, Jesus, when the Galileans were making sacrifices and they were killed? What are we to make of that? Was God punishing them because they were sinners? You can almost hear the question. And Jesus replies, Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? And what about those people that were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them? Were they worse than all the other people in Jerusalem?
No, Jesus says. Of course not. Despite the fact that insurance carriers insist on calling natural disasters “acts of God,” Jesus tells us that, of course these sorts of things aren’t the result of God’s judgment. When confronted with these sorts of tragedies, our rational minds can help us understand that of course these tragedies are the result of crowd behavior, of bad engineering, of bad choices made by tyrannical rulers even—but not acts of God. Jesus tells us that disasters aren’t sent by God as punishment for particular people.
These people who suffered at the hands of violence, who died at the hands of tragedy, were no worse sinners than anyone else. And yet, Jesus says, unless we repent, we too shall perish. Unless we change, amend our lives, we too experience a kind of death.
There is judgment. There is consequence to our sin. But maybe we’re not understanding how God judges. Maybe we’re not understanding how God responds to our sinfulness. Maybe we’ve forgotten, in our anxiety and fear, about God’s grace.
Jesus gives us an illustration about the nature of God’s grace. He tells a story. The vineyard owner plants a fig tree that bears no fruit—for three years he waits and watches, and there is nothing. And finally he wants to cut the tree down. But the gardener says, wait—leave it one more year, let me work with it. And if it bears fruit next year, that’s great—and if not, you can cut it down.
One more year. Wait for it to bear fruit. Yes, if it never bears fruit, the fig tree will be cut down. But wait—give it more time. The story isn’t over yet.
It turns out that it takes a few years for a fig tree to bear fruit. And the gardener knows this. He keeps tending the tree patiently, faithfully, waiting for it to bear figs. Waiting for it to become the thing that it is designed to be.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that sin is more than merely wrong actions—that sin is anything that separates us from God, anything that makes us less than the goodness that we are created to be. We are made for goodness, and sin is that thing that deforms us, that makes us less than the thing God has made us to be. There is sin—there is wrong action, wrong doing, wrong being—because we have options, we have choice—we truly can choose to ignore God, to separate ourselves from him, to refuse to accept his love, to refuse to be in right relationship with God and with our neighbor.
We can fail to show fruit of that good relationship—of that only relationship—that relationship with God. And if we fail to bear fruit, if we fail to be—to thrive—to live in that relationship, well, then we have already cut ourselves off at the root.
We are all guilty of sin, of separating ourselves from God, in different ways to be sure, for none of us are exempt. But God doesn’t abandon us. Jesus continues to till the soil, to give us his love again and again. The story isn’t over yet. We can turn, change, repent, refocus our lives, our attention towards God, our love for God and neighbor. We can fall in love with God again and again, because God first loves us.
Basil, Cardinal Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster (UK), told a story –a parable really—that illustrates the nature of God’s grace. When he was a small boy, Basil says, he sneaked into the pantry of a neighbor’s kitchen and found there a bushel of apples. They were so ripe, so fragrant, so beautiful--and there were so many in that great big bushel basket--no one would miss just one apple, Basil reckoned. So he took just one. No one would know.
Of course his neighbor did indeed catch him and made him put the apple back. Hume says that at the time he felt scolded and guilty—what he had done was indeed wrong—and he carried that sense of shame into his adulthood as a way that he thought about God. God was there, pointing a finger, saying, Basil, put the apple back! Later, however, Hume came to a different understanding of God. He came to believe that, while the neighbor scolded him and told him to put the apple back, God might have said to him, Basil, I see you have an apple there. They are beautiful, aren’t they--so ripe, so fragrant. Here, why don’t you take another apple as well! Go on, take two! Take two.
And that is what God does, isn’t it? Even in the face of our disobedience—even as we worship the golden calves of our lives, even as we fail to bear good fruit, even as we fail to love God with our whole being—all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind--God is still there loving us, giving himself for us. Christ pours himself out on the cross for us even as he forgives the thief that hangs by him. For you see, God is in a covenant relationship with us. Even in the face of our disobedience, even when we grab as many apples as we may with no thought for God or neighbor, God says, take more. Here I am.
What if we moved from seeing God as that finger-pointing guard in the pantry, that judge that knocks buildings down on people and strikes them dead in judgment, to seeing God as the generous giver of the apple story—that generous giver in Creation, in our stories of deliverance, and in our stories of salvation? There is sin, there is judgment—Jesus says unless we change we will all perish—but God continues to love us and draw us closer, to change us, to redeem us. Even the thief he forgives. Even us he forgives.
Jesus the judge is also the gardner who is tending us still, waiting for us to bear good fruit. God who has made us for goodness is the same God that delivered the Israelites out of bondage in Egytp, that still delivers us from bondage to sin and death, that stands there in the face of our sinfulness and loves us and gives himself for us in the body of his dear Son. Here I am, take two. My brothers and sisters, in the face of that great love, how can we be afraid. I pray for us all this Lent that we may have the courage to accept God’s great love. The courage to examine our lives, to repent. And the courage to become the very goodness that God has made us to be. Beloveds in Christ, I pray for us all a Holy Lent.
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Portions of this sermon previously preached at Grace Church in New York and Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church, Coral Gables.
 Basil Hume: Ten Years On, ed. William Charles. London: Continuum, 2009, p 101.