The Fruit of Repentance
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2016
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
In quick succession this reading moves from tragedy, to repentance, to hope that new life is possible. This text reads like the movement of repentance itself, turning the people from deadly despair to a vision of hope.
“Did you hear about the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate?” the people ask Jesus. Jesus – hearing the subtext of their question – responds with a question, “Do you think because they suffered in this way they were worse sinners than other Galileans?”
Jesus says: No, I tell you. The Galileans murdered by the Roman military and the people accidentally crushed by a collapsing tower in Siloam were not more deserving of their deaths. No, they were not worse offenders. God did not cause their deaths as acts of divine retribution. But because you are wondering about what is and what is not divine judgment, let me tell you a story….
Jesus tells the parable of a fig tree that is not bearing fruit. The vineyard owner complains to the gardener that for three years this fig tree has not produced a single fig. Cut it down, he says, it’s a waste of soil. The gardener, no doubt the one who had been tending the tree in its first three years of life, coaxing it along with water and care, replies to the owner, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The story ends there, somewhat abruptly. We don’t know for certain what happens to the tree. Assuming that the owner agrees to the gardener’s request, we do know that over the coming year the tree is tended with nutrients and its roots are given room to breathe and expand. We don’t know if the tree bears fruit or if it is cut down the following year. We do know that the tree is not left alone to wither. We know that the tree is cared for and nurtured.
The hope revealed in this unfinished story is that repentance is not an individual endeavor. We are asked to bear the fruit of repentance but that is not something we can do on our own. Repentance is not a prayer of confession we utter or a set of rules we follow. Repentance comes from encountering God, it is a gift from God who digs around at our roots leading us toward life, toward each other and the creation of a future that is just.
On Monday night this past week, Starhawk, a writer and activist who has dedicated much of her life to articulating a spirituality focused on earth care, came to speak at Stony Point Center. In a society that is constantly telling itself stories of despair and destruction, Starhawk proclaimed, “to claim a vision of hope for the future is a political act.” It is a spiritual discipline; it is, in the context of today’s parable, a sign that we are bearing fruit.
The time is now. God calls us to repent, to align our lives with God’s vision of hope.
As we leave this sanctuary and continue our Lenten study of Michelle Alexander’s book about the crisis of mass incarceration in this nation, as we boldly wear orange on the 25th of each month to call for an end to violence against women, as we struggle together as congregation to envision a new way of sustaining life and community through climate change, as we walk with each other through this season of grief, as we are called forward into the joy and the struggles in our communities, we can be sure that God is at work in us tending our roots, turning us from despair to a vision of God’s unfolding grace in a broken world.
This vision is life itself; without it we will surely perish.