Sewanee, Repent

The Rev. Robert Beazley

Contributing Writer

Third Sunday in Lent-Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then 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. So 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?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

It was the beginning of the end. All the main characters were gathered under a wedding tent on the last safe haven on earth to celebrate the joining of two close friends. Intoxicated by the fellowship of dancing, laughter, and kegs of butterbeer– love was in the air. “At that moment, something large and silver came falling through the canopy over the dance floors. Heads turned, as those nearest it froze absurdly in mid-dance. It spoke in the loud, deep, slow voice of Kingsley Shacklebolt. ‘The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming.’ Everything seemed fuzzy, slow. Harry and Hermione jumped to their feet and drew their wands. ‘Ron!’ Hermione cried. ‘Ron, where are you!?’

For anyone who has the slightest idea of who Harry Potter is, it is easy to understand what’s going on in the scene. Evil is upon them. The time to act is now.

The first time I read through today’s gospel reading, I did not understand it as easily as the excerpt from J.K. Rowling. I was left scratching my head. The second, third, and into the fourth reading of Luke 13:1-9, I was wondering where the Good News of Jesus Christ had gone. Before looking at what surrounds these nine verses, we are left to assume a lot. The two incidents, the Galileans killed by Pilate and the eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them do not show up in any other gospel. Perhaps Luke finds these events culturally significant just as we might think of Hurricane Katrina or the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. When the crowd comes to Jesus, they want to know why those individuals were killed in such a gruesome way. In response, Jesus asks the crowd rhetorical questions: Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans, and do you think that the eighteen were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? Both times he answers the same, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Jesus continued his teaching with the parable of the fig tree. Israel, delivered from Egypt to the land of milk and honey, planted amidst the best soil of the land, continued to be barren to the Lord. Time and time again Israel is reminded of its covenant with the Lord, repents, but shortly thereafter falls back into its old ways of unfruitfulness. We follow this history: the history of God, the ever faithful, loving owner and caretaker of our souls in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and so many others. Each time, like the fig tree, the Lord loves His people and looks favorably on Israel, allowing it not to be cut down.

These two pieces, a story of local events and a parable, do fit into the larger story of the gospel. If we zoom out a bit from the selected nine verses, we find ourselves in the middle of Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem that focuses on repentance. Repentance, the act of turning away from earthly living and living a life according to the Lord. “Repent and prepare the way of the Lord!” cried John the Baptist in the desert. The crowds have heard these cries. They sought knowledge in the desert just as we seek knowledge on this Holy Mountain. They know the Law of the prophets just as we signed the honor code and yet the hope in the Lord to deliver us from our sinful ways is lost by all. Jesus, now, in the midst of his ministry, having received the seventy would-be followers, taught the Lord’s prayer to his disciples, healed the sick and cast out the demons; a group of worried souls comes to Jesus and asks about those folks who were gunned down in Washington, Kansas, and Arizona LAST week – I mean those Galileans who laid dead in the temple. Did they die because of their sins? Did they die because of the sins of this country?

Softly, in a low defeated voice, Jesus looks up to their quivering faces and says, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did…you see, I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! When you see a cloud rising in the west, you know ‘it is going to rain,’ and it does. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the earth and sky but why can’t you interpret what’s happening right now!

Jesus knows what’s going to happen to him. He knows there’s not much time; quick! Repent! Learn to love each other as my father loves you while there is still time! Jesus knows we can bear fruit; he doesn’t want to see us cut down.

But the crowds wanted more time. They wanted one more year before they had to produce worthy fruit. Jesus, are you sure I need to repent? Do I really need to take in the migrant worker into my home? What if I pray about it instead? I know some of my classmates are in need of love, but am I really the best person for them to talk to? I know there is poverty in my community, but I cannot feed a hundred so what good would it do to just feed one? I went to Sewanee Monologues last week, I’ve heard the pleas for outrage from students who have been sexually victimized; calls to end the extreme racism; cries for help from those whose mental depression and anxiety has paralyzed them for days on end; but Jesus, give me some more time. I’m about to graduate – that’s when I’ll begin my ministry…I mean your ministry, Jesus – don’t you worry.

No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. The crowds wanted more time; they wanted to wait a little longer before it was time to act.

We all wait in anticipation. We are not exactly sure what we are waiting for – but anticipation is comforting.There is no final countdown to when the day of reckoning will be upon us, so instead of turning toward the sins we live with, it’s easier to turn a blind eye. It numbs the pain we live with every day. I grew up Episcopalian so I was not aware of certain Christians who feel they can predict the second coming of Christ. They have so much confidence, so much faith that the second coming will be any day there’s even a cottage industry of rapture doors you can install on your home’s ceiling so when you’re lifted up to heaven, there is nothing preventing your flight. I digress.

We wait in anticipation because it allows us to live with the pain of this world. Fred Craddock mentioned in one of his lectures how for the longest time he would get up in the pulpit and blast the Jews of Jesus’ age for not recognizing the messiah. One day, it occurred to him how easy life would be if the messiah hadn’t come yet. For centuries these people were waiting and waiting and waiting and all of a sudden this fellow shows up whose healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind, and running off to pray every five pages and he’s the messiah?! Preaching peace and forgiveness and love and repentance!? Hmm, I’d rather just keep waiting.

Kind of like how we wait until we have a ministry of our own to love our neighbors. Oh look, an email from the police department? Another timely warning of a possible rape on campus–what a shame, what is this place coming to? Well, I can’t do anything about that right now, I’d rather just keep waiting until Jesus comes back and then those problems will go away. Racism, inequality at Sewanee!? You know, once Jesus comes back, there will no longer be black or white, male or female, gay or straight, town or gown. But until then, we wait for the kingdom of God to come back to earth.

What is the kingdom of God like? About ten verses later in Luke Jesus brings that up – “he said therefore, What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

The kingdom of God is itty bitty itty bitty, bitterly small, as small as a mustard seed but once it flourishes, once it repents and stands up for its neighbor in trouble – the hung-over neighbor, the annoying neighbor, the anxious neighbor, the lost neighbor – unless it stands up right NOW for its neighbor, it will perish as they all did.

We live within the kingdom of Sewanee, often compared to Hogwarts, sitting on 13,000 acres is not itty bitty and instead of dementors guarding at its gates, we have angels. Sewanee’s seed was planted more than 150 years ago. Its roots are buried deep within The Episcopal Church. It has produced exemplary fruit for the entire world to nourish on but there have been times of pruning, times of self-evaluation and repentance. Today, how often does Sewanee produce fruit worth harvesting? Does the water flowing forth into the world in the great stain glass above the altar of All Saints’ portray Sewanee’s living water shared abundantly with the world? Or does it represent the headwaters of racism, sexual violence, and indifference toward our neighbor we are so scared to ford? Give us one more year Lord, do not cut us down yet.

There is fresh fruit on the branches. Look at the bystander training required to so many students, look at the Unity march by students, seminarians, faculty, and community members that traced the path of your Son’s march with his cross; we followed Christ’s march down University Avenue bearing our own crosses to lead a renewal of reconciliation and redemption on this campus! Lord, do not cut us down!

Give us more time, please Lord, wait for us a little longer.

Sewanee has been called the land of Arcadia, where angels reside and watch over its muggle residents. Sewanee, the last higher academic institution of The Episcopal Church sits with grandeur on top of the Cumberland Plateau. No fear of Voldemort or the Death Eaters. No anticipation of evil on the horizon. Its athletic fight song still embellishes its religious stance as it cheers, “Rip ‘em up! Tear ‘em up! Leave ‘em in the lurch. Down with the heathens. Up with the Church. Yea, Sewanee’s Right!” Yea, Sewanee’s Right?

No, not yet; not until you learn to love each other as my father loves you, you will all perish as they did.