This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday in Lent. The gospel reading was Luke 13:1-9.
There’s something we learn in today’s gospel that is disturbing at first. It sounds like bad news at first, but let’s talk about it, and together we’ll see that it’s actually really good news.
Here’s what we learn in today’s gospel: We learn that we are not good people. You are not a good person. I know that doesn’t feel good to hear. But in this sermon, I’m going to explain why it’s okay that you’re not a good person, and why it’s good news. And hopefully, by the end, you’ll feel good about it.
First off, life is complicated. It’s very complicated, and it’s not getting simpler. Things happen every day that we don’t understand. People do things that we don’t understand. We do things that we don’t understand. And that’s a very uncomfortable feeling. It’s human nature to try and simplify things, to put the confusing and complicated things into particular boxes so they make sense. And one very common way we do this, one very normal and human way to do this, is to divide the world into good and bad. To divide people into good people and bad people.
We tell ourselves that there are good people in the world, and there are bad people. And what do these categories mean? Well, good people do good things. Bad people do bad things. And we really want to be one of the good people.
But it’s not that simple. Those categories don’t work. Think of yourself. Do you really only do good things, or only do bad things? I’m sure you don’t. So then we have the change the categories a bit. Maybe we say “a good person is someone who does more good than bad.” Or perhaps we say, “a good person is someone who does good more than 90% of the time. Or eighty.” Or maybe we make new categories, like “mostly good person” or “mostly bad person.” But what about when we do the right thing for a selfish reason? Or when we do the wrong thing by mistake? Where do those acts fit into our equation of figuring out who is good and who is bad? It’s already getting complicated again.
And then it gets worse, because we feel like good people deserve to receive good things, and bad people deserve to receive bad things. That’s a tough thing to believe, because there is absolutely no evidence to back it up. Bad things quite often happen to people we think are good. And good things quite often happen to people we think are bad. But instead of letting go of the idea of good people and bad people, we double down on it. Or at least I do. And at least the people in Jesus’ time and place did.
Here’s what they did. They wanted so much to believe that people get what they deserve that they assumed that if something bad happened to you, it meant that you had done something wrong to deserve it, even if they didn’t know what that was. But Jesus tells them, that’s not the way it works. Jesus asked them, “Do you think the Galileans whom the governor murdered suffered in this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” He answered his own question: no, but unless you repent, you too will suffer like that.
And then he said, “How about the eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were worse than everyone else in Jerusalem?” Again, he answered his own question: no, but unless you repent, you too will suffer like that.
Now he never told them why those terrible things happened. He turned the question around on them: Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
Now I promised you that there would be good news here. And I’m getting to that. It’s hidden right there in one word Jesus said, the word repent. Because repent doesn’t mean what we often think it means.
I think some of the people who heard Jesus say that unless they repent they too would suffer, I think they heard that as a way to make a new set of boxes to put people in. They heard him saying something like this: “Good people are people who repent. Bad people are people who don’t repent. So if you’re a bad person, and don’t repent, then you’re going to suffer. If you repent, then you’re a good person, and you’ll avoid it.
It was still the same boxes, the same categories, after all, good people and bad people, just defined a little differently. I think some of the people heard it that way. And I know that over the centuries, the church often interpreted it that way.
But that comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what repentance is. The word repent means to turn around. It means to change your direction and aim toward God. And so often the church has treated that as if it’s a once-and-done thing. As though we just need to turn to Christ at a particular moment, and from then on everything’s different. But it doesn’t work like that.
So often the church has treated repentance kind of like this. Imagine that you’re going on a trip, driving to Knoebels Amusement Park. A great place to go, about ninety miles west of us. It’s pretty easy to get there, most of the journey is along Interstate 80. So imagine you go up to Stroudsburg, get on 80, and start cruising toward Knoebels. But after a while you notice a sign that says, “NEW YORK CITY 20 MILES.” That’s not right. Oh no! You’ve been driving east instead of west! So you quickly, safely, turn the car around. Turn around, repent, and start driving west, the right way. And now you’re heading to Knoebels. Now, you’ve repented. Now, you’re on the right path, and everything is fine. That’s how we often think of repentance. Turning our life around in a big way. I was a bad person, but now I’m a good person. But that’s not what repentance is. But maybe it does look like driving.
Next time you’re driving, take your hands off the wheel for a full minute. Actually, please don’t. Because you know as well as I do what would happen. Even if you’re on a very straight highway, if you drive without your hands on the wheel for a full minute, you’ll crash into something. When we drive, we are constantly turning the wheel just a bit, constantly making small adjustments, constantly turning. Because when we drive to Knoebel’s, the goal isn’t just to get to the park. The goal is also to get there in one piece, without hitting a guardrail, or another car along the way.
That’s repentance. The continual turning in our lives to keep going the right way. The continual adjustment, the small but crucial turns we make every day to keep on the path and do the right thing.
It’s not that we’re bad people whom God calls to turn around and become good. It’s that we’re people, just people, who God calls to turn constantly and do good things.
That’s the good news. The good news is that there’s no such thing as a good person or a bad person. They’re just categories we invented. You don’t have to worry if you’re good or bad, because you’re neither. What you are is beloved. What you are is forgiven. What you are is called to do go things. To make whatever adjustment you need to, to continually repent and work to do what you can.
God doesn’t call you to be a good person. God calls you to be a person who does good things. And when we fail, which we will, God is like the gardener in the story Jesus told.
“A man had a fig tree,” Jesus said. “One day he came to it expecting to find figs, but there weren’t any. He said to his gardener, ‘Chop this tree down. It’s never produced a single fig in three years.’ But the gardener said, ‘Let’s give it another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize, and maybe it will produce next year; if it doesn’t, then chop it down.’”
What does God do when we don’t bear good fruit, when we don’t do good things? God gives us another year. Forgives us and nourishes us so that we might bear fruit tomorrow. God gives us what we need. Every time. And God holds hope for us, every time. Not hope that we become good people, but hope that we’ll do a good thing. And then another. And then another.
Following Christ means you’re forgiven for the times you didn’t bear fruit. And it means you have the opportunity to a good thing next. You have the opportunity to bear fruit today, and tomorrow. You have the opportunity to bear God’s fruit for a hungry world.
Whatever happened yesterday, whatever happens today, tomorrow you will have that opportunity.
That’s good news. You’re free. This is a complicated world, but you’re free to live in it, and to take the opportunity God’s given you. Take that opportunity whenever you can, and accept God’s forgiveness when you don’t.
Image by JackieLou DL from Pixabay