Mind Blown [poof] – that’s what we sometimes say when we hear or see something that changes the way we understand the world around us. Marketing companies like to use this phrase to tell you that they have the answer that you’ve just never thought of, and it is available for low monthly installments and terrible interest rates.
Fangirls and fanboys – that’s a term for people who are relatively obsessed with something like a book series, a movie, or a brand – like to use “Mind. Blown.” when there is some new insight that changes the way they understand the thing they adore.
For those of us who are fans of scripture, and even more so of God’s self-revelation through Jesus, I think that we have received some fairly mind blowing texts today! The passage from Isaiah reads like some socialist manifesto (How does one buy food without money, anyway?). And then we have this oddly grumpy sounding Jesus who seems to be capitalizing on fear like certain politicians and news media outlets that we know. While these things may be problematic, I don’t think that they are particularly prophetic, or mind blowing.
No, the mind blowing aspect of the gospel today is found in the call of Jesus for our repentance, because it may not mean what you think it means. But first let’s back it up to the beginning. What do we know about the tragedies that are being described? Well, not much. There are no other records of these events outside of Luke’s Gospel. Still, scholars assume that these were real events that someone wanted Jesus to help make sense of.
The first event is translated a little oddly in the NRSV. Looking at a few other translations, like the Common English Version, you find that what has happened is that Pilate murdered some Jews while they were in the act of making a sacrifice to God. This really only tells us two things. The first is that Pilot really was a bad, bad man. Even though some accounts portray him as morally conflicted over the death of Jesus, this man is concerned with one thing – power. The second is that there is evil in the world, and having faith does not mean that you are untouchable.
Maybe those that shared the news were looking for sympathy or for condemnation of the oppressor. Maybe they were hoping this would be a rallying point for Jesus to start acting more like the Messiah they were wanting him to be. Maybe Jesus would finally take action or tell them to rise up! After all, these were Galileans, and so was Jesus.
But Jesus has a way of flipping the tables on people. Instead of fueling the fires against Pilot he asks a simple question, “Do you think this happened because they were more sinful than you? Well, you had better repent or else your fate will be the same as theirs.”
And as their minds began to rumble he delivered the follow up shot. Apparently there was some other accident where some folks in Jerusalem (origin unspecified – it was a cosmopolitan city) were going about their business – possibly getting some water from the Pool of Saloam – when a tower fell and crushed them. It was a completely random accident, and people died. “But,” he told them, “unless you repent your fate will be the same as theirs.”
Then he followed all that up with a parable about a stubborn fig tree that wouldn’t produce any fruit and a gardener that argrees to fertilize it and give it one more chance. But we’re left never knowing what happened. Instead we have the threat of the axe and the hope of manure.
Now, if this sounds a little more like John the Baptizer than Jesus, that’s because John used the same analogy in Luke 3. In his call for baptism he said, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” and “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
As scary as that may sound, I think there is yet a lot of hope in the words of John and of Jesus. The first thing to note is that Jesus is telling us very clearly that tragedy is not the same thing as judgement. Terrible things happen because people do bad things to each other when they are more concerned with power and control than they are with faith and hope. Each of us can easily get caught up in our own bloodletting over the simplest of issues when we feel threatened. And for that we must repent.
Terrible things also happen because of the limitations of physical existence. In the prophetic words of John Hughes, “Screws fall out all the time. The world’s an imperfect place.” And if we do not face up to the need to change our hearts and minds, then we may face a pointless death. But the real question is, have we lived a pointless life?
The challenge of repentance is not simply a call to own up to how bad we have been. In fact, many scholars argue that the word “metanoia” – which we translate as “repent” – should actually be translated (as it is in the Common English Version) as “change your hearts and lives.” Or, more literally, it should be “change your mind.”
The change in our minds and hearts gets put into action in our lives, if we are to bear any fruit at all. The change in our hearts and minds is not a one-time thing, either. A fruit bearing plant continues to bear fruit in season, and we are no different. And while there are certainly things that we can and must do to change our hearts and lives, the parable of the gardener reminds us that sometimes we need an outside influence to feed us and bring us into full bloom. And sometimes that means that we need to be humbled by some fertilizer.
Let me be clear in saying that God does not cause tragedy, but it is through God that even the worst this life can dish out can be used to help us bear fruit. I am here reminded of a parable I thought I would never tell in church. But the story goes that a young robin decided that it did not want to fly South for the winter. It stayed on its perch in a tree on a farm until it nearly froze and fell to the ground. A cow happens to be nearby, and suddenly the bird found itself in a warm pile of manure. Delighted to be alive – the bird sang for all its might, only to be scooped out by the barn cat and devoured.
The moral of the story is that not everyone who covers you in manure is your enemy. Not everyone who rescues you is your friend, and if you are covered in manure and happy to be alive just keep it to yourself. In terms of scripture, I would say it this way; “Tragedy is not a result of God’s judgement. Sometimes we need manure to help us grow, and just because we have not been cut down does not mean that we are bearing fruit.”
And the fruit that Jesus wants us to bear is a changed mind and heart that are expressed in a changed life. Yes, we will become aware of our shortcomings, but repentance is not a movement toward despair. It is a movement toward joy. In fact, it redefines the things that make us joyful! Our souls leap when we become aware of God’s activity and God’s providence. All of life becomes like the banquet described by Isaiah – the banquet held by a new king to cancel all debts and demonstrate unity.
This banquet was promised to those Jews in Babylon who would soon return to Jerusalem. And just as it was a symbol of what they might expect under a new king, so it is a symbol for us as we look to Christ to provide what we need.
Maybe we need more time in order to bear fruit that demonstrates a true change of hearts and minds. Maybe we need the fertilizer of hardship and the experience of grace and mercy in order to become more gracious and merciful. Tragedies certainly still befall us. All the isms and phobias are alive and well: racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. Healthcare has become more about politics and profit margins than actually caring for anyone. But the question and the consequence of the parable of the fig tree remains. Will we bear fruit? Will we bear fruit in our life together? Will we bear fruit in our lives apart?
This goes hand in hand with the basic question that we continue to ask ourselves in this congregation. And that is, “What is our particular prophetic voice in this community?”
Yet I think we have also been answering that question as we continue to develop creative opportunities to grow in faith, as we strengthen ministry partnerships in our presbytery, and as we lift up and partner with other ministries in our community.
For we are a not just a place, but we are a people who are experiencing, exploring, and expressing God’s love together. Let us not let that become limited to what we do and say in these four walls. Let us let our minds be blown by the promise of God and the invitation of Jesus in such a way that our hearts and lives are changed again, and again, and again. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.