The Sanctuary and the Fig Tree

Scripture (Luke 13:1-9) can be found here

I love our sanctuary. I don’t know whether I say that enough, or whether I say it too much. But I have loved it since the first time I stepped into this pulpit, as a freshly minted seminary graduate. It was a Tuesday evening in September 2003, at a gathering of the Susquehanna Valley Presbytery that you hosted. I was here to present my Statement of Faith to the Presbytery, after which, they examined me for ordination. I noticed the ceiling right away. Our ceiling is my favorite part of the sanctuary. It looks exactly as if someone took a beautifully crafted antique sailing ship and turned it upside down. It gives me joy each time I look at it.

Later, after I had become your pastor, I realized that this place fits my idea of a perfect sanctuary. I love the ceiling, I love the semi-circular layout of the seating: it feels to me like an embrace. I love the communion table and the baptismal font being located directly in front of the congregation, so that we can see reminders of God’s love for us at all times. And, even that first night I encountered it, at a mid September meeting, I loved the golden light of the sun shining through our western windows, in that magic hour before dusk. Our sanctuary has always seemed to me to live up to its name: it gives a sense of holiness, and of safety. Sanctuary.

It is the ancient tradition of the church that people who are welcomed in are offered a kind of radical hospitality. It is a place of safety, a place which is protected, by tradition, from the dangers we find outside the sanctuary. You may have read late last year about a church in The Netherlands, which had welcomed in a refugee family. Here’s a portion of an article dated November 21:

For the past 27 days, a small Protestant church in The Hague has been conducting round-the-clock religious services to protect an Armenian refugee family from deportation.

By law, police officers in The Netherlands are not allowed to enter places of worship during religious services. So, reverends from around the country have taken turns holding services at Bethel Church to prevent officials from arresting the Tamrazyan family, who have been in The Netherlands for nine years.

Then there’s quote from the chairman of the General Council of Protestant Ministers (Theo Hettema). He says:

“By giving hospitality to this family, we could give them time and place to [demonstrate] to the secretary of state the … urgency of their situation.”

The article gets one thing wrong. The ministers weren’t holding services, because if the service ended, the police could have entered. They held one continuous service, round the clock. It lasted for 96 days. It ended only when the family had successfully made their legal case to the government, and were granted asylum.

Sanctuary. A word that signifies a holy place, a place set aside for the worship of God. It also signifies that such a place provides, by mutual consent of the law and the people, protection from the dangers of a dangerous world.

This morning’s gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary begins with Jesus hearing the news of the violation of a sanctuary.

“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”

I want us to stop for a moment and recognize what Jesus has just heard, and to understand how it might have affected him.

Jesus is being told that people were killed while they were at worship. This must have occurred at the Temple in Jerusalem—that is the only place, during Jesus’ lifetime, where faithful, practicing Jews would have offered sacrifices. It was understood to be the home of God on earth, the holiest place in Judaism.

Jesus is told that Pilate mingled their blood with the blood of the birds or animals they had brought as their offering. This is a shocking, horrifying desecration of both the sanctuary and of these human lives.

And, Jesus is told, they were Galileans. They were from the region he called home. Galilee was a large enough area that we can’t assume he knew the dead personally. But we can imagine that the fact that they were from where he grew up probably brought an additional level of pain on hearing that news.

And it’s important to understand the context in which Jesus hears this information. He is in the midst of teaching and preaching about God’s judgment. In the previous chapter Jesus has been sharing parables—stories about keeping the lamps lit; stories of being like watchful slaves, awaiting the arrival of their master; stories of watching for signs of God’s day of reckoning the same way we watch the clouds to know the weather. This is the context into which his listeners bring this news to Jesus.

Jesus asks them directly, because he hears in this news an implied question: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” They’re asking: Is this it? Was that dreadful murder in the Temple God’s judgment on those people? And the theology operating at that time—the way people in Jesus’ day understood God’s actions in the world—would have been a resounding yes. According to their understanding, if you got a terrible disease and died, you must have earned it. If you were beaten and robbed, you must have deserved it. If someone violated your sanctuary and took your life—your fault entirely.

This is not what we believe. This is not what Jesus believes.

No, Jesus says. “No, I tell you…. BUT.”

Jesus has been talking about judgment, and he emphasizes that, even though this wasn’t it, God’s judgment is still coming.

The same is true of the other disaster he mentions—the tower of Siloam, which was probably a part of the outer defensive wall of Jerusalem. The tower collapsed, and eighteen people were killed. That was not God’s judgment, on those people of Jerusalem, Jesus is careful to say. BUT. That doesn’t mean God isn’t coming to set things right, to make a just and peaceful world, a world that is finally, the way God intends it to be.

In this gospel, that judgment is part of what Jesus calls the kingdom of God, the reign of God. It’s coming. But these dreadful tragedies? They were not it. Jesus urges his listeners not to mistake either the ugly, murderous impulses of Pontius Pilate, or a terrible accident, with God’s judgment.

Last Sunday, several of us from UPC were privileged to be among those sharing in a time of prayer and reflection at the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier. Of course, this was in response to the dreadful violations of the sanctuaries that were the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. On March 15, an Australian white supremacist murdered, fifty people in those mosques, murdered them in cold blood, during Friday prayers. The very first speaker at the vigil was a woman, Dr. Mae Mohammed. She spoke in memory of a childhood friend who had been killed, and gave a personal timeline of learning the terrible news of the shootings, of realizing her friend was missing, then realizing that he was dead, and of sharing memories with other friends from around the world.

Then she told us this: The massacre took place during Friday prayers in New Zealand, which took place seventeen hours before it was time for Friday prayers here in the Triple Cities. Dr. Mohammed told us how, on Friday afternoon, she called her seventeen-year-old son, and urged him to get to the mosque early for his prayers. She told us that, at times, practicing our faith is like holding on to a burning hot coal. She said that, urging her son to be early for prayers, even in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, even knowing it meant he might therefore be in harm’s way, was just that. Dr. Mohammed encouraged her son to practice faithfulness in the face of death; in so doing, she was holding on to a burning hot coal.

My beloveds, we have seen this far too many times. The young man who was welcomed by the nine members of the bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, who rose after an hour in their company and murdered them all because they were African American. The gunman who entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, and killed eleven congregants because they were Jews. And now, the slaughter of fifty people at prayer because they were Muslims. We seem to have been handed a burning hot coal by our faith in Jesus Christ, because we know what he would tell us: Don’t confuse the ugly, murderous impulses of white supremacy with either faith in me or God’s judgment of the world. BUT: a day of reckoning is coming.

Jesus tells another parable at the conclusion of our passage, and there he returns to the theme of his preaching that day, the fact of that reckoning, of God’s intention to fix this world, to come in loving and righteous judgment to see the world transformed into what it was created to be. We are, each of us, a fig tree. And we, each of us, have to reckon with who we are, and whose we are, and how that informs not only what we call ourselves, but also what we bring to a world so broken and divided and filled with hate. In this time in which holy places, places of sanctuary, are under attack, Jesus teaches us that our response—the only response—is love.

Love isn’t always easy. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the quote in your bulletin, Kathleen Norris notes that grace—which is just another way of naming God’s love—“is not gentle or made-to-order. It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.” It may be that the love we are called to show in this moment is wrapped in change we find difficult or unwelcome. But the sanctuaries of God’s children are under attack by those who insist there is just one way—not only to worship God, but to be human. As those who follow Jesus, and who cherish our own sanctuary, we have to trust that Jesus’ teaching holds true: that we live out our faith by loving God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and loving our neighbors—all of our neighbors—as ourselves.

You know what God’s messengers say when they show up to bring news of the next great thing God asks of us: “Don’t be afraid.” And you know what promise God makes to God’s people in every moment of great and unprecedented challenge: “I will be with you.”

I love our sanctuary, this place where God shows up for us each and every time two or three are gathered. God will be with us. God will be with us here, in our holy space, and in the love we show God’s children who so love the spaces in which they, too, encounter the holy.

Thanks be to God. Amen.