Remember the “tech bubble” that collapsed thirteen years ago? What about the “housing bubble” of 2007 in the United States, and a second “tech bubble” some see looming now; not to mention housing prices in Canada? Is the bubble going to burst? Again?
But what about another bubble that we may be even more apprehensive to talk about – the decline of “establishment Christianity” North America? One congregation at a time, one closed school, one left-behind building, and even many mega-churches that are shattering like the walls of a bubble.
You may react – that I am being overly negative and it’s really not all that bad so long as we can continue to spin our wheels, try to turn the clock back to 1950 and do things the way they used to be done in the past.
Do we consider the institutional church in 2013 a tree that will stand forever, a house built on solid rock, the very apple of God’s eye?
Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” (Luke 13.6)
In our individual, personal lives, bubbles burst all the time. Are you one of the very people whose bubbles are now bursting? Broken relationships. Ill-health. Financial ruin. Underemployment. Shattered dreams. Tragedy.
Indeed, the human condition is broken. Ever since the Fall, sin has steeped into the very fabric of our earthly existence.
According the Lutheran belief, even our good intentions and actions are tainted and ineffectual. In our weekly liturgy, we confess “that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves” (“Evangelical Lutheran Worship”, p.95, emphasis mine). There’s nothing we – by ourselves – can do to make things better. Older liturgies are even more hard-hitting: the “Book of Common Prayer” in the Anglican Church has it: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” (p.83). I am sure Lutherans can point to old prayer and liturgy books that basically suggest we are no better than worms crawling in the mud.
Let’s be careful in how we respond to the question of sin. For one thing, in the Gospel text today (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus rejects the kind of thinking that is easy: focusing on the sins of others as explanation, justification, for the bad things that happen. In response to the Pharisees, Jesus turns the question to them. You must repent for your sins.
In the baptismal liturgy of our church, we renounce the devil and all his empty promises – three times. When we declare together that we “renounce” the devil, we are also renouncing “all the forces that defy God” and “the powers of this world that rebel against God” (EvLW, p.229).
Not only is sin active in our individual lives – but in the world around us: in economic, political, social, religious institutions. Sin is not only individual; it is corporate. Sin is something we can do together in an organization, collectively. Admittedly it’s easier to point to a random, individual act. It’s convenient and easier to explain individual behavior gone bad. It’s much more ambiguous, complex and difficult to see sin as something shared in a group.
What do we, as a church, need to confess?
Are we counting on bubbles? Are we riding on the coat tails of previous generations of the faithful? Are we trying to draw closer to God without allowing God closer to us? Do we try to save ourselves through work and possessions? Do we ration our affections, pulling back from a deeply troubled world, staying inside where it is safe, praying when we feel like it, listening as little as possible, singing our songs and not God’s songs, treasuring our kind and not God’s people? (Thank you to Tom Ehrich for this insight and these words – from his blog, “On a Journey – Meditations on God in Daily Life”, Feb 27/2013).
Amidst the doom and gloom there is hope. The passage ends with hope. In the confession there is the realization of God’s mercy. Amidst the urgency to get things done, to do the right thing, to toil in all our striving, we are invited to pause. To stop, for a moment. Why?
Because we are that fig tree. Barren. Failed. Unworthy – or so it would seem (from the world’s perspective). Jesus is the gardener, who sees in us something worthy of grace. Jesus advocates on our behalf, to give us another chance. A holy, second chance. Jesus continues to work at the root of our lives, applying grace upon grace, getting his hands dirty – for us. Jesus will not give up on us.
In this dependence on God for all good things, we have to realize one, very important truth: It is not we who accomplish our growth, our life. All we need to do, is open our hearts, the ground of our being – as roots – to receive the nourishment of God’s grace. All we need to do, is look up to the sunshine, warming our being, inviting us to reach outward.
It is Jesus’ love for us that accomplishes whatever good that may come from our efforts. It is God’s work of love that accomplished our salvation in Jesus. I heard recently a wonderful quote from a teacher of Christian prayer: that God will not judge us according to our sins and failings, but for all the gifts we refused from the gracious hand of God. Our judgment is not based on our sinning – since we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – but because we have refused, rejected and turned from the grace and love that God offers us anew, every day. Because God is giving us a second chance. What are we doing about that?
We yearn for more. Polls and studies reveal that people are hungry for God. Maybe it will take a cascade of bursting bubbles for us to see how little fruit we have yielded, how much God desires of us, and how lovingly God will work on our behalf for real life and love for all, not for bubbles.