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Luke 13: 1-9

My philosophy of education was reinforced years ago by an Episcopal priest and author named John Westerhoff. Arkansas Presbytery had invited him to speak at an overnight retreat. He is an expert in Christian education. On the second day of the retreat after breakfast, he greeted us with these words. “You Presbyterians are different from Episcopalians; when we are on retreat, we drink wine in the public areas and coffee in our rooms. You do the opposite! I’ll never forget two things that he taught us: one was that comment, but the second one was this: He said “How backwards are our learning venues in most churches. How many churches do you know where adults are in worship while children are in Sunday School? Worship is a very intuitive experience—a place where children learn can very quickly—and Sunday school is generally a very cognitive experiences—as teachers teach the Bible and what is printed there. That is an environment where adults would thrive. But instead some churches put adults in worship while children are in Sunday School when churches should make sure that children can also learn in worship and adults can also learn in Sunday School.”  Since then the churches where I have served have had Sunday School at its own hour. It is not always popular with either parents of young children or older adults who want to a child-free worship experience. But with good training and some tolerance, we have children learning in worship and adults in classes.  I love having children in worship and adults in classes. Educators have reminded me that we learn differently as children, youth, and adults. Therefore today’s children’s Sunday School is not like the one when we were growing up! In Westminster’ children’s Sunday School, the rotation model curriculum is created in part from Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences chart; that is some people learn best by hearing, some by seeing, some by touching, some by smelling, some by experiencing, etc. So they study one Bible story for a month and the children rotate classes weekly; classes such as cooking, storytelling, drama, art, science, movie theatre, and games. In one month a child gets to learn in the way that makes it stick best! One of our young students who attended a summer day care one year joined in a Bible quiz game. He knew more answers than any other child. “Where do you go to church?” the teacher asked him. “Westminster By-the Sea!” he told them. What a joy it was to hear that! Dozens of people, one just this past Friday, have said how attending three years of DISCIPLE classes have changed their life. And another relatively new member told me in November: “Pastor, I’ve gone to church more than 70 years, and I’ve never learned as much as I’ve learned here!”

The point of this message is that in the post-Christian age, teaching the faith is vital. Ministers, in fact, are officially called “Teaching Elders.” We are teachers in large part because our Savior taught. Jesus is our original rabbi. Long before ways and levels of learning were systematized in print, Jesus practiced them. He taught with debate, with the Socratic method of questioning, with pictures, with stories, and sometimes with silence. In our world when we are taught to think that right knowledge is needed most, Jesus was ahead of the learning scale, going beyond memorization to making people ponder, interpret, re-think, and to draw new conclusions. In our text today we find three responses of Jesus in just nine verses! Perhaps he was answering questions from two or three different people? The first thing he did was raise the dialogue above common thought. Common thought of the day said that those who suffered did so because they sinned more. Pharisees cited Deuteronomy 28:15, Job 4:7-8, and Proverbs 10 24-25 to back up that belief. But Jesus indicated instead that there was no link between sin and suffering as a cause and effect. He said that in Luke 13:3 in our text. Jesus made his reply plainly to dispel a commonly held belief. For example, how many people think the quote “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible? It’s a commonly held belief of our day and often said to be from the Bible, or from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it is actually the moral of one of Aesop’s Fables called Hercules and the Waggoneer and later in 1698 it was repeated in an article by Algernon Sydney in an article titled Discourses Concerning Government.  Jesus changed the way people thought about God by correcting their wrong assumptions: that suffering people suffered because they sinned more.

Next, Jesus took their question about the tower in Siloam falling on people and used it to teach something he also said in Matthew 24:36: repent now, for if you put off repenting there will come a day when it is too late to repent. He said that in a straightforward manner again to redirect people to think about repentance at least as much as they got obsessed about disasters.

Finally Jesus tol
d a story that had an edge to it; it was not sweet; it was not intended to be charming. It was intended for those with ears to hear. Although Jesus was a builder, he grew up in Galilee which was an agricultural region.  He told the story about a fig tree in a vineyard, but few people thought it was a lesson in farming. Listeners would have known that Israel was often referred to as a vineyard.  Fruitful fig trees represented God’s blessing in Micah 4:4 and Joel 2: 22. In her commentary on this parable, author and oblate Barbara Reid adds: “In Micah 7:1 the prophet speaks of his frustrated search for figs and grapes at summer harvest time as a way of depicting God’s disappointment over Israel’s faithfulness.” [
Parables Year C, The Liturgical Press, 2000, p. 51.] The text tells us that the tree had been barren for three years, but Middle East expert Ken Bailey, in his book Through Peasant Eyes, says it may have in fact been nine years since no fig tree produces fruit in the first 3 years; then the first fruits are dedicated back to God in the next three years, so the years a tree could produce for income started after that. This tree had failed to produce. Most farmers would replace it with a one that would produce. Two years ago Mary Ann and I took our Confirmation Class for a day of gleaning cabbage from a farmer’s field. We were exhausted at the end as the Society of St. Andrew estimated we had picked and loaded over 3000 pounds of cabbage! And we were disturbed to hear that any cabbage that we didn’t pick would be plowed under the next day. Why? To make the field ready for the next crop; vegetables are grown for a purpose. This week we asked our Confirmation Class the first question of the Westminster Catechism: “What is our chief end?” In other words, what is our ultimate purpose here on earth? They kicked around some answers and they finally heard and pondered the catechism answer: “Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Or, as the words to one of our choir anthems put it:  “To love our God is the reason we live.” Today we are reminded that we are saved for a purpose and have life for a purpose: to love and glorify God, with our life, with our witness, and with our hearts. If we were trees, the great gardner would expect us to produce good fruit. Are you producing? What form is it taking? And how foolish would it be for you to repent tomorrow, if Jesus returned today? Such is the teaching of the rabbi; his name is Jesus.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                              March 3, 2013