As I contemplated the readings this week, one line jumped out at me: “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” That is a great line, and a useful reminder. “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Let’s come back to that. Our readings today are rather grim: hearing them read out loud this morning only reinforces that impression. Who wants to hear about people being destroyed by serpents? But Paul often preached a grimmer message than Jesus – perhaps influenced by the panicky, dangerous days following the death of Jesus. Paul really needed the people to pay attention; the very act of preaching in the name of Jesus was a risk. So he gave an example of people who went wrong with God as a way to show his listeners how to stay right with God. And then he softened it up at the end, with a soothing message to the faithful: don’t worry: God won’t test you more than you can handle. Chin up, people. In the middle, though, there is this line: “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” And here is where I think Paul really gets at the core of our gospel this morning: where he translates the lesson from Jesus into one easy-to- remember line. In the gospel, the emphasis goes in a different direction. Jesus is not focused on the wrongdoing of those who lost their lives in the example, but on the judgement of those left alive. Do you think, Jesus asks, they were any worse than their neighbors? Or, to switch it around: do you think Jesus is asking if their neighbors were any better than them? Or perhaps, to home right in on the true takeaway: Do you think that you are better than them? “So if you think you are standing, be careful that you do not fall.” Perhaps, as your pastor, I find that this phrase stands out so much to me because I observe and hear so much sadness, grief, and regret. And yet, often there is a common root hidden underneath: judgement. Family members judging the choices of other family members. Friends passing judgement on the behavior of those in their social circle. Partners making judgements about each other. Those judgements, in my experience, are often ways to circle around the real issues that are happening – it’s easier to be critical than honest. In some cases, it’s difficult communicating how people are really feeling. Or it’s a lack of perspective-taking, seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view. Sometimes, judgment comes from a sense of self-dissatisfaction. Those are perhaps the more palatable reasons why people judge others. Perhaps the hardest kind of judgement is self-righteous - when people fail to see their own advantage and privilege and condescend to others. And yet, with that line, there I go, judging the judgers. There is a reason why Jesus spends so much time trying to teach us to be humble, other-centered, and open-minded. Those qualities are the opposite of judgemental. But in our gospel this morning, Jesus endorses another action as a rebuttal to judgement: patience. He tells the parable of the man who has planted a fig tree that bears no fruit after three years, and he wants to give up on it and chop it down. It is, as he says, bluntly, a waste of space. But the gardener urges him to think twice: let me tend to it, the gardener says, and let’s see where it is in a year. The landowner said, this stupid tree; it hasn’t done what I wanted; let’s pull it out of the ground. The gardener said, let’s take a minute and consider what it might need from us. Let’s not judge too quickly; let’s see what a little patience creates. What an underrated virtue patience has become. Parents instruct their antsy kids on patience – when they are jumping in a long line, when Christmas is weeks away – but then it becomes an action meant to repress joy. We remind ourselves to have patience when someone cuts us off on the road, but then it is an action to suppress anger. In the example that Jesus gives, patience is not one of those things: it is life-giving, othercentering, it is a peaceful pause. How often do we use patience in that way – not as reaction to an event, but as a way to be? And so I come back to that great line: “So if you think that you are standing, be careful that you do not fall.” What did Paul mean? I would say he was cautioning those listening not to get so high and mighty that they considered themselves above everyone else – for how easy is it to trip when you fail to notice those around you? I’d say that line is also a reminder that when we are standing firm, when we believe we know better than others, when we are full of pride, when we think we have everything figured out, we have already started to fall. And I think it is also a reminder: when we feel the most puffed up about ourselves, we might take a moment - what are we not seeing? What’s another quality that prevents falls? Well, patience. Our steps are more certain when we pause and see our surroundings. Our path is clearer when we take a moment to reflect. And our reward is so much greater when we stop to look for ways not to tear people down, but to help them grow. Surely, if we were the fig tree that was not growing – for all kinds of possible reasons – we would want a kindly gardener - a caring community - to give us the same chance. We don’t know what happened to the fig tree. I will always imagine that it thrived and grew figs aplenty. But if it remained a spindly little fig tree, doing what it could, yet was well loved by the gardener, is that not still a success story? But we don’t know what happened because the fig tree’s future is not the lesson here. The lesson is that patience stepped in and soaked up the anger and judgement. The lesson is a reminder to us: when we think we are standing, let us watch out that we do not fall - into all the traps that human nature lays for us. And let us not judge too quickly, but see what patience creates. Amen.
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