We call Lent a season of repentance, and that might sound a little grim, but I think you could also call it a season of celebration of second chances, because it’s never too late to begin again, to ask ourselves what it is God really wants from us, and to recommit to the lifelong task of becoming the people that we were created to be.
There was a woman I knew, the mother of a college friend, and she was probably in her 50s when I first met her. She was smart and she was feisty, but I had no idea what her life had been really like. I saw her as a suburban wife, mother, and grandmother. But I had no idea.
I had no idea that she had risked her life during World War II to save Jewish children from the Nazis in Amsterdam, which is where she was from. I had no idea that she’d spent months in a Nazi prison. I had no idea that the woman I knew as a suburban wife and mother had shot a policeman dead on the spot in order to save a Jewish family that she was harboring at that time. I’ll tell you her story in more detail in a minute, but first I want to take a look at today’s Gospel.
It begins with this difficult passage about Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifice, and people being killed in a building collapse. And frankly we have no idea really what the bigger picture of those events was. There’s no other record of those things happening, but we see that Jesus is talking with his disciples about current events, basically.
They’ve come to him with a concern about suffering that they don’t really understand, and certainly we have that in our world. And what he says is, do you think that because they were suffering that they were being punished by God? No, that’s not what God does. God is not punishing them in that way. But what you really need to worry about is not how bad their sins are. You need to worry about repentance for yourself.
And he goes on to tell this parable about the fig tree. The fig tree has not produced fruit. The landowner comes and says to the gardener, cut it down. It’s useless, it’s taking up space. And the gardener says, no, give it another chance. Give it a second chance. I will cultivate it, I will fertilize it. And maybe in another year, it will bear fruit.
So God is the gardener in this story. Jesus is already cultivating us because, that’s not something that we can do for ourselves. And I think it’s really important to note in this story that the fig tree is not actually doing anything wrong, but the problem is it’s failing to bear fruit, it’s failing to achieve the fullness of what God created it to do. It’s not being its best self, you could say, by being as fruitful as it was created to be.
So back to my friend’s mother. She’s from the Netherlands, she was living in Amsterdam at the time that the Nazi soldiers were suddenly everywhere. And one day she was walking to her classes when she passed a Jewish children’s center, where Nazi soldiers were herding the children into a truck that was waiting outside. And when I say herding, that sounds a lot more gentle than it actually was. These were children between the ages of 2 and 8, and the soldiers were being quite careless and cruel in the way they were taking them out.
She watched one soldier grab a girl by her pigtails and throw her into the truck that way. She watched two women across the street who tried to stop the Nazi soldiers. Bad idea. They were thrown into the truck, too. We don’t know what happened to them, but we can imagine. And at that time, my friend’s mother did nothing.
But she said, “That was indeed the moment when I decided what was most important thing to do.”[i] And so she became active in the Dutch resistance. She helped rescue about 150 people, nearly all of them children. She doesn’t really know what became of them because she was just one step in their journey. She would hide them for a while, she would pass them along to the next group. And at times, she had to walk with them right past Nazi soldiers, pretending that they weren’t Jewish, trying to get to the next step.
And she was arrested at one point, she was simply studying with friends of hers who were active in the resistance. They weren’t doing anything at that moment. She was held in prison for months and eventually released. That was a pretty terrible experience, too. But when they released her, she went right back to smuggling Jewish children out of the country as best she could.
So there was one family that she hid in a farmhouse through the duration of the war. There was a pit carved out under the living room and some floorboards that could be lifted up. And they spent every night in that pit. But also, if during the day they heard a car or a truck, they would hurry into that space, because no one but the Nazis had cars and trucks. Well, one day this policeman arrived. He was someone she had known all her life, and I guess he snuck up by foot because they didn’t hear anything. And he suddenly burst into the room where they all were.
And in that moment, she reached behind some books on a bookcase where there was a gun hidden that someone had given her. And she took the gun, shot the policeman, and they cooperated to smuggle the body to a friendly undertaker who put him in someone else’s coffin with that person and buried him. So as far as the world was concerned, he simply disappeared.
That story, when I first heard it—and it was actually quite a while after I had met her, because it’s not, you can imagine, it’s not the kind of thing that you just go around talking about all the time. It was a long time before her own children heard some of those stories. And I think in the end they didn’t hear all of them. But I was struck with amazement that someone could have so much courage to do the right thing when the potential risk to themself was so great.
And I’ve asked myself many times, would I have the courage to do that kind of thing, if I were tested in that way? But one thing I’ve always taken comfort from in this story is that she didn’t do anything the first time. The soldiers came, terrible things were happening, she saw the children being herded into the truck and she sort of froze. She didn’t act then, but was that moment that galvanized her to action. And that was almost a second chance for her. She thought about it and decided that she needed to do more. And after that, she did.
But like the fig tree, I think, she didn’t do anything wrong, she just wasn’t being her best self. She wasn’t doing all that she could do. She wasn’t being the person that God created her to be.
In this Gospel, when Jesus says repent, he’s obviously not speaking English. So the word that’s in the original, it means to think differently, to reconsider, to change your mind, to change your moral direction. Because changing your thinking about things just almost necessarily has to change the way you act on things. And so our changes of mind in Lent, especially, should change for us the way that we live.
So the parable about the fig tree ends with the plea that it be spared, and it’s left to us to imagine what happened. And I think that we all want it to have flourished, as we ourselves all want to flourish with God’s grace. And I think, again, it’s important to note that the kind of repentance that is demonstrated in this story, it isn’t about forgiveness, it’s about transformation. It’s about letting God’s grace work on us and going forward from that moment as new people.
This is the work of Lent, but more than that, it’s the work of a lifetime, and it’s never too late to begin again.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.
[i] A Hidden and Solitary Soldier,” Lost Angeles Times, Jan. 20, 2002, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-jan-20-tm-24149-story.html. Accessed March 16, 2022.