God moves over the fence

Published 11:55 am Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Charles Qualls

[Editor’s note: The final paragraph was inadvertently omitted from this column when it was published on Wednesday. It’s restored here as well as being reprinted with the correction. We apologize for the error.]

The barbed-wire fence looked harmless enough. Which might have been the problem. I had spent all my life around them, since we had acres fenced by the stuff on our farm. We crawled under them, through them and later climbed over them as we grew up. Always without incident.

Which probably made me a little too relaxed at Brent Beacham’s house when I was 10 years old. For some reason, the rocks on the other side of the fence from us looked like particularly good ones. To a bunch of 10-year-old boys, it seemed like a good idea to go and get them. We started carrying huge rocks in our arms as we climbed back over the same barbed-wire fence.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. I can still remember lying in the back of Mrs. Beacham’s station wagon, now staring at the inside of my leg. We can be our own worst enemies sometimes, and still be the last ones to realize it. We can cast our gaze across at the other side of the fence and be so wrong.

Our sermon series, titled “God On the Move,” continues with a look at the lectionary passage of Luke 13: 1-9. A group came to Jesus telling him a big tale about some Galileans who had been murdered while worshipping. Ostensibly, they hoped to incite him against Pilate.

Jesus was having none of it. He didn’t take the bait. Instead, he told them they ought to keep a better eye on their own side of the fence.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The rocks on the other side of the fence ought to be brought over to our side of the fence. We ought to build a fence to keep people different from us out. Good fences make good neighbors, the old saying goes.

We like to look over fences. A writer once said, “Never leave your curtains open if there’s an author nearby. Because we’ll look inside.” She was right, I suppose.

I think fences are just as inviting of our curiosity as curtains are. I think that’s the way most people are. We like to know what’s going on in the neighbor’s backyard, and we’ll find a way to look over or through the fence if we think no one will catch us.

That’s what God noticed about the created humanity once we had lived on earth for a while. We do this. Practically all of the Ten Commandments, nearly every one of them when you think of it, were written because of the fact that we can’t seem to keep our gaze from wandering over the neighbor’s fence.

Some Galileans had been killed by Pilate recently. Folks had heard about it, and were worried about it. But, they were also still laboring under the old Hebrew cause-and-effect theology. Jesus’ reaction makes even more sense when we realize that history has never substantiated their tale about these murders.

We talked about this in our Wednesday nights recently, as we studied “The Dark Nights of the Soul.” The ancients believed that if misfortune, pain or suffering came your way, then you had most certainly caused it. They believed that there was a direct tie between hurt and sin.

So, they couldn’t just bring up the subject. They had to editorialize that surely these good Galileans, followers of Jesus perhaps, had done something sinful to cause their own death. They were trying to look, retrospectively of course, over their neighbor’s backyard fences to see what dirt and garbage and rot had caused this terrible thing that Pilate had done.

What Jesus said is something that Paul would pick up and deal with especially in Romans. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Here for Jesus it is not that “they” have sinned. But, “You all have sinned.” All have fallen short of God’s greatest hopes. It’s not popular to talk about. But deep down in our hearts, I think we know this.

He went on to offer the parable of the fig tree. Surely a far better known portion of this episode, the parable simply underscores what Jesus has already said as He reacted to this story about Pilate’s supposed murders.

His point here becomes clear when we listen to Him further. Stop looking into their backyard. Stop looking over and through their fence to see what their sin was. Pay attention to what’s going on in your own backyard.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.