One More Year: A Sermon Based on Luke 13:1-9 Peached by Mark Harper at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia March 24, 2019 – The Third Sunday in Lent
Nothing gets us talking like tragedy. At the same time, the talking we do in the wake of tragedy is often tragic itself; it can be misguided and is seldom thoughtful or helpful. Sometimes what we say or think serves only to compound the pain triggered by the awful thing that happened. It’s not that we’re trying to pile on someone who is struggling to find their feet after getting knocked down. Our chatter and questions and wonderings probably grow out of our desperate need to explain what often can’t be explained. Pain, whether it’s ours or somebody else’s, is a hard, hard thing to hold and we humans seem to have a built-in reflex to try and make some kind of sense out of the forces that tear our worlds apart. I think of Kate Bowler, a theology professor at Duke Divinity School, who was diagnosed with stage four cancer out of the blue in her mid 30s. She has written how, “Most everyone I meet is dying to make me certain. They want me to know, without a doubt, that there is a hidden logic to this seeming chaos.” Or as I suspect, they, no, we want to convince ourselves that suffering and pain is somehow part of “God’s plan,” that it will pave the way for greater blessings to come and therefore soften the blow.
One day some people ripped a tragic story out of their own headlines and threw it down in front of Jesus. Apparently Governor Pilate had ordered the killing of some of Jesus’ neighbors from Galilee who were worshiping in the temple. There aren’t any existing historical records about what happened that day but the story reflects the violence employed by all empires to remind subject peoples of who’s in charge. And so this story is brought to Jesus as if to say, “So Mr. Wise, All-Knowing Rabbi Dude, what do you make of that?!?” As if Jesus himself was hopelessly naïve about the nastiness that keeps injecting itself into the gift and beauty of life. As if Jesus didn’t know what it was like to have death nipping at his heels. As if Jesus had not been targeted by the powers and became a refugee as an infant and now as an adult was fully aware of the plots by the religious leaders to make him go away for good.
In response Jesus does what he often does: he gets at the real question behind the question that the people never really asked. He says, “So you’re wondering if those who were killed were actually being punished by God for being worse sinners than anyone else who had been in the temple that day, right?” To which he answers, Not at all. But that doesn’t mean any of you will avoid death. We all have to turn our lives over to God if we’re going to have hope. And then, maybe in part to show that he keeps up with the news too, he offers his own tragic tale about eighteen people getting crushed to death by a falling tower on the edge of Jerusalem. That wasn’t divine judgement either, he says; maybe faulty engineering but a reminder nonetheless that life is fragile and precarious. In a way this is an even more sobering story than the one about Pilate, since it feels more random than what an oppressor might do. As Eric Barreto has written, “Both empire and chance deal in death, thus it is misguided to look for some deeper meaning, some ordering principle in death’s chaotic grip. Death is coming for us all” (in Christian Century, February 27, 2019, p. 19.
As people of faith, or people who are trying not to lose our tiny mustard seed of faith amidst all the other stuff we carry around in our bags and pockets (you know, loose change, charger cords, slips of paper with all our passwords and login info, self-doubt, all that stuff), we sometimes let ourselves believe that if our faith is pure, or if we pray strongly enough, we might be able to avoid tragedy or suffering, and maybe even by-pass death altogether. I heard about a lovely man who sometimes needs to get around in a wheelchair. He reports how often complete strangers approach him and tell him that if he will only pray with enough conviction, God will lift him right out of that chair and have him walking again in no time. “Too often, we assume that sickness and its sibling death are but lines demarcating the cursed from #blessed” (Barreto).
Perhaps one of the things about Jesus that keeps us silently frustrated is his stubborn refusal to explain away all our questions about the pain that living brings. As he moves towards his own tragic death in Jerusalem, his closest followers don’t have any tolerance for his apparent unwillingness to avoid the cross. This should never happen to you, Lord, says Peter. #letmerunthismovement.
And yet in our reading today, we not only hear Jesus saying that death is real and always present. We hear him saying something that is far, far more important: he says that death is not as powerful as we think. And it does not have to get the last word in our lives. The last word is grace, and we might hear it in one more story that Jesus tells, not one ripped from the headlines of this world but a parable that falls like a seed of hope straight from the heart of God.
A man of some means has had a fig tree planted out in his vineyard. Now we know he is a man of means because he didn’t do the planting himself; he has a gardener who does that sort of work for him – sort of like when you hear people saying, “We’re building a house” when what they really mean is “we’re paying to have a house built for us.” But this man who may be wealthy in things is poor in patience and, maybe like most of us, has a low tolerance level for stuff that doesn’t work. And his fig tree isn’t working out. It’s been three whole years and not one fig has been produced that he can turn into preserves for his breakfast biscuits. And so he tells his gardener to cut it down, to get rid of this fruitless tree since it’s wasting good soil. Which, come to think of it, might sound painfully familiar to some of us. It’s the voice on the flip side of that record about how suffering is a prelude to God’s blessing. It’s the darker voice that tells us we aren’t worth God’s time. That we’re a waste of time and not worth a second chance. Sometimes that voice comes from the outside, like it has for a neighbor of ours who has struggled her whole life with mental illness and has heard her own father say it would be a blessing if she would just go ahead and end her life. And sometimes that voice comes from within, from our deep places of self-loathing. Cut it down. It’s taking up valuable time and space, orders the landowner.
But in the parable, this amazing gardener intervenes and pleads for a little more time. Where his boss sees a hopeless impossibility, the gardener sees the possibility of fruit yet to come. He’ll aerate the soil around the tree and work to nourish its roots. He won’t give up on the little tree and makes the case to give it another year. Just one more year.
Of course, parables being parables, we don’t get a nice Hallmark ending to this story. We don’t know if the tree blossoms and starts producing figs or not. All we hear is the gardener’s intercession of hope, an intervention that sounds and smells like the grace of Jesus in our own lives. The threat of death is not taken away, but it’s power evaporates under the heat of persistent love offered by the gardener. And come to think of it, the One we call Lord, the One who refused to avoid death himself for the sake of love, that One was also mistaken for a gardener after being raised to new life, after embodying the truth that God’s love and grace always get the last word in our lives and in this world (see John 20:15).
My sisters and brothers, March madness is descriptive of these days. The poet Wendell Berry begins one of his poems entitled “A Discipline” with this understanding: “Turn towards the holocaust, it approaches on every side, there is no other place to turn.” Beauregard, Alabama and Colfax County Nebraska can be listed alongside of Siloam as places of unimaginable disaster. The murder of 50 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand can be remembered alongside of Pilate’s bloodshed of the Galileans as the almost inevitable, heart-breaking consequence of hate and fear. To sit with such pain is a spiritual discipline that can seem so much harder than simply locking our doors and hearts and distracting ourselves into oblivion through entertainment and whatever our drug of choice might be.
But instead here we are. Thanks be to God, here we are. We are here today because we have been given one more day. And maybe today is the start of one more year. Who knows? What we can know is that God in Christ Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is offering us time and opportunity to root ourselves in his mercy, to trust in his way of compassion and nonviolent change, and to bear fruit for his glory as we love ourselves and our neighbors and this planet back to life. As Wendell Berry concludes his poem, “It is the time’s discipline to think of the death of all living, and yet live.” Let us give thanks to the gracious Gardener who gives us the chance to live. Amen.