How do we use the time we have to re-orient ourselves to Christ, the patient gardener?
Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
This story begins with Jesus hearing a news story. I was struck that Jesus approached his address to his audience much like those of us who are preachers do. He hears a news story, or takes what is happening in life and politics and he teaches from it, or relates to it. He hears about some people whose ‘blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices’. We have no way of knowing whether this was a real event – no historical evidence confirms it. But we do know that Pilate’s troops killed a group of Samaritans while on a pilgrimage to their holiest site. It seems that this was something similar – massacre while at worship. And then after he hear this news, Jesus points to another current events story, the headline might have read ’18 killed when tower collapses’. Similarly unconfirmed in terms of historical evidence.
But to his audience, these stories were very real, and very immediate – like the earthquakes of Haiti and Chili echoing through our news media. So, Jesus meets his audience where they are. And the most common reaction to catastrophe – or illness or disaster – was to ask the question ‘What might these people have done to deserve such a fate?” “How have these people offended God? How have they sinned?” These are questions is as old as the Hebrew Bible’s Job, whose friends accused him in chapter 4, “‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.’” It pops up all over the Gospels – in John 9 Jesus is asked “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” We may not ask the question quite so crassly today, but the question still lingers – why do good things happen to bad people, and why do the faithful suffer? Or why do some faithful suffer or die, while some of us escape unscathed.
In the earthquake in Haiti, you may have seen the story on MCC’s website, of two MCCers who live on the 5th floor of a building. They were spared only because they were on the top floor of their building which collapsed. They were able to crawl out of the rubble alive with only a few scratches and bruises. Were they more virtuous than the others in their building that did not escape with their lives?
It is to this question that Jesus speaks. As one of the junior youth put it “get over yourself, you’re not that much better than they are.” Indeed. Jesus is telling his audience that the question ‘why?’ is irrelevant. He addresses two examples: an act of intentional political terrorism and a tragic accident. Both seemingly random in their victims. Both eliciting the question ‘why?’ But instead, Jesus says, you should be examining yourself, your choices and actions. Use this opportunity, friends, to examine not the victims souls but your own. Those in Jesus audience are invited not once, but twice (and again – as I was reminded the Jr high class – when Jesus repeats himself, it must be really important) invited to repent, “or you will perish as they did.” This exact phrase spoken after each example and after each question, ‘do you think these people (Galileans/Jerusalemites) were more sinful that you?’
As I one commentator writes, “Life in the kingdom is not an elevated game of gaining favors and avoiding losses. Without repentance, all is lost anyway.” We do not somehow avoid destruction by being especially good, nor do we invite karmic destruction when we act thoughtlessly or with mindful cruelty. We will all come to our end at some point and face God. So repent while you have the chance.”
To further illustrate, Jesus tells a story. A man plants a tree and is dissatisfied with its performance. The gardener pleads for mercy on behalf of the unfruitful tree: give it one more year. One year of nurture and nourishment and care so that it has another chance to bear fruit. It is a story that is as vivid now as it must have been then. Seattle is a city of gardeners. I grew up with an avid gardener – always wishing I could be more attuned to the earth as my dad was and is. I feel blessed in having Coho neighbors who have both interest and skill in gardening.
We are careful with our gardens – we make decisions about where to put the plants, how to fertilize them, when to prune. And we have to make the tough decisions about what will stay and what will go. Which gardener are you? I tend to be pretty ruthless about plants. A couple weeks ago, with much satisfaction I sawed off a rhododendron that was both getting in the way and not flourishing so that we could have better access to our garden beds. And in like fashion I saw Carl valiantly trying to remove an unknown shrub from the corner of his house in the back yard when I wandered over the other day. It’s wasting soil! Get rid of it! It’s just taking up space!
On the other hand, I hear Melanie tell me this week that she often speaks in the voice of the gardener: give it another chance, maybe we can help it produce. Let’s give it one more year. And in fact, in our own little garden plot, we gave the transplanted raspberry canes, which looked like little more than sticks in the mud, another season in our gardens. They were mulched and tended and hopefully they will give us berries this summer.
The owner in Jesus story is being practical, really – it’s a fruit tree and it is not living up to it’s purpose of providing figs. And the gardener has already given this tree time to prove itself. The gardener in Jesus’ story is hopeful. He pleads on behalf of the fig tree, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, while I dig around it, put manure on it. If it bears fruit, well and good. If not, you can cut it down.” Not only will the tree be spared, it will be fed and worked with – maybe pruned, watered – given even more attention than it had had before.
One of the commentators that I read asked pointedly in his reflection, “What would you do if you only had a year left?” I found this a very compelling question because for the most part I avoid thinking about my own mortality. At least I avoid thinking about it in relation to the need for change or repentance. And because, although I’m not afraid of what is after death, I feel like I have plenty of living left to do. And also because it’s a short time, but a long kind of short. I mean it’s long enough to be really intentional and not have to rush, but it’s short enough that you would have to be intentional and really choose what to hold onto and what to let go. It’s hard to know, in one year, of what do I need to repent?
For those of us who really do try to live faithfully and with integrity as disciples of Jesus, it is hard to know what it even means to repent. If repentance means a turning away from something, enabling the repentant one to turn toward Christ, we might respond, “I’m already facing Christ. What more can I do?” There is a story in Hannah Notess’ book Jesus Girls (it might even be hers) in which the writer comes up with a more dramatic testimony than her own because growing up as a Christian kid in a Christian home is just not that interesting and certainly can’t compete with a drug addict turned missionary or something else equally dramatic. And repentance usually, for me anyway, evokes dramatic, life-altering reversal and change.
But I looked at the root word in Greek: metanoia. A compound word. Meta: “with” or “after” and noia: “thought” or “consideration”. So, ‘after consideration.’ So it means, a change of mind, or a change after careful consideration. It’s an after-thought as opposed to a former-thought. I wonder if it really is, as we (I) perhaps imagine it to be, a dramatic once-for-all-time turning. There is a song in the Sing the Journey hymnal supplement called “Slowly turning, ever turning,” written by Delores Dufner:
Slowly turning, ever turning from our lovelessness like ice,
from our unforgiving spirit, from the grip of envy’s vice,
Slowly turning, ever turning toward the lavish life of spring,
toward the word of warmth and pardon, toward the mercy welcoming.
Slowly turning, ever turning from our ego-centered gaze,
from our self-enclosing circle, from our narrow, petty ways,
Slowly turning, ever turning toward the foreigner as friend,
toward the city without ghetto, toward the greatness without end.
Slowly turning, ever turning from our fear of death and loss,
from our terror of the darkness, from our scorning of the cross,
Slowly turning, ever turning toward the true and faithful one,
toward the light of daybreak dawning, toward the phoenix-risen sun!
The idea of repentance being ‘ever turning’ – both from something and to something – is attractive to me. I know that I have prevailing sins – things that I will continually need to turn from with Jesus’ help. I think we all have parts of us that we know are our growing edges – the ways that we fail again and again. It’s that reason that those of us who are married often have the same fight with our spouses over and over again. And if repentance means a new way of thinking and acting, there are always many ways, big and small, that we are constantly being changed.
I also know that in his parable Jesus balanced judgment with mercy. There is another ancient story about a tree and an owner and what happens when the tree does not produce. From the wisdom literature of Ahikar in the ancient near east. I don’t know if Jesus’ audience would have been familiar, but the parallels are interesting:
“And I spake to Nathan thus: Son, thou hast been to me like a palm-tree which has grown with roots on the bank of the river. When the fruit ripened, it fell into the river. The lord of the tree came to cut it down, and the tree said: leave me in this place, that in the next year I may bear fruit. The lord of the tree said: Up to this day hast thou been to me useless, in the future thou wilt not become useful.”
The parallels are obvious, and perhaps the distinctions are as well. In the story that Jesus tells, there is gardener to intervene on behalf of the failing tree. The tree does not need to do the intervention, as in the story of Ahikar. And in the parable of Jesus, the tree is indeed given a reprieve. I related before that I tend toward the ruthless when it comes to plants. I also tend toward the lazy – I have a flower bed that I would gladly root up and start from scratch…if only I could find the time and energy. The gardener of Jesus’ story, however, is not lazy. In fact he is willing to work hard on behalf of the tree. If on one hand Jesus is calling for repentance, he is, on the other hand offering a year of nurturing and opportunity for growth.
One year is just how long I will be absent from my work at SMC. Although I am taking a leave of absence and the entire time will not officially be sabbatical, it will in some ways be a sabbatical in its entirety – a rest and change from the work I do on a day to day basis here in Seattle, an opportunity to learn to know a new community, a new culture and language, to gain new perspective. An opportunity to spend more time with my family and less at meetings. A year of nourishment and nurture and space so that I may bear new fruit. I hope that it will be a year that will allow me to re-orient myself toward Christ.
From Isaiah 55 we heard a clear and unambiguous invitation to drink and eat and be nourished at God’s table without cost, without price. But what is also unambiguous is that the good food is found in seeking the Lord. Those imperative verbs: Come. Listen. See. Seek. All imploring the listener to come into God’s presence for what is good. Why do you spend your money – or your time, or your energy, or your talent, or your good soil – on what does not satisfy?
But…not everyone can take a sabbatical year and indeed I will be living most of my years just as I am now. In the ever-turning always renewing state. Indeed every year is the ‘one more year’ and the season of Lent, though six weeks long, is ‘one more year’. I have heard some interesting ways that people are being intentional about deepening their relationship with God and strengthening the ways that they may bear fruit.
This is an open ended parable. We do not know what became of the tree. Jesus leaves the outcome up the listener. That is as good as an invitation to life. “Come to the water, come and eat, listen and live!” May we find new life in the garden.
Read Amy’s Blog for “what’s not in the sermon…”