Third Sunday in Lent, February 28th, 2016
Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When we study parables, often the first thing we look for in them is God. Which one of the characters is he? Sometimes the answer is obvious, and sometimes it isn’t; and there are times when our first impulse is wrong. In the parable of the Gospel reading, the most common response is to see the tree’s owner as the God-character in the parable. And yet, I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant. For one thing, he doesn’t call the tree the “master” or “lord” or anything like that. He’s just identified as a “man.” And, second, he doesn’t really act like God does in any of the other parables of Luke. This man is harsh, judgmental, just waiting for an excuse to chop that tree down and replace it with something better. By contrast, in every other parable in the Gospel of Luke that talks about repentance, the God-character’s deepest impulse is to find what is lost and rejoice over its return. In fact, the character in this parable with the most similarities to how God is depicted in the other parables is the gardener.
The gardener, you see, has a very different attitude. The gardener isn’t tempted by the quick and easy solution of ripping out the sick tree and replacing it with a new one. The gardener’s greatest wish is that the tree might be saved, healed, restored to what God intended it to be, made whole. And the gardener is prepared to do the hard work to bring that about. The gardener’s response isn’t about blame, or taking the easy way out. The gardener’s response is to do what’s best for the tree to save it, even at the cost of some hard, unpleasant work.
Which, if you think about it, is pretty much what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is all about. God loves us, and God’s greatest concern for our lives is that we be saved, healed, and restored to what God intended for us to be. And God is willing to do the hard, messy, painful work required: he became human, lived, and died so that we might be saved. In his teaching, his death, and resurrection, he is digging around our roots to free us from all the things that bind us down and stunt our spirits, and he is giving us all the fertilizer we need to grow big and strong. He gives us what we need most, without counting the cost to himself. God is generous beyond measure, and desires only our good.
The passage from Isaiah also follows this theme, as the prophet reminds us that God gives us the spiritual food and drink our souls need to thrive and grow. God gives abundantly; God has provided a world that is capable of sustaining the lives of every person on it. God gives, and gives, and gives, and only asks that we respond to his generosity by growing healthy and strong, and bearing fruit.
Bearing fruit. That’s a phrase that can sometimes seem threatening—if you don’t repent, if you don’t bear fruit, God’s going to chop you down like a bad tree! But as I said, I don’t think the one threatening the chopping in the parable is God. On the other hand, sometimes “bearing fruit” sounds like so much work, so hard. If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to show it by bearing the right fruit! All the time! No matter what! But even healthy fruit trees don’t bear fruit all year, but only when the time is right. And then there is a season of dormancy to recover before the next time of fruitfulness. I think this parable is getting at something else. It’s not a command to produce good works on cue. Think about fruit trees you’ve known that didn’t bear fruit. They were usually pretty sickly, right? And you could see they weren’t healthy. If you were a fruit tree, would you want to be like that? With shriveled leaves and dry, brittle branches? And maybe some moss or fungus growing on you? I sure wouldn’t! I would much rather be healthy and strong and growing—and a healthy fruit tree is going to produce fruit at the right time, that’s its nature. God doesn’t want us to be pressured or oppressed by the need to produce; God wants us to be healthy and thriving. That’s what repentance leads to; that’s what following God leads to; that’s what Jesus’ work in us and in our lives leads to.
So if God is the gardener, who’s the guy who wants to chop down the sick tree? I wonder if that’s us—humanity. Remember, Jesus didn’t tell this parable out of the blue. Somebody came to Jesus with a really nasty story, about Pontius Pilate—yes, that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later crucify Jesus even knowing he was innocent. Anyway, ol’ Pilate killed a bunch of Jesus’ countrymen while they were worshiping in the Temple. And they wanted to know why. Were those people especially sinful? Was God using Pilate to punish them? And, oh, hey, what about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell? Were they being punished? Were they trees cut down because they didn’t bear fruit?
No, Jesus said. They were no better or worse than anything else. They didn’t die because they deserved it. They died because the world is a terrible place, broken by sin and death. They died because a cruel and capricious man like Pilate was given power over life and death. They died because humans didn’t build the tower of Siloam well enough. They were meaningless, empty deaths, for no purpose at all. There are a lot of those in the world, much as we would try to deny it. But humans try to keep finding meaning. We keep trying to make it all make sense. And we keep trying to find a way to make ourselves feel better. If they died because they deserved it, then I don’t have to worry, do I? Because I don’t deserve it! But no, Jesus said, they didn’t deserve it, it wasn’t their fault, their deaths weren’t a punishment from God or the universe. It just happened.
It happened because the world is broken by sin and death. It happened because God’s good plan for creation was shattered by human evil. And that evil has rebounded down the centuries, twisting and turning the world to its own ends … and twisting and stunting us, too. We are sick. Sick and tired of watching good people die for no reason, sick and tired of all the ways the world drags people down, chews them up, and spits them out. We are sick of the poisons the world pours into our ears, into our hearts and minds, the poisons of hate and fear and jealousy and greed. And we are sick of the ways we spew that poison back to one another. And that sickness has stunted our growth, made our branches brittle, shriveled our leaves, and prevented us from bearing much fruit.
Funny, how some people only see that sickness in others. Some people are all too much aware of their own sin; others, all too little. And when we see that sickness in others but not ourselves, it’s all too easy to be the man ordering the tree chopped down because it isn’t giving him what he wants and producing on cue. It’s easy to see the result—no fruit—but ignore the cause—the brokenness and sin we breathe in from the very day we are born.
Jesus has a different perspective. Jesus sees our sin and sickness more clearly than we do. He sees all the bits of poison we don’t even realize we’re breathing in, and he sees what damage it causes us, and he sees the poison we spread, and how it damages those around us. God knows the very worst of us—and God knows all the potential inside. Tupac Shakur wrote a poem called The Rose that Grew From Concrete, in which he points out that when you see a rose growing out of concrete, you don’t critique it for being a bit stunted—you praise it for being strong and good enough to grow at all. We’re the roses growing in concrete, and God the gardener is chipping away at the concrete that strangles our souls and our lives. Some people–and some groups–have more concrete weighing them down than others do. But it’s not their fault.
We tend to think of repentance as something we do because we’re sad. That repentance is all about guilt. We do something wrong, we realize it’s wrong, and we turn away from it. And, certainly, that is part of repentance. But it’s also about life. Which is better, a life stunted and sickly, or a life full of growth and good things? Repentance is also about following God to the water of life, to the banquet of good food freely given. Repentance is also about learning to grow freely as God breaks our chains and gives us the fertilizer we need to grow strong. It’s what makes a meaningful life possible, even amidst the brokenness and chaotic evil of the world. May we repent, and live the full and abundant and healthy lives that God has planned for us.