Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent 2019
Exodus 3:1-15 Psalm 63:1-8 I Corinthians 10:1-13 Luke 13:1-9
On one level today’s gospel is a pastoral moment frozen in time, asking for a response from Jesus, addressed to the deepest thoughts and aches of the human heart. We all sin, we all fall far from the path of Jesus. Do we deserve another year to get it right? When we hear of other’s misfortune, what is our response? Do we think they deserve it? Did they do something wrong?
Jesus answered the people’s questions about the Galileans who have died. Were they sinners who didn’t repent? Jesus said that these who had died were no worse than their fellows, then warned his listeners, “I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.” He then proceeded to tell them a parable from a world they knew. A man had a fig tree in his vineyard, but when he looked for figs, he found none. He reminded the gardener that for three years he had been looking for figs and had been disappointed each year. Now his mind was made up: “Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?”
It was a sound business decision. Not only was the fig tree unproductive, it was using up resources of nature and the time of laborers, which might otherwise be more productive. But the gardener appealed for “just one more year.” He promised the owner that he would double his efforts to save the tree by digging around it and adding fertilizer. If this extra effort was unsuccessful, he would agree to let the tree be destroyed.
It seems likely the parable is meant to refer to Israel as a nation. They had failed to fulfill their calling and God’s expectations, and now they were drawing near to judgment. It can also be applied to each of us as individuals. God expects us to be fruitful, and if we are not, we are in danger. Because of the severity of the message, we’re inclined to read this parable as a parable of judgment. But in truth the emphasis is on life. The gardener and the owner were both aiming for productivity - the goal was life, and death was seen only as the last alternative. Truly, it is a parable of second chances.
I’m fascinated with the gardener. He dares to talk back to the owner, to reason with him, and yes, even to argue with him. He speaks with proper respect, but he makes his case with all earnestness: Give the tree another chance. He reminds me of Moses. Several times during his trying years of leading Israel, Moses contended with God on their behalf. The one that comes to mind is when the people began worshipping the golden calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law. The book of Exodus (chapter 32) reports an astonishing dialogue between God and Moses. God told Moses to hurry down to the people because they had sinned and rejected the Lord. “I know how stubborn these people are,” God said. “Now, don’t try to stop me. I am angry with them, and I am going to destroy them. Then I will make you and your descendants into a great nation.”
What, a mere mortal dared to argue with God? Moses dared! First, he reminded God that the Israelites were God’s people, not his. They were the people God “rescued from Egypt with great might and power.” If they were now destroyed, Moses argued, the Egyptians would find pleasure in the whole matter. “Stop being angry,” Moses urged the Almighty. “Change your mind and do not bring this disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Remember the solemn promise you made to them.” And the writer of Exodus says that the Lord changed his mind.
But Moses wasn’t finished. When he came to the camp and saw the magnitude of the people’s sin, he made a new appeal on their behalf. His prayer is one of the most extraordinary prayers in all of the Bible: “Please forgive their sin; but if you won’t, then remove my name from the book in which you have written the names of your people.” God answered Moses’ prayer, and the children of Israel were spared.
The gardener of the parable is like Moses. He dared to argue with the owner of the vineyard. Like Moses, he pleaded for patience, for the granting of another chance. Like Moses, he reasoned with the one in power. And like Moses, he won.
There is something very challenging about the story of Moses’ defense of Israel and the implied message in this parable. Are both stories telling us that we human beings can change the mind of God? We’re often told that the purpose of prayer is not to persuade God, but to change us so that the purposes of God can be accomplished, and surely this is often what happens when we pray.
It seems to me that it’s not a matter of changing the mind of God, but a matter of recognizing that we too often treat circumstances as if they were God. Perhaps the parable can teach us, among other things, that we often give up too easily, and that we assume too readily that because circumstances are difficult, God must have ordained that they be that way. We give divine status to things-as-they-are, thus increasing the power of the difficulties that confront us. People too often dispose of the riddle of human tragedies with the sentence, “Well, it must have been God’s will, or it wouldn’t have happened.” I don’t think so! We live in a world of conflict, one in which darkness seeks constantly to assert itself. Much of what happens in our world is not God’s will. That’s why the prayer our Lord gave us includes the petition, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When we pray for God’s will to be accomplished, we are acknowledging that sometimes God’s will is not done; more than that, we are acknowledging that it never will be done unless we pray – and act and labor – to bring it to pass.
Perhaps Moses and the gardener understood a hard fact about our universe: that in a sense, we are always in danger of destruction. Some of the perils change – the Black Plague terrified our ancestors, as cancer does our generation – but others are as constant as our human race. War, for example, has always had us on the brink, so that even in times of relative peace, we wonder how long it will be until the next crisis comes. And the smaller, more intimate crises pass on from generation to generation: our heartbreaks and uncertainties and nameless dreads. Through it all we fear that we are not using our lives as we should, nor as God expects us to.
So, the cry comes down from one generation to the next: “There’s no fruit on this tree! Cut it down!” God is not making the threat; rather, the threat is built into the very nature of things. We live in a universe that is basically moral, because God has made us so, and if we persist in hating in a universe that was made to operate on love, we can expect that it will at last cut us down. If we forget about love, we are not following God’s plan.
Then comes the gardener who says, “Give it another year.” At times the voice of the gardener comes to us in many forms. Too many of us think that we hear the voice of God in the situation of despair. That is, we assume that the despair is the end of the story, an expression of God’s judgment. We see that the times are out of joint and the forces of evil are great. We recognize that there is corruption everywhere, and money and power are firmly entrenched. We know that millions are starving while their political leaders carry on in detached comfort, and we wonder how anything can possibly be done. We are all too ready to treat monstrous circumstances as if they were God. We canonize the voice of despair and prepare to cut down the fig tree. We won’t do the cutting ourselves, but we will acquiesce in the judgment.
Our world is crammed full of lost, or nearly lost causes, difficult people, and dying institutions, all of which seem to be consigned to be cut down. Logic demands that it be so, either by official act or by benign neglect. Then along comes a gardener, a Moses, who talks back – to the government, to family, to encrusted institutionalism, and even to God. “Give it one more year,” the gardener says. “I will dig around it and fertilize it, and let us see if perhaps there is, even yet, a crop to be had there.” I refuse to give up!!
There is audacity in the gardener’s request. It is more respectful and measured than Moses dramatic either-or request, but it is of the same quality and it springs from the same kind of heart. Specifically, it believes that we must not give in to the voice that says the cause is lost or the person is worthless. But the audacity is honorable, because the gardener promises to work on the matter. If he were not willing to dig around it and to involve himself in the fertilization, his presumed interest in the tree and his talking back to the owner would be blasphemous. This is what separates the gardeners from the relatively large number who say, “Somebody ought to do something about that.”
The gardener dares to believe in the character of God. Such gardeners are unwilling to acquiesce to circumstances or “fate” as if they were the voice of God – for there is a profound confidence in the established character of God, regardless of what the present evidence might say. The gardener knows beyond any doubt that God cares about the pain of God’s universe. Today, we honor these gardeners. We are encouraged to go home and plant something – a plant, a flower, a hope, a tree, an idea. Plant something you can tend to and watch grow and celebrate God’s hand in all the action. Gardeners belong in the great company of Moses. It’s a noble company you and I might seek to join. Amen.