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. 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. 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 loses confidence in the people because they are stubborn and sinful.
What, a mere mortal dared to argue with God? Moses dared! 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. Through their conversation God fell back in love with God’s people.
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. And like Moses and the gardener, Deaconess Anna Alexander held onto her strong convictions.
On a hot and muggy day in May of 1907, Georgia’s Bishop C. K Nelson described Anna Alexander as a devout, godly and respected colored woman, who served as a teacher and helper at the Mission of the Good Shepherd on Pennick, GA. High on the Bishop’s agenda was the consecration of Anna to the Order of Deaconesses. Possibly the first African-American Deaconess in the United States, she was certainly the first “set aside” in the South. In a calling of sixty years or more, her indomitable spirit and fierce devotion to God still illuminates our understanding of ministry. Retired Bishop Henry Louttit, named her one of the “Saints of Georgia,” and designated September 24th as a day to meditate on the life and times of Deaconess Alexander.
But why her? Why did Bishop Nelson take so controversial a step, one violating the mores of white congregants and even disturbing many black clergymen? And what inspired Bishop Louttit to choose this long-forgotten figure, departed nearly a half century, as an example for contemporary diaconate service to all? She was a humble but determined woman of remarkable religious conviction. Her example animates the spiritual life of the contemporary Church in Georgia and beyond. Her history offers a model of faith translated into active love. She gave herself in service to God by serving her community and Church, a Church whose ministry she accepted as vital to a sinful and regressive society. She lived and worked within a culture of bigotry. Her own people were often maligned and ill-treated.
Even her Church manifested precious little concern for its African-American members and willingly mirrored the culture in which it nested. It was, after all, a human institution and feared to encourage black or needy members so not to alienate the white supporters. Still, Anna Alexander lived in a society that was often hateful, and she chose love. Though shrewdly aware of realities, for her the burden of race in a racist society was secondary to the values of work and learning. She rejected anger as a wasteful emotion. Love energized. Convinced that application would be rewarded by accomplishment, she set an example for her pupils by both demanding and giving respect. Fundamentally a Christian educator, she taught Christian values and hope in a world where faith was all too easily eroded and dreams destroyed. She was formally voted into the book of saints, Holy Women, Holy Men in July of 2018.
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. It’s up to us!
Perhaps Moses, the gardener and Anna Alexander 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. The war in the Ukraine has us on edge, so that even in times of relative peace, we wonder how long it will be until the next crisis comes. Through it all, we fear that we are not living our lives as we should, nor as God expects us to – we aren’t producing fruit.
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. Hope comes! The gardener says, “Give it another year.” “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!! He doesn’t mumble, “Somebody ought to do something about that.” He digs in – gets his hands dirty – shows sweat on his brow. Shows hope in his heart and wonder at God’s creation.
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. The gardener knows beyond any doubt that God cares about the pain of God’s universe. So today let’s honor these gardeners. We are encouraged to go home and plant something – a plant, a flower, a hope, a tree, an idea a sunflower remembering the Ukraine Conflict. Plant something you can tend and watch grow and celebrate God’s hand in all it. Gardeners and Anna Alexander belong in the great company of Moses. It’s a noble company that you and I might seek to join. Amen.