A Sermon for The Plymouth Church of Framingham
March 24, 2019 (Third Sunday in Lent)
1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ “
God gives that fruitless fig tree one more year. In all things God is merciful.
God may be merciful, but, that’s no reason to waste your life.
God’s mercy still demands fruitfulness of each of us.
There it is, that’s my sermon in a nutshell. For those of you who would like to tune out the remainder, you may now pick up your pew Bibles and begin to study.
Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Christians in America would like to believe in a God without wrath that saves a world without sin through a Christ without the cross.” No fruit produced there. Dietrich Boenhoeffer considered this kind of faith, “cheap grace.”
So, we come on this third Sunday of Lent, to the question of sin, suffering, and repentance.
There are at least two ways of looking at suffering.
One is to say, it was caused by something. By someone’s actions. A popular variant on that theme is, if you sin, bad things will happen to you, in order to punish you for your sin, or bad things will happen to people you love, as part of God’s punishment of you. There are two corollaries, for those who believe this: If something bad happens to someone, they must have sinned to cause it. And, if you are good, good things will happen to you, because you deserve them.
Jesus blows that set of beliefs right out of the water, when he says: “”Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you…”
So Jesus seems to support the opposite view of suffering: God doesn’t send suffering as punishment for sin. Sometimes bad things just happen, without explanation. God’s judgment of sin is not the cause of all calamity. As the New Interpreter’s Bible says, “life is uncertain, death is capricious…” (NIB 270) Jesus says, there’s no simple explanation here. God is not an arbitrary punisher, but rather one who judges with compassion; one who is merciful in all things. One who gives even unfruitful fig trees more chances.
This, generally speaking, is the mainline, UCC view of suffering: we may not understand it, but we don’t blame God for it. God is merciful, God loves us, God is love, God offers grace to all.
But in the same breath as Jesus says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you…,” Jesus also says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “In the South, this is what we call giving with one hand and taking away with the other. No, Jesus says, there is no connection between the suffering and the sin. Whew. But unless you repent, you are going to lose some blood too. Oh.”1
God loves you, God is merciful, God eye is on the sparrow and you know God watches you, God would even have mercy on an unfruitful fig tree.
But that does not free you from responsibility.
In our 21st century mainline Christian lives, we seem to get off easy. We get to focus on the institution of Christianity, rather than the Christian life. When our work as Christians – either that institutional life, or our own soul searching – gets too hard, we can say, I’m not doing that any more. It’s too hard. I want an easier, more peaceful, more fun, more convenient Christian life. I’d really prefer not to teach Sunday School more than twice a decade, thanks, and don’t even talk to me about tithing, that’s evangelical stuff. Doing more work for church, so that we can be serving the community in God’s name – sorry, no time. Also, I come to church on Sunday morning for peace and refreshment and then I will go back to my real life. Doesn’t matter what I do there, you know, because God is merciful.
Well, that’s bogus. Let’s speak the truth, even the dissonant truth of Lent.
Yes, the Christian message is hopeful, comforting, resurrection-filled. But it is also challenging, calling us to bear the cross, carry the load, shovel the compost, and produce a harvest-full of fruit.
The world is not a better place because you’ve come to church this morning. In fact, you’re not a better person because you’ve come to church this morning.
Maybe, just maybe, the world will be a better place because you take your faith out into it. Maybe, just maybe, you will be a better person because God’s mercy causes you to bear fruit. But it’s not gonna happen unless you seek to bear God’s fruit. You’ve got to put God’s call to you first, regardless of the difficulty.
Lent ought to feel hard. Lent ought to make you squirm in your seat. It ought to make you stare sheepishly down at your shoes and try to avoid God’s eyes. It ought to make you take out your wallet and look deeper into it, wondering where all your money goes. It ought to make you look deeper in your life, wondering where all your time goes. It ought to make you look deeper into your relationships, wondering where all your love goes. And it ought to make you change something.
Jesus’ parable declares: God is a just judge and merciful creator. The two are in balance. God doesn’t send earthquakes, or cruel Roman governors. God sends a Messiah and messages of love and resurrection. But God still has demands of us: that we bear fruit.
This image, of fruit worthy of the divine gardener’s efforts, runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian testament.
In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells people to bear fruit.
Jesus says, we will be able to recognize righteous prophets “by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) and he says, The kingdom will be “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Matthew 21: 43
But, God is not just the gardener, separate from the plants. Think about John 15 in which Jesus gives us another gardening lesson:
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…5 I am the vine, you are the branches.
There is something about being one fig tree, in a vineyard with many others, on a farm full of plants, all rooted in good earth, all tended by the great gardener, that ought to give us comfort. We are not alone. We live in God’s world. We are part of God’s good garden. Christ is the vine, and we are the branches, and we can bear good fruit.
Our family friend, John Henry, had been in recovery a year or two. Someone unexpected had invited him to his first meeting, dragged him there, really, insisted that it was time for AA. It probably shouldn’t have worked – I know it doesn’t work when you drag someone – but somehow it did, thank God, and he sat at a recovery banquet and found a new life. He was starving, at least spiritually and emotionally, and there he found food. He started to rebuild, or he started to be rebuilt. He connected, or reconnected, to God, who pruned and watered and spread good compost on John Henry’s roots until he bore good fruit. And when his own fig tree was growing well once again, John Henry started tending the rest of the garden. He started a business, a strange and humble thing: a packing and shipping service, tucked into the back of a mini-mall. For a certain period of time in Nashville, if you mail-ordered candies from small-batch makers, John Henry’s company was responsible for the bubble wrap and the box the candy safely traveled in. And the folks who worked there? They were pretty much all in early stages of recovery. It probably shouldn’t have worked, but that business succeeded, in all senses of the word. That business turned a profit, and helped turn lives around. Someone looked at John Henry’s fig tree and said, one more year. A little more rain and sunshine and compost. Someone loved on him. And having grown into new life, he made it his business to invite more folks to tend the other fig trees in the vineyard to new life and new fruitfulness.
May whatever we do, as individuals, or as a congregation, bear fruit in God’s orchard.
1 “Life Giving Fear” by Barbara Brown Taylor. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 4, 1998, page 229.