Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
1st Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I invite you to close your eyes and imagine the most beautiful tree in your yard. See the beautiful branches. Maybe it is a fir tree, or one that is just barely budding this time of year. Think of the cones or the fruit it produces. See the birds landing on it, maybe even living in it. Watch the squirrels running straight up its beautiful trunk. Remember the way you’ve felt standing in its shade. Take a deep breath and smell the fresh scent of your tree.
Maybe you picked this tree out and planted it there. Maybe you fertilized it and pruned it. Maybe you watered it. Maybe you ate the fruit from its branches. Maybe your kids or grandkids have climbed in it or had picnics under it. It has been a precious tree, a gift from God.
Now you notice that your tree has a withered leaf, first one then a whole branch full. One after the other, the branches dry up. You get out your big gardening book, or search the internet. What is wrong with this tree? What can you do for it? What will help it get healthy again? Is it fungus? Is it an insect? What can you do for your tree?
In this morning’s Gospel, we’ve got a tree that isn’t bearing fruit. It isn’t producing. Who knows if it is something wrong with the tree, the soil, the weather, or what! The owner is ready to chop it down and start over. He’s impatient. But the gardener is more tender toward the tree and wants to give it a second chance. He wants to put a little more effort into it—spread some manure around, make sure it is not a fluke, make sure it is the tree and not some other conditions that are keeping it from producing.
Who is who in this story? I think we can agree that we’re the tree. Sometimes we’re producing fruit and sometimes we aren’t. We are God’s planting. When we’re struggling, it isn’t always clear why. Is it my fault? Or is it something out of my control? The lack of fruit is almost like its own character. It represents a brokenness and with brokenness is suffering. The first part of the reading makes it clear that suffering happens to everyone. Everyone struggles, and it doesn’t have anything to do with being a worse sinner.
What is the fruit? Is it worship attendance Are bodies in the pew a good measure of fruit? Is that a good number to tell us what kind of good work is happening here? I see all kinds of different people coming through the doors to volunteer. I see all kinds of people being helped by our ministries at this church. I have started to wonder if these weren’t better measures of fruit.
In the gospel, the owner is quick to demand that the tree be chopped down. I think traditionally some have thought of an angry God with only Jesus there to defend us and take the punishment. Can you really picture God evaluating that there is no fruit and gets out the axe. I think this idea has been invented by people to try to explain why some trees are cut down and others aren’t—why some people suffer more than others or why bad things happen to good people. We see it popping up in the Bible. The Israelites explained their captivity in Babylon by their bad behavior toward the poor. Some of the disciples asked Jesus why a man was born blind—was it his sin or his parents’?
However, this Gospel shows us that this clearly isn’t what God is like. God and Jesus have the same nature—we have one God in three persons. The owner and the gardener in this story have very different qualities. They are two different characters in this story. In comes the gardener with compassion. Spare this tree another year, says the gardener. I will do what I can to help. I would be willing to bet that when next year comes, the gardener will convince the owner again to spare the tree another year. It is God’s nature to be compassionate, not cruel.
So if God is not the owner, who is? Who are the ones to be quick to cut off, to reject others, and to shout, “Off with their heads!” Is it you and me? Is it the church? Is it humanity? Is this what God means in the Old Testament Reading for today when God says, “My ways are not your ways.”
We do not need to despair that God’s ways aren’t our ways and God’s thoughts aren’t our thoughts. We can be glad that even though our thoughts are far from God’s, we are his body in the world. Thankfully, God is patient with us when we don’t get it. God doesn’t give up on us, but instead spreads us with manure, for rich matter to learn and grow in, so that we might bit by bit start to get it.
I think of Sterling right now. He loves to go outside where he can practice all his walking skills on uneven ground and see all kinds of new sights and wonders. We are currently learning about the sidewalk and the street. Sterling’s thoughts are not my thoughts. His thoughts are this, “Explore!” My thoughts are this, “Keep this child safe and teach him where is safe to go.” So for now I just keep showing him and walking by his side. Maybe he won’t get it this year. But one day, his thoughts will be my thoughts, and he’ll be standing at the crosswalk looking both ways as I stand a little way back and make sure he gets to Kindergarten safely. In the same way, God walks by our side year after year, showing us, helping us, until one day we start to get it.
Are you willing to give up on your tree, just because it has a few brown spots. I am not ready to give up on my child because he doesn’t get it about the street. God isn’t giving up on us, just because we struggle to produce. The good news for this morning is that God is love. God’s covenants are unconditional. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. God is our gentle gardener.
So let’s also be gentle gardeners and reflect that love and remember that our job is to show that unconditional love to all. To love is to have patience, not to cut off. We are to love the rich and the poor, those who go to church and those who don’t, polite drivers and those with issues, republicans and democrats, gay and straight, old and young. We get to be loving and patient with ourselves. We get to be loving and patient with each other, so that each tree has a chance to live and grow, bring forth fruit, and to give God glory and praise.