by Eric Woolridge
How many of us here have, at some time, asked the question, “how is this relevant?” After hearing a lecture or reading about a new theological concept, how many of us have raised a hand in class or thought to ourselves “how am I ever going to use this in real life, in real ministry situations?”
My friends, today is a splendid day to be in chapel, because we do not need to ask that question. Today we hear from Luke chapter 13. If we were to make a list of the Bible passages most likely to be useful in practical ministry situations, then the first 5 verses of Luke 13 would probably be #4 on our list. That’s right, this is – in my opinion – the 4th most useful Bible passage for practical ministry situations. I don’t know what the top 3 are, but I think it’s safe to assume they all come from the book of Nahum.
Luke13: whenever we hear someone say that a person deserves their suffering because it’s a punishment from God, this is our go-to pericope. “Pericope” is not our go-to word, but this is our go-to pericope. “Do you think the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices were worse sinners?” NO! Do you think those people who had the tower of Siloam fall on top of them were worse sinners? NO! Do you think that the people of Haiti and Chile and every other disaster ridden area are worse sinners? Jesus says no.
Luke 13 is our tailor-made answer to all those annoying conversations where someone wants to blame a person’s suffering on God’s divine wrath. Remember it: unlucky number 13. It’s unlucky for anyone who wants an overly simplistic answer to the problems of the world.
Unfortunately, this story from Luke isn’t just unlucky chapter 13 for people who annoy us with self-serving questions. It’s unlucky number 13 for all of us. It reminds us that unless we repent, we will all perish. Unless we turn from our sinful ways and follow Christ, we are lost. Unless we tend fig trees that bear fruit, the owner of the garden will cut our trees down.
Jesus tells the brief parable of the barren fig tree. The owner of the garden is God, and we can see ourselves in the role of the gardener. Some have interpreted the gardener as Jesus himself, but I invite you to think with me about each of us and each of our communities serve the role of the gardener. The barren fig tree that we tend is the work of our lives and of our communities. The dirt that we dig up is our sinfulness and the manure we lay around the tree is the healing power of prayer, God’s Word, and the Sacraments.
For 3 years God waits for a tree that bears no fruit. God intends to cut the tree down on the fourth year, but decides to give it one more chance to produce. Do we really know what God’s decision would be if our tree continued to be fruitless in the fourth year? Would this story repeat itself, with God granting a fifth year? God’s idea of timing is a perpetual mystery to us.
For 26 years I have been a gardener tending a rather unproductive fig tree. There are seasons when the tree of my life bears little or no fruit. There are seasons when the fruit that it bears is worthless and rotten. God comes to me each season with every reason to cut down my tree. And each season I plead with God to allow me one more year. I plead with God to let me dig away at the dirt of sin that my tree is growing in. I plead with God to allow me a chance to fertilize the ground around my tree with prayer, with the Word, and with the Sacraments. I promise God that next year will finally be the year of rich, ripe figs.
God knows that I don’t have the strength to dig out all of that dirt. I can’t fix all the problems that my sinfulness has caused. God knows that I will grow weary of spreading manure around my tree after a short time. I won’t pray with full faith and I won’t dedicate myself to understanding the Word. God knows that I cannot promise to yield fruit next year, or any year.
God still chooses to grant me another year.
Just as we individually tend to fig trees, our communities serve as gardeners as well. In our American community, God has been demanding figs from our country as long as it has existed. One of those figs that God demands is our willingness to tend to the health of our bodies and to ensure the healthcare of others. Long before there were debates over national healthcare, the abortion clause, or the public option, God was demanding that we take care of ourselves and each other. God said repent of this sin, or I will cut down the tree that your country tends. Then God relented and has given us another chance to repent.
Now God once again comes to us demanding fruit. It’s silly to say that God has a specific healthcare plan, but deep down we all know what God is demanding of us. National healthcare or not, God demands that we take care of everyone. Abortion clause or not, God demands that we create a truly pro-life society – a place where no woman would feel the intense pressures that can compel her to end a pregnancy. Public option or not, God demands that no part of our healthcare system be based on greed.
We will fail to meet God’s demands for this particular piece of fruit, this fig. God will have every reason to cut down our tree based on our healthcare decisions, to destroy us like the Israelites being carried off to Babylon. God, we pray, will grant us another chance, another year to produce figs that are not rotten.
There is a bigger tree in our garden. It is the tree we tend as a Christian community. For 22 years the ELCA has failed to produce figs that meet God’s standards. For almost 500 years the Lutheran faith tradition has done the same. For almost 2000 years God’s greater church has failed to produce figs or given yields that were worthless and rotten. Each year, each week, each day, God finds the tree we tend without fruit. Each year, week, and day God has granted us one more chance.
These days we talk about sexuality in the church. As we debated the new Social Statement and had the big vote, God demanded that we bear fruit. Some of us bore the tasty fruit of devotion to God’s Word, but spoiled it with the rotten fruit of cruelty toward others. Some of us bore the tasty fruit of kindness and welcoming, but spoiled it with the rotten fruit of betraying God’s Word. I believe that some people actually produced both good fruits, but they probably spoiled both with the rotten fruit of pride in what they had accomplished.
God has come to us and to our communities looking for figs on the branches of our trees. And every time that God could come with an axe, God instead brings a message: there is still time to repent. Every time God comes to us, it’s like we are the gardener whose tree has been fruitless for 3 years. And every time, God grants us a 4th year…or a 10th year or a 26th year or a 2000th year. God’s grace for us is inexplicable, and it’s entirely impractical.
I gave you my opinion that the first 5 verses of Luke 13 are among the most practical we have for ministry. Well I think we also need to acknowledge that the next 4 verses are among the least practical. What are we to make of a God who comes to us again and again with forgiveness? It seems so impractical to let our fig trees stand. How can we respond to this?
We can say thank you. Thank you, God, that you give us practical ways to follow your will. Thank you so much more that you forgive us in ways that seem entirely impractical. Thank you, God, that your grace and forgiveness are so far beyond our own notions of practicality. We know that we will fail to bear fruit in the future, but we repent today. Today, God offers us grace and forgiveness, and one more chance to grow a tasty fig. Amen.