What Are We Growing?
[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here]
A sermon on Luke 13: 1-9
If the scene that opens this gospel reading were to happen today, I think it might go something like this:
In the midst of a time of shattering violence, some people came to Jesus and told him about it – filling their telling with horror, and confusion, and also some anger and fear. They told him about people at prayer in their Mosques in New Zealand, gunned down by a purveyor of hate; and then they told him about people on a tram in the Netherlands shot and killed by another extremist; and then they told him about a spike in the cycle of retaliatory violence between herders and farmers in Nigeria, enflamed by religious and ethnic divisions.
They laid all this pain and injustice and violence before Jesus and their implicit question was – "why did this happened? how are we to understand this, and how are we to protect ourselves from it?"
And Jesus answered them. “Do you think that because these people were victims of violence, that they somehow brought it on themselves? That God would collude in violence against God’s precious children in order to punish them for their sins? No. Believe me. That is not how God behaves.”
“But – don’t think that means you can just go back to your daily lives, feeling safe and secure. I have come to call all people to repentance. To the transforming of your hearts and minds. And unless the people of this world repent from your addictions to division, and factions, and violence, you will all perish as those people did.”
“Or consider the victims of natural disasters in these recent days. The loss of life, and farm animals, and property in the floods in the mid-west. The devastation and death from Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. Do you think that those who suffered these tragedies were worse offenders than all the others who escaped the waters?”
“No! I tell you that is not how tragedy works. But unless all people repent from the abuse of this good planet God has given you, you will all perish, just as those victims of natural disasters did.”
If this scene from the gospel were to happen today, I think Jesus’s response to the fearful brokenness of our world would be full of both compassion and challenge.
Personally, I would be more comfortable if he just left it at compassion – at the absolute rejection of blame for the victims. I’d love it if he just said “Don’t look to make yourselves feel safe by saying ‘there must have been some sin in their lives to bring this on,' God doesn’t use tragedy to punish people. Just stop with the harmful theology.” That’s a sermon I could preach. I feel pretty comfortable calling for compassion.
Calling for repentance? That’s a lot scarier. Especially because I know how easy it is to slide into the trap of self-righteousness when calling people to change their hearts and their minds. To think that I am calling people to be like me.
But I’m one of the people bringing these stories of violence to Jesus and asking “why?”.
I’m one of the ones to whom he is saying “repent!” Because I have a hard time letting go of my addiction to division… to my side vs. the wrong side thinking. And I can’t even imagine what my life would look like without the daily practices that contribute to global climate change.
I see the brokenness of the world, and I know I’m part of it. That’s why I WANT the question to be “why did this happen?” as though I didn’t already know… as thought this wasn’t the world we live in. The world in which I am implicated and from which I am not immune. I want Jesus to give me an answer that makes me feel safe, not an answer that calls me to repent.
But Jesus has this habit of giving me more than I want. Thank God. Because that’s where transformation happens.
Today, that “more than I want” includes compassion, and challenge… and also a story. A strange little parable about an adolescent fig tree that isn’t quite managing to produce any fruit yet, and an unreasonable, absentee landlord threatening the tree’s destruction, and a nurturing gardener, who is willing to get their hands dirty in the smelly but nourishing manure, to try to help the tree along.
Now, if you’ve heard me preach about a parable before, you probably know that I resist allegorical interpretations. I’m going to be cautious about saying that a character in the parable represents God, because that tends to shut down interpretation, rather than opening it up. As commentator Debie Thomas reminded me this week “stories open up possibility. Stories include, unmake, and transform us.”
And I think transformation is what Jesus is going for, when he tells this odd little parable to the people who have just brought him the story of unjust tragedy, with the subtext of the fear they want him to relieve. He can tell them to repent, but he knows that kind of transformation isn’t easy. So he also tells them a story. He invites them into imagination about what it looks like to nurture fruit where there is no fruit… to bring about change when the current prospect is destruction.
It’s a story, not a formula. And it’s a story that doesn’t promise a happy ending. A three-year old fig tree just might not be ready to bear fruit. It can take up to 5 years for even a healthy fig tree to begin to produce a sizable crop  and the landlord is coming back next year…all of the gardener’s work of digging and feeding the tree might go wasted.
But what if the transformation isn’t only about the fruit? What if it’s about the gardener? What if the call to repentance is a call to think about what we are nurturing?
What if this story is an invitation to change the questions we bring to the stories of random violence and destruction that scare us? What if repentance looks like changing our thoughts from “how do I make sure I’m safe?” or “who is to blame?” and transforming them into “how do I nurture life?”
Again, Debie Thomas offers an insightful reading of this gospel. She writes:
“every time we ask why, Jesus says (wrong question). He says it because ‘why’ is just plain not a life-giving question. Why hasn’t the fig tree produced fruit yet? Um, here’s the manure, and here’s a spade – get to work. Why do terrible, painful, completely unfair things happen in this world? Um, go weep with someone who’s weeping. Go fight for the justice you long to see. Go confront evil where it needs confronting. Go learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending. Go cultivate beautiful things. Go look your own sin in the eye and repent of it while you can.”
So, today’s sermon question that I want you all to answer is: what is God calling you to cultivate? We all have busy lives, I know - it doesn't feel like we have the time to cultivate anything more - but our lives are about life. So what life are we to be working on? What fruit can we nourish? Write your answer on your paper to put in the offering basket, as your act of repentance and hope.
[And for those reading at home, you are encouraged to reflect on this question as well, and ideally to write it down for yourself - as a your own act of repentance and hope.]
Today’s gospel gives us Compassion, Challenge, and Story. That’s a lot to fit into 9 verses. Maybe more than we wanted. But Jesus is not about meeting our expectations. Jesus is about transformation. And he calls us to be about transformation too.
Thanks be to God.
 https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2130; Note - this quote interposes the words "wrong question" for the word "mu", which communicates a Buddist concept, explored in the essay, which communicates the need to ask a better question.