Towers and Trees

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday of Lent.

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

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. 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?’

He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

***

It is the hardest question. I’ve heard it from strangers and loved ones, from people in hospitals and hallways. When tragedy strikes, when the pain is too great.

“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why is God doing this to me?”

I hear echoes of their anguish in the people who come to speak to Jesus in our gospel today. “Jesus,” they say. “Did you hear about the Jews that Pilate had killed in the middle of worship? What did they do wrong? Jesus, did you hear about the people who were killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed? What did they do wrong?”

And underneath that question, another. “How do we get it right, so it won’t happen to us?”

As someone who was blessed to grow up without the idea of an abusive God, one who doles out harsh and random punishment for minor infractions, it is hard for me to understand why so many people cling to the concept. Hard to understand why people believe so desperately that God sends them pain, because sometime or other they’ve committed some moral error they can’t even remember.

But I think, after spending all week trying to listen to Jesus in this gospel, I finally get why.

They want control.

They want to be able to keep the bad things from happening.

Of course they do. We all do. We all want to be able to keep pain at bay, to avoid tragedy. And if bad things only happen to bad people—then we can. If we can keep our lives pain-free just by being better, more obedient, more righteous, more holy, then what happens to us is within our control. We just have to want it bad enough. We just have to be good enough.

It comes across as such a cruel judgment, the idea that these Jewish folks were slaughtered in the very act of worship because they weren’tholy enough. Because they somehow deserved it. But in a world of that much fear, I can’t help but be sympathetic to the onlookers’ hope: hope that if pain is punishment, than being good enough will keep us safe.

Some of you may know the name Kate Bowler. Kate is a professor of church history at Duke Divinity School. Her first book chronicled the rise of the prosperity gospel in America, and particularly the idea that Christians can will themselves to wealth, healing, and happiness. That all these things are within our control, if we only pray enough, or use the right words, or give enough money.

“Control is a drug, and we are all hooked, whether or not we believe in the prosperity gospel’s assurance that we can master the future with our words and attitudes,”[1]Kate wrote. Only she didn’t write it in her book about the prosperity gospel. She wrote it in her second book, a memoir chronicling her life with stage 4 cancer.

Kate is dying. She simply is. Not because she has done anything wrong, not because she is a worse sinner than all the other North Carolinians or church history professors, but because, as she says, “bodies are frail and prone to error.” And what she has witnessed, just as Jesus did, is people coming out of the woodwork with reasons why. Hoping desperately that if they can make sense of Kate’s suffering, they can avoid any of their own.

Jesus’ answer to the Jews of Jerusalem has been difficult for me to understand this week. Not the first bit—the first bit where he says unequivocally that tragedy does not happen as punishment for sin, that you can’t brush off feeling compassion for the victims of Pilate’s cruelty or the tower’s collapse by imagining that they deserved their fate. That bit I cling to with all I have.

It’s the second half of his statement that troubles me. “But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did,” Jesus says, and it makes me want to yell at him. Because that sounds an awful lot like “turn or burn,” an awful lot like “being a better person will save you from anything bad happening.”

And of everyone who has ever walked this planet, Jesus should know better than that. Son of God, sinless one, hung on a cross to die.

Part of the difficulty is that word perish.The Greek there has a wide range of meanings, from the violent—to be utterly destroyed—to the sympathetic—to be lost like a sheep straying from pasture. But if you break the word down to its most literal parts, it means to be cut off. And then there is the word repent, which in Greek is not about emotional anguish or guilt as much as it is a change in beliefs, in behaviors. So what I think Jesus is saying is something more thoughtful than turn or burn. I think what he is saying is that if we continue to think this way, if we continue to think that we are in control of what happens to us, if we continue to think that others deserve what happens to them, then we are cutting ourselves off from God. Because if we are in control of our lives, for good or bad, where does that leave God?

It is a clumsy parallel, I will say. Jesus makes it clear that the victims of these two tragedies—one an accident, one an act of governmental terrorism—were not to blame. Were not cut off from God. But at the same time he uses those heartrending images to let his hearers know what it will feel like if they keep insisting that everything is up to them. That their own righteousness can save themselves.

At the end of the conversation, Jesus tells a parable. And it’s this parable that has had me in knots all week, because at first glance it doesn’t seem to really answer any of the questions raised in the first part of the passage. It even seems to contradict what Jesus had said—the people of Jerusalem must repent now, and yet the fig tree gets another year? Which is it?

It wasn’t until late this week until I realized what makes me so uneasy about this parable, in which a landowner and a gardener debate the fate of a fig tree. It’s that it doesn’t have an ending.

Most of the sources I had been reading seemed to assume that, given the extra year, the fig tree would produce fruit. And in these readings we are the fig tree and Jesus is the gardener and so of course, if Jesus goes to bat for us, everything will be just fine. We just have to do our part to bear fruit and then everything will be okay.

But that’s not in the parable. The gardener asks for one more year for the fig tree, but listen to what he says: “’Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

The gardener does not promise that the fig tree will bear fruit. He hopes it will; he will do what he can to help it along, but if a year goes by and there’s still nothing, then the tree can be cut down. He’ll let it go.

And then he’ll plant something else there, something to make good use of the soil.

I don’t think this is a parable about the fig tree being good or bad. I think this is a parable about us learning to let go. To hold less tightly to outcomes, good or bad. To recognize that we do what we can, and we trust God with the rest.

It takes great courage to be a gardener of our own faith. To put the work in, to put the sweat and toil and hours in, and know that in a year it might come to nothing. To not hang our faith on seeing rewards, but to know that sometimes things simply fail. Bodies fail. Buildings fail. Empathy fails.

And when they do, it’s not because God is punishing us. It’s just because not everything is within our control.

The gardener can’t force the fig tree to grow by being a better gardener. But I have to think, the way he pleads for the fig tree, that he takes some joy in his task, that he takes some satisfaction in caring for the vineyard. That there is meaning in carrying out his vocation, even if he doesn’t always see tangible rewards.

And likewise, I think it takes incredible courage and faith for us to keep moving forward in our lives, once we realize we are not in control. Once we realize that showing up to church each Sunday is no inoculation against any disease or disaster. Once we realize that checking the box marked Christian is no guarantee against pain.

But still we show up, because there’s joy in the meantime. There’s satisfaction in caring for others, in worship, in orienting our lives to God’s love. We do all this not for God to bless us, but to know that God is with us.

The language of repentance is the language of movement. Of turning and changing and trying again. It might turn out well. It might not. That’s not up to us. What is up to us is giving our faith its best chance to grow.

And so sometimes the only thing we can do is to take a deep breath and creep forward in faith again.

One day, one step, one breath at a time.

Amen.

[1]Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved

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