Faithlife Sermons

God Moves Us So We Can See Better

Lent 2019  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Lament leads us to question what needs changing, remaking, in order to see God more clearly.


13 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.”

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

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.’ ”

Intro - Working in the Garden
Who has spent time in their garden this last week? So fitting that this week’s lectionary text draws us into metaphors of gardening and pruning.
Has anyone planted anything new yet? How about cutting back dead branches, cleaning up dead leaves, the detritus of the long winter? Ok, well, if you’ve already done that work in your yard, would you like to come over and start on mine!?
In this season of Lent it is time for us to ask questions about what needs to be pruned away, in our lives, as well. As we draw deeper into the journey with Christ, we find ourselves being poked and prodded by the Holy Spirit, the Questioner who nudges us towards letting go of what is not bearing good fruit. Our journey into Christ, through fasting and discipline, draws into focus that which really matters and all that is excess, all that is dead and decaying in our lives and in our world. Like we do when we walk out to the garden after a long break, we have to ask the question of ourselves: is what I see here producing life, good fruit, something worthy of its space in the way I am called to live in the world, or must this be cut back?
Start from a place of lament
Before we get to the good news of this passage, we have to enter into the story has the Scripture leads us and that is from a place of lament. Of discontented questioning. Today’s passage starts off with people telling the story of a brutal mistreatment of Galileans in the midst of religious practice by Pilate, another one of those not-so-innocent regional governors (remember last week and Herod?).
People are talking about why God would let something evil happen to good people. They are lamenting something so pure as sacrificing to God being marred by blood and impurity. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to turn the common assumption on its head. The people are looking at this and asking the age old questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God in the midst of suffering?
Jesus asks them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffering in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.”
Jesus makes it very clear that it was not because of some worse sin that these people were suffering. This is a consistent lesson that Jesus teaches throughout his ministry: No sin is a worse sin, no one suffers more or less because of the weight of their poor choices being heavier than someone else’s. Sin is sin, failure is failure. And on the other side, grace is grace, mercy is mercy, love is extended to all people regardless of how severe their actions.
Jesus continues on, “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.”
The people are lamenting, aware of the suffering all around them, the places where it seems like God has abandoned them. And Jesus seems to not want them to get hung up there. YES—these are terrible occurences of malice or natural disaster. But looking for who to blame or whether these people were bad is to miss the point — God’s grace and mercy are extended to all who bear fruit…as the following parable explores.
So we, as well, continue on the Lenten journey from a place of lament, longing that God would move in us so that we can see the story differently, so that we don’t get hung up on trying to trace the causes of suffering, but rather find a way through suffering to God’s liberating grace.
The Gardener and the Tree
Ok, so back to the garden. If you’ve taken care of plants and trees, this parable most certainly will resonate. We’ve got a gardener and a vineyard owner. There’s this one pesky fig tree that has not been producing like it should.
On the face of this story, we can see a pretty simple solution — No fruit for three years? Cut the thing down. Prune that sucker back. Get the dead wood out of here, it’s just in the way.
And there is something very practical and consistent with that line of thought. If the tree is a metaphor for a life that bears good fruit, or a people group listening to the message being shared, we can easily want to move to this place of saying — “let it go, cut it down, move on.”
The crowds are lamenting this and asking this about the people who suffered in Galilee. Jesus is asking it about the people who were crushed by the tower. The TV preachers of our day are pointing the finger at people’s sin and blaming hurricanes and tornadoes on their lack of faithfulness. We’re asking “where is God?” and we’re answering the question for ourselves, saying “well, it’s their fault, they were living in sin, they got what they deserved, God turned God’s back on those people because they were in the wrong.
We lament the way the world is, but so often, it’s really easy to shrug our shoulders and get out the ax and cut down the tree.
Perhaps rightly so. Perhaps the journey of faith does involve this dramatic winnowing, this cutting back.
Perhaps we do need to engage “the life changing magic of tidying up” on so many parts of our lives, perhaps we even extend this cleaning up and cutting back and clearing space to other’s lives.
We certainly know we’re better off for it.
Maybe it would be easier to just cut the fig tree down and plant a new one.
Blame and pain and another option
These two sections of Scripture, the first with the lament for suffering of those who were tortured by Pilate or those who lost their lives in a catastrophe — linked with the parable of the barren fig tree — they seem odd together.
But if you step back for a second and consider the questions people are asking and the way Jesus is speaking, they connect in a profound, eye-opening way. The people are asking about suffering, about the “why” of it all. And the tree is withering — you might say that the tree is suffering — so is God perhaps putting these people out of the misery much like the gardener wants to do with the tree?
Again, I come back to that being a pretty good option or answer — cut it back, kill off the ones who were sinners.
Much of our culture’s religious rhetoric is laced with this kind of thinking — bad people get what they deserve, it’s so-and-so’s fault for their trials. God isn’t really involved or God is just out to punish us, so why bother looking for God’s presence among the muck, the pain, the suffering?
Does this resonate? Does this sound familiar?
I hope it does and, I hope you’ve got an inkling, a spark of hope that God’s way, in the journey with Jesus Christ, has a better direction than this. That God’s goodness is in here somewhere.
You know where I think we find God’s goodness showing up? Sure, it’s there with the vineyard manager, who wants better fruit from the fig tree. Who wants to see the flourishing of the garden.
But I think God’s goodness is actually in a much messier spot. It’s in the manure.
God’s option, God’s work, God’s tilling, remaking, restoring, life-giving presence — it is in detritus, the dead, the discarded, the scat.
Jesus seems to propose a “theo-scatology” as the way of transformation and new life.
Yesterday, I had a chance to get out and run in the great Nooksack Valley. I joined a number of other running enthusiasts from the Greater Bellingham Running Club for the Honeywagon Half-Marathon. Honeywagon, you might ask? Well, this past week I spoke with one of our St. James members about this race and they let me know that the run gets its name as a humorous nod to racing ahead of the manure truck. You need to run fast enough to get to the finish line before the manure sprayers start up for the day. Or else, the whole course will stink!
Sure, manure stinks. If you’ve driven out into Whatcom County during the Spring or Summer, you’ve most certainly gotten a whiff of this powerfully pungent crop enhancer. Stacy and I had a backyard wedding in Everson in July and my father-in-law thankfully called ahead to the farmer just upwind from their home to ask they not spread manure on the day of our wedding. (I’m very grateful for my father-in-law).
Anyway…what am I on about here? Well, the last two verses of the parable provide the beautiful twist, the affirmative grace and goodness of God, found in the manure. The “theo-scatology”, where the gardener offers another option to simply cutting down the tree.
So the tree doesn’t bear fruit. It’s withering. It’s caught up in a funk. It’s like you or me when we’ve lost our way, lost the plot, taken on a way of pride or neglectfulness. It’s sick.
But the gardener knows something about how to revive a tree. Sure, you can cut it down, plant a new one, sterilize the ground and start over. You can strip the sinner bare, leaving them broken and naked and hopefully, start over.
But the other option is to take the manure, the discard of life, and put it to good use. The other option is to take the pain, the suffering, and turn it into an opportunity to know love and grace.
What I think we see here is an image of a God who cultivates. The God who loves us enough to, through grace and mercy, to enter into the muck with us, to wash us in the manure, and to then move with us to new life.
Do you get the picture here? We often want to put the responsibility on our own shoulders (or better yet, the recovery on the shoulders of the one who is withering — do it yourself, heal yourself). But the gardener, the Lord of the Garden, actually wants to enter into the muck with us, to spread it around, and help us.
The withering tree can’t change the soil. The withering tree can’t add more light or better nutrients.
And has hard as you and I try, as much as we cut out, tidy up, clear away that which causes us to wither, we can’t do it on our own. And that’s not what’s on offer here. What is being explored, offered, given is that God desires to restore us, to get manure all over God’s hands, to spread it around us and help us get the nutrients we need.
Bring it on home
Let’s bring it on home.
Do you want to be well? Do you want others to be well?
Then look around you, at the places of pain in your life. The withering, the suffering, the neglect. The detritus and the muck and the scat of your world. There’s no sense denying it, we’ve all got some.
All the stuff, all the muck, all the scat — this is what we give to God, what we let God use, what can become no longer discarded, but reworked, redeemed.
Do you lie? Perhaps the work is to face truth, to turn to God and be seen for who you are, to let that pain of being truly seen become the ground for restoration — that lying, that pain can be the center of hope.
Are you jealous? Has that begun to wither your being? What might it look like to experience God’s healing manure of gratitude, of knowing God’s abundant love? Might that be the first step to healing, to bearing fruit.
Are you filled with anger? Could God be inviting you into passionate engagement in the world, a turning over anger into life-giving, fruit-bearing, heartfelt love.
The Lenten Journey is an opportunity to put away blame. To let go of excuses. Its a chance to let all the manure fall to the ground. Because as we do, as we let God in, God the good gardener begins to remake the soil of our lives, to restore and cultivate in us a whole new kind of fruit bearing.
So friends, I invite you to let God into the muck, to dig in around you, and bring hope and life to what was once dead.
Let’s pray.
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