“beyond what's fair"
The Sanctuary Sermon for
The Sermon at The Sanctuary for 1/16/22
“Beyond What’s Fair” Luke 13:1-9
Turn on the television or read the headlines on any given day and you’ll find a report on some troubling tragedy somewhere. Like maybe a personal tsunami. Only the locations change.
It’s figured that 150,000 people die somewhere on Planet Earth every day of the year due to violence, disease, famine and accidents. In every death, every day, families or loved ones grieve. And at some level, every one of those grieving people probably ask the same question: “Why?” It just doesn’t seem fair.
Let’s look at our text:
About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. 2 “Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?” Jesus asked. “Is that why they suffered? 3 Not at all! And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God. 4 And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? 5 No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.”
6 Then Jesus told this story: “A man planted a fig tree in his garden and came again and again to see if there was any fruit on it, but he was always disappointed. 7 Finally, he said to his gardener, ‘I’ve waited three years, and there hasn’t been a single fig! Cut it down. It’s just taking up space in the garden.’
8 “The gardener answered, ‘Sir, give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I’ll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. 9 If we get figs next year, fine. If not, then you can cut it down.’”
In Jesus’ day, there was no question about fairness. The assumption was that disease, suffering, and death bore a direct correlation with human sinfulness—the greater the sin, the more likely the misfortune. And to some degree, like it or not, we still think this way. Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong. We scrutinize our behavior, our lifestyle, our diets, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect, in hopes that we can change what we are doing and so stop whatever has gone wrong. I think this tells us that we are less interested in truth than consequences. Think about it.
What we desire, above all, is control over the turmoil of our lives and our loved ones, and it was no different in Jesus’ time; people longed to understand and control misfortune. So, the crowd around Jesus asked about the Galileans slain by Pilate, and they wondered about those who were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed. What had those people done to deserve their fate? Might those tragedies have been prevented?
Jesus knows what they are thinking and at first, he seems less than pastoral in his response. In essence he is saying, as my dad would fire off a warning salvo, You’d better straighten up and fly right! Pop wasn’t one to mince words; he said what he meant and meant what he said. Jesus is saying, You think because ‘those people’ died, that you’re better than? Watch out for yourselves people, straighten up and fly right!
I don’t think Jesus really argues with the popular comparison of sin and death here. What he seems to want to emphasize is that death is always close and not necessarily controllable or unavoidable. Death happens, he says. It can happen when you’re praying. It can happen when you’re standing next to a wall. It can catch you by surprise. I came home from Mt. Vernon for a visit once and my parents told me that our elderly next-door neighbor had died. Did he have a heart attack? A stroke? No. He was driving home from the market and while just a quarter mile from home, a massive tree limb fell on his car, crushing him instantly.
Though we might intend to set our affairs right at the end of our lives, what’s to say we’ll have the time to do so? When I read the first part of our passage I was like; Whoa, Jesus, show a little compassion, you’re sounding kind of irritable here! But here’s the thing; Jesus isn’t aiming to comfort the crowd—I believe he wants to challenge them.
Jesus pushes the panic button they have inside about the awful things that are happening around them. They’re terrified by those things, for good reason. They probably searched their hearts for any bait that might bring disaster sniffing their way. They have lain awake at night making lists of their mistakes.
Perhaps Jesus’ thinking was that it’s not a bad thing for them to feel the full brittleness of their lives—nor us. It’s not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark—not if it makes them turn toward the light. The same goes for you and me.
It’s that turning he wants for them is why he tweaks their fear. Don’t worry about Pilate and all the other things that can come crashing down on your heads, he tells them. Terrible things happen, and you’re not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from doing what you’re doing.
Again, that’s for you and me too. That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you’re there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see, but it’s not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It’s the kind that leads to life.
To make that point, Jesus tells a parable and it’s not exactly the warm and fuzzy kind. He tells the story of a fig tree that’s not producing and how the landowner has grown impatient with its inability to bear fruit, so he proposes cutting the tree down. But the gardener argues for a one-year reprieve. Let me work with the tree for one more year and then, if it doesn’t produce fruit, I’ll bust out the chainsaw and cut it down.
To me, this story invites us to consider the gift of another year of life as an act of God’s mercy. John the Baptist declared that the ax lay at the root, poised to strike. Any tree that did not bear fruit would be cut down. In Jesus’ parable, however, the gardener pleads for and is granted one more year. The year that Jesus proclaimed, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” would be a year of forgiveness, restoration, and second chances.
Jesus is the gardener, isn’t he? He refuses to give up on those who are living in the scrabble-patch, not even in the garden. Maybe the garden is the whole earth. Maybe it’s the Church. Maybe it’s your life and mine. Jesus isn’t giving up on any of us—you, me, the church, the whole earth. There’s hope in this parable—don’t cut the tree down. But there’s also urgency—give me one more year.
Could this be the year? We can hear that as a threat; there’s not much time left! But Jesus’ parable moves in the direction of promise more than threat: I'm going to do everything I can to help this tree live and bear fruit...I'm going to find every way possible to get to hearts that are hard as stone, souls with barren soil. While we’re speculating about why certain people died at the hand of Pilate or why the others were killed by a falling tower, the gardener is working on our hearts. Yes, those stories were real then. They were as real as every tragedy we can name today, yet such realities remind us that our time is finite. Stories like these dig at our hearts. They get to us with the truth that we can’t keep putting everything off until tomorrow.
As I said last week, going through life looking over our shoulder can rob us of all hope. Life can then seem utterly arbitrary—if I die, I die. Shrugs shoulders. There’s nothing I can do about it, so why try? Into the midst of such despair, the gardener comes. Wait! Don’t cut the tree down; tend to it for one more year.
Jesus, the gardener, wants us to live. His passion is marked for us by great urgency—don’t wait! Look at your life this morning and dare to ask the hard questions:
Am I stingy in my empathy or love for others?
Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs?
Am I so busy making a living that I’ve neglected to make a life?
Jesus digs at us with questions like these. Such questions, like the parable of the fig tree should move us toward repentance and action.
Could this be the year for such turning? Is this the year for us to bear fruit? But, often, all we can think about when we hear of tragedy is what happened, and why, and how things can be so unfair. Such questions are common questions, but ultimately, they have a way of distracting us from the question. The question doesn’t concern how bad things can happen to good people like us, or the good people beset by tragedies around our world. The cruciform question is, How do we stand before God?
Many have come to believe that any difficulty, any struggle, is wrong and unjust. We want to believe that no one should need to suffer, that you can somehow go through life without bearing the effects of personal loss and unfairness. I wonder if that’s because a long time ago, we stopped trusting in a God whose presence makes tragedy and suffering and unanswered questions bearable. Our difficulty is that we don’t want God; we want answers, and many go wherever they can to find easy ones.
“Why?” we ask. Why did this happen to them? Why did this happen to me? Probably for no good reason. Bad and good things happen all the time. The notion that only good things happen to good people was put to rest when Jesus was put upon the cross. So, good people of The Sanctuary; in all circumstances of joy and pain in your life, can you trust God to be God? Can you love God without linking such love to the good or the bad and the ugly things that come your way in life?
There are no easy answers to life’s tough questions. The Church of Jesus Christ is not built upon easy answers. Instead, it is built upon a singular recognition that in the presence of the God we know in Christ we get a God whose love in our lives challenges and enables us to live without all the answers.
A God who is willing to dig around our hearts, even when we were in the scrabble-patch of life, patiently encouraging us toward faithfulness and fruitfulness.
We get a God who has given God’s whole life to us, so that we might come to learn how to give our lives to God more fully.
That’s beyond what’s fair, and that seems to be a pretty good deal to me.
This is the Word of the Lord for today.