02.28.16 Sermon (February 28, 2016) “Faithful Soil”

posted Jul 6, 2016, 4:18 PM by David Hawkins
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9

Everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

New Testament Reading: Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him 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.'"

Sermon: "Faithful Soil"             Rev. David Hawkins

There is a lot to unpack in today’s scripture lesson. Jesus has given us a lot to think about, some theology, some correction, some conviction, some politics, a call for a change in the way we think, act, and live. There’s a lot of serious stuff in here. 

And so, I thought it might nice, before we start digging in the soil of our lesson to tell a funny story about Duke.

Duke was one of my childhood dogs, a black Labrador retriever, and he took that title very seriously. If you threw something, his job was to retrieve it. And, like the Pinkertons, he always got his stick. This could result in some pretty extreme retrievals, especially, for instance, if we threw a stick into a tree, or threw a large rock into a pond, both of which we did pretty often just to see what would happen. I should probably mention that I didn’t have TV for most of my childhood.

Anyway, we have pictures of Duke climbing up trees to get those sticks, and if you threw a rock into a pond, by gum, Duke would dive to the bottom of that pond and get you a rock. It may not be exactly the same rock, but he would not stop until he got you something. 

He was dedicated. Some might say, obsessive.

Now, one spring day, I remember my dad out in front of our house on the tractor preparing the field for planting a new crop. In the mountains of Western Colorado, preparing for planting is a little bit different than here on the plains of West Texas. First, we deep plow the ground, something I understand that we rarely do here. Then we disk it, generally three times in opposite directions, first perpendicular, then diagonally. 

Then we pick rocks. Because the land I grew up on was originally volcanic, there was always a fresh crop of igneous rocks pushing their way up to the surface, and it was usually my job to go out pick any rock larger than my fist, and throw it into the back of our rock truck. You see a lot of rock walls around the area where I grew up.

Anyway, after you pick this year’s crop of rocks, you float the ground, making it nice and flat and packed for the seeds that will be coming. Then, you mark it for irrigation, another thing I don’t think we do around here so much, at least, not anymore, and then finally, before you plant the seeds, you spread a nice thick layer of fertilizer all over everything. And since we raised beef cows, we always had a ready source of fertilizer at hand (or, at foot, to be more accurate).

We also had the perfect device to spread it, something called a manure spreader. It consisted of sort of an open truck bed for the manure, with a rotating fan at the bottom, that would take and fling the cow patties like Frisbees out the back. It worked like one of those seed spreaders you can buy at Home Depot for your lawn, except on a much larger, and much grosser scale. You would take the spreader to the feed lot, load it up with the front loader tractor, and go back and start the process of spreading the good stuff.

Which is where Duke would get involved. As you can imagine, it was sort of a nirvana for a retriever like him. Soft, thick, stinky, cow patties, being flung near and far, for hours on end. He could never get enough. They would come rocketing out of the back of the spreader like Nolan Ryan fastballs, and he would catch them in his teeth, or get clobbered in the face, or hit in the side, but as soon as he had one, he would drop it to in order to catch the next one. And he would do this all day long. As long as my dad was out there on the spreader, Duke was out there with him, retrieving cow poop. It was one of those treats that all of looked forward to every year.

OK. Back to our scripture. 

Today, we find people asking Jesus what he thinks about the fact that a group of Galileans, from where Jesus grew up, had been killed by Pilate. Maybe their questions are in response to what Jesus has said right before this passage, when Jesus talks about trusting God in the face of enemies, that now is the time to be working to reconcile with your neighbors outside of court, now is the time to begin living a life that is focused on the kingdom, rather than on earthly things. 

And so, maybe they are trying to get Jesus to explain his thinking in the face of such injustice. Maybe they were trying to push Jesus a little bit into the role of a revolutionary, remind him of his heritage. The Galileans were famous for their political passion. Around the time that Jesus was born, there was a man called Judas the Galilean (a different Judas, obviously, than the more famous one), who began the Zealot political movement in Israel. It seemed like the Galileans were always at the front of whatever political unrest was happening in Jerusalem. It was no wonder the Romans were suspicious of Jesus. He came from some pretty unpredictable stock.

And so maybe, the crowds wanted to hear some theology about insurrection, about revenge, about payback. I think many of us wanted the same thing after 9/11. 

But, instead of taking the bait, Jesus talks about sin and its consequences. 

For much of our history as God’s people, even today, we have associated specific calamities, specific disasters and misfortunes to be associated with specific sins. That when something bad happens to us, God is punishing us. 

Jesus takes the example of the Galileans, who were killed at the hand of Pilate, and pairs it with the natural disaster of 18 people killed in Jerusalem when part of the city wall collapsed on them. He reminds us that none of these people died as a result of their specific sins. They weren’t being punished by God. But all of us are at risk of dying at any time. There are no guarantees of security, there is no promise of an easy road through life. 

Which brings him back to his central point: Now is the time, now is the season to change the way you think about everything. Now is the time to live as though we actually do belong to God. 

I’ve talked before about how I’m not really satisfied with the word ‘repentance’ being used as the translation for the Greek word ‘metanoia’. Repentance is so focused on feeling bad about sin, that I think it misses the mark. Metanoia is about wholesale change in the way you think and live, rather than a sort of general feeling of guilt and shame for how we have sinned. Metanoia is about what it going to happen in the future of your life, rather than simply being sorry for what has happened in the past. 

And this is where Jesus takes us in his parable of the fig tree. This particular fig tree is three years old, and usually, between 3 and 5 years, fig trees start producing fruit. The Owner of the tree is disappointed that it hasn’t started yet, and is prepared to chop it down to make room for a new fig tree. 

But the Gardner intercedes, reminding the Owner that there is still time, and that there is still work to do with this fig tree. There is still potential for this tree to bear fruit, and with a little tilling of the soil, with a little bit of fertilizer, this tree has every possibility of being productive.

Now, it might be easy to think that this is a story about judgment, and that we should read this story in fear and trembling. 

But I think that would miss the point. True, we might very well be this tree. We might very well be unproductive, we might very well be one of those fig trees that simply doesn’t get it that it’s not enough to call ourselves fig trees, the point is that we’re supposed to be bearing fruit, and that if we don’t we are in danger of being axed. This is a reasonable reading of this parable. 

But simply reading this only as a warning against inaction, only as a story to literally put the fear of God into us, I think misses the point. 

Because Jesus is the Gardner. And he knows what he’s doing. We aren’t in this alone. We aren’t left to wither and die. We don’t till our own soil; we don’t provide our own fertilizer. This is done for us, and it happens in its own time, in the careful, pierced hands of someone who knows all about what it means to experience times of drought and temptation. He knows all about what it means to feel alone and worthless, scorned, accused, left alone to die. 

And because he knows this, there is more to this parable than just judgment. There is also mercy.  There is also reassurance. There is also grace.

Metanoia is not easy. The transfiguration of our lives is not a simple process. It’s much, much more than just feeling sorry for what we’ve done. It requires plowing up old habits, disking through bad ways of thinking, picking out the rocks of prejudice, pride and complacency. The tilling of the soil of our lives is not a comfortable process. And of course, not all of us are as willing as my dog Duke to get hit in the face with a hard-packed load of fertilizer. In fact, we would rather avoid the whole thing, if we can. 

But as our scripture today reminds us, Jesus is still at work in our lives. He has not given up. Trust the work he is doing in you, and be the tree he planted. Live in the fertile soil of his grace, and know that in your own time, you will bear the kind of fruit pleasing to the Lord, and that you will never perish. This is his promise to you, and to me, to us, and to them. 

And in the house of the Lord, 
the people said, “Amen”