It's hard to let God be God. We long to explain things only God can know. We human beings have spent centuries to find cause and effect patterns for every good and every evil. Yet we can each tell stories of terrible tragedies that have happened to good and faithful people. Maybe they happened to you. We want to make sense of things that make no sense so we put words into God's mouth that are our own rather than God's.
Some years ago, William Sloan Coffin preached a sermon about our temptation to speak God's mind. During the years when Rev. Coffin was senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City, his son Alex was killed in a tragic car accident. Alex was driving in a terrible storm; he lost control of his car and careened into the waters of Boston Harbor. The following Sunday, Dr. Coffin preached about his son's death. He thanked all the people for their messages of condolence, for food brought to their home, for an arm around his shoulder when no words would do. But he also raged; he raged about well-meaning folks who had hinted that Alex's death was God's will. "I knew the anger would do me good," he said.
Then he went on:
"Do you think it was God's will that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper...that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had a couple of 'frosties' too many? Do you think it was God's will that there are no street lights along that stretch of the road and no guard rail separating the road and Boston Harbor? The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, 'It is the will of God.' Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break."
It's hard to let God be God. We long to make sense of senseless tragedies and search for reasons even when there are none. Jesus anticipated our questions in today's gospel reading. Two terrible tragedies had happened in Jerusalem. One in the temple, the other near the pool of Siloam. In the first instance, Pilate, the Roman governor, had killed some Galileans who were making sacrifices at the temple and then he mixed their blood with the sacrifices. No doubt this was a warning to other Jews to remember that Rome was in charge. In the other incident, a tower fell on people near the pool of Siloam killing 18 people who simply happened to be there. How can such things be explained?
This is the question Jesus poses. He asks the questions that must have been on people's minds. Were the Galileans worse sinners than other Galileans? Were the people killed by the tower worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? Then Jesus answers his own question, "No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
Jesus' words make our head spin! He seems to be contradicting himself. First, he makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies. He doesn't say, "It was God's will." The Galileans killed by Pilate were victims of the Roman government's whims and his desire for control. It could have been anybody offering sacrifices that day. And the people killed by the tower? It could have been anyone who happened to be standing there. Like the people who were seriously injured when a lamppost fell on them during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
Jesus is saying--don't look for cause and effect explanation. Were those who died worse sinners? No, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Jesus is telling them to turn their attention toward their own lives--don't speculate about others. What about your life? What about mine? We can spend so much time trying to explain things--so much time worrying about other people's lives that we forget to pay attention to our own lives with God. Let these senseless deaths awaken you, says Jesus.
Then Jesus told this parable. Pay attention! Then, then in response to those unanswerable questions, in response to the warning, "Unless you repent, you will perish"--then Jesus told them a parable about a fig tree. Will it be a parable about destruction? Will it be a story of punishment for those who failed to repent?
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?"
Ahhhh--it is a parable about judgment. Judgment for those who fail to repent. We could have predicted it if we remembered John the Baptist's warning at the beginning of this gospel. When people came to the Jordan River to be baptized, John called them to repentance. His words were harsh and unrelenting:
"Even now," he said, "the ax is lying at the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
It was shortly after John said those words that Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized. Soon after that, Jesus began his public ministry and that was three years ago. Remember the parable? "For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree." For three years God has been waiting for people to turn their hearts toward Jesus, but there has not been much repentance. Instead of repentance, the resistance to Jesus' vision of the kingdom has intensified over the three years. There isn't any fruit on the tree, so the owner of the vineyard says, "Cut it down!"
But that wasn't the end of the parable, was it? Maybe that's where we would have ended the parable, since it's clear to us if we look around today that there isn't much repentance going on. "Cut it down!" seems like the right thing for God to say. But it doesn't happen. The gardener doesn't cut down the tree. Instead the gardener 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."
There's urgency and hope in the gardener's voice. "Give me a year--I'm not willing to give up on this tree. Let me dig around it, loosen the hard soil, and put manure on it." This is such an earthy story. I grew up on a farm and I know manure when I see it and smell it. Sometimes, if my father could convince us children to help, we'd load pitchforks full of manure from the barn into the manure spreader. Then I'd ride the tractor with Daddy, up and down through the field with manure shooting out behind us over the black soil. It wasn't my favorite job, but I knew it would help the corn grow.
But Jesus' parable isn't primarily a lesson about farming. We've already noted the connection between the three years of the parable and the three years of Jesus' ministry. Jesus is the gardener, isn't he? He refused to give up on those who are living in the vineyard. Maybe the vineyard 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. Indeed, some evangelists press us with the question, "Where will you be if you die tonight?" 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 dig around it and put down manure. I'm going to find every way possible to get to hearts that are hard as packed down soil." While we're speculating about why certain people died at Pilate's hands or why the others were killed by the falling tower, Jesus, the gardener, is working on our hearts. Yes, those stories were real. They were as real as every tragedy we can name: flood or earthquake or military tyrant, cancer or heart attack or an innocent child caught in the crossfire of drug warfare. 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.
But being scared to death can rob us of all hope. Life can then seem utterly arbitrary--if I die, I die. There's nothing I can do about it, so why try? Into the midst of such despair, the gardener comes. Don't cut the tree down. Let it alone for one more year. Jesus, the gardener, wants us to live. His passion marked for us by great urgency--don't wait! Look at your life and dare to ask the hard questions: Am I stingy in my love for others? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs? Do I refuse to believe that I can be forgiven, carrying from year to year a growing burden of guilt? Am I so busy making a living that I've forgotten to make a life? Jesus digs at us with questions like these. Jesus digs at our hearts in the outstretched hand of every homeless beggar on the streets, of every child not fed. "What have you done?" Jesus asks, and "What have you left undone?" Such questions, like the parable of the fig tree, move us toward repentance, a word that means to turn around, to believe things can be different, to trust that the one who calls us to turn around will be there even when we fail.
We might not do things this way. We'd probably be far more impatient than God. "You've had your chance," I'm tempted to say. "The year has passed and you still haven't shaped up!" But I am not God, nor can I put my words in God's mouth. Still, the gardener comes. "One more year," he says, "I'll do everything I can to bring this tree back to life."
"Who knows?" asks the gardener. "Could this be the year for figs?"
Let us pray. Gracious and merciful God, whose patience goes far beyond our erring, be with us this day that we might repent and turn around. Give us the power and the grace to return to you. Give us the courage to admit what we have done wrong and what we have failed to do right. In this year, come to us, dig around our hearts, open us to your wisdom, your forgiveness, and your grace. Amen.