Stephen Montgomery: The Voice of the Gardener


It's hard to let God be God. We long to explain things only God can know. Because we are human, we want to know. Because we are only human, there are some things we will never know this side of eternity. We want life to make sense. We want God to make Sense. And so, we try to find cause and effect of bad things that happen. Sometimes we are able to do that.

Someone smokes three packs a day for 20 years, reads those warning labels on the side while they're busy lighting up; and then one day the doctor says "lung cancer." And we're sad, because we love that person; but then again, what did they expect?

Someone builds a house at the beach right on the dunes, and when the hurricane comes, we not how sad it is - it was such a pretty house, all that chrome and glass, all those interesting angles - but then again, it was built right there on the beach of that barrier island. They couldn't even get insurance! What did they expect?

Sometimes in our search for cause and effect, we ascribe to God attributes that are downright demonic. I remember seeing a billboard, it wasn't that long ago, a billboard that said, "AIDS: God's answer to gays." And whenever there is a hurricane, or storm, or tornado, or flood...well, remember Katrina, the death and destruction that came with that hurricane! We were told that Katrina was God's judgment on New Orleans because of the debauchery and sin there, that they had departed from the ways of God. Is it any wonder that young people are fleeing the churches?

But what happens when the health nut - who runs five miles a day and has never touched a cigarette or a drink and eats nothing but fruit and nuts and berries - when the health nut gets lung cancer? We don't like it when we give our lives to some primary commitment - our marriage or our job - and still come home one day to an empty house and a note; or go to work one and day and see a Security Guard standing outside our office door while the boss says, "I need to see you in my office." Or when a totally innocent, precious child ends up at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital for children with cancer.

We're a lot like the crowds to whom Jesus preached in Luke's lesson for today. They, too, are people who are accustomed to putting two and two together and getting four. They had been talking about the weather, of all things. Jesus said, "When you look up in the sky and see clouds forming in the west, you say, 'It's going to rain.' And it does. You see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat.' And it happens." These are cause-and-effect people. Two plus two equals four! But then Jesus startles them. "You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

The problem, apparently, is that theologically speaking, there's more to the mind of God than putting two and two together and getting four. You can't read the mind of God like you can read the weather, for there's far more mystery to it than we might think. When it comes to interpreting the present time - in other words, when it comes to looking at the world for signs of God's time, for signs of God's kingdom breaking in - we will need to look beyond the simple math of cause and effect.

So, working off of the newspaper headlines of his day, he says, "Do you think that all those people butchered by Pontius Pilate were somehow worse sinners than all other Galileans?" No, says Jesus.

Or those 18 who were killed when the tower of Siloan fell on them - where they worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No! says Jesus. It's not that simple. You know how to look at the world and perceive that two plus two equals four, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

And the point is, I think, that there is no simple math, no logical, predictable, empirical way to discern the presence of God's kingdom in our midst - no way to get there from the realm of cause and effect. For that kingdom, in God's mystery, is as near at hand to us - and as far away from us - as the parable that Jesus tells next.

A fig tree hasn't borne fruit in three years, so the owner says to the gardener, "Cut it down. Why should it be wasting the soil?" That's logical sense, of course, according to the world of cause and effect, and two plus two, and bottom lines, and all of that. But here, he was not standing in that world. He was standing instead in the mind of God! So, the story does not end with the logical consequence - with the chopping down of the fruitless fig tree and the planting of a new one. The story ends instead with the saints and angels and every other dear citizen in the Kingdom of God pausing from the serious business of praise to hold their breath in joyful astonishment, as the gardener says words that rattle the universe: "Sir, let it alone for one more year."

Sir, God made fig trees to bear fruit. So, give it one more year. Maybe there will be fruit. Maybe. Maybe there will be fruit! In the Kingdom of God, it is certainly possible. So, Sir let it alone for one more year.

Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus' parables of the Kingdom lean heavily on the language of growth and development? He uses metaphors of the seed, the maturing ear of corn, weeks and wheat growing together, and yeast rising ever so slowly. These parables of the "Reign of God" are about discovering, being surprised, changing roles, about finding. They are always about something new and good coming into being.

Why is this so important? Because without it, we become very impatient with ourselves and others...and even with God. We expect people to show up at our church doors fully transformed and holy before they can be welcomed in. But patience, as Richard Rohr reminds us, is the very shape of love. Patience is the very shape of love. Without it, we Christians focus on enforcing laws and requirements, as a two-plus-two-equals-four kind of God would do.

Do you want a sign of God's presence at work in the world? Then don't look for evidence of a two-plus-two kind of God. Don't go sifting through the carnage of this week's headlines for signs of apocalyptic revenge. Don't go looking through the debris of every earthquake, tornado, hurricane or flood for forensic evidence that God did it to get even with us. Don't for that matter, look at every church packed to the rafters with crowds of people and assume that somehow God is more likely to be there than anywhere else. Listen instead to the voice of the Gardener, and what you're apt to hear, as the late Fred Craddock put it, is God's mercy is still in conversation with God's judgment. "Don't cut down that tree," says the gardener, "let me work on it some more. Maybe there will be fruit."

Do you want a sign of God's presence at work in the world? That's it, as Tom Long has put it.

That is the sign of the times, the clue to the breaking in of God's reign...Not wars or rumors of wars, but the gracious and patient hand that reaches down to halt the ax, the merciful gesture woven into the fabric of life that stays all that would give up on the barren and the broken, the merciful voice that says, 'Let's give this hopeless case one more year.'

If you want a sign of God at work in the world, then listen carefully in this world for voices like the voice of the gardener. When you hear them, what you will note immediately is that they sound so different!

Several years ago, I remember reading an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about a Republican state representative named Dan Ponder from a small town in Georgia who took the podium in the state legislature imploring that body to pass a bill that would impose extra penalties for hate crimes committed against minorities and gays. Representative Ponder told the Legislature that all his ancestors in the 19th century had owned slaves. His great-great grandfather had fought in the Civil War. His third-grade classmates cheered with him when they heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot. He told his fellow legislators of how his college fraternity had ostracized six of its members because they were suspected of being gay. He told of the African-American woman who had raised him, who had changed his diapers and read him books and taught him, more than anyone else, the difference between right and wrong. He told them how, one day when he was a boy and leaving for school, she had leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek, and how he had averted his head. Black people were not supposed to kiss white people.

He spoke of the shame he had carried ever since that day. He said, "I pledged to myself then, and I re-pledged on the day we buried that magnificent woman, that never again would I look in the mirror and know that I had kept silent and let hate, prejudice, and indifference negatively impact another person's life." The he said, "I finally figured out that the only way we are ever going to make progress is when somebody stands up and takes a stand. I urge the House to pass this hate crimes bill." And so, they did.

After so many years, figs at last.

Now, I have no way of knowing what goodness, what brave commitment God may have planted in your heart long ago, but I will bet my life that there is something in you waiting to be born that would make your community a better community, that would make your profession more honorable, that would make your church more compassionate and welcoming. There is something waiting to blossom forth, and I have the most wonderful news to share with you. There is still time. Our old, barren lives can yet burst forth with justice and mercy. There is no such thing as a hopeless case.

So, the hand reached back and the hard, sharp wedge of the ax slices through the air toward the trunk of the tree - but wait. Another hand is reaching out to halt the ax. It is the hand of mercy, and then a voice. "Let's give this thing another year." Hope stirs deep down at the heart of things. The sap begins to circulate. There may yet be figs...even now.

Let us pray.

God of mercy and patience, we are grateful for the many ways you care for us and provide for the needs of your people. We do ask that you continue to be patient in the very landscapes of our lives. Make us patient with one another and even with ourselves. Do your good work among us, within us, and beyond us, too, until all our lives and all of creation come fully into your realm. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.