Sermon March 20, 2022 ~ Gardening (Luke 13:1-9) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Did you hear what happened on the road to Jerusalem? When people surround Jesus that day in the passage we heard this morning, it’s not immediately clear why they’ve run to tell him this news they tell him. About what’s happened in Galilee
That Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, has apparently ordered, in Galilee, the mass slaughter of people in their place of worship. Just regular people, going to temple, making their sacrifices, worshipping God – and Pilate has ordered them slaughtered.
Are they trying to warn him that Pilate’s dangerous? That he’s really not someone to cross? That maybe Jesus should sort of be keeping a lower profile? We don’t actually know. All we do know is how Jesus responded.
Very forcefully. And in a way, kind of surprisingly. Because instead of getting upset by the slaughter of innocents, which we might assume he’d do, or spitting out anger about, or even fear of, Pilate and his viciousness and his violence, instead Jesus turns on the people themselves.
Because “Do you think,” he demands of them, with a seemingly outsized amount of outrage, “that these people were worse sinners than other Galileans and that’s why they were slaughtered? Or when that tower in Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed, do you think it was because they were worse sinners than everyone else in Jerusalem?”
It’s actually really weird. The outrage, the challenge. It seems to come out of left field.
Not entirely, perhaps, considering that this IS a context, in the first century, in which the prevailing cultural belief system DID in fact operate under the assumption that all bad things that happen are somehow deserved… so that maybe those around him WOULD to some degree have believed that the victims in Galilee or the victims in Siloam must somehow be “to blame” for the tragedies that befell them….
But even taking that ‘belief context’ into consideration, Jesus’ reaction is still weird. He defaults so quickly to anger, to challenge.
And maybe it’s because he’s not interested at this point in his ministry, on the way to Jerusalem, in their warnings about Pilate being dangerous, and clearly not someone to cross, and really a lower profile might in fact be wise, all things considered –
But still. He seems to have missed completely the possibility that MAYBE they’ve simply come to him and told him this news because it’s awful. And they’re upset and horrified and sick about it and scared that this kind of thing can happen. And they don’t know what to with that. Maybe they’ve literally come to him hoping that he’ll say something that’ll help.
Something comforting. Something, anything, that’ll help them process their having been compelled forcefully -- by this news of what’s happened in Galilee -- into confronting the reality of the kind of world they’re living in.
Because it’s awful. And they’re shaken. And sure, maybe they’re all really good at the self-defensive manoeuver of imagining that if a bad thing happens it must somehow have been deserved – but they’re not complete fools. They can understand quite well that there’s something different at work in the willful slaughter of innocents than there is in any kind of ‘quid pro quo’ they might imagine governs the universe otherwise.
So Jesus’ turning on them – it honestly seems like a misstep. A railing against them for bad theology when what they really needed was pastoral care. A big angry jumping to conclusions at them about the broad destructive nature of their world-view, when maybe what they were really looking for, when they came to him sharing some terrible news, was just comfort. And a way to deal.
There’s an urgency in Jesus at this point in his ministry, as he gets nearer and nearer to the showdown in Jerusalem, that really is tough. And hard to countenance, in a way, from the point of view of looking for comfort and looking for care.
He’s not going to apologize for it – the urgency is real and its warranted – but it’s still tough. I think it must have been tough for those people who ran to him to tell him the news from Galilee – it was awful and they’re upset and they need him to help – only to be met with being railed at for bad theology.
But the fact is that Jesus in the gospels is more often prophetic than he is pastoral. Regardless of how we, or indeed his followers at the time, might want him or need him to be. Certainly sometimes he’s deeply and wonderfully pastoral. But a lot of the time, and especially as urgency mounts, he’s almost relentless in being prophetic. Calling people out, calling them to account, railing against prejudices, challenging hurtful practices. And sometimes, as in this passage, railing against bad theology.
Which, if there happens to be anyone in the crowd who DOES imagine that somehow those killed in Galilee or Siloam somehow “brought it on themselves”, he does at least stop that perfidy passionately and in no uncertain terms – but for the rest of them?
There’s not a lot of pastoral here. This is all about urgency and it’s all about clarity. And that really does feel like a misstep.
But here's the thing. All that urgency, all that clarity, all that railing at them – I think for Jesus, that's the “pastoral” he thinks his followers actually need. In a world in which some will order, and others will undertake at their behest, a massacre of innocents in a place of worship. Because that’s a world that demands urgency and demands clarity. And so the best "comfort" he can offer, in terms of wanting to be "pastoral", is a sense of empowerment and capacity to respond.
Which leads him into the Parable of the Fig Tree. At the end of our passage this morning.
About this man who has a fig tree. But when after three years it's still borne no fruit, the man says to his gardener “Cut it down! It’s a waste of good soil!” But the gardener pleads with the man, saying “Please, just give it one more year. Let me dig around it and add some manure. And if it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then we’ll cut it down.”
And Amen, says Jesus, like his point is obvious and now the disciples must surely be fine.
And we can only imagine, because the gospel doesn’t describe, the silence of complete bewilderment that probably ensued. Because if they'd come seeking comfort, his followers, they’d first gotten railed at for bad theology, and now he’s told them a parable that frankly sounds more like a threat.
But it’s not a threat. It’s just urgent. It's just clear. If this were a parable meant to be a threat, then a tree bearing no fruit after three years would just get cut down. As a worthless tree, not up to snuff, clearly inherently incapable of fulfilling the duty of its tree-ness, and therefore a waste of good soil.
But that’s not what happens in this parable. In this parable, instead, the gardener forces the man whose tree it is, to look wider than just the tree. To consider deeper than just the tree. To understand broader than just the tree, that if the tree isn’t proving to be what the tree should be – then maybe the issue isn't the tree. Maybe the issue's the soil.
The urgency’s still there. The gardener pleads for one more year, and totally acknowledges that after that the man can cut the tree down if he wants to. But first, the gardener pleads for that one more year of taking a broader, deeper, wider perspective on what’s up with the tree – by paying attention to the soil.
Because a fig tree doesn’t grow in a vacuum. What it becomes depends on what’s in the soil. And so as much as Jesus' followers may not want to face up to it or deal with it, if their world now includes this massacre of innocents in their place of worship, it’s not just a matter of being horrified at the bad bad men who ordered it, and the bad bad men who carried it out, as though these things happen in a vacuum.
Because they don’t. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. So if your world now includes an appalling barren fig tree of wrongness, Jesus is telling them, telling us, you're not powerless -- like the man giving up, it's no use, cut it down. Instead, be the gardener. Take a look at the soil. What does it need to turn things around? What does it need to shift that fig tree into bearing good fruit? It’s time to pay attention to the soil.
We've had two years in a state of emergency. It ends tonight at midnight, not so much with a bang as with a whimper. And it hasn't been easy. And we've learned some things about our limits as individuals, with isolation and loneliness and screen time, and about our limits as a community, with mandates and protocols and being able to trust each other to do the right thing.
But we also learned some things that could make for better soil. We learned how to crush the curve – but we also learned how much crushing the curve MATTERED to us. How much protecting each other MATTERS to us. I often say that I get up here on a Sunday morning and think "Oh my word, LOOK at all these people who've come to church – it's amazing!" and it was exactly the same – remember? – seeing those line-ups of people going around the block, all those people lining up in the rain, to get a rapid test.
To protect each other. We know now that's in our soil, and we added to it. The kids who drew beautiful encouraging smiley face chalk drawings on the sidewalks in the first lockdown – they might not remember that they did that, but I'm not going to forget it. From all those daily walks around my neighbourhood I took, trying desperately to breathe in some Holy Spirit and absorb some Vitamin D.
We learned that CERB literally saved lives, that guaranteed basic income. We learned whose work actually was essential, and how often that work pays minimum wage. We found out how much it matters to see other people. To be able to hug someone. We learned you can recognize people just from their eyes.
And we learned how precariously a lot of us are living, when all it took to tip us into a housing crisis was some big rest-of-Canada salaries discovering how nice it is here. We learned what 500 unhoused people in Halifax looks like in colour, and not in black and white, like after the Explosion.
All these things, they can make for better soil. If we're good gardeners like the one in Jesus' parable, and we dig them in. And we don't let them just wash away.
Because did you hear what happened in March 2020? There was an emergency. And it was awful and then it got worse. But we anted up, and we put people first, and we learned what mattered and we valued what mattered, and we noticed things that weren't okay –
We have so much to dig into the soil that can make for better soil. Just let me try, the gardener says. And go and do likewise, says Jesus. Amen.