Yr C ~ Lent 3 ~ Luke 13:1-9
In the 1992 Clint Eastwood movie “Unforgiven” a young man who has just killed a man says, “Well, I reckon he had it coming.”
To this the grizzled old gun slinger played by Eastwood replies, “We all got it coming, kid.”
How do you feel about that?
It’s a heavy question.
The technical theological term for it is theodicy. Theodicy is about the question of how to reconcile the presence of evil in the world if God is supreme, omnipotent, omniscient.
When bad things happen to good people is it a sign of God’s judgment?
When good things happen to bad people is it a sign of God dropping the ball?
Does God permit bad things to happen? Cause them?
It’s a fundamental, core question that each of us has to answer for ourselves: what kind of god is the Holy Mystery we call God?
Jesus has a few thoughts on this! Jesus tells us a couple of hot news stories in this passage.
In one story we’re told that Pilate apparently (oh wait, it’s a news story – allegedly) killed some people while they were making their sacrifice in the Temple.
Did they have it coming?
Did they die because they were worse sinners than other people?
Did God use Pilate as a tool?
Then there’s the story of an accident where a tower fell down and some people were killed.
Did they have it coming? Or was it just terrible luck?
Is God pushing buildings over on people?
Is God standing by helplessly watching?
Jesus answers the questions plainly.
He says no, God didn’t do this. That’s not the way God works.
Remember that next time some wild-eyed televangelist tries to blame some tragic event on sinful people.
Jesus says no.
God does not will evil, permit evil, cause evil, use evil, or have anything to do with evil. God is love.
Elsewhere Jesus says that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
To use a colourful colloquial expression – manure happens!
But he doesn’t stop there. This isn’t a shoulder-shrugging fatalism that glumly endures whatever happens and renders God irrelevant.
The point is not to try to figure out why some folks suffer or die in certain ways; the point Jesus makes is that we’re all going to die – some naturally, some by violence, some by accidents.
But instead of fussing about that Jesus says we should spend our energy on how we live!
Twice here Jesus calls us to repent. Now, that’s a loaded word for some people. It has been understood (and preached) poorly over time.
Repent means to have a change of heart, a change of mind.
Literally it means to have a new mind.
There is a turning, a change of direction, an end to one path in favour of a new path in God’s love.
A deep personal relationship with the Sacred is neither fire insurance nor a protective bubble – it’s about being fully alive while we’re alive.
It’s about abundant life in this life.
To help us understand this Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that doesn’t seem to be pulling its weight and the world’s judgment is that it should be cut down.
That’s kind of how our society thinks things are, isn’t it? Produce or you’re outta here!
But Jesus offers a different view.
Jesus says to the world, “Hold on a minute. Fruit doesn’t come on demand.
If you just leave this tree on its own it may never produce anything fruity.|
If you want it to be the best it can be you need to do something about it.
Let’s dig around it a bit to loosen up the soil and let the nutrients in.
Let’s add some manure (fertilizer) to give it what it needs to grow.
With some time and some intentionality this tree will produce the fruit it’s meant to produce.”
Jesus puts those ideas on the lips of a metaphorical gardener.
The temptation is to make this parable an allegory and assign meaning to the characters – like God is the vineyard owner judgmentally demanding fruit, Jesus is the gardener protecting us, and we’re the poor tree.
But I think that’s a very unhelpful and dangerous interpretation. Here’s something I think is much more challenging, and hopefully useful.
I think we’re all three characters at once.
The vineyard owner is our ego and pride wanting to feel important and successful, so we’re very hard on ourselves.
We are all our own worst critics!
We don’t need an angry and judgmental god – we’ve got that fully covered with our own ego!
The gardener is our spirituality – our journey toward openness, wholeness, fullness, and shalom.
It’s the voice of hope and encouragement.
It’s the thing that can quiet the ego and turn us on to Something More.
And the fig tree is our soul – our inner being.
It’s the deepest part of us that bears the imprint of the image of God and is waiting to be shaped and formed into our best self.
Now, what does Jesus say we should do?
Tell our ego to cool it, there are more important things than productivity.
Tell our soul to hang in there – appropriate fruitfulness will come in time with the proper nurture.
And most importantly – tell our spirituality (our gardener) to do the hard work of digging, cultivating, and spreading manure!
Doing nothing changes nothing and accomplishes nothing.
Hear me carefully here though. I am absolutely NOT saying that digging and manuring earns you anything.
I’m saying that depth requires effort and commitment.
I’m saying that a relationship requires heart-ful participation from both parties – and if it’s a relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God you’re talking about you already know that God is all in and all love – so the only thing holding the relationship back is our side.
So what then should we do?
What does digging and spreading manure look like – spiritually speaking?
Well, in part it looks like this! Look where you are.
You’ve made the effort to come here and participate today.
You’re doing the digging and I’m spreading the manure! ☺
Some of you are staying for the learning time today. Some of you are doing the online 40Acts thing.
Some of you come to The Porch bible study each week. Some of you read daily devotional emails or booklets. Some of you have deep prayer lives.
Some of you sing hymns or praise music beyond this place.
Some of you are becoming great at saying “Surely God is in this place – help me notice” and you’re noticing here, there, and everywhere.
All that stuff is digging, cultivating, and spreading manure. That’s how you nurture a spiritual journey. That’s how you help the Spirit to grow fruit in your life.
Then, you share your fruit!
You help people.
You give money to causes.
You help out at events.
You’re nice to your neighbour.
You care for someone.
You act justly and mercifully.
That’s the fruit! But it doesn’t grow on its own – well, not very often anyway.
This image of manure is well chosen. That Jesus is one smart cookie!
Spiritual growth is not always all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it’s hard, hard work.
Enter my hero Brother Lawrence. You may recall that through Lent this year we’re looking at Brother Lawrence’s teaching about how we can be more present to the Presence of God more of the time.
The first week we talked about surrendering and openness. (Last week was about perceiving.) Today it’s about being intentional and putting in the effort.
Lawrence uses the word habit. He says it’s not enough to just practice Presence sometimes, we ought to make it our habit.
Digging and spreading manure for spiritual nurture needs the constant and caring attention of a gardener.
And the number one spiritual practice that Brother Lawrence used was so simple it will astound you.
Are you ready?
He thought about God all the time.
That’s it! That’s his digging and manuring!
With his signature simplicity Lawrence teaches that “the habit is formed by the repetition of acts and by frequently bringing the mind back into God’s presence…It takes effort, yet once [the habit] is formed we will find contentment in everything.”
(Back in the 17th century they didn’t know about inclusive language so when you hear these quotes the “he” can mean either Jesus or God.)
Employing inescapable logic Lawrence argues, “We cannot ask him for [help] unless we are with him. We cannot be with him unless we think of him often. We cannot think of him often unless we habitually practice this holy exercise.”
Now let’s go back to our scripture reading.
Bad stuff is going to happen. Such is life.
God doesn’t cause it or permit it, but God is definitely in the midst of it because we affirm that God is everywhere and always, in this place and every place.
The idea of God somehow intervening and affecting things doesn’t make sense because God is already here. God can’t intervene if God’s already in you and around you.
So, there’s probably no escaping bad stuff and there’s no magic divine intervention if you just pray right.
But Jesus offers us something to do in the face of that somewhat harsh reality. He says if you’re nurturing your relationship with God then you will have fruit – strength, and calm, and hope, and peace as you face those inevitable ups and downs of life.
And instead of fussing about productivity or worrying about dying you can turn your attention to really living. Here, now, abundantly!
Brother Lawrence knew that and lived it. But it doesn’t just happen, you have to practice, and practice. It’s hard to practice being present all the time – but with time, with effort, with digging and manuring, you can grow a habit of mindfulness and prayerfulness – and your ego will pop into the back seat where it belongs, and your soul will thrive and bear fruit.
And in the end we discover that Clint Eastwood was wrong, and he should’ve traded in his guns for a shovel.