March 20, 2022 – Third Sunday in Lent – Luke 13:1-9

It’s hard to let God be God. We long to explain things only God can know. We human beings have spent centuries trying to find a cause and effect pattern for every good thing that happens, and also for every evil thing that happens. And still, 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 these things that make no sense, so we end up putting words into God’s mouth by saying, “It must be God’s will.”

The late Rev. William Sloan Coffin, pastor, author, and activist, once preached a sermon about our temptation to speak God’s mind. During the years when Coffin was the 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 desperately want 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, where Pilate had ordered the slaughter of some Galileans, probably to remind them that it was the Romans who were in charge; and the other near the pool of Siloam, where a tower had fallen and killed some people, presumably by some natural disaster. How can such things be explained? How do we make sense of human violence and natural disasters?

This is the question Jesus poses, knowing perhaps that this was what was on the people’s minds. Were those Galileans killed by Pilate 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.”

Wait . . . what? Jesus’ words make our heads spin! He seems to be contradicting himself. First, he makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies – no cause and effect. Jesus was the one person who could have known God’s will, and yet, he does not say that these people died because it was God’s will. The Galileans killed by Pilate were victims of a cruel and violent government. The people killed by the tower were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have been anyone who happened to be standing there. But then, here is the contradiction: Jesus says that if we don’t repent, if we don’t turn to God, we will all perish just as those people did.

I think Jesus is saying – don’t look for a cause and effect explanation. There isn’t one, or at least, if there is one, it’s beyond our human comprehension. Were those who died worse sinners? No, but . . . if we spend too much time speculating about others’ fortunes, we might forget to pay attention to our own lives before God. What about your life? What about mine? Let these senseless deaths awaken you, says Jesus, before you must speak for your own life before God. Let God be God. We don’t have to figure it out. We can’t figure it out – it’s way above our pay grade. Let God be God.

Then Jesus told this parable: a parable about judgment, as we might expect, but also a parable about Jesus’ mercy. A landowner had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came checking to see if it had any figs on it – and it didn’t. So he said to the gardener, “Cut this tree down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” If the parable ended there, it would be all about judgment. If it ended there, the message would be – if people don’t measure up, then get rid of them. Condemn them to hell for their sinful lives. But thankfully, Jesus doesn’t end the parable there. He continues by telling about the gardener who bargains with the landowner. “Sir, let me spend some more time with this poor tree. Let me dig around it, and turn over the soil, and fertilize it, and tend to it. Give it another chance. Give it one more year.”

Jesus, of course, is the gardener in the story. And we are the poor fig tree, not living up to our potential, not living up to our calling as Christians. Or perhaps the church is the poor fig
tree – not being all that the church is called to be. But Jesus is just not willing to give up on us. He wants to give us some more time so that he can continue to work on us, to coax us, to inspire us to turn toward God and live. 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, continues to dig around the roots of us poor, barren fig trees. While we’re speculating about why droughts and earthquakes occur, why cruel autocrats invade and lay waste to peaceful independent nations, why people we know suffer from cancer and heart attacks, Jesus continues to work on our hearts.

Could this be the final year that the gardener will work on us? Could this be our last chance? We could hear that as a threat – that there’s not much time left for us and we’d better start bearing fruit. But I prefer to hear it as a reminder that our time is finite, and we can’t keep putting everything off until tomorrow. Because eventually, there will not be any more tomorrows. And when we get to that time when we have no more tomorrows, we don’t want to regret the forgiveness we could have offered, the help we could have given, and the love we could have shared.

But today – let’s let God be God. And let’s remember what kind of God God is. For the God that we know has patience far greater than our faults, and love far deeper than we can imagine. Today, tomorrow, and forever, Jesus will continue to do everything he can to get into our hearts and turn them to God. The Spirit will continue to urge us not to get so focused on the things that we can’t change that we miss seeing the things that we can. Let us give thanks to the gardener who never tires of cultivating our souls.

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