“Retribution? or a Little Manure” 03/03/2013 (Click on title for audio)


Luke 13:1-9

– Rev. Stacy Swain

Did you hear the news?” they ask him. “Did you hear the news about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifice?” It was horrible!

Did you hear the news? It was terrible.

This past Friday morning for example, the news report was of a man in Florida who awoke to find himself being sucked into a giant sink hole! That report was followed by one from Missouri where a recent study has shown that half of the wild bee population that was present 100 years ago is now gone.[1] Half of the wild bee population has died! And the report concluded with the grizzly image of how devastating the pending sequestration is going to be saying that it will be akin to performing surgery with a meat cleaver. And now we cannot even be comfortable under the sky for at any moment a meteorite could streak in from nowhere and blow glass out of windows for miles with its sonic boom.

Did you hear the news? It’s a pretty crazy, mixed up, strange, and uncertain world out there.

When those around Jesus ask him if he has heard about the Galileans, I believe their question is as much to make sure he knew what had happened as it was to ask what they are to do in the face of such horror.

And the same is true for us. The news is not neutral. Once we hear it, it becomes a part of us and we need to try to figure out what comes next. How are we to relate to all the uncertainty and disaster around us? Do we withdraw, ignore – lead smaller more inward focused lives? Do we live keeping our heads down; hoping that if chaos knocks, it knocks on another one’s door, not ours?

And then there is the fraying of our social fabric that leaves us feeling more exposed, more vulnerable.[2] The fabric of connections that once wove us into community are now rather threadbare. There are just fewer people we can rely on, a smaller patch of firm ground on which to stand.

For us as people of faith it gets even more complex for we have to ask “Where is God in all of this?” “Is God standing back or above or beyond all this mess?” “Is God an indifferent Creator letting creation spin out of control?”

Or, like those in the reading today, do we think that God is in the mix meriting out reward or punishment based on what we do or don’t deserve? Do we, like them, rely perhaps subconsciously if not overtly on some simplistic theory of retribution where God rewards those people who are good and punishes those who are bad? So if bad things are happening to others, we don’t have to be too concerned because somehow in the cosmic scale of justice they are getting their just desserts. Do we tolerate the violence in our urban neighborhoods and turn away from the profound disparities in our public education system because a part of us may think that somehow they are getting what they deserve — that somehow they made their bed and now must lie in it, so to speak?

Is this the paradigm we live in? The paradigm that orders our understanding of the world, ourselves and God. The paradigm that says: 1) the world is chaotic; 2) we are vulnerable and more and more alone; and 3) that somehow if God is out there God must be either a detached observer, or a judging arbitrator of reward and punishment.

Is this the paradigm that frames our lives? Unfortunately, I think that for many people and perhaps even us as well, it is. But as much as that paradigm may be how we see — I don’t think it is how Jesus sees. This paradigm of fear and failing is not his. My understanding is that the whole point of Jesus’ ministry was to open for us through his living, a different way of seeing and being in the world. It was not just a matter of reinterpretation of what is and replacing it with another construction, but instead it was a revelation of an underlying God given reality that waits to be engaged and experienced — waits to be awoken to and lived into.

So what does this paradigm that Jesus reveals look like?

Let’s turn to Scripture. Instead of stepping into the conversation that those with Jesus initiated, he side-steps it completely and tells them a parable.

Jesus tells them: there is a vineyard, a garden. And in it there is a fig tree that is not doing so well. It’s been growing in that garden for three years but still there are not figs on it. But the gardener is not ready to give up on it. Instead the gardener commits herself even more readily to that tree. The gardener will dig around it and put some manure on it. And I bet the gardener will make it a point to check on its progress daily, checking for signs of blight, pruning back any dead leaves. Doing all the gardener can to help the tree thrive.

Jesus holds us this parable as a provocative contrast to how those with him are seeing the world. Through this parable does he show us a new way of understanding and invite us into that Way? Are we to say “no” to retribution and “yes” to a little manure? Is the world actually God’s garden? Have we a place within it? Are we rooted there not alone, but side by side with all of our brother and sisters? Does God not give up on us but instead does God work on our behalf, caring and cultivating our lives and all lives so that we may one day bear fruit?

If this parable speaks to the reality that God is calling us into, and I think it is, then how do we go from that pervasive paradigm of fear and anxiety to this garden? Stepping out of a paradigm of fear and failing and into a new way of seeing and being in the world has been and continues to be what I think is the most challenging but also the most central and essential call of faith.

The way we do it, at least according to Jesus in the scripture today is through repentance. “Repent” Jesus says “or you will perish as they did.”

But what does it mean to repent? If seen through the paradigm of fear and anxiety, repentance means saying you are sorry and promising to do better. To strive harder to be a better mom, a better husband, a better worker, a more patient, harder working, kinder person. Repentance within this paradigm places the responsibility of becoming better on ourselves and that is a lot to shoulder and if history is a predictor of what will be, we are not very good at repentance.

But what could repentance look like if see through the prism of this parable? What does repentance within God’s garden look like? Perhaps, like the fig tree, repentance means putting our lives in the care and cultivation of God and trusting that in God’s hands we will become who we were meant to be and bear the fruit that we were meant to bear.

Maybe our prayer of repentance is not so much, “Forgive me God, I promise to do better.” But “Forgive me God and take me into your care.”

Living out of the paradigm of God, living like the fig tree with the care and cultivation of God is to live out of a place of trust, resilience, hope and yes, even joy. The world maybe uncertain and even scary but we need not to be afraid. We are rooted, well watered, and not to be moved.

Now, in complete disclosure, I find this very hard. I find this invitation to let go of the paradigm of fear and to trust God, and to root oneself instead in accepting God’s care and cultivation so that our lives may bear good fruit, well I find all of that really hard.

But I have to say, I also find it really hopeful. For I know that by myself and on my own in this unsettling world, I can do very little. But with God maybe I can let go of my fear and start trying to live from my heart. Maybe I can let care and compassion, and not judgment and fear lead me. Maybe I can even begin to work with God and help make the world, or at least the world within my reach a bit of a garden. May be I can push the wheel barrel, maybe I can help dig in the soil a bit and maybe even help in spreading a bit of manure, so that others may find the care and cultivation they need and bear fruit and thrive. Thanks be to God, the tender gardener. Amen.

[1] http://www.wbur.org/npr/173167125/wild-bees-are-good-for-crops-but-crops-are-bad-for-bees

[2] Robert D. Putnam. Bowling Alone. (Simon and Schuster: New York, 2000). 19 “Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital. (Putnam 2000: 19)