Third Sunday of Lent
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps. 19:14)
I know a lot of people enjoy playing along with Jeopardy! on television. If you’re one of them, here’s some useful information that may come in handy someday. In the entirety of the Bible, the word manure is found but twice. Once in today’s passage and a second time about a page later. How many of you expected to come to church today and hear the word manure in the sermon? How many of you thought that word was even in the Bible?
I wonder if Luke was having a bad day when he was writing this part of his Gospel. Some-times we can forget that the Bible was written by people, real people living in real life situations. The Bible is a book from God, but there’s so much of us in there too.
I wonder if his quill kept breaking that day. Or maybe he had the flu. Or maybe things weren’t going well at work or the kids were screaming. Or maybe, like me living beside the corn fields, a farmer had just spread manure-fertilizer and Luke couldn’t get that smell out of his thoughts as he was writing his Gospel.
Whatever was going on, this is a real person, writing about the real world, for real people, trying to deal with real situations with help coming from a very real person. And that’s exactly what we hear in today’s Gospel in the words of Jesus.
Ordinary people around Jesus were talking with Him about front-page news. The Roman governor Pilate had tortured some of their neighbours. They’re not asking Jesus why; they’re just saying, “Hey Jesus, did you hear?”
Jesus answers with another ordinary story that everyone was talking about, the 18 people who died in an accident when a tower collapsed on them. Then, in this not unusual kind of conversation, Jesus works in the message that such things are not based on whether they’re deserved or not. Deserved has nothing to do with it, says Jesus.
But isn’t that a natural question to ask when accident or tragedy strike? Don’t we wonder “Why me?” Or even, how come it wasn’t me? Sharon and I were out on Friday evening. We’re sitting and talking with a very pleasant woman. She’s a nurse and she was volunteering her services at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and this was back in 2013.
That was the year of the Marathon bombing. About 15 minutes before the explosions, she and her team packed up and left. They were already on the subway when their phones lit-up with the news.
There was no way to get back to help because all the paths back into that area were closed as soon as the bombs exploded. She wondered out loud to us why they had decided to leave. She wondered what would have happened if she stayed at the finish line? And behind those questions is the other question of “Why?”
I read yesterday that a Parkland School shooting survivor committed suicide. She was suffering through survivor’s quilt. She couldn’t process why she survived that horrible school shooting while her best friend died? The question of “Why?” was so heavy a burden that she took her own life last Sunday at the age of 19.
Jesus wasn’t protected from any of this any more than we are. And yet, what comes out of Jesus’ mouth after the stories of tragedy and accident? He offers a parable, a parable of realistic optimism.
He tells the story of a practical and patient land owner who has given up on the usefulness of a fig tree. For one season, and then another, and then even a third, he has gone into his garden looking for figs and never was there one to be found.
This practical and patient man decides it’s best to give up on this tree, to free up its soil so that another may be planted. But the gardener intervenes. The owner shows up and wants to reap the benefits of the garden. He wants some figs. Completely understandable. But the gardener is the one who is out there every day, not only during the harvest season.
The gardener knows how hard it is to grow a tree. I tried this a bunch of times, but once I took an avocado seed. Hung it over a container of water. Watched as roots eventually started. Then I planted the seed. It started to grow. I thought how cool it was that I was going to have an avocado tree. Then, for reasons I do not know, it withered and died.
I’m sure that in ancient Israel a full-grown fig tree required a lot of effort and care, and even a lot of luck. Jesus’ Jewish faith started off with a rhythm of the seasons. The holy days were associated with times of plantings and harvests. God had to be involved because so much of a farming life was up to chance.
The gardener not only knowing all of this, but living it day in and day out, convinced the owner to give the fig tree one more try. He would give the tree special care in the hopes that next season would be different.
The parable is a message of optimism, but it is not a fantasy parable. The gardener must work extra hard to bring the improvement about. His optimism is not only based on luck, but on work, on dedicated, hard work, but he knows the value of the tree.
Jesus was not an ivory tower idealist, not an everything-will-be-better in heaven preacher. Jesus was planted firmly in the real world. Jesus could talk about manure-fertilizer, and Jesus could give those people struggling along beside Him a message of optimism, that if we work at it, there is the chance that we can turn things around.
Nothing is guaranteed in Jesus’ words. We don’t know what the next year holds. Will the tree thrive or will it be cut down? Jesus leaves His parable open ended. It’s up to us to finish it.
Jesus sees what we see. The world is not fair. Bad things happen indiscriminately. But even so, we can try to make a difference, and that’s the best way to make a difference.
Let’s trust in Jesus’ optimism. Let’s work to make the world a better place. Let’s figure out how to do this together, and on our own, and with Jesus.
May this be our prayer today. In spite of all the world’s evils and accidents, let’s make a difference and build a better world, and let’s find strength and encouragement in Jesus’ optimism, because change begins when we believe it is possible, and Jesus lets us believe that anything is possible.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
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