My dad, a retired Methodist Minister, and I have always disagreed about the use of the Revised Common Lectionary. He always felt that the pastor’s duty was to listen to the movement of the Spirit and select scripture lessons that were relevant to what was happening in the life of the parish. I argued that his method was rife with pitfalls. The pastor could end up confusing personal preference with the movement of the Spirit, could push one’s own agenda too far, or could end up avoiding hard texts out of laziness or fear. Instead, I argued, following the lectionary forces the preacher to be truly open to the Spirit – totally giving up control over what text is offered on any given day, trusting that the Lord will provide the message.
This week, I wished I had adopted my dad’s practice. I looked at the gospel lesson and immediately, said, “Nope! No way, now how. There is no way I am going to preach that text to my people when we are in the midst of transition!” My list of reasons for avoiding the text from Luke were long and, I believe, well-reasoned. I did not want to preach about a tree not bearing fruit because in no way did I want to infer that I think St. Margaret’s is not bearing fruit, especially because my pending departure has created a sense of insecurity about the strength of St. Margaret’s. The truth is, St. Margaret’s is bearing fruit. There is the literal fruit that we are bearing in our Garden of Eatin’ which is feeding our hungry neighbors. And then there is the figurative fruit: the children we are raising up through reinvigorated Christian Education programs, the pastoral ministries we are offering to our cemetery families, and the love and care we offer to each other.
But I didn’t just want to avoid talking about barren trees. I also had no desire to talk about manure today. Quite frankly, I could just imagine how in the midst of transition a community could feel like they are getting a whole lot of manure dumped on them. A gardener knows that to keep plants thriving we have to aerate the soil, pull out weeds, and double up with nutrient-rich manure. But anyone who has driven by a recently tended garden knows that the stench of manure can make you want to quickly run in the other direction. As we think about the burdens of a transition, the last thing I wanted to talk about today is the gardener’s suggestion of piling on hot, smelly manure.
Besides wanting to avoid talking about barren trees and smelly manure, I had zero desire to talk about trees getting chopped down. For all of the conversations I have had with parishioners over the past few weeks, the most common one has been about fear for the future of St. Margaret’s. Many of you are worried about our viability and fear what the instability of transition and new leadership will bring. On one hand, your fears are not unwarranted. We have watched neighboring churches decline to the point of closure. We also know that we are in a time and culture when churches have to work a lot harder to grow and thrive. But I do not think St. Margaret’s has to fear the ax in our passage today. If we were having this conversation five or six years ago, I could see where the damage of past leadership could have been the end of St. Margaret’s. But even that challenge did not pull St. Margaret’s under. And we are in a much stronger place – we have changed so much for the better and grown into a tree producing fruit. Are we in a transition? Yes. Is change coming? Yes. Is our tree going to be cut down? I do not think so.
Unfortunately for me, we actually do follow the lectionary. And since we do not get to pick and choose what scripture fits our needs at a particular time, we look for the ways that a text speaks to us despite our personal preferences. The good news is that some of our initial reactions to this text are rooted in a misunderstanding of the allegory Jesus gives us. Many of us assume that the landowner is God and the gardener is Jesus. But nowhere in Luke’s gospel is God portrayed as an angry, vindictive God that needs to be placated or negotiated with by Jesus. Instead, God is the one who waits every day for the prodigal son to come home. God is the woman who leaves no pillow unturned looking for her lost coin. Luke’s depiction is of a God who rejoices over one who repents than over the remaining ninety-nine who need no repentance.
Instead, as one scholar suggests, “Given Luke’s consistent picture of God’s reaction to sin, then perhaps the landowner is representative of our own sense of how the world should work. That is, from very early on, we want things to be “fair” and we define “fair” as receiving rewards for doing good and punishment for doing evil. (Except of course, when it comes to our own mistakes and misdeeds – then we want mercy!)”[i] But our God is a God of justice, not fairness. When I struggle with these two words, I always remember a cartoon that has floated around. The cartoon has three people trying to see over a fence. One is short, one is medium-height, and one is tall. All three are given two boxes to stand on. Of course, the tall person can easily see over the fence. The medium-height person can just barely see over, but the short person cannot see, even with the two boxes. This frame is called fairness or equality. But the next frame is called justice. In this frame, the short-statured person gets three boxes, the medium-height person gets two boxes, and the tallest person gets just one box. All three people can now see over the fence equally.
I tell you this story not because as short-statured person I totally get this cartoon! I tell you this story because I do not think our God is an angry landowner demanding results and expecting everyone to figure things out themselves – to produce fruit without adequate help. No, I think the gardener is actually God – our advocate looking for justice, not just fairness. Perhaps God is the one raising a contrary voice to suggest that the ultimate answer to sin is not punishment – not even in the name of justice – but rather mercy, reconciliation, and new life.[ii] So, in the threat of danger and even death, God is a god who intercedes, who demands mercy, and in fact, is willing to get down in the manure to make sure we thrive and bear that delicious, life-giving fruit.
Now, even the gardener is not naïve to think that our window for productivity is unlimited. Even the gardener submits to the owner that if after a year, the tree does not produce, the owner may cut the tree down. But I do not think God will let that happen. God is “all in” with making sure we are redeemed – whether by getting dirty with us to help us grow, or by interceding again, even when the produce is just not there. Not unlike Abraham who argued and argued with God to spare ten, twenty, even fifty people, our gardener is one of mercy, reconciliation, and redemption.
And that is why I love the lectionary. Even when I fight, and kick, and say, “No way!” God finds a way to speak despite my reservations. Where I had feared sending the wrong message about our walk with Christ, God comes through bringing good news of mercy, reconciliation, and redemption. Bishop Curry says this about our text today, “The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God…We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. Being freed from managing the results of our actions enables us to do something, and do it well. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”[iii] I do not know about you, but I am over the moon that our God is one who is willing to fight to the last pile of manure to encourage and strengthen us. If our God can do that, we are bound to rise again in hopeful new life. Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Lent 3 C: Suffering, the Cross, and the Promise of Love,” February 22, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-3-c-suffering-the-cross-and-the-promise-of-love/ on February 25, 2016.
[iii] Michael B. Curry, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 97.