Thank Goodness God Is the Gardener of Our Lives – March 20

A sermon based on Luke 13:1-9

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 20, 2022*

by Rev. Scott Elliott

There’s a sense by many that God punishes those who have sinned, and rewards those who are righteous. This punishing-rewarding God, can be found in some parts of the Bible and challenged in other parts.

The book of Job may have the most famous challenges where Job confronts and contradicts that notion and the corollary that those who suffer must have sinned, and those who prosper must be righteous. Job, you may recall, is a good man who suffers greatly and rejects his friends’ assertions that he earned the suffering. But Job does ask God why he’s had to suffer and God helps him understand that why people suffer is as unexplainable as the wonders of the universe. Job also learns God cannot be judged by human standards of justice, and is not accountable to humans.  Job learns in essence that suffering is not punishment but a part of living– it just is.  Bad things do happen to good people.

We can learn from the book of Job that our best response is to turn toward God and trust and love God and that doing our best in the moment we are in is our best response to life –all the time. Being the best we can be in this moment and the next is what matters.

The lesson from Jesus in our reading today from Luke is very much in line with the lesson from Job. Jesus’ lesson begins with references to people suffering from human evils and suffering from natural disasters. The specific human evil act was Pilate’s atrocious killing of Galatians while they were offering sacrifices to God.  Our nation has experienced similar human atrocities when white supremacists have attacked Americans in Black churches and synagogues. The atrocities and killings in the tragic war led by Vladimir Putin is a present example in Ukraine. Osama bin Laden’s attacks on 9-11 is another example in our own memories.   If we were asked by Jesus if we thought the victims of any of those awful assaults were worse sinners than we are, our answer would be “No!, they were no worse than we are.”  Victims of bad and evil acts suffer because others act bad and evil not as a consequence of some sort of Divine punishment.

The natural disaster Jesus mentions in the Lectionary reading is a tower being pulled to the ground by the law of gravity killing eighteen people in Jerusalem. Nature, without malice, can hurt and kill.  We have lived in the face of natural acts of harm and death too. Hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes are examples that can have awful aftermaths of destruction and death. And if we were asked by Jesus if we thought the victims of such events were worse sinners than we are, the answer would be “No! they were no worse than we are.”

And sure enough, in our lesson when Jesus asked if those who suffered were worse sinners than others Jesus’ answer is, “No.” Those who experience such tragedies are not worse than those who do not.  Jesus’ point is not just that those who suffer are no worse than we are, but that personal suffering is not the reason to repent. Jesus argues that we all need to repent. But he prefaces his discussion by going out of his way to emphasize that tragedy is not punishment for the unrepentant.  The attacks on Black churches, the attacks on Ukraine and the attacks on the Twin Towers were not punishment from God, they were the cruel and evil acts of other human beings.  Hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes do not destroy things and hurt people as punishment from God. They destroy and hurt as a matter of course in nature.  In other words,  God did not send Pilate or any other humans who do dirty deeds, nor does God direct nature to hurt humans. So, here’s some good news: we can live without fear that God will smite us down for our missteps or sins.

Nonetheless there are natural consequences from wrongful conduct. People get hurt, that hurts the community and God and the wrongdoer too. On top of which our conscience will suffer and we may get caught and pay a price, including getting hurt back or punished by the culture.  While all of the community and creation is naturally hurt to one extent or another by bad acts, we can rest assured that when bad things happen in our lives it’s not because God is up there working the angles to punish us.

Yet according to Jesus we still need to repent. Now I’ll be honest with you “repent” is one of those Christian buzz-words than can give folks the heebie-geebies. But repentance is a word that gets a lot of bad press. It is often heard to mean feel bad about yourself, regret who you are. You can think of it that way if you choose, but, another choice is to hear repent as a call to turn around and face God and focus on God–that’s actually what repent means in the Bible.  As Job suggests, the righteous response to suffering is responding with trust and love for God. Jesus’ call to repent can be heard to mean the same thing. It’s not a call to feel like a rotten-to-the-core sinner, but a call to turn around and live life facing and focusing on God– living the moment as best we can from where we find ourselves. It’s a call that requires an ongoing response to God’s call to a better world, a better self.

 

The parable we heard Jesus tell after teaching his followers to repent, the parable of the barren fig tree,  can be, and often is, understood as a warning that those who don’t bear fruit by their repentance will be cut down. But we can choose to hear the parable differently. We can see how by looking at John the Baptist’s view of God. Earlier in Luke (3:9) John speaks to his disciples of repentance and argues that “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees, every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” For John the axe is at the root of the tree and repentance and a corresponding fruitful life is required immediately or down the fruitless trees violently go.

In Jesus’ story the fellow who wants to violently cut down unrepentant barren trees is defied by a gardener who wants to save the barren trees even after years of fruitlessness and seeming waste of soil, water and care.  The Gardener, far from wielding an axe, far from just letting the trees alone, offers to tend to the trees,  to provide the trees more time, more nourishment, more care. The Gardener wants to give them what they need to bear fruit: care and time. Even those trees that have given nothing in return are given grace. Even the seemingly useless have the Gardner’s attention and tender husbandry.

John the Baptist called for repentance and saw the axe already at the root of the fruitless trees.  John viewed God as a gardener ready and willing to violently take down the unrepentant, the people whose lives are barren.  But Jesus has a different view of God as Gardner. Jesus calls for repentance to be sure, but sees God as patient and kind, a gardener willing to affirmatively work on the barren trees giving them the attention they need. The God of Jesus does not make bad things happen to good people or even to fruitless, bad behaving people.  In fact, the God of Jesus goes out of the way to stop those who would cut down the fruitless trees. The God of Jesus goes out of the way to provide the resources necessary for the unproductive to bloom and grow into the flourishing  fruitful people that they were placed in the Garden to be.  What a remarkable view of God. What amazing Grace. What a loving God.

Thank goodness the God of Jesus, the Gardener of our lives, gives us the attention we need to be the best we can be. M ay we give our lives –and other lives– that very same attention  Amen.

ENDNOTES:

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2007

 

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