Lent 3C – March 24, 2019

He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” Luke 13:8

At that very time there were some present who told him about the 50 Muslims who were gun-down when they were worshiping in the Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.   There were some present who told him about the slaughter of 11 Jews while at worship in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh….who told him about the murder of 9 Christians while in Bible Study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  There are some present who want explanations, perhaps divine intervention, want to know what they can do to be safe, want the Holy Man, Jesus, to respond. 

Only Jesus doesn’t give explanations nor does he enter into a theological discourse about theodicy which seeks to answer the question as to why God permits evil.  He doesn’t even offer his thoughts and prayers.  Rather he tells them they need to repent, to turn to God, or they too would die.  Then he ups the ante, adding a tower collapse in Jerusalem where 18 were killed through no fault of their own.  He could have included the devastating flooding in the Midwest, the cyclone in Mozambique, and the plane crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.  But instead of offering an explanation as to why bad things happen to good people, or words of condolence, Jesus again declares, “Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.” 

Then he tells a parable.  In doing so he moves us from discussing ideas about God to actually experiencing God with us.  A parable requires the imaginative participation of the listener, of you and me.  The word literally means “something thrown down alongside of.”  It is design to open us up and get us involved.  We unsuspectingly listen to a story and then without warning, there’s God!  John Dominic Crossan says that the parable is an earthquake opening up the ground at your feet.  Parables are about common things farmers and judges, sheep and yeast, prodigals and coins, crooks and beggars but they are also about God.[i]  So instead of engaging in a theological discussion or even offering pastoral care, Jesus tells a story about manure. 

A man has a fig tree planted in his vineyard and for three years he waits and watches for fruit, but there’s none.  He tells his gardener, “Cut it down, why waste good ground on it any longer?”  The gardener replies, “Let’s give it another year, I dig about it and put on manure.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good, but if not, you can cut it down.”

I had a very personal experience with manure.  I was newly ordained pastor at St. Bartholomew’s Lutheran Church in Trenton when one Sunday in the middle of the sermon, the four-letter version of the word manure came out of my mouth and went flying through the air, escaping before I could catch it and swallow it again.  The shocked look on Bertha Butcher’s face, who always sat in the third pew on the pulpit side of the church, let me know there would be trouble.  After worship I noticed a group of folks huddled in the corner of the choir room having a lively discussion. I went to my office, closed the door and prayed that I still had a job.  A few moments later there was a knock.  Gladys Walz came in.  She said, “Pastor, we appreciate your enthusiasm, but we don’t want you swearing in the pulpit.  It’s not a good example for our children.”  I apologized and she replied, “I know you won’t do it again.” Instead of cutting me down and calling the Bishop, the patient people of St. Bartholomew’s spread a little manure and waited. 

Apparently, God’s not in a big hurry, because manure isn’t a quick fix.  It takes patience and time to take effect as it slowly transforms the soil adding nutrients and microbes to the dirt so the fig tree can bear good fruit.  It’s a gradual transformation.  Jesus tells those who asked him about the Galileans who were killed by Pilate and to us who ask about the Muslims, Jews, and Christians all killed too:  turn to God for life.  Turn to God for hope.  Turn to God.  This can be so hard for us to do.  Because turning to God demands we let go of our determination to be self-sufficient, to find quick fixes, take charge and perhaps even to self-righteously blame God, but instead to depend upon God and wait for the Lord.

On Wednesday morning at Bible Study at the Episcopal House we began with the question, “Where do you find hope?”  Because at bottom, that’s what the people were asking Jesus as they dealt with the consequences of disaster and it’s what’s at stake in every tragedy.  Each woman in her own unique way replied that she had hope because God is with her, helping her. They trust that because they’ve been through a lot of manure.  God’s mercy has turn them from fear to hope.  And when they forget that, worship, prayer and Bible study reminds them over and over again God is with them.  Their good fruits bless us and the world beyond measure. 

So, where do you find hope?  Is there a piece of music that calms your soul or perhaps a picture that sooths your spirit, a poem that feeds your heart? Or an activity that instill joy in you?  Are there some specific verses from scripture or words of a prayer that give you hope?   Last week our Ninth graders explored different prayers and each one picked a favorite.  William’s favorite was a prayer by Augustine of Hippo, a great African Bishop of the Church in the 4th century. It’s in our ELW on the top of page 87 in the front of the book.  Let’s pray it together, “O loving God, to turn away from you is to fall, to turn toward you is to rise, and to stand before you is to abide forever.  Grant us, dear God, in all our duties your help; in all our uncertainties your guidance; in all our dangers your protection; and in all our sorrows your peace; through Christ our Lord. Amen.[ii]

Not long after Jesus tells the manure story, he enters Jerusalem and before week’s end, he’s hanging on the cross.  The Roman Governor Pilate and the High Priest Caiaphas, in an unholy alliance, agree that Jesus has to go.  He’s a threat to Pax Romana, peace, and the Temple Treasury, prosperity.  Jesus is “using up the ground” they need for their own purposes.  The farmer’s order “Cut it down” is echoed in the cries of “Crucify him!”  Then from the cross Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  The Greek here is the same word used by the gardener when he intervenes and says “Let it alone.”  It is a little word, aphes, and it means “hands off…cool it…leave it alone.”  In contexts having to do with sin and guilt, it means “forgive.”  It is the also word Jesus uses when he teaches us to pray, “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 

Eugene Peterson writes, “Here the contexts of parable and prayer converge….  The farmer’s impatient “Cut it down” intended for the fig tree is deflected by the gardener’s “Let it alone.”  The violence visited on Jesus is countered by “Father, forgive them.”  He continues: “For those of us who are up to our necks in manure, which is to say, up to our necks in forgiveness, it is perhaps important to note that the forgiveness Jesus prayed for us is not preceded by any confession or acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the crucifixion crowd – or by any of us since.  It’s preemptive forgiveness.  Jesus prays that we be forgiven before any of us have any idea we even need it, ‘for they know not what they do.’ (Luke 23:34).  No preconditions.  Amazing grace.”[iii]  Amen.                    Pastor Cynthia Krommes

[i] Eugene H. Peterson, “Sir, Let It Alone,” As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Waterbrook, 2018, 250.

[ii] Augustine of Hippo, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006, 87.

[iii] Ibid., 255.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville