March 7, 2010

“An Invitation to R & R”
Luke 13:1-9

A friend of mine who claims to be a prophet, told me the other day, “Based upon this week’s episode of the “Bachelor,” God has decided to destroy the world.”

Now, I am not fond of threats. I am a pretty laid back guy whose fuse burns long and cool. Yet, threaten me or my family and my hackles are soon raised. (just to carry over the chicken metaphor from last week).

This text is something of a threat. It begins innocently enough as some apparently ask Jesus a question regarding the recent execution of some Galileans by the authorities. In these stories we are not privy to the existence of a warning, “don’t do this, or, this, and if you do, such and such is going to happen to you.”

What there is here is an explanation you’ve all heard before: “you ain’t been living right.” The bible is full of stories that precisely make this point: The great flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There was that story on Wednesday from 2 Chronicles about the ambush of the Moabites who did nothing more than try and expel those interloper Israelites.

The first “R” for this morning is “Retribution.” You may have thought that the sermon was going to be about ‘rest and relaxation’ but that would not fit a Lenten theme. Today, the first ‘r’ is for the Divine judgment that Jesus has come to announce on no uncertain terms.

While I believe that there is such a thing as Divine Retribution, a word of caution is appropriate. I want to freely admit that the identification of Divine retribution is tricky business. For instance, there are some who said that Haiti’s earthquake was due to an ancient pact with the powers of the underworld to overthrow the French colonials. Can’t say I believe that. I suspect that it has more to do with living along an active fault line, and timing, timing has something to do with that and I suppose you could assign the movement of the tectonic plates to the hand of the almighty. I wouldn’t, but you could do that I suppose.

Not all suffering in this world has anything to do with bad behavior, or unfaithfulness. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) Yet, it cannot be denied that scripture points us toward the reality, toward the existence of Divine Retribution. I am just saying that we do not always see clearly enough to identify where it is and where it isn’t. We cannot, after all, accurately forecast a snowfall. What makes you think we can forecast punishment from God?

The other “R” which deserves our attention in this Lenten season is the word Repentance. See Divine retribution apart from God’s mercy is not inevitable. See although we may have trouble identifying instances where God has somehow meted out justice, it is not difficult at all to identify how it can be avoided. All we need to do is respond to the generosity of God with loving faithfulness, bearing the fruits of the Spirit. Doesn’t that sound easy?  Apparently, historically, it ain’t that easy.

The prophet Isaiah cries out:  

5:1 Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2 He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!

And Jesus himself tells a story about a fig tree, a tree full of potential, a tree created by the creator to do one thing, to bear fruit, and a tree, for some reason, that does not do the very thing it is supposed to do. The economics of this vineyard are plain. It is wasting the nutrients in the soil. It is robbing other productive trees of sunlight. It would be better to simply lay the axe to the root and start over.

Yet this sensitive gardener knows enough about trees to offer it every chance. Feed it. Water it. Nurture this tree, help it along, delay the decision for a time, who knows, with the right kind of attention this tree could be the most beautiful and productive tree in the vineyard. Or not. The Vinedressers sense of urgency is tempered with the offer of opportunity.

That is always how it is with this One. With this Divine One there is Retribution, there is ‘repayment’ so to speak. But this is not simple mathematics. If you put your hand on a hot burner you are going to get burned. If you poke the bear, don’t cry to me if he comes after you. But in biblical terms it is never that simple. There is this thing called mercy. We are saved by grace.

Look there, the saving of this tree is not a once and for all action. It has nothing to do with the other trees in the vineyard. The saving of this tree is dependent upon the nurture of the gardener and the tree’s bearing fruit. It requires change. In the church, we call it repentance. It means a change, it means getting back to that which we were created to do, to serve and glorify God forever.

And, we cannot assume that the tree simply chooses to bear fruit, just as it cannot be commanded into bearing fruit. It is about the nurture of the gardener, “first pleading his case to the owner of the vineyard, and then by his constant care, digging around the roots, applying the manure…[it is] this final act of tilling and keeping on the part of the Advocate…” that offers the opportunity for the tree to bear fruit.

Some of you question me when, after you have asked me “how are you” I respond, “better than I deserve.” There are people who even tell me “Oh, you deserve the best.” It is tempting to think of ourselves this way, that we are able to dodge evil and to consistently maintain our faithfulness. But this is why we have lent: Just when we think that we have the ability on our own to ‘turn from our way and live,’ Jesus brings us back down to earth, literally, with talk of good roots, a good caretaker, some horse manure and a questionable tree.

This is not time for rest and relaxation. Lent reminds us that there is always a way to go, there is work to be done, and that we can all move in the direction of faithfulness, even if only inch by inch; the Gospel suggests that hard as it is, we don’t do it alone.