One More Year

Psalm 32, Luke 13:1-9

Jesus is teaching a crowd of thousands. Through speech and story he is tackling tough topics: worry, money, conflict, responsibility. Then someone interrupts Jesus’ sermon to bring the crowd the latest breaking news: the Roman Governor, Pilate, has massacred Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem. 

You can imagine how the crowd reacted. All the shock, and the grief. All the many murmured conversations.  All the questions: Why this? Why now? Why them? Why?

Then Jesus breaks in.  You may be wondering why, Jesus says; let me tell you what’s not the reason. Tragedy and accident are not a punishment for individual sin. The people who died are no worse than any of us. In fact, all of us need forgiveness.

Then Jesus tells a parable. Someone plants a fig tree in their vineyard. But the fig tree does not produce figs; and this person is enraged. “See here!” they shout at the gardener. “For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

In the face of this tirade, the gardener replies graciously. “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

When terrible things happen, like the massacre of the Galilean pilgrims, it’s natural to ask why. Sometimes there are clear answers. More often, there aren’t.  In the absence of clear answers, and even sometimes in their presence, we often settle on this answer: It must be their own fault. It must be, somehow, the fault of the victims. 

How could it be the fault of the victims? What could they have done to deserve their fate? Don’t worry – we’ll find something. Our human minds are endlessly inventive in finding flaws in other people.  We judge one another based on how we look, and how we talk. We judge one another for being too rich, or not rich enough. We judge one another for being too powerful, or not powerful enough to be independent. We judge one another for making different choices, and for simply being different, than we are. Out of fear and insecurity, we judge all the time.

Imagine Jesus standing in front of this crowd of folks who have just heard about a tragedy. Desperate to make sense of things, they try to imagine what grievous sins these other folks might have committed to earn them a death sentence. But Jesus has no interest in helping the crowd along this path of judging others. Instead, he turns their attention to their own behavior.  Think a little less about everyone else’s sins, he says, and a little more about your own.  Remove the log from your own eye, before worrying about the log in anyone else’s. Remember you live in a glass house, before you throw stones.

It’s good advice. We can’t possibly truly know anyone else’s sins. We definitely can’t fix them. It’s more fruitful to examine ourselves, to work on ourselves. Unfortunately, when we turn our attention towards ourselves, we don’t always make much spiritual progress either. We judge ourselves on things that aren’t so important, like how we look, or how much money we have.  We mull over negative messages we received long ago.  We dwell on some deep and surely fatal flaw that we imagine is unique to us and must be hidden from everyone else at all costs. We get stuck reliving the things we’re most ashamed of. When it comes to judging, we’re at least as brutal towards ourselves as we are towards others.

A lot of us don’t really appreciate it when scripture encourages us to repent. We imagine that God, or the church, or the pastor, is telling us that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and trying to make us feel bad about it. This feels counterproductive, because most of us are quite skilled at feeling bad about ourselves already. No need to revisit that. No need to amplify it.

But Jesus’ call to repentance is not an exercise in harsh self-criticism, guilt, or shame. It’s  an invitation to be freed. What is making you miserable, Jesus asks? What is separating you from love?  What lies have you learned to believe? What habits are harming you? There’s no need to keep carrying that burden, Jesus says. Consider laying it down on my lap, and allowing our good Gardener to help you find another way. 

Vincent Van Gogh, In the Orchard

Imagine, Jesus says, that your soul is a fig tree. It’s in a beautiful vineyard, being looked over by a competent gardener. Still, it has not born fruit on the schedule that you expected. Enraged, you decide to give up the project of cultivating figs, or caring for your spirit, altogether.  “Cut it down!” you demand, rudely. But God, the gardener, resists your tantrum.  Give me more time, God says.  At least one more year. Let me lay down some more nutrients. Let’s see what could happen, with a little more love.

Let’s take just a moment to try to welcome God’s grace and care into our hearts. I invite you, as you are moved, to settle your body into a comfortable position; to close or lower your eyes; to gently rest a hand or two on yourself, on your heart, on your stomach, on your lap. Just breathe.

God, help us not worry too much about other people, whether they’re doing it exactly right, we can leave that up to them.

God, help us not to worry too much about ourselves, whether we’re doing it exactly right. We’ll never do it exactly right, and the things we’re so worried about messing up may not be the most important things anyway.

Help us to breathe in, and breathe out, in this moment, in these bodies, in this life that is a gift from you.

Give us courage to notice, with honesty and kindness, what is harming us most, what is holding us back, what is making it harder to love ourselves and to love other people and to love you.

Help us to let go of any lies we have believed. Help us to let go of any guilt or anger that is weighing us down.

Guide us towards trust in you: Your skill in enriching the soil, Your faithfulness in returning, year after year, to give us another year to flourish, even when we haven’t made much progress.

In good time, may our souls grow, and bloom, and bear good fruit: sweet to the taste. Amen.