03/24/2019 Sermon


Deborah Fortel

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church

Third Week of Lent – March 24, 2019

One More Year

Luke 13: 6-9

Introduction to the scripture

As you know, first century Judea was a conquered and occupied part of the Roman Empire. It was terribly precarious time for the Jewish people who lived there. Building an empire had come, as it always does, at the cost of many lives lost. It required ongoing brutal control and suspicion of anything that looked like it could create trouble for the Empire or cause embarrassment to the governor in his reports to Rome. Pilate, who was the Roman governor during Jesus’ adult life, was particularly insensitive and harsh in his treatment of the occupied territory. Previous Roman governors had been relatively respectful of Jewish religious practices. But not Pilate. As a consequence, during his tenure, tensions were greater and threats of insurrection were frequent. All of that led to more repressive policies and policing and far more danger to the residents of the conquered nation. The immediate context of today’s reading in Luke lets us listen in on Jesus being increasingly direct and controversial in what he said. Some of what he said was harsh, hard words for hard times, but there was also hope for those who could and would listen for it.   

Luke 13:6-9

Parables can seem so easy: a sweet little allegorical story ready-made for a moral to be tacked on to the end, just right for the kind of old-style children’s sermon where a=b and c=d and everything = Jesus. That’s it, dust off your hands, preacher, lead a chorus of “Jesus Loves Me” and move on to more challenging matters. Except parables are not allegories and they aren’t easy, or sweet and if we think they aren’t challenging, we are not paying enough attention. As New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes, they don’t “mean,” but invite meaning-making.[1]

So we have this story told by Jesus. A landowner had, for reasons that are not at all clear, planted a fig tree in a vineyard. It seems a bit odd, really, to plant a tree that can become fairly large where it would shade sun-loving grapevines, but the landowner in the parable did it. Not only that, the owner showed up expecting to pick a double handful of delectable figs, when there weren’t any. It’s not clear if it was the wrong season for figs or if the tree was too newly planted to be productive. But whatever the cause, the owner was angry that the tree wasn’t producing figs the way he thought it should. He’d been disappointed in the tree for three years running and now time had run out for the tree. So he found the gardener, his employee, or maybe in that first-century context, an enslaved person. “Cut it down,” the owner commanded. “Why should it be wasting the soil?” Three strikes and you’re out apparently didn’t begin with the invention of baseball. Entitled people didn’t emerge newly hatched in the 21st century. Patience, the owner seemed to think, is for fools. Grab what you can now, just as the Roman armies and bureaucracy of occupation did, like humans at our worst do, treating the earth and other people like cogs in a machine made to serve the wants of the ruling class of the empire.

In any usual story that would have been that. Bosses give orders. Subordinates implement them. But, surprisingly, the gardener spoke up – respectfully – let it be noted. The gardener calls the landowner “Sir” and the gardener doesn’t quite say, “You’re wrong about this tree.” But the gardener might as well have said that as he demonstrates a knowledge that the owner hasn’t bothered with when he says: “Let me take care of this tree, dig around it and fertilize it.” We need to assume that the gardener was taking a risk that might have led to being out of work or worse. In some places it can be pretty risky to speak up to the boss. Maybe as risky as an undocumented immigrant in the orchards of California demanding a living wage or an undocumented housecleaner in a Trump hotel offering a different view of reality. Or the Immokalee Workers demanding five cents more a pound for the tomatoes they have nurtured and harvested. It takes real courage to speak up and tell the truth, to offer an alternative view of reality that challenges the assumptions of the Empire by telling the impatient one to wait, or to demand justice. The gardener knows that life needs time and space to develop and that life, even in an unfruitful fig tree, must be respected. It’s a message of hope for the life of a tree, and perhaps, for the life of a conquered or oppressed people as well.

            It’s tempting, as I probably don’t have to tell you, to think about contemporary similarities to the Roman Empire and the casual assumption that Rome should have whatever Rome can take by force from whoever and whatever nation is too weak to stop them. There are plenty of obvious and easy targets in our time. We can all think about people and groups we wish would remember– or learn for the first time — that there are better ways to live than taking all that one can grab and keeping it all for oneself. Sometimes it seems that too many in our country have lost the sense of a common good, and the obligation to care for and care about other people. It’s inconvenient, they seem to think, to do justice for strangers and immigrants as Jewish law – and ours — requires. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see justice for undocumented immigrants and the poor that is as merciful as justice for Paul Manafort? Wouldn’t it be a good thing to see the Mueller Report shared publicly? (I told you those were the easy targets.)

But maybe it’s also about us, about the parts of each of us, and the parts of us all that find it too easy to forget or neglect our obligations to each other and to others. And maybe it’s about us in another way, the parts of ourselves and our communities that remember the necessity of care and patience – and of hope for what can seem hopeless.

All of this has set me to thinking about a pair of images from Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer. They suggest that we can operate from our “gardenbrain” or our “machinebrain.” A machine has multiple, replaceable parts. When a machine fails to work, it can be fixed. Any part can be taken out and replaced with another part. “Machinebrain” assumes that any system can and should operate like a machine. If it’s broken, fix it with whatever replaceable part has gone wrong. If it doesn’t produce enough profit, get rid of it.

By contrast, a garden can’t be turned on and off, and it cannot just be run until it breaks and then is fixed. It requires ongoing care and tending. Liu and Hanauer write, “Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad.”[2] Machines are useful and have made much of the comfort we enjoy possible. Machines have their place. But living systems, like gardens, like congregations, like nations, like our earth, are not machines, no matter how much agribusiness tries to make it so, no matter how much the Roman Empire tried to make it so, no matter how convenient it might sometimes seem. To think of our shared lives and our world and our nation as a garden is not just a pretty idea. It’s a demanding message of hope.

Hope tells us not to give up. Not yet. Not until there has been time to give the tree what it needs: time and nurture; time and manure and sun and rain; time. And more time. Wait a year or two. Wait. Don’t give up yet. There is life yet. There is hope yet. Be a gardener, tending to the needs of a living system. Be gardeners waiting in patience and doing whatever we can to nurture a relationship that has disappointed too often. Be gardeners, seeking to change the minds and hearts of people who assume that there is a quid pro quo for everything, that anything can be bought, and that whoever has the most money wins – or gets elected. Be gardeners who know that what is really valuable and true requires work and patience. So, yes, this is political. Jesus was. It’s also personal. Jesus was.

In the meantime, there is work to do. Some of it is just sheer pleasure, like being here in this community this morning, like being in a garden on a beautiful spring day.  But not all of it is easy or pleasant. Sometimes being part of a living system means the unpleasant work of spreading manure on the roots of trees and plants and relationships. Sometimes it is necessary to use muscles unaccustomed to such work, digging deep in the dirt. It isn’t easy and it is certainly challenging. We have to be willing to get dirty and tired and even smelly for the sake of encouraging and nurturing life. There’s a fig tree, after all, a garden, a congregation, a nation, and a world that need tending and nurturing and feeding and love. And time. And patience.


[1] [1] Amy-Jill Levine. Short Stories by Jesus, the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, (New York: Harper One: 2014)

[2] Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, The Gardens of Democracy, (Seattle: Sasquach Books, 2011), p.11.