*I wrote a version of this sermon originally in 2013, as my first sermon outside of class. This version, somewhat updated, was preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. in July 2018.*
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! 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?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
Imagine a pristine, perfect garden. Shades of green as far as the eye can see, punctuated with random bursts of red and blue and yellow fruit. A variety of fragrances harmonize into a sweet and gentle scent. A medley of sounds from animals of every shape and size fills the air. The sun shines warmly on everything, and water flows in a brook between trees in full bloom. This is Eden. A world of peace, simplicity, and infinite possibility. This is the world of Adam and Eve. This is the world we were created into.
It’s a compelling image, but I have to admit that in the world of today, I sometimes find it hard to imagine. The world of today is not so peaceful, or simple, or pristine. These days, it seems at times that we inhabit a barren wasteland, a broken, complicated world that drives us to ask hard questions with no easy answers. Our children are gunned down in streets and in schools. Our friends get sick and hurt. Our neighbors go off to war and never come home. Our economies struggle, our legal systems fall short. Our ecosystems tremble and shudder and violence seems to win the day more often than not. In the face of such tragedy and suffering, we look around us desperately for any answer that will just tell us why. For any answer that will just tell us what to do.
The people to whom Jesus speaks in our passage today also inhabit a broken world. They have heard of immense violence and tragedy experienced by their fellow believers and they have grasped for a reason why and an understanding of how they should respond. Like us, they live in a world controlled by human ideals of justice and power, and in light of what they know and experience they conclude that surely those who have suffered were being punished.
That is the sort of justice that they—and we—know. But Jesus quickly rebukes them saying “Do you think those who suffered were worse sinners than all the rest of you? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will perish just as they did.”
The word translated as repentance in this story is the Greek word, “metanoia,” which literally means, “to turn away.” Jesus is compelling his listeners, those gathered before him then and us today, to turn away from our broken human world and the broken answers that it offers us. Jesus is telling us to turn away from our own brokenness, to turn our hearts toward God. He is urging us to remember who we were created to be and where we came from. His parable about the fig tree and the gardener reminds us of Eden—of the garden where we had our beginning.
Genesis tells us that after the fall, it is the fig tree from which God creates clothes for Adam and Eve to cover themselves, and it seems that the fig tree has been bare and barren ever since. At first glance, the meaning of this parable seemed clear enough to me. Surely we, in all of our brokenness, are the barren fig tree and Jesus is the divine gardener who intercedes on our behalf and grants us one last chance to repent and bear fruit.
But as I sit with this passage and try to turn away from my earthly understanding and turn to God, I begin to see the message of this parable in a different light. I find myself remembering who we were created to be.
Because of course, we weren’t made to be trees. We weren’t made to stand idle with arms out stretched and wait for our branches to bear fruit. No. We were created to be gardeners.
And so this passage in Luke 13 is a reminder of where we came from, but it is also a call to action. We are called to turn from our brokenness and turn to God, but not to abandon this world of ours. We remember the one who made us, we remember Eden, and we remember that we are gardeners. Even in a barren desert, we are gardeners.
Christ embodies all that we were created to be: A compassionate and dedicated gardener who so loves the creation in his charge that he would fight for its redemption with his very life. There is hope in this calling, but it is also a daunting task. The passage ends with a degree of uncertainty that I imagine we all can relate to. The gardener in Jesus’ parable has gotten the barren fig tree a reprieve, but its fate is not yet decided. Those listening to Jesus that day were being called to action but they did not know all that was soon to happen.
Lucky for us, we know the rest of the story. We know that Christ so loves this broken garden of world that he enters into the very darkest parts of its brokenness and offers healing. The gracious truth revealed in Christ is that even in the darkness, even in the face of death itself, there is the promise of new and wondrous life. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
In the musical and—more recently—the movie, Les Mis, a group of young French revolutionaries dream up a vivid and compelling vision of a new France, a new life, a new world. So real is this vision to them that they band together to fight against the broken system that holds them captive. In the climax of the story, these young men and women and children, even, face the threat of an overwhelming military force that seeks to kill their dream of revolution. They join others across the city and build a barricade to hold off these military forces. Family members living in the buildings around the barricade through down furniture, housewares, garbage—anything and everything that they have to build up this barricade and protect their hope for the future. All through the night, the young dreamers hold their ground.
In the theatre production, the barricade set takes up the whole stage. But the movie takes advantage of its cinematic capabilities. We see these young people hold their barricade through the night, and as the sun rises the view expands to show that the rest of the revolutionary efforts across the city have fallen, but this one street corner and this one barricade has stood until the dawn. The vision of a new world and new life was so entrenched in the hearts and minds of these young revolutionaries that it held the overwhelming darkness at bay.
At the end of the musical, most of the young dreamers have died and their vision of a new France has not yet come to be. But in the final scene, living and dead stand together and sing out still for the world yet to come.
I don’t think Christ is calling us to engage in violence or fight hate with hate. But I do believe that Christ calls upon us to find within ourselves the capacity—through his grace—to behold a broken, barren land and see a garden. We see the garden that was and the garden that could be and will be and set about the work for which we were created. We are gardeners and we tend to the garden.
We take care of each other. We love this world and this creation and we give it everything we have. We hold the hands of the hurting, we stand with the suffering, we cry out against injustice, we work against systems the perpetuate brokenness and join together in the effort toward reconciliation and wholeness. We tend to the garden.
We see this happen in our world all the time. In the face of the most unspeakable tragedy and the most insurmountable obstacles people come together. We take care of each other, we do whatever we can, we work to heal what is broken, and somehow, by the grace of God, we cultivate a spirit of hope.
When 12 young Thai soccer players and their coach became trapped in a cave several weeks ago, hundreds of professionals and volunteers from around the world came together in a fraught and daring attempt to rescue them.
Meanwhile, across the world in the border town of McAllen, Texas, Sister Norma Pimentel and the staff of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley offer what help and comfort the can to the hundreds of refugees that pass through their doors daily, headed for unknown futures that they hope will be better than the past they left behind.
And in Africa this week, when the countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea declared peace after two decades of a war that shut down all communication between the two lands, people in Ethiopia’s capital city looked up the phone numbers of random hotels in Eritrea’s capital, and called them just to tell the stranger on the other end of the line, “Hello! Congratulations! I am so glad we are at peace.”
We see a barren land, a broken world, and we imagine a garden. And we do what we can to cultivate it. Where there is despair, we sow seeds of hope, comfort, relationship. We offer help to those who are struggling. We offer welcome to weary travelers. We offer greetings to strangers and enemies turned friends. We tend to the garden.
Just 9 verses after this passage for today Jesus says, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
As so in the hard barren season and this broken world, we wait. But not idly. We turn to God, we remember who we are, and we tend to the garden. We give it everything we have and we cultivate a spirit of hope. We tend to the garden, and we wait for the Kingdom to bloom.