“Make Each Day Matter”

February 28, 2016


Isaiah 55:1-9

Luke 13:1‑9


Lest we succumb to gloom and despair in these late winter days—especially in this election year—I want to remind you—as I usually do this time of year, that each Sunday in this season of Lent is a little Easter. Each Sunday—and this Sunday!—a weekly opportunity to rehearse the gladness of the hope of the resurrection in which we live and toward which we move. In case we are tempted to overdo the sackcloth and ashes, we sing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”

And we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah that point to a deeper significance in all forms of February and March precipitation:

the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater…

Isaiah spoke of that mystery by which water is transformed to bread. Through this he told of the creative power of the living God. What God has done and is doing among us is always wrapped in this mystery. It’s not always easy to say: “Sure, this is what God is doing,” or “God is certainly present here”—which, in part, is why we in the United Church of Christ are more reluctant to speak of God and God’s actions than many in other Christian traditions.  We live our individual lives and our life together in faith. We act in faith, with the awareness that beyond all thanksgiving, beyond all regret are the ways of God.

Not that we can ever fully understand those ways. Isaiah put it plainly: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

While I am certain that God is at work among us and through us, I am also certain that much of what God has done and is doing is still unseen, still more like rain or seed than a full loaf of bread. In spite of all that we have accomplished, many good results still wait to be seen.

So I find hope in the story Jesus tells about time and about fruitfulness.

As with the other parables that Jesus told, this one is rooted in the everyday life of his time. Vineyards were plentiful in ancient Israel and were often planted with fig trees growing among the vines. So there was nothing unusual about a man planting in this way. 

The problem with fig trees, however, is that they absorb an especially large amount of nourishment from the soil. They begin to rob the vines of sustenance over time. Of course this isn’t a major problem as long as the tree bears fruit.

Now, this particular fig tree had been there for about six years, growing in the sun, drawing nourishment from the soil, putting out leaves—but producing no fruit. No one expected the tree to bear fruit for the first three years after it was planted. But three more years passed—and still no figs!

Well, the natural response would be: “Cut it down!” It’s one thing for a tree to take up the nutrients if it is bearing fruit; it's something else altogether when you don’t get one fig for all those years. “Cut it down!”

Harsh words—but they make good sense.

And yet we hear something more, something filled with grace.

The gardener replies to the demand to cut down the tree with a request: leave the tree alone for one more year. Let me dig around it, loosening the soil, providing more nourishment to the roots. Then we’ll see if next year it produces fruit.

Those words exhibit a sense of mercy that we desire in our lives and in our world. What student is not relieved when his request for more time to finish a paper is granted? Who of us does not rejoice when she learns that the report due on Friday won’t be needed until Monday?

We would like to receive mercy and show mercy. We would like to receive grace and give grace.

Then just as we begin to breathe a sigh of relief, Jesus ends the parable with the gardener agreeing, “And if it still doesn’t produce fruit, you can cut it down.”

You can cut it down.

That is to say, the paper better be finished within a week; the report better be in the office on Monday morning.

Or else…

Cut it down.

If we were telling the parable, perhaps we could do better. I think most of us could be far more understanding than Jesus. We might recognize that the tree bore no fruit because times were tough everywhere. We might not want to put the tree under any extra stress by demanding fruit at all.

Our ending would provide some comfort.

We would say that we have all the time in the world. We have all the time in the world for our lives to be productive, fruitful. We have all the time in the world to love our neighbors. We have all the time in the world to deal with the poverty and the homelessness and the racial tensions in the midst of our city. And if we bear no fruit, there are plenty of excuses.

So relax.

And yet, when we listen somewhere in our souls we hear not just harshness, but life-giving strength and hope in that troubling parable from Jesus.

We don't have all the time in the world. We each have only 24 hours in a day. And no one has any way of knowing when those days will end.

Can we hear this parable with our hands folded in comfort? 

Can we hear this parable without examining our own lives? 

Probably not, unless we’re still convinced that time will wait for us.

The ending that Jesus gives this story is harsher than the ending we might create. But at the same time it offers more grace than we might expect.

By telling of a “deadline” Jesus doesn't string his followers along. We don’t hear: “Everything’s all right. Keep on as unhappy, as unproductive as you are. It doesn't matter.”

You see, it does matter. And somewhere deep inside maybe that’s the truth that you have been waiting to hear.

God desires that our lives bear fruit—things like love, joy, peace.

God desires that our congregation be like the trees the psalmist describes: “planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season…In all that they do, they prosper.”

The tree is given one more year. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus proclaimed the “year of God’s favor”—a year of forgiveness, restoration, and second chances.

It’s still only February. So this story invites us to wonder:

What is important for you this year? Are there estrangements to repair, debts to settle, love to share?[i] What fruit do you want to bear? What second chance do you need to take?

What is important, essential for this congregation this year? What will build us up as a worshipping, learning, serving community of faithful women and men?

Remember that line from Six Feet Under? One person asks: “Why do people have to die?” The response? “To make life important. None of us know how long we've got. Which is why we have to make each day matter.”  What we do, how we act, does matter. Each day we are given the choice—to tear down or build up, to complain or to encourage, to welcome or to turn away. The choices we make, the actions we take will determine whether or not our lives bear fruit.

The lesson of the fig tree is a challenge to live each day, each year as a gift from God.

And yes, let us never forget that God is patient, forgiving, understanding. But God's mercy stands out more clearly when seen in relief against God's judgment. And so an announcement of judgment “Cut it down!” can also be an invitation to turn in a new direction, an offer to renew your life, to restore your soul.

Maybe now we can better understand the way that Jesus responds to the report of tragedies that came to him.

There are no records of these events outside of Luke’s gospel. Lost in the distant past are two examples of evil in the world.

One is human—Galileans slain by Pilate as they came to offer sacrifices to God. Why did this happen to them?

One is a natural disaster—the residents of Jerusalem killed when a tower collapsed and fell on them. Why did this happen to them?

Try as we might, none of us can protect ourselves or those we love from every danger: disease, traffic accidents, crime, emotional and mental disorders, or random violence. In our soberest of moments we know that life is capricious. At best we have a God who sustains us through disasters not of God’s own choosing.[ii]

There is a comforting lie that tells us: “You are better than they are.” You are better than those who were killed in an earthquake. You are better than those dying from addiction. The lie tells us “These people were worse sinners than you.”

It's a nice idea. Bad things happen to bad people.

Jesus turns all this on its head.

Instead of a safe discussion of the sins of other people, of them, Jesus turns the focus on us.

“Do you think,” Jesus asks, “that they were worse sinners?”

As we get ready to answer he continues: “No, but unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.”

The axe is poised at the trunk of the tree, even as we stand around pointing at others.

Again, the truth is harsh. But it carries the grace of God.

What if Jesus told us what we’d like to hear, what we so often think? “Yes, those people were worse sinners than you?”

We would feel good for a while. We would breathe a sigh of relief. We would have a faith that recognized our nationality, our virtue, our intelligence, our income, our cleverness.

But before long, we would begin to wonder: How soon before I slip?  How long until I, too, am crushed by some tower? When will the flood waters come? What will happen when I become unworthy of the love of God that has protected me so far?

By saying we’re all in the same situation, Jesus also offers a way through. God is the judge of our very being. And God offers all of us the opportunity for repentance. You and I are given the chance to turn around, to walk a new path.

The real issue here is not the sin of others. The real issue here is not the suffering of others. The real issue is the obligation and the invitation that each one of has to live in trust before God.

As with the story of fig tree, here as well, Jesus brings the good news that there is still time to turn around. There is still time for productive living. God's mercy is always in conversation with God's judgment.

So we come back around to the questioning words of Isaiah:

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

If we are satisfied with self‑righteousness and our good works, we are not ready for the forgiveness that God offers.  Forgiveness is for those who know the harsh reality of sin, of evil, of fruitlessness—in the world and more immediately, in their own lives.

The realization that we  need to repent, to turn around, to turn toward God once more can come as an unwelcome shock.

But recognition of the wrong that we do, the sin in which we live, loosens up and nourishes the soil around us. It allows us to continue living so that our lives might bear fruit.

When the harsh truth of God's judgment shines in our live, we can better see the mercy of God that we seek in this season of Lent.

We can better see the mercy of God that we desire for all our days.

[i] NIB, commentary on this passage.

[ii] Robert McAfee Brown, Speaking of Christianity pg. 7.