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“The Patient Gardener”
Luke 13: 1-9
March 20, 2022
The Third Sunday in Lent
When we moved to Virginia from Florida, most of our worldly possessions were loaded onto a huge moving truck for the long trek North. But there were some items that either the movers could not take or that were too precious to entrust to anyone else. Treasured photos and prescription medications. Important documents and laptop computers. Of course, the dog and the cat. And then, there were the plants.
Moving companies cannot move plants across state lines. Fauna---destructive pests---can hitchhike on flora, and so moving plants is forbidden. This presented quite a dilemma, because we had a house full of plants. Greenery thrived in our light-filled home; we had large palms in corners and small pothos on tables; orchids on the lanai and hibiscus on the patio. It was obvious we would not have room in our two vehicles to take all of the plants, so with regret, I began assessing what we could take and what would have to go. Some friends agreed to give a good home to all the large plants, and I gifted small containers to family and friends. But there were some plants I could not bear to part with. The one we had gotten in the early years of our marriage that had survived different households and climates and given birth to multiple offspring over the years. The one that had been a special gift from church members. The one I found at an outdoor market, small and spindly, that with the right light and care, grew to thrive and become beautiful.
So, much to Joseph’s chagrin, with all the other paraphernalia we had to move, I began to plan how to move the plants. I trimmed them back and gave away cuttings. I packed pots carefully in cardboard. We loaded them into the into the back of my SUV, where, surrounded by luggage and pet supplies, they made the long trip.
I inherited my love of plants from my grandmother, who was an incredible gardener. In her lush yard, she grew glorious flowers of every shape, size and hue; in her home, house plants abounded. When I was just a small child, she began giving me potted plants, and taught me how to care for them, to put eggshells in the watering can, to notice which plants needed more water and which needed less.
My grandmother was a patient gardener. She had the ability to take a pitiful specimen and bring it back from the brink of death. Like my grandmother, the gardener in this parable did not want to give up on any living thing. When the landowner wanted to cut down the barren tree, the gardener pleaded for its life, pledging to work the soil and fertilize it, giving it one more chance to bear fruit.
This passage, the gospel lection for the Third Sunday in Lent, can perplex us. What does this mean, this talk about Galileans killed by Pilate, and the fall of the tower of Siloam? And what does all that have to with the next verses about the fig tree and the gardener?
Remember that Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, and everything along the way sends a message about his purpose. In a typically Lukan pattern, this passage presents the interpretation first and the parable second. The parable itself is in verses 6 through 9, and the interpretation precedes it in verses 1 through 5.1
This is essentially a parable about judgment, and, more importantly, about refraining from judgment. In Jesus’ time, people believed there was a cause and effect relationship between sin and suffering. If someone sinned, then something bad was sure to follow. And if someone experienced suffering, the assumption was that their situation was the result of sin. Think of the man born blind in John chapter 9. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
In our passage today, people were discussing two tragic events: Pilate killing some Galileans, and eighteen people who died when the tower of Siloam fell. These verses may puzzle us, because we do not have the historical reference for what happened. The fact that Luke does not explain these events indicates they were familiar to the people of his day. It would be like our referring to the tragedy at Parkland or at Mother Emmanuel Church. If someone mentions one of those names, we all know what happened. So the folks in the crowd were asking Jesus about recent events that had been on everyone’s hearts and minds. Typical of their time, they made the assumption that those tragedies happened because the people had sinned! Surely, if something so terrible had happened, it was God’s judgment on the unrighteous.
Jesus challenged that assumption. Just as he did with the blind man and elsewhere in his ministry, Jesus countered the conclusion that bad things happen only to bad people, and, further, that therefore those who consider themselves “good” people are justified in judging those who suffer. No, Jesus said, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered they were worse sinners than all the other Galileans? Or those eighteen who were killed, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, but unless you repent, you will all perish, just as they did.”
“Unless you repent,” Jesus said. Repent of what, exactly? Jesus does not call out specific sins, but the nature of this passage and the parable that follows give us a pretty good idea. Jesus was urging repentance for being judgmental. The people in the crowd that day were wrong to impute those tragic deaths to God’s vengeance; they were wrong to judge that the people died because they had done evil.
Jesus could not have been more explicit that God does not judge sin by punishing people and making them suffer. But even today, don’t we still struggle with this concept? We all have heard radical religious figures claim that some terrible human tragedy is God’s punishment. That certainly is not our theology as Presbyterians. But do we find this idea creeping into our thoughts in other ways? How often do we rush to judge someone struggling with money or relationship issues or alcoholism or addiction or with problems with their children or grandchildren? That insidious idea comes unbidden: Surely their situation is a result of something they have done wrong, some failure of character or behavior. Yet the witness of scripture is that any of us can struggle; any of us can experience tragedy. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, scripture says.
Jesus’ message is that we are wrong when we judge others, deeming some unworthy to be in God’s garden. God is not vengeful; God knows that we all are sinners in need of mercy and grace. If we think that God is the landowner in this parable, we have gotten it all wrong. God is not the landowner. God is the Patient Gardener, the one whose mercy is new every morning, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Look again at the parable. The landowner was ready to cut down the fig tree! It had not done what it was supposed to do: that is, bear figs! The man felt his patience had been tried, and he was tired of letting the tree take up space. “Cut it down!” he said.
But the gardener saw something different than the landowner did. Rather than judging the tree to be faulty, worthless, the gardener looked at the tree and said, Maybe it just needs a little more care! Maybe if I work the soil and fertilize it; tend it and treat it well, maybe then it will bear fruit.
God is the Patient Gardener, patient with sinners, patient with all people, and even patient with us. In my years of ministry, I have found that sometimes when people are experiencing a crisis, they will say to me, “I know in my head that God did not cause this. But I can’t help wonder if I have done something wrong. If God is punishing me for something.”
My friends, the word of scripture is true: God does not cause tragedies to punish people. Today, we still experience illness and human evil and natural disaster, as did those in this passage.3 But we should not judge others, and we should not condemn ourselves. God does not cause harm, but with tenderness and love, showers us with grace upon grace.
During the pandemic, many people decided to take up gardening. People were pouring over seed catalogs, ordering tomatoes and tiger lilies, sunflowers and sweet corn. NPR reported that because of the trend, seed companies were unable to keep up with the demand! One seed company spokesperson said, “It feels like the gold rush, and everybody’s at the starting line ready to go!”2
I think that this growing frenzy was not just because people were stuck at home, looking for something to do. There is something inherently life-giving about nurturing another living thing.
After I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, while I was going through chemotherapy and radiation, I decided that our front yard needed a makeover. New white paint for the front picket fence. New plants to grace the borders. Yellow daisies and purple butterfly bushes. Ground hugging heather and tall agapanthus. Salvia and coreopsis and African iris.
After work in the evenings and on weekends, even when I was tired from treatment, I would be in the garden, pulling weeds and deadheading daisies. Trimming vines and pruning bushes. Then I decided to plant an herb garden in the back yard. Persevering through fatigue, I tucked the small seedlings into the earth, created a border from salvaged bricks, and marked each green growth with stakes, labeled, “Rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil.” The mingled scent of earth and herbs was enlivening. I would not give up even on the stragglers, but kept coaxing them along, until they thrived. The act of nurturing was life-giving.
In a recent Christian Century article on Luke chapter 13, Mihee Kim-Kort reflected on her pandemic gardening. She was new to growing plants, she said, so, although she did her best, she forgot to water some plants and overwatered others. Some became discolored and limp. “The logical thing would be to toss out the ones that look like they’re not going to make it. But I can’t,” she said. Like the gardener in this parable, she wants to keep trying. “Not,” she wrote, “for the sake of my ego, but for the sake of living. Because, yes, it’s a small thing, and perhaps a stretch—but I know what it means when people don’t give up on me.”4
God does not give up on us, but with life-giving power, nurtures us and cares for us, so that we have the chance to grow and thrive. God does not want us to give up on others or on ourselves. If we find ourselves rushing to judgment, maybe we can do this: Maybe we can find a small plant. Or maybe we can get outside and grow something. And maybe we can imagine ourselves in God’s garden, where every plant gets a second chance. Where there is always more time. Always more care. Always more nurture. God wants us to be part of God’s gardening work, tending, nurturing, loving, persevering.
In the book, Christian Doctrine, the late theologian Shirley Guthrie emphatically wrote that nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to judge. In fact, just the opposite is true, he said. We are commanded NOT to judge, but to love. Yet too often, we get the two reversed, and spend our time judging instead of loving. Guthrie said that we should heed God’s command to love, because “God is love. God is not sometimes loving and sometimes unloving, today loving some people and hating others, and tomorrow perhaps changing sides...In everything God does, always, in dealing with all people, God is a loving God,” he said.5
So in this Lenten season, may we repent of judgment, and instead imitate God, the Patient Gardener, who nurtures us and all creation, with unending love, mercy and grace. Amen.
Rev. Dawn Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church