“Staying the Saw”
Rev. Jeff Long-Middletoton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
March 24, 2019
Third Sunday of Lent
If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down. – Luke 13:9i
My friends, today’s lesson must be put in a much larger context. Simply put, by itself, it’s dangerous. There is no mention of grace. No mention of unconditional love. No mention of forgiveness. If this were all one had to go on, Christianity would look rather dour. This is not my favorite reading. I would prefer to focus on the forgiving nature of God, a forgiveness so great the Second Person of the Trinity dies on a cross outside the city’s wall to insure that the forces of darkness are defeated. That is the Good News Christ’s church proclaims.
Yet from time to time we come upon some rather troubling texts. Here’s a few that, if taken by themselves, could lead us to do evil rather than good.
- Deuteronomy 21:18-21 “18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.”
- Deuteronomy 25:11-12 “If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.”
- Numbers 5:11-31 Women caught in adultery have to drink dirty water.
- Leviticus 15:19-21 Don’t sit where a menstruating woman has sat.
And our Lord is not immune. He has at least two teachings that we readily ignore.
- I doubt if there is anyone who would heed Jesus’ advice to pluck out your eye if you look upon any woman with lust in your heart.
- Or what about cutting off your hand if it is involved in a sinful act?
So you see, when it comes to the Bible, it is dangerous to think that any given passage sums up all the truth of the Christian faith.
That is true with the words that are before us this morning. But Luke13:1-9 is what we have been given and it, too, is a part of the Bible. Having said all of that, let’s deal first with the judgment Jesus tells us awaits those who bear no fruit.
First, note that a God of love without being a God of judgment is a God of indifference. Anyone who has loved a child or a spouse knows this to be true. You show no real love for a child if there are no constraints or expectations placed upon that child’s behavior. I think I have told some of you what a guidance counselor in one of Vermont’s high schools once taught me about this truth. In fact, I think I had Patrick Peters demonstrated this with me. At any rate, the counselor and I were standing in the hallway leading to the church’s social hall. I don’t remember what brought us to this moment of my illumination. All I know is that she wanted to illustrate the point of an adolescent’s need for limits. We stood directly opposite one another and she asked me to put my hands up about shoulder high with my palms facing her. She did the same and then pressed her palms against mine. Gradually, she increased the pressure and I, wanting to maintain equilibrium and not be pushed over, pushed back until the tension was equalized and we stood in relative comfort facing each other. Then it happened. She moved quickly to the side and I lunged forward and had to catch myself before I fell on my face. Smiling, she asked, “Which felt better – when we were pushing against each other or when there was nothing left to push against?” Love without judgment is caring without consequence. It is an ineffective method of expressing what is most dear. So know this first truth, God’s judgment does not negate God’s love. Indeed, it serves as love’s confirmation.
If these words of judgment found in Luke 13:1-9 led us to our first point – namely, that a God of love without being a God of judgment is a God of indifference – let us now consider a second point. Refusing to be aligned with the goodness of God tears us and the world apart.
This is going to take some unpacking, so stick with me. I begin by speaking for myself. I am discomforted with God meting out punishment. I have always had a hard time squaring God’s wrath with the love made known through the cross. Maybe that’s not a concern for you and you have always held that God punishes the wicked. But I have another way of looking at it. See if this makes sense.
- God created the world (I don’t care “how.” Whether it was through the evolutionary process or seven days) God created it.
- God pronounced God’s creation “good.” Indeed, goodness was woven into all that God created – including us.
- To be fully united with the created order, one must be on the side of goodness.
How’s that, so far? God created it. It was good. To be united with it’s essence, one must be on the side of goodness.
If you accept that argument then let me suggest that those who stand against goodness, who refuse to bear fruits of the Spirit, are in discord with the created order. This is why the fig tree must produce fruit. It was created for this purpose. And I think the Catholics get it right when during catechism they teach that the purpose of our lives is to give glory to God. When we refuse to live out this purpose, disharmony exists. I contend that the punishment we perceive to be from the hand of God is actually part of the warp and woof of life. We are free to rebel, to treat others as means to an end, to let our greed run wild, to crush the little people of the world, to bear false witness and take what we want. You and I have that freedom, and while it may be true that in the short term our rebellion pays us dividends of pleasure, the weight of the created order will bear down on us. We are not crushed by the hand of God. We stand outside of God’s grace and goodness and then ponder why life went awry. This understanding of how life is structured has helped me understand why those who seek to tear it apart suffer.
One last point. In reflecting on Luke 13:1-9 we have said that a God of love without being a God of judgment is a God of indifference and that refusing to be joined to the goodness of God results in a disruption of our being, it is now necessary to state clearly what is required of us – namely, that we follow in the way of Christ or, to stick with fig tree metaphor of Luke 13, that we bear fruit. This is not a suggestion. It is a commandment. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Jesus said in John 13:34, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” You cannot belittle a person. You cannot seek their downfall out of envy. You cannot say you love in order to manipulate a person. You cannot stand in judgment of another brother or sister. “I give you a new commandment –not a suggestion. I know this is not some new profound insight into the Christian way. You and I know this. Today’s new learning may well be that the owner of the orchard demands that we bear fruit. If we want to stay the saw, it is goodness we must practice and seek. Let us pray….
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or 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? 5 No, 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. 7 So 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”