Date: March 20, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 55 and Luke 13:1-9
Sermon: Tyrants, Towers, and Trees
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In Louisiana there is a prison that keeps all inmates in solitary confinement. The food is passed through the door. And the lights are kept off much of the time. The prisoners are shackled even to shower. It’s basically a dungeon. And ALL of the prisoners are young people. Under 18. Children. They get no education. No counseling. They are considered the worst of the worst and this is how are treated at the Arcadiana Center for Youth. Punishment? Absolutely. Rehabilitation? Absolutely NOT. The guards are barely trained and starting pay is only about $27,000 a year. They are afraid of the young prisoners. Oh, and did I mention that the vast majority of the prisoners are Black? Eighty percent. But you already knew that.
As I read about this I found it horrific. How could this be going on in the US, the great champion of human rights? This is state sponsored child abuse. There is nothing redeeming, no rehabilitation in this lock up. What is supposed to happen to these kids for the rest of their lives??? They are not being helped in any way to become constructive members of society. They will simply continue to be a burden on society. Because society is making that happen. That is unconscionable. From a practical standpoint. From an ethical and moral standpoint. And certainly from a Christian standpoint.
In discussing this with my spouse, Jeff, of course we both agreed that this is heinous. But I had the impression that the prison was opened about a year ago. Jeff had the impression that the prison was opened many years ago. And we got into a discussion about that. I thought that the prison being opened just a year ago made it even worse. In today’s world, how could that be happening? You can understand if it was opened many decades ago and has just continued on without question. But to have just started it last year? Jeff did not agree. He felt that it was worse if it had been open longer because that meant more children would have been damaged by the experience there. We didn’t resolve anything. We let the conversation drop.
In thinking about it, why did I bring up the topic of when it opened? The focus should have been on the children and their treatment. What’s the difference when it started? It needs to be stopped. I was sidetracked and missing the main point. Going down a rabbit hole. Distracted, as we so often are. Wasting my energy on that which does not satisfy, as Isaiah says it. Things of no lasting value. The conversation should be about helping the children in the prison. And transforming the sick society that produces such a place of abuse. That’s what is important.
What is important. That is what we hear about in the gospel lesson this morning. The disciples ask Jesus about the guilt of those who were killed by Pilate as they made their sacrifices in the Temple. Were they worse than others? Is that why this happened to them? Or the people killed when the tower of Siloam fell. Were they worse than other bystanders? Is that why they got killed? The people want to discuss an accounting game. Keeping score. In hopes that they can avoid an untimely death – at the hands of a tyrant or a faulty tower. They are interested in self protection. And Jesus completely dismisses the idea that the sins of the people who died contributed to their deaths. Being better or worse has nothing to do with the deaths in either situation. It is not a matter of blessing and curse based on behavior. They are asking the wrong question. They are discussing the wrong issue, like the timing of the establishment of the juvenile prison. That is not the issue.
What is the issue? Life is fragile and uncertain. It may be short. Death is capricious. No one knows how long we will be here. So pay attention. Get on board with God. Embrace the reality of God. Don’t miss your chance to know the abundant life of joy and love and community. Take delight. Don’t keep score. Your life may end soon. Don’t miss it!
Then Luke gives us the parable of the fig tree. As with other parables, the story is meant to function on multiple levels and to have many meanings and to speak to different circumstances and people. So, we’ll look at some of that. We are told there is a landowner, a gardener, and a fig tree.
Let’s start with the fig tree. The story features a tree that is very important for food. Figs were valued because they could be eaten fresh in the fall, a tear shaped fruit, 1-2 inches long, with green, purple or brown skin depending on the variety, and sweet reddish flesh with crunchy seeds. Figs, as we know, can also be dried meaning that they can be stored and eaten year round. And the fig tree is one of the first plants cultivated by humans before even wheat and barley and legumes. So humans know a lot about growing figs.
The fig tree is also an important tree symbolically. In the Hebrew Bible there are several references to people living beneath their vine and fig tree in peace and unafraid. The fig tree is a symbol of fertile, flourishing life in peace and security. It represents the vision of the Jews living in their own land in peace and plenty.
So, the fig is an important tree as a symbol as well as for food and it is well understood as an agricultural crop. A mature tree was expected to bear fruit after three years. The tree in the story is three years old and it has not borne fruit. It is taking up space and soil and nutrients and resources but it is not producing. So, the landowner wants the tree removed and replaced. The figs are needed for food. This isn’t just an ornamental tree. Or a random tree in the forest. The gardener asks for one more year to nurture the tree, give it special treatment, promote its development and production of fruit. This is a risk. It involves the input of resources without assured return. It could be a waste. But the landowner agrees to the proposition of the gardener. One more year. The wildness of mercy.
The gardener will loosen the soil, perhaps add more nutrients and more rich dirt to stimulate the roots. Let’s take a moment to look closer at this plan. The dirt, the soil that enables the tree to live and grow has nutrients and bacteria and other components that are fostering the life of the tree.
In a scene in the novel, Bewilderment, by Richard Powers, the main character, astrobiologist Theo Byrne is sitting on the wet grass of the lawn with his nine year old son, Robbie:
“Robin dug his fingernails into the soil and pulled up ten thousand species of bacteria wrapped in thirty miles of fungal filament in his small hand.” [Richard Powers, Bewilderment, p. 177.]
Ten thousand species of bacteria wrapped in thirty miles of fungal filament in a single handful of dirt. That just begins to describe the composition of dirt, created by millions of organisms decomposing organic matter. Dirt. Earth. Soil. Humus. From the same root as the word humble and humility. Slowly and perfectly the correct growing medium forms to support life.
So the fig tree is benefitting not only from the time and efforts of the gardener, but it is benefitting from all that is being provided by nature – that has taken decades to produce through decomposition.
The tree is being fed by the soil. And the tree will be given water. Remember those verses we heard today from Isaiah?
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, buy food and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk,
without money, without price!
What is needed is being provided for the tree. At no cost. To foster the flourishing of life. The fig tree will be given what it needs, provided by nature and good will, so that it can bear fruit.
Jesus is talking about this lavish network of support to promote growth and bearing fruit being provided for free. Out of the wildness of mercy. And it is available not only to the fig tree but to us! This lavish life!
And what the disciples are worried about is being on the naughty list. The gospel is calling attention to all that is being provided for us. To all we are receiving. So that we can live rich and full lives of meaning and purpose in the reality of God. Bearing fruit. Like the water and soil provided to a plant, we are being given all that we need. Not only food and water and figs, but also wisdom, grace, guidance, and love. All being given to us every day. So that we might thrive in the reality of God. On Earth as it is in heaven.
While we are busy calculating our accounts and trying to justify to ourselves that we are blessed and so will not be killed by a tyrant or taken out by a tower, we are being pointed to a reality that doesn’t depend on us. We are being shown all that we are receiving. That we are being given. Gift. The wildness of mercy. And it doesn’t depend on us. It is because of who God is not because of what we do or don’t do. We are being shown that it’s not about us. It’s not in our control.
What we can influence is our awareness of the blessings of life. Of the goodness of life. We can cultivate an awareness of what we are being given. We can pay attention to what we are receiving and how it is sustaining us. We can see the grace and sacredness of this precious life. And we can throw out our account books, our lists, and our legalism. Because we are receiving more that we can represent in words or numbers no matter how many zeros we use.
Jesus is reminding his followers to be mindful because time may be very short. Calamities happen. Death comes. Accidents, disease, crime, violence, Covid, we never know. God is not specifically inflicting these things. That is not the point. That is the distraction. Don’t waste your time and energy on things of no lasting value. The fig tree got a reprieve of a year. What would you do if you knew that you had but one more year to live? What would you do in that year? What would be so important to you? That is what Jesus is getting at. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the abundance of this life. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t get distracted. We don’t know how long we have. Don’t miss out!
Theologian and priest Suzanne Guthrie tells us: “Anchorites, [religious recluses] dug a trowel full of dirt from their grave each day, or hemmed their shrouds or slept in their coffins, not for some morbid exercise, but to emphasize life! Breathe now. Look at beauty now. Let the holy in you rise and be fruitful now. Now. Now.” [ http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/lent3c.html ]
Jesus is imploring his followers to change their orientation. The liberator God is eagerly seeking to offer real life – freed of greed, consumerism, accounting, images, scorekeeping, the daily “emergencies” that distract and keep us from looking deeply at what matters. The future is not in the hands of a tyrant or a building code. Look at Jesus, the one known for being sinless. He dies on Golgotha. Our future is in our hands. Instead of trying to justify ourselves, we are to appreciate all that is being given. The caring and tending we are receiving like that fig tree being babied by the gracious gardener. And when we realize all that is gift, sacred, miracle, each breath, then we can bear fruit. The fruit of gratitude. Tending to each other, especially those who are languishing. The time is short.
There are those children in the prison in Louisiana. A former staff person there says: “These kids were in their cells with no beds on a concrete floor with a state-issued green mattress — flame retardant — a blanket and a sheet and nothing else. No light. No nothing.” [https://www.themarshallproject.org/2022/03/10/no-light-no-nothing-
inside-louisiana-s-harshest-juvenile-lockup . “No Light. No Nothing.” Beth Schwartzapfel, The Marshall Project; Erin Einhorn, NBC News; and Annie Waldman, ProPublica.] It doesn’t matter when it started. It needs to be stopped. Cut off. Yesterday. The law doesn’t allow us to treat a dog like that. And the state is doing that to children? And we need to ask why these young people, these children, are becoming criminals? Children need to be tended. Of course they need more care and nurture than a tree. Fertilize, hoe, water, trim, weed, deadhead, divide, whatever it takes to foster full and abundant life. Where is that care? Not only for those children languishing in Louisiana but for all children, for all people, and for this precious planet, our deeply abused mother, and all of its species. We are distracted with the wrong matters, the concerns that are not of value, that do not satisfy. Jesus calls us back to life! He urgently promotes flourishing life for us and for the world. Time is short. Life is fragile. We may have a year. Or we may only have today. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.