by Daniel Harrell
I trust none of you are surprised that David Fisher isn’t preaching here this morning as promised. Our former Senior Minister, scheduled to swap pulpits with me today, has rightly remained in New York City with his congregation as they recover from the ravages of Super-storm Sandy. The storm left at least 41 dead in the city alone with a financial toll approaching $50 billion. David told me that many from his congregation had been flooded out, with a few needing to stay with him and Gloria in their parsonage. Sitting up on a hill, their church building has been a refuge for many evacuated from their low-lying homes. Transportation problems have made going back to work difficult, especially with so many from his church working in blacked out lower Manhattan. We’ve rescheduled our swap for Mother’s Day, though many parts of New York and New Jersey will still be rebuilding even then. The whole area is left to deal with a new normal.
Sandy was a magnificent storm. Had she stayed out at sea, we would have marveled at her immensity and power for a moment, but then switched over to watch Monday Night Football. But once Sandy came ashore, marvel turned to horror and there was no changing the channel. We watched, transfixed, as the enormous waves pounded beachfronts and boardwalks and profuse water fiercely roared into subways and tunnels and over houses in what many now agree is the worst storm ever to hit New York City. Afterwards, religious blogs pondered the meaning of it all. Throughout the Old Testament especially, natural disaster is a commonly employed as an agent of justice, alongside pestilence and war. But these days, those who remain willing to attribute nature’s power to God generally refrain from ascribing any intentionality. As Jesus says in the New Testament, rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, asserts that “God is moral,” but “nature as not. Nature is value-free. It can’t tell the role between the deserving the undeserving. God’s role is not to decide where the hurricane goes and how severe it is. God’s role is to motivate people to help neighbors and improve methods to predict hurricanes. God is found not in the problem, but in the resilience.”
I don’t disagree with this. It makes me feel better about a God who presumably is more powerful than nature. But as the Creator of heaven and earth, hurricanes and storm surges still fall under his watch. So where was God? The best theologians have been able to offer by way of apology is what’s called the “free-will defense.” It goes something like this: The Trinitarian God who exists in eternal relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit desires a relationship of love with his creatures, but cannot coerce it and still call it love. Love by definition must be freely given and freely received, which means that it can also be freely rejected. Could not God simply force his creatures to use their freedom appropriately? No, because a person is not truly free if they are not free to choose wrongly. Ergo the rub. God allows for his people’s rejection and subsequent sin in order to have genuine relationship with them.
But that still leaves open the question of where the initial desire to choose wrongly came from. It’s the same question we ask in regard to our own behavior. How is it that we who possess the very Spirit of God, can nevertheless choose to behave in ways so contrary to that Spirit? We answer that God is not done with us yet. Sin still has a foothold. We’ve yet to become who we will be in Christ. If this is the case for the creature, could it also be the case for creation? What if creation is not so much something good that went bad, but something started as good but just not yet done, incomplete and yet still due to be finished? This is not to say that nature is moral and makes willful choices, but the processes by which it operates can freely go this way or that, resulting in everything from random mutations to colliding galaxies. Just as the free will of people can result in rejecting God’s will, so the free process of creation results in mosquitoes and the diseases they carry—as well as hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and drought. Still, we would like to think that God would do more to protect people from harm. Are deaths and disasters an unavoidable outcome of freedom? Does the Lord value creaturely freedom so much as to be constrained by it?
God only knows. Creation ultimately exists for His glory, not for human approval. Granted, there are places where God does defy human freedom in response to our own abuses of it. Again, Scripture describes severe weather at times as an agent of justice. The Lord is awesome and righteous and hates evil. Does this mean he would ever still cause calamity? Personally, I’m more comfortable blaming climate change. However I do know there remains a response to calamity that the Lord eagerly welcomes. In the 13th chapter of Luke’s gospel a report goes viral about a hideous crime some attribute to the rule of Pontius Pilate. While ceremonial sacrifices were being offered in the Temple, Roman security forces stormed in and brutally massacred five worshippers. Adding blasphemy to murder, Pilate’s soldiers then proceeded to pour the victim’s blood upon the Temple altar. Where was God? Over in the next county, in the flesh.
Apparently reports had yet to reach Jesus. Several rushed to break the news. Surely as a Galilean himself, he would share their shock and fury. Surely as a compassionate shepherd he would share their sorrow. Surely as a revered and renowned teacher and prophet, he would offer shrewd guidance as to the ferocious vengeance they could exact in exchange. Surely as a popular preacher, he would launch into a tirade against the tyranny of Pilate and demand his ouster. Surely as a celebrated miracle worker would call down from heaven the thunderous wrath of God! But Jesus does none of these things. Instead, he makes it all about them: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all others?”
What about barbarous sacrilege has been committed against God’s people in His very house? What about Pilate? What about the Romans? What about the victims? Employing that annoying ability to peer inside the human heart; Jesus knew their ultimate concern was not for the ill-fated Galileans, but for their own fate. Customary among the convictions of ancient people was the belief that one’s miseries and tragedies correlated, tit for tat, to one’s misdeeds and transgressions. By behaving yourself and being good, you could ward off most misfortune. Bad things only happened to bad people. These slaughtered Galileans had obviously done something to bring this tragedy upon themselves.
But Jesus said no. “Unless you repent you will perish just as they did.” And then adding calamity to atrocity, Jesus went on to cite eighteen who were killed when a tower collapsed on top of them—not unlike the sad losses of many whose trees and houses collapsed in the storm. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others? No,” Jesus said, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Try to imagine my preaching this sermon to David’s New York congregation this morning. They would have hauled me out to the harbor and tossed me in. I hope they don’t listen to this on the podcast or that Mother’s Day pulpit swap won’t happen either. This is an insensitive sermon. Some may even say offensive. But it’s what Jesus preached. His congregation needed support and compassion, some assurances that everything would work out OK, that God loved them just as they are. But Jesus goes hellfire and brimstone instead.
And then he tells them a parable. A man planted a fig tree in his vineyard. He plants it and expects figs from it. Year one goes by. No figs. Year two. No figs. Year three. Still no figs. He’s frustrated. He’s infuriated! He screams for his gardener. “Look at this tree. Look at it! Three years it’s taken up space in my vineyard. THREE YEARS!! And for what? FOR Nothing. NOTHING. Not one stinking fig. Get it out of here. Cut it down! It’s just wasting dirt!”
His gardener replies, “Why don’t we give it one more year?”
End of parable.
The standard interpretation runs something like this: God is the vineyard owner, you’re the fig tree. God demands results. Your life is marked by a lack of results. You’re not producing any fruit. God has been patient, but you have not responded. The ax of judgment tickles your trunk. “Wait,” interrupts a gardener, “let’s give it one more chance.” “OK,” replies the stern vineyard owner, “But that’s it. One more chance.” Standard application: Your time is limited, you had better get your act together and start producing fruit or you’re going to find yourself producing sparks. Unless you repent you will perish. There’s a limit to God’s patience.
Such an interpretation only supports the misguided equation the Galilean congregation presumed. I behave and God rewards. Be fruitful and thrive! Be fruitless and burn. I’ll buy the vineyard owner being God. A severe representation to be sure, but nevertheless firmly in line with his holy and judicial righteousness. The wrath of God against sin is real. I’ll also accept the mantle of our being fruitless fig trees. God looks for fruit in our lives and doesn’t always find much. There’s plenty of other stuff to be sure, but when it comes down to the things God cares about most: love, kindness, honesty and faithfulness, the pickings are too often slim. “I planted you in the middle of my vineyard but you just waste my dirt. I come around looking for fruit but I find none. Firewood is your only good.”
Enter the gardener. I think he’s the pivotal character in this tale. He’s willing to do whatever he can. As he appeared to Mary on Easter morning, I think the gardener is Jesus. He intercedes for the tree. “Wait a minute, sir,” he says to the owner, “Let it alone one more year. Let me dig around it and throw some manure on it. Let’s see if it bears fruit next year. If not, cut it down then.” End of parable. The parable ends and the gardener descends into the dirt and the dung for the sake of the tree. “Sir, let it alone,” is the exact same Greek phrase translated later in Luke as “Father forgive them,” words Jesus uttered as he hung on the cross. The gardener descends into the dirt and the dung of human sin for our sake. He brings resurrection to our roots and fruit to our branches.
“Repent or you’ll perish too” does seem so harsh and untimely. But judging from the responses of many in Sandy’s aftermath—from the affable cooperation between Governor Christie and President Obama just in time for the election, all the way to isolated New York apartment dwellers suddenly behaving like lifelong neighbors—it’s as if repentance goes without saying. If you remember a few sermons back, you may recall me noting that the focal component of repentance is typically sorrow or contrition. The English word derives from Latin meaning to double down on your penitence. But in Greek, the word is more akin to changing the way that you think. To repent is to have your eyes opened, your heart transformed, you spirit moved, your priorities shifted. And as we all know, disaster has a way of doing that.
Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs and mainstream media all offered a seemingly endless stream of photos and stories of devastation. One New York blogger wrote, “It’s impossible to process it all. We are dazed and feeling the effects of a real and sustained threat to basics we all took for granted a week ago. Physical safety, food, shelter, clean water, a hot shower, electricity, a pleasant walk in the park or on the beach, and the stability and predictability of our daily routines feel more cherished as they become more distant. What we are seeing now is that there is strength in the number of Sandy survivors. There’s also a collective consciousness that much of the petty, generic stuff we worried about before we had heard a hurricane was heading our way is a lot less relevant now. The past few days have resulted in a shift of priorities and resources.”
Of course, talk to anyone who works in emergency services and who has responded to disasters, and you’ll hear that in the days and weeks that follow tragedy, people often lose their patience and their hope. It’s easy to get frustrated with the fact that recovery takes time. Again, one New Yorker wrote, “For all the computer-generated models we saw over the weekend about Sandy’s expected path, the next stage is almost worse; it’s unchartered territory.” New ground.
A perfect place to plant a fruit tree. Hope for New York, a partnership connecting local churches, is mobilizing volunteers to help clean up flooded buildings and go door to door in apartments with power outages to connect with those in need. And in Haiti, where flooding and unsanitary conditions have led to a cholera outbreak, the disaster response team of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is sending medical doctors and supplies. Next Saturday we gather to pack food for Haiti through Impact Lives—an endeavor that now carries increased urgency. Sign up to help if you haven’t already. Our youth ministry packed close to 12,000 meals on Halloween. World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse and other relief organizations are on the ground too. As a church and as individuals we support their efforts.
Disaster spurs repentance. Hardship bears fruit. Lost is found, least is great, weakness is strength, darkness is light, death is life, defeat is victory—such are the ways of the Lord. A cross marks the path of redemption. Christ’s own body and blood become our thanksgiving feast. But you have to open your eyes to see it, have your heart transformed, you spirit moved, your priorities shifted. In a word, you have to repent.