“The Lord is kind of merciful, the Lord is kind of merciful …” Kinda. Let’s not go overboard here! God is pretty good. Quite compassionate. Kinda kind. But …
There are disadvantages to preparing a homily in the early hours of a Sunday morning. I get migraine headaches from time to time. If you’ve ever had them you know they are nasty little beasts—headache, sickness, confusion—but the worst part for me is the aura—the series of sensory disturbances that mark a migraine’s coming. For some people it’s flashing lights, for others facial numbness, for me it’s as if the things I’m looking at aren’t quite there and not quite gone either.
Seated at my keyboard this morning, writing those words I began with, I saw my words not quite there. Just the on the edge. And I felt that rush of panic to my stomach. Migraine coming! And here is how my inner dialogue went …
“Dung! (well I used another word with four letters—you have to be careful what words you use in homilies) Dung! God why now? Don’t do this to me!”
And amid visions of calling Peter to say “You’ve got a surprise mass this morning” I went straight to the heart of my actual theology even as I was preparing to tell you the one I say is mine. “Why are you messing things up again God?!”
Well, I lay down, closed my eyes, apologised a bit, and waited, and waited … did I dare open my eyes? … is the ceiling all there? … maybe the screen is too? … whew ! false alarm!
So here I am with a different homily …
It might be a migraine at the wrong time, it might be real illness, it might be an electric bill, it might be a love being lost, it might be the smell of sick cattle being burned, it might be children hungry, cities dirty, earth quaking, age a-creeping-up, it might be any damned thing that has us silently shouting “Dung!” That part, at any rate, is good. All that is dung, is waste, is death and dying, and we are right to hate it, to object to it, to shout at it. But we have to have blame too! That’s what’s wrong. And we have to blame someone we don’t trust. And there are two obvious choices: Blame God—the bastard is always letting us down—or blame ourselves. We deserve it! It’s God’s will! Why doesn’t this marriage work? Why can’t I pay the bills? Why can’t I be as beautiful as the boys on TV? Why am I sick? Why must disappointment all I endeavour end? Is it my fault or is it yours Big Guy? You’re the one with all the Power. Don’t you care? What kind of God are you?
There was a guy with a fig tree, hell with a whole vineyard, but he wanted figs. And there’s the poor feller who does the digging. And the parable forces a choice on us—forces is the wrong word—slips a choice past us so we don’t even notice how naturally we make it. Where is God in the parable?
Is God the one demanding fruit, always looking over our shoulder, threatening to rip us our by the roots if we can’t produce? It’s sad how we have God typecast that way. But Jesus does it deliberately, sets us up. “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?” I heartily praise those among you who didn’t even flinch a tiny bit in self-recognition—I did.
OK so you already leapt ahead of me … maybe God isn’t the owner, maybe God is the vinedresser—giving the people—giving us—a second chance, a third chance, a 607th chance, to bloom and blossom and ripen and bear fruit. Even committing himself to a season of shovelling … dung … to get the accursed tree to come to life. Holding off the hasty with all their saws and spades.
That’s not the only choice here … we never know if all that digging and dunging was a waste of time, whether that tree perked up and produced the goods, or whether it sat anxiously unable beyond the patience of men or the industry of God. The parable leaves a hole there for us to fill in. “if it makes fruit in the future … well … otherwise if not you can cut it down.” There’s a hole. You can almost hear the dot dot dot. Will it or won’t it? Of course we’re rooting for the tree. Sunk in … dung … we want it to respond to all the lavish attention and pull through. But what if it doesn’t? When will we run out of patience and pass the sentence of death? The vinedresser’s fighting for a reprieve but even he admits the “otherwise”—if this last ditch attempt fails … well then.
That vinedresser’s not much better than the owner. The owner gives us three chances, the dresser four—big deal! I need more than that! God has to be more than that! Otherwise earthquakes are acts of God. And violence is his judgement. And both God and I are to blame.
Jesus tells this story as he is making his way to Jerusalem for the last time. He has been readying his disciples for what he reckons is inevitable. They will get there, he will speak his piece, he will take his stand for a blameless and un-blaming God. And he will fail. He will be cut down, rooted up, and left to dry in the sun. He will die a fruitless death. It will all be a waste.
Or will it? That’s the hole in the story, the gap to fill in. Will Jesus’ death have been a waste or not? Yes, that’s up to God … but it’s also up to us. Will we change our minds—will we repent—about what life and death mean … or not? Will we follow him to Jerusalem?
March 30th, 2001