Fruitless Trees--Grace and Manure
Fruitless Trees—Grace and Manure
September 18, 2016 Maple Grove UMC
Like a tree planted by the water—or as we learned, like a tree transplanted by the water—that was our first Tree scripture, from Psalm 1. We can be strong and stable and fruitful because of our relationship with God. Last Sunday Charles Hill shared with us about the tiny mustard seed that becomes a tree. Little, he told us, is much when God is in it.1 Next Sunday we’ll hear about trees that clap their hands for joy, and we’ll conclude this series with a tree in the book of Revelation whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Narrowing down all the tree stories in the Bible for just five sermons was difficult. There are so many we won’t get to. There is that tree in the Garden of Eden from which they were not to eat . . . and you know how that turned out. In the Old Testament trees can be symbols of idolatry--they worshiped Baal, Jeremiah says, "on every high hill and under every green tree" (Jeremiah 2:20) . But trees could also stand for safety and prosperity—Micah promises, "but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid (4:4). There is the stump of Jesse in Isaiah from which the Messiah grew. Good trees, Jesus said, bear good fruit, and bad trees bear bad fruit. And the cross itself is referred to as a tree. In fact, the word ‘tree’ occurs 393 times in the translation I use; how did I decide to include today’s parable about a tree that gets spared the axe?
Well, for one thing this parable contains the word ‘manure.’ And the junior high boy in me has always wanted to say ‘manure,’--or some synonym for manure--in a sermon. So there, I’ll say it: ‘manure.’ It’s in the Bible.
But really this scripture addresses two of the biggest questions human beings have:
- Why do such bad things happen to people?
- And why do good things happen to undeserving people?
So, why do such bad things happen to people? Well, you may have noticed that Jesus raises this question, and then he doesn’t answer it. He tells us that one common answer to the question is wrong, and then he tells people to reflect on their own lives instead of asking why the world works the way it does. Jesus asks, "Do you think that the folks Pilate murdered died because they were worse than everyone else?" "No," he says, "but why don’t you repent?
"And how about the 18 poor souls that had that tower collapse on them? Did that happen to them because of something they’d done wrong?" Again he says, "No, but why don’t you repent?"
Why do such bad things happen to people? Why did a drunk driver hit my cousin’s car? Why did our friends’ little girl get cancer and die? Why were certain people in the Twin Towers on 9-11 and not others? Oh, I know, people like Pat Robertson think they know the reason for AIDS and why Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The fact he thinks he knows those things reveals that he hasn’t listened to Jesus. Why do bad things happen to people? No one knows. If even Jesus knew, he didn’t say. Jesus was not given to judgmental pronouncements or idle speculation. Instead, he invited people to examine their own lives, to see if while we’re here, we might live and love more faithfully.
There simply isn’t any clear, straight-line correlation between our failings and our suffering. The next part of the scripture will suggest that there’s also no clear, straight-line correlation between our goodness and our flourishing. Now, we might not like that. I have several ideas about how the universe might work better, but so far God hasn’t consulted me on those things. It’s just the way it is. Stuff happens. My part is not to know why others suffer or prosper; my part is to say, with the old spiritual, it’s not my brother and not my sister, it’s not my father and not my mother, it’s not the preacher and not the deacon, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.
Which brings us to the parable of the tree that bore no fruit. The owner was ready to chop it down, calling it a waste of soil. But the gardener begged, "Sir, give it another year. Let me coddle it and fertilize it and give it some TLC. If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then we can let it go."
Some people have suffered and some have even been cut down. What does it mean that some of us are still standing? New Testament scholar, Justo González, sums the parable up this way: "those of us who survive, those Galileans who were not killed by Herod, or those Jews on whom the tower did not fall, or those of us who have not died from famine, or those who were not in the Twin Towers on September 11, are living only by the grace of God, and . . . our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit."2 Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians: "If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall."
We trees sometimes get pretty proud of our lovely branches and green leaves. We get to thinking that we have grown all by our own power. Even if we’re not bearing fruit, still, look at our leaves and branches. But Jesus’ parable pokes a hole in all that pride. If we’re standing at all, it’s by the mercy and grace of the gardener.
Years ago I came across a poem by Scott Cairns that says this well and isn’t far from my own experience. The poem is called "Imperative," and it’s not very long:
The thing to remember is how
tentative all of this really is.
You could wake up dead.
Or the woman you love
could decide you’re ugly.
Maybe she’ll finally give up
trying to ignore the way
you floss your teeth as you
watch television. All I’m saying
is that there are no sure things here.
I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,
and she’ll probably keep putting off
any actual decision about your looks.
Could be she’ll be glad your teeth
are so clean. The morning could
be full of all the love and kindness
you need. Just don’t go thinking
you deserve any of it.3
Just don’t go thinking you deserve any of it. That’s what Jesus is saying to the trees that are still standing. The Christian Century magazine recently asked people to submit short articles about mistakes they had made. A pastor from Indiana shared how as a brand new 25 year-old minister he was sent to a church that had been torn apart by conflict.4 He did his best, preaching healing messages, visiting people in their homes. But then anonymous notes and phone calls begin. The letters revealed personal knowledge about the pastor and some infor-mation about the letter-writer. He looked for patterns and details, and finally decided that the source had to be the wife of a certain farmer in the church. During the conflict her husband had stopped attending services. He writes, I called Betty and asked if I could come visit. We sat at her kitchen table and made small talk for a few minutes. Then I told her I knew she had been making the anonymous phone calls and writing the letters.
And as those words came out of my mouth, the pastor writes, I suddenly saw another piece of the puzzle that made it impossible for Betty to have been the caller and letter-writer. But my words had been spoken; they sat there on the kitchen table between us. He says, "I braced for a storm. I waited for Betty to promise that she would never again darken the doors of the church. But there was no storm. Betty looked at me across the table and I saw disappointment in her eyes. "No, pastor," she said, "I didn’t make those calls or write any letters." And then she said simply, "Pastor, would you like some sweet tea?"
"Yes, Ma’am," he said. We talked about the family, the farm, weather and the church. She let me pray. She shook my hand and said she’d see me on Sunday. . . Sometimes we pastors are privileged to flourish in the ministry like a great maple tree. But when we do, it’s only ever by the grace of people like Betty and the amazing mercy of God. I suspect the same might be true in your line of work.
Stephen Hawking begins his book, A Brief History of Time, with this story:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "And what is the tortoise standing on?" "You’re very clever, young man,’ very clever," said the old lady, "But it’s turtles all the way down!"5
Here’s what I’m trying to say: We may think we’ve caused our own growth. We may think we’ve made our own breaks and watered our own successes. But it’s grace all the way down. There’s nowhere to sink our roots but the soil God provides, and there’s nowhere to get water but the rain that God sends. It’s grace all the way down.
So this scripture is just a few reflections about tragedy, just a little story about a tree. But as is often the case with little things, if God is in them, they can become big things. Here are three ways this little story might change your life:
- You don’t have to prove anything, my friends; you get to bear fruit. That could change your life.
- Rather than worry about other people’s faults, I can choose to work on my own. That too could change your life.
- And if ever I’m blessed to flourish and grow, thank God. Just thank God. And that will most assuredly change your life.
1 Song title by Kittie L. Suffield. In the public domain. http://library.timelesstruths.org/music /Little_Is_Much_When_God_Is_in_It/.
2Justo L. González, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 172.
3 Scott Cairns, "Imperative," The Christian Century (November 6-19, 2002), 21.
4 Mark Owen Fenstermacher, "Mistakes," The Christian Century (July 6, 2016), 25-26.
5 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 1.