Category: Sunday Morning Sermon
Speaker: Rev. Wes Smith
A family is out for a drive on a Sunday afternoon. It's a pleasant afternoon, and then relax at a leisurely pace down the highway. Suddenly, the two children begin to beat their father in the back:
“Daddy, daddy, stop the car! There's a cat back there on the side of the road!”
The father says, "So there's a kitten on the side of the road. We’re taking a drive."
But Daddy, you must stop and pick it up.
“I don't have to stop and pick it up.”
But daddy, if you don't, it'll die.
“Well then, it'll have to die. We don't have room for another animal. The house is already a zoo. No more animals.”
But daddy, are you going to just let it die? We never thought our daddy would be so mean and cruel as to let a kitten die.
Finally, the mother turns to her husband and says, “Dear, you'll have to stop.” He turned the car around, return to the spot, and pulled off to the side of the road. “You kids stay in the car. I'll see about it.”
He goes over to the little kitten, who is just skin and bones, sore-eyed, and full of fleas. He reaches down to pick it up and with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, bearing tooth and claw.
He pulls back and tries again. Somehow, he grabbed the kitten by the scruff, yet the cat still found a way to defend itself by scratching up the man's hands. Albeit less violent, there are characters in Scripture who bear their claws. Hiss, if you will. There’s a particular person on my mind this morning. Let's see if you can figure out who I'm talking about.
For starters this person left a notoriously violent mark on Christianity. They openly admitted to doing things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth such as imprisoning Christians, causing them to blaspheme, and condemning many to death. This figure sanctioned the stoning of Stephen in the 7th chapter of Acts. And whether you know it or not, a great deal of the church's theological tradition found its origin through this unlikely character. Then one day God crashed into their life on the road to Damascus. They came to realize the errors of their past, and God's grace.
If you haven’t already figured it out, the person I am speaking about is Saint Paul. And if you think he a distant character, his words usually make up our Second Lessons each Sunday. His epistles, or letters, take up roughly 28% of the New Testament. From those letters we’ve inherited theological concepts like justification, or how we are made right with God. They also contain lengthy discussions on how church members should conduct themselves.
Given Paul's dubious resume one wonders why God would choose a person like this to proclaim the Good News.
What if that’s the point? Psalm 86:15 assures us that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I submit to you that our God is the God of 2nd chances.
Nothing illustrates this more than our text this morning.
A man planted a fig tree in his vineyard, but three years in, the tree hadn’t produced any fruit. Being pragmatic, the man instructs the gardener to remove it. Why waste the soil and space. The gardener pushes back and offers to nurture the fig tree by digging around it and putting manure on it. The catch: if it doesn’t bear fruit after another year, it'll be removed. Cut down. Unfortunately, we don’t have the epilogue to the story, we don’t know if the fig tree flourished or became uprooted. At a certain level that’s beside the point.
Instead, let's extract this story and place it into any number of life’s arenas. Ever fail an exam, and redeem yourself on the next? Ever get passed over for a promotion and find that where you ended up was exactly where you needed to be? It's March - everyone loves a Cinderella story. For the record I chose the Fighting Illinois to win, but I digress.
We can all relate to 2nd chances huh. What’s the old mantra? If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again? I certainly grew up with that mindset, and I suspect many of you did, too. But here’s the thing, folks – this isn’t the type of 2nd chance we read about in Luke’s Gospel!
I've always taken issue with the concept of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It grinds against everything I believe as a Lutheran.
Aren’t we always seduced into thinking that we’re alright on our own? Isn’t it tempting to think that we’ve got everything figured out, that if we just try harder, we’ll be able to sin less? This type of 2nd chance only serves to draw us back into a reoccurring nightmare of self-reliance.
The 2nd chance Jesus offers is not simply about trying harder and working to overcome our flaws. Much like the fig tree, we cannot work our way out of barrenness. The Gospel of 2nd chances is not about what we can do to redeem ourselves or even how we can put right our wrongs. It’s about letting God bring forth fruit from our lives that we could never have produced on our own.
The hard reality is – we are like the fig tree in today’s reading.
Think for a moment. Have there been times of fruitfulness in your life? Are you currently in one? What about bareness?
We can define those terms however you like, but Scripture is pretty clear. Fruitfulness manifests itself through the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:22-3). If these are signs of fruitfulness; hatred, discord, impatience, self-indulgence, and violence are markers of barrenness. Now I’m not saying that we’re these things all the time – what a miserable existence that’d be. No! I’m suggesting that this parable offers a warning. When we slip into these traits a recalibration might be in order. It may be time to pray, ask forgiveness, or center yourself on God.
Barrenness is tricky – and in all reality, it should frighten us some. That we’d be uprooted; or to use more graphic language, being cut off from salvation, that's terrifying - or at least it is to me.
But think back to our unlikely theologian – St. Paul. By all accounts, he was living a barren life and a violent one at that. Yet, regardless God saw fit to uproot him from barrenness. Like the fig tree, God dug around Paul and filled him with a nurturing and growing spirit. And if God can reach into Paul’s barrenness, He can reach into ours!
At times barrenness can become a crippling focal point in our lives.
But when you find yourself in that rut, think on the Lord’s Prayer. Every week we pray the words: give us this day our daily bread, and this petition is deceptively complex.
Not only does this prayer mean that God will provide food, but it also means God is going to provide anything and everything we need. That's a high bar, friends.
And while we might equate that need with sustenance and shelter, don’t forget about the spiritual, don’t forget about God's grace. At the end of the day the only sustenance we need is the bread and wine of communion and the shelter of God’s care. And I say these knowing full well that they come from a point of privilege – I don’t need to worry about food and shelter. BUT! If you hear those words and feel that way that means that our faith should require and compel us to serve others - to provide daily bread for others. That’s the Kingdom of God – living into God’s grace so that others might more fully live their lives in God’s light.
That brings me back to the cat. And even more Good News. So, the man picked up the cat and got scratched pretty bad.
When they get home the children give the cat several baths, about a gallon of warm milk and intercede: “Can we let the cat stay in the house just tonight?" The father acquiesces, and in the garage, they fix a comfortable bed fit for a king.
Several weeks pass. One day the father feels something rub against his leg. He looks down, and there's the cat. He reaches down toward the cat, carefully checking to see that no one is watching – He holds out his hand. When the cat sees his hands, it does not bear its claws and hiss; instead, it arches its back to receive a caress.
This morning's passage may be a warning, but it is also an ever-present reminder that God is patient. God is very much like the man who picks up the cat and holds on for dear life even while being scratched.
We like the cat – like Paul, find ourselves barren from time to time, but if we’ve learned one thing today, it is that God is patient. That even though we scratch God’s hand when God reaches down to pick us up, God holds on and never lets us go.
Friends, this day we are called to be gardeners. Gardeners who are living fruitful lives in the light of Christ. And we are called to into that calling by giving others a 2nd chance. And because Jesus is the gardener who digs around us and nurtures us – we are called to bear fruit, and in all things, we show gratitude. That’s the kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus digs around us, that’s why God grants us 2nd chances – not so we squander them, but so we might be so thankful in our response.