Sunday, March 20, 2022

Called To Be Gardeners In The Vineyard 

The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector 

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 

Katy, TX 77493 

Third Sunday of Lent 2022 


When the Tuesday bible study heard today’s Gospel I got a somewhat quizzical look from those gathered around the table. Basically they said, “We have two questions A. What does the first section mean and B. what in the world does that have to do with the parable of the barren fig tree?” I knew I had headed in the right direction since I was asking the exact same questions on this rather peculiar gospel selection.  

In this section of Luke, we are entering a series of parables that teach about being watchful, faithful, trusting of God and then responding to God. So today’s gospel must be set in that context or it makes little sense. 

 “At that time some present told him, about those people from Galilee whose blood Pilate mixed with the sacrifices?” Jesus answers, are they any worse than other Galileans? Then he mentions the18 killed in the collapse of a tower.  Are they worse sinners than others? These two situations bring up questions that have been around for a long time of why tragic things happen to innocent people.   

The worshippers at the temple were certainly just exercising a proper religious duty of sacrifice when Pilate had them killed. This was an attack on the temple and temple worship by the Roman authorities. Then those killed by the tower collapse, well that certainly sounds like an accident doesn’t it? What does that have to do with those who died being sinful? 

 It is essential to remember that then, as sometimes happens now, there can be an attitude of if something bad happens to someone, it is obviously because they did something wrong and are being punished. Even worse is when the source of the punishment is said to be God! This belief of misfortune being caused as punishment for  sin was very common in the time of Jesus and sadly is still common today. I am concerned when I hear someone expressing this idea which creates that picture of God on his throne with a smite button in his hand. Someday I pray we finally get rid of that, but for some, this is their image of God. Now Richard Rohr will ask you, “How do you love and trust a God who is ready to strike you down because you commit some sin. It is hard to love someone of whom you are afraid.” 

 Jesus however says, “no this isn’t the way God operates”. This is a call from Jesus to be more concerned about our own sins and actions than those we might assign to others. In many respects this is along the lines of why are you worried about the speck in your neighbor’s eye but ignore the log in your own that he says to the Pharisees. These two statements are a call to focus on having our own houses in order. Worry about your own actions more than you worry about others. You can only control what you do.  

 The Common English Bible translation translates the Greek rather than “repent” it uses “unless you change your hearts and lives.” This is a call to examine ourselves, our lives and what fruit those bear. Is it now beginning to make sense that we have this passage in Lent? 

This helps make the transition to Jesus’ parable about the fig tree. Jesus says in this parable that what is important is about how we respond to God’s call. I believe this is why Moses and the burning bush is our text from Hebrew Scriptures. God does call to all of us, some of us may need a burning bush before we notice. Have you ever wondered how many times God might have tried to get Moses’ attention before he had to use a burning bush? I often wonder what signs from God I may have missed until God gets my attention.   

In this parable, Jesus uses a familiar metaphor in the Jewish world. Vineyards are often used, to represent the people of Israel and God is the vineyard owner or the one tending the vineyard.  This metaphor shows up several times in Isaiah in particular. The question is usually does the vineyard produce good fruit or how fruitful is the vineyard? So Jesus’ audience would have immediately understood the basic concept.  

 My first thought is thank God for the patient gardener. Wait a moment, let me give this tree one more chance. The owner has been looking for three years for fruit and if the tree is just three years old then this would be the first summer that fruit would be expected. You see it takes three years before any fig tree will bear fruit. Maybe this tree like some of us is a little slow. Now the vineyard owner knows that an unproductive tree should not waste the good soil of the vineyard. Good fertile soil was not plentiful in that part of the world, but the gardener pleads for a little more time. Let me dig around and spread manure on it. Let me see what we can do to make the tree productive. 

As I meditated on this parable I started to wonder, are we the tree or the gardener? What if the tree is a metaphor for our life and Jesus is asking us to look at what we are doing with out life. One of the commentaries I read was written by Michael Curry when he was the Bishop of North Carolina.  As I was reading, I was thinking about something he said at the General Convention in Salt Lake City in 2015. I vividly remember in one of his sermons just after being elected Presiding Bishop he was issuing a call to action for the church.

He said, “God put us on this earth to do more than just breathe in oxygen!”  In other words we are here to do more than just exist. God does want to see our trees producing fruit, fruit of the Spirit, fruit that brings forth the kingdom. I truly believe that this sermon was the start of his thoughts on the Way of Love that he introduced in Austin at the General Convention 4 years ago.   

Bishop Curry writes, “Our task is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God.”1 Bishop Curry is saying that we are called to engage with God, listen to God, witness to the world and let God be God. 

While this calls for patience none of this is passive. This calls us to a relationship with God that is totally different from what most people think of. This in fact will build a totally different type of church, one that has a bright future. As I mentioned last week this is in large part about trust in God. Trust that God knows what God is doing even when we may have no clue.   

This is describing the difference between a consumer oriented church and a missional church. A consumer-oriented church is populated by people who say or think I go to church. I go to a church that is seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services. I go to church to be fed, to have my needs met through quality programs and to have my children taught about God by professionals. This is a church that is all about me. This is a church that probably will not change the world. This is a church that doesn’t produce much fruit. 

 However being a member of a church is about more than just checking off the right boxes so you get your reward at the end of your life. A healthy church is not a passive consumer oriented experience. Christianity really is not about you, but about God’s kingdom and the part we play in it.  

 A missional church is a very different expression of the Body of Christ. A missional church is a body of people sent on mission who gather in community for worship, community encouragement and teaching from the Word in addition to what they are self-feeding themselves through out the week. People in a missional church do not go to church they are the church. Missional Communities are how many of our church plants start and this diocese is well on the way to meeting our goal of 50 new churches within the next few years. One of these Sundays I will have someone from the Mission Amplification team out to talk with us about what they are doing to build the church. They will definitely have some ideas for us.  

 This is a church filled with people who know God as more than a character in the Bible. This is a church that knows that Jesus loves them not because the Bible tells them so, but because they have met the risen Christ. This is a church filled with fruitful trees that are the delight of the master. 

 This is a church that follows the Way of Love that our Presiding Bishop has called us to be. This is a church that exists not for itself, but for the world outside its walls. This is the church that this world desperately needs. We are called to be this church.