a sermon based on Luke 13:1-9
by Rev. Heather McCance
Not long ago, the Toronto Star ran
profiles of two Ontario Court judges. One of the judges gave, on average, the lightest of
sentences in the court system and the other gave, on average, dished out the toughest.
A few days later, several letters to the editor appeared criticizing the lenient judge.
She was responsible, the writers implied, for all the crimes committed by those who were
back in the world that much sooner because of her sentencing. While she had said that she
accepted responsibility, several letter-writers expressed their doubt that this would
bring any comfort to those who had been raped, beaten, mugged or killed by those convicts
out of prison sooner than the maximum penalty would have allowed.
I saw no letters criticizing the harsher judge.
"Let's tear out this fig tree," says the land owner. "It toxifies the
soil and makes it impossible for the grapes to grow. It uses up way more than its share of
water and soil nutrients. Its bark produces this latex substance that irritates the skin.
The only reason for its existence is to produce fruit, and it's not even doing that. Just
cut it down and throw it away. We can start over with something else."
It seems like a logical argument to me. I'm not a gardener, and all I know about fig
trees comes not from gardening books but from Bible commentaries. But I suspect that I,
too, would want to get rid of a fruitless fruit tree.
But this is one of those times when it's probably a good thing that I'm not God.
Because there are days when I'm sick and tired of the stupid, horrible things we human
beings do to one another, days when I completely identify with the harsh punishment line
of thinking. There are definitely days when I can understand the great flood, the story of
God deciding to save only one human family and the animals of the earth in an ark, while
destroying the whole sinful lot of the rest of them with a forty-day flood. Pull it up,
chop it down, and start over with something else.
Yet it wasn't all that long before Noah's descendants went right back to the stupid,
hurtful ways of their predecessors. Sin and suffering returned to the world.
It might be blasphemous to suggest this, but perhaps God learned something from that
experience. God had tried the harsh punishment route, God wiped out nearly the whole
population of the planet in that flood, and yet virtually nothing changed. It would seem
that harsh punishments don't work.
Now that is probably a gross oversimplification. But I'd like to share a story with
you. Some time ago, I met with a woman whom I had hurt. I knew I had hurt her, and I knew
that it was my fault. After avoiding the situation for a few weeks, which of course only
made it worse, I finally called her home, and was very much relieved when her answering
machine picked up the call. I wouldnt have to talk to her in person just yet.
And I left a message that said something like, "I'd really like to get together
with you, because I know I've let you down horribly and I think I need you to yell at me
about it. And that's probably unpardonably selfish of me, to talk about what I need. But
I'm hoping that somehow, by the grace of God, we might be able to get past this and start
She called me back about an hour later and we arranged for me to come to her house the
next day. Once there, I was quite nervous. I expected her, I wanted her, to be angry with
me; many of her friends were angry with me, and with cause. But she wasn't. She wanted to
understand why I had done what I had done, and we talked about it, and she was never
anything less than gracious and forgiving, and before I left she thanked me for coming
over and told me that, with her, there would always be second chances.
I thought I needed to be yelled at, that I needed her to be angry with me. I thought
that I deserved to be punished. In some ways, I feared that she would decide that I was no
good, like the fruitless fig tree. But instead of meeting me with punishment, she met me
with grace and with understanding and with love. And because of that, we were able to
begin to put our friendship back together, and move into the uncertain future together.
I don't know what would have happened had she yelled and been angry. But rather than
dismissing me from her life altogether, she took a chance on me. By giving me a second
chance, by allowing the fig tree to be fertilized with this experience and then giving it
another chance to produce fruit, she made possible a whole new level of relationship
between us, a relationship in which I am trying harder than ever before to live up to the
faith my friend has now placed in me.
I don't know whether it's possible for this kind of relationship-building to happen in
the context of the criminal justice system. I do know of pilot projects across North
America where perpetrators, in lieu of prison time, meet with their victims and together
they devise a sentence that seems fair to a judge. So for example, a teenager who stole a
little kid's bicycle, one the child had worked at a paper route for two years to buy,
agreed to a similar number of hours of community service to come to understand what that
bike had really been worth. One speaker I heard on such a project reported that repeat
offender rates for this program are less than half those of the traditional prison system.
So maybe there is some way of making relationship-building work in that world, too. I
But I do know that it is relationship-building, and not punishing, that interests our
God isn't interested in cutting us down and throwing us away, even when that's what we
think we deserve. With God, there are always second chances. Sure, things sometimes have
to change before we can produce fruit, and having manure spread on the roots of our lives
is probably not a terribly pleasant experience.
Seek the Lord while God may be found, call on God when God is near. It's an amazing
offer of grace and forgiveness and new relationship in the midst of our Lenten journey of
repentance. Every time we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we promise to repent and return to
the Lord whenever we fall into sin. We say that we believe that God will always be there,
to welcome us home.
To our way of thinking, this might be too easy, too lenient. Maybe God is too
lax. And some people do hold God responsible every time one of us sinners hurts another,
because, after all, God could have torn us up and got rid of the problem.
We can't believe that God could be good and just and yet still be so merciful, so
understanding, so forgiving. But God forgives each of us, easily, because God is so
passionately in love with each and every one of us. And renewing our relationship with God
makes it that much more important for us to try never to let God down again, to try to
live up to the faith God has placed in us.
Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return
to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly
pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my
thoughts than your thoughts.
To which I respond with all my being, Thanks be to God. Amen.