In nomine Jesu!
I am, as everyone knows, an inveterate planner. Always have been. I believe in planning; planning is a near-religious experience for me. Back in seminary I'd more likely be greeted with "what's the plan?" than "how ya doin'?" Someday, an electronic archaeologist will go through my computer files and discover plans for just about everything. My funeral plans are in there -- complete with presider and preacher (he's not here today), readings and several hymn and music choices with variations according to the season. There's another file in there from May 2001 labeled "The Grand Plan." It details everything I hoped to accomplish together with you during my service with you as Senior Pastor. I believe in planning. Hold on to your Lutheran britches, but I believe planning done well is a means of grace.
In this, I'm encouraged by Jesus, especially today in his parable of the fruitless fig tree. In my opinion, this is a perfect example of planning as grace. While the vineyard owner has expectations, he has no plan and so when he finds his fig tree fruitless, he acts precipitously: "Cut it down!" he bellows. The gardener, in
contrast, is a man with a plan and the plan is full of grace: "Let it alone for a year. I'll dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down." Notice: the gardener's plan is temporarily disruptive -- "I'll dig around it." It requires nourishment -- in this case, manure -- along the way. But the plan and the planner is focused on the owner's original goal: not a pile of useless lumber, but a vital, growing, productive tree. Planning, you see, is graceful. And the gardener, who is the Christ-figure here, is so obsessed by grace and so committed to the plan that he willingly risks everything -- the wrath of his boss, the possible loss of his job, maybe even the loss of his life (we all know where the story teller is going) -- so that the tree has a chance for a vibrant, new and productive life. Planning, you see, is grace. Stick with the plan, I say. Jesus obviously agrees.
Except for the tower of Siloam, and -- oh yeah -- those "Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices." Let's call these random destruction and spiteful evil. When these happen, the first casualty, after the obvious
ones, is, you guessed it, the plan.
Like the poor, random destruction and spiteful evil are with us always, but right now they seem to be omni-present; and their sheer prevalence today exhausts us, leaving us cynical at best and self-absorbed at worst; shaking our faith; strangling our hope; constricting our love and leaving us skeptical about grace. We began this liturgy by praying, "Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son."
For the most part, "yeah, right" is our likely response. Keep your head down. Mind your own business. Watch for trouble. Expect nothing. That's the posture we hold. Such a posture, such an attitude, such a mindset leaves us with only one possible response to everyone and everything: "Cut it down! It's wasting soil." Such a posture, such an attitude, such a mindset leaves us with only one possible response to God: Leave us in peace. Leave us alone. Especially in church.
But Jesus keeps digging and Jesus keeps pouring on the nutrients for life. Remember, he's the gardener in the parable. Remember, the
gardener has a plan.
So first, Jesus assures us that neither random destruction nor spiteful evil are God's plan for dealing with "sinners," whether they're "worse sinners" or not. "Sin" is not a matter of grace or degree, Jesus tells us. And unlike us, God is not into remotely-controlled laser-targeted judgment. Furthermore, Jesus explains, those who teach such things, believe such things and do such things to others have clearly missed the point of God's promise which we call "the Gospel." God is not in the name, blame, and aim business -- and for God, "cut it down" is not an acceptable option. "Cut it down" is not a part of the "design of God's great love." Remember -- and stick to -- the plan.
All the while Jesus keeps digging around, disturbing our roots, making some space and pouring in all the nutrients we need so that we would be vibrant, productive and have a chance to grow because that's the plan.
In our lifetimes, in our most recent memories, we've seen more random destruction and more spiteful evil; more than one tower of Siloam fall and more than one Pontius Pilate shed innocent
blood than we care to remember or can possibly count and, worse even than that, the near-daily prevalence of random destruction and spiteful evil makes times of almost unparalleled testing, of "little deaths" surrounding us every day. This is a time when living by faith, persisting with hope and acting in love because we are living by grace and trusting God's plan is increasingly hard to do. Such a time as this is therefore the right time to cling to the promise that "God is faithful, and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it."
"The way out." That brings us back to the plan. God's "way out" for our forebears in faith, for Jesus and for us is littered with towers of Siloam and populated with Pontius Pilate's spite. God's plan -- the "way out" for for our forebears, for Jesus, and for us -- winds through the wilderness, is always the way of the cross which in turn always leads to the empty tomb and the land of promise. Along that way, Christ is always with us, often unnoticed by us, yet always there to open our eyes and pour nutrients into us through the blessed, broken, nutrient-rich bread which is food for our journey, nourishment on
That's the plan! Full of grace! Towers of Siloam and Pontius Pilates be damned. And Jesus keeps digging. And Jesus keeps feeding so that we remain vital, productive and growing and faithful along the way. Through the wilderness to the cross to the empty tomb to the Promised Land: Christ Jesus in the lead. That's the plan.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
in the City of New York
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Saint Luke 13: 1-9