“So God Made a Farmer” Luke 13:1-9
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, March 3, 2013 Third Sunday in Lent
[Dodge Ram Super Bowl Commercial, “So God Made a Farmer” by Paul Harvey http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMpZ0TGjbWE]
If you are old enough to know that voice on the commercial, you needed no announcement of his name to know it was going to be a good story. The commercial, “So God Made a Farmer,” airing at this year’s Super Bowl, is for Dodge Ram pickups (I’m happy to recommend them as well). It was an instant hit with the millions of viewers who saw it that first time and continues to get constant visits on Youtube, generating $1,000,000 for farm aid. The magic of the commercial was not just Paul Harvey’s made for radio voice nor was it from the superior design of the truck at the end. No, the commercial was a hit because it celebrated the life and contribution of farmers, the unsung heroes of our economy and especially our food supply. Paul Harvey’s attention to them in this ad reminds us of how vital their tireless work is to our daily existence.
An even better storyteller and voice speaks on to us today from Luke’s gospel. In fact, Jesus seemed to always celebrate the contribution of the farmer in the stories he told. While standing in the rows of a vineyard, sitting beside a freshly planted crop, or looking at fields ripe for harvest, Jesus never tired of using the farmer and the soil of his profession to illustrate spiritual truths. In most of these stories, God is the farmer, exhibiting interest in His crops and enduring patience with what he has planted. That is certainly the case in our Gospel reading this morning.
The farming story today comes at the end of a discussion Jesus is having with a crowd about current events. The word on the street was that Pilate mixed the blood of their sacrifices with the blood of Galileans, an act to desecrate their altar as well as to remind them not to cross Caesar. The other event on their minds was the news of how the Tower of Siloam fell, killing 18 people, who, in their minds, must have deserved it. Jesus alluded to these two events as he engaged their assumptions about God’s role in them. “Where was God when Pilate desecrated their sacrifices?” and, “Where was God when the tower fell?” they wondered to themselves and to each other. Jesus seems to have a strange response to their questions, using them as a platform to challenge not only their assumptions but also their own spiritual status. “Unless you repent, you will also perish as they did,” he says to them not once but twice.
As those responses lingered in the air with conviction, Jesus moved next into story-telling mode. The story provides the people not only with a chance to get their breath back, but to hear Jesus illustrate what he just said. He wanted to be sure they understood what God was expecting of them, in case they still weren’t getting the point. What better way to illustrate than with a story of farming. A vineyard owner wants a fig tree planted on his land and has his farmer put one in the soil. He expects it to grow and plant figs, yet it does not for its first three years. He concludes that it is worthless and orders it to be removed. The farmer, though, has more patience and convinces the owner to give it one more year, during which he will give it special attention and fertilize it with manure. He believes it has a future. End of story.
“What?” This must have been the most common response in the crowd. What does a fig tree have to do with Pilate and with 18 people getting smashed under a tower? Maybe they even wondered if Jesus had lost it; if the pressures he was facing were taking their toll. For those who had ears to hear, though, they knew that Jesus actually had found it. What he had found was what was missing in their lives–the fruit. God had called them to shine His light of love to the nations around them. He had called them to sink their roots deep into the soil of His love and to produce a harvest of it for everyone around to taste and see. He expected them to have the results of loving actions, not just religious statements. And yet they had nothing to show but the fruitless branches. They were alive but perishing.
Kathleen Norris, in her book The Cloister Walk, provides insight on what happens when we don’t repent,
Repentance is not a popular word these days, but I believe that any of us recognize it when it strikes us in the gut. Repentance is coming to our senses, seeing, suddenly, what we’ve done that we might not have done, or recognizing … that the problem is not in what we do but in what we become.[i]
I think this is what Jesus meant by the word “perish.” Our lack of repentance results in our becoming something far less than God intended when he planted us in this world. We may look healthy on the outside, but our lack of fruit is evidence that we are perishing. You and I are not here to enjoy the rich nutrients of the soil and keep them all to ourselves. We are not here to take up space and not produce any fruit. We are not here to live without accountability and inspection. We are not here to wonder about other people’s innocence or guilt and not consider our own. What we are here to do is to thrive in the vineyard of God and bear fruit for the people of our world. The fruit of our branches is to provide nourishment, taste, health, and life in our community. Is such fruit on our branches? Are we that part in the crowd who can’t understand Jesus?
The agricultural tip for the people to bear fruit rather than perishing was in the manure. God could take the waste of life and bring beautiful and life-giving fruit from it. This wouldn’t happen unless they were willing to use it as fertilizer. There was still hope. Jesus, one skilled in bringing life from waste, could see the potential in the people who gathered around him that day. He looked at their fruitless branches and saw fruit. He could bring it out of them if they would join in; if they would do their work of turning away from the things that were destroying their lives and take in the ingredients of life God had for them.
Repentance is our way of fertilizing growth for fruit as well. “Unless you repent . . . ” is for our crowd here today as well. Lent can become for us a time of crop inspection. The words of Scripture inform us that the day of accountability is coming; that the owner of the vineyard is on his way. Lent can be for us a time to see not so much what needs to be given up, but adding what is missing. It is a time to allow God to redeem the waste of our unfruitfulness to bring the kind of harvest our world is missing.
Our time of Communion this morning is a perfect time for you and I to remember just how much potential God sees in us and how patient He is with our development. The cup and the bread remind us that we get another year in the vineyard; that we need not perish. They remind us that we had a need for help to grow into fruitfulness instead of descending into emptiness. So God made a farmer.
He invites us to the table of Jesus to partake in the elements of his grace and forgiveness. And from them great fruit shall come.