This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday in Lent (Year C). The gospel reading was Luke 13:1-9. An adult, whom I’m calling Susan here, was baptized in worship this morning.
Our hearts are broken by the news lately. Fifty people were brutally murdered by a terrorist shooter in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Twenty-three people were killed by a tornado that touched down in Alabama and Georgia, on a day when over forty tornadoes hit the region.
Just like in today’s reading, one of these disasters was through human brutality, and the other was a natural disaster. In times like this, it is normal to ask “Why?” Why did so many people die in this way? Something in our gut tries to find reasons for tragedies like this.
Sometimes we say things like, “Well, it’s all part of God’s plan.” Or, “Everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes we even look for reasons that people might have deserved their suffering. I remember when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, at least one television preacher claimed that it was God’s punishment for the sins of that city.
But Jesus says here very clearly: No. That’s not what happened here. This was not God’s plan.
We don’t like that. I know. We want the world to be fair. We want good people to be rewarded and bad people to be punished. But that’s not the world we live in, and it never has been. Good things happen. Bad things happen. And they are not all in accordance with God’s will. I will be bold enough to say that it was not God’s will that the shootings in New Zealand happened. And it was not God’s will that people in the south died in tornadoes. Those things happened, not because God is angry or violent, but because our world is an imperfect, broken place that includes pain.
We don’t like that, because that makes it feel like our world is nothing but chaos. Like we have no control over anything at all. We want control, and if we can’t have control ourselves, we want to at least know that God has it.
But no – Jesus tells us right here: the world is not fair. God doesn’t take control of everything. People don’t get what they deserve.
But wait! It gets even worse. Jesus then reminds us that if people got what they deserve, we’d all be dead. That’s the thing about sin, isn’t it? It has all of us in its clutches. If we were truly judged by our sins, none of us could stand. Not one.
But wait! It gets better. Much, much better. Because Jesus doesn’t stop there. Then he tells a story about a tree, a tree which for at least three years hasn’t produced its proper fruit. Anyone who saw that tree it would agree with the landowner: just cut the dumb thing down. But the gardener has mercy. No, he says. Let me care for it. Let me dig around it and give it fertilizer. I will do what I can to make this tree produce fruit. Give it another year. Give it another year.
And so Jesus does for us. He gives us another year. He gives us mercy. He gives us forgiveness. He gives us hope. He gives us a second chance.
And what does that chance look like? Well, it’s not the tree getting a chance to fix itself. The gardener doesn’t say, “Give the tree one more year. I’ll give it a pep talk, and teach it how to grow right. It’ll do the right thing, I promise.” No, the gardener says, “Give it one more year. I will tend to it. I will do the work. I will water it, and pour my body and blood into it. And it will flourish, thanks to my work.” That is how Jesus saves us, despite our sinfulness. Jesus comes to us, forgives us for failing to do what we ought, and nurtures us, nourishes us, empowers and enlivens us through his Holy Spirit. Giving us everything we need. Always.
And here’s the surprise. What about next year? What about next year when he comes back? The gardener says that if the tree doesn’t bear good fruit in one year, it will be cut down. Here’s the surprise. Next year, he will again give us one more year. Our God is the God of second chances. And our God is unlimited in mercy. So every second chance, we get another second chance. And another. Every second chance, our gardener continues to nurture and prune us, so that we not only live and thrive, but produce good fruit.
Our gardener continues to persevere, year after year, nurturing and nourishing, giving and forgiving.
And so when we experience suffering, we are called to persevere as well. To patiently wait, not to try to understand why God caused the suffering, for God very well may not have caused it. Rather, to patiently wait until God redeems the suffering, until God brings new growth, until God gives us hope and peace again. And when we encounter the suffering of someone else, we are called to persevere with them. To hold them up, as God is holding us. To build them up, as God is building us. To be God’s hands. To be with them, and help them to persevere.
And that, believe it or not, is what baptism is all about. Susan, you will be baptized in just a few minutes, and today you will become part of this promise of perseverance. Today, as you are baptized, God will not promise to keep suffering away from you, but will promise to keep dwelling with you in your suffering. God will not promise to make you perfect and sinless today, but will promise to keep healing you and forgiving you and inspiring you to grow. You will only be baptized once, but God promises to renew these gifts over and over again, to give you one more year after year after year. And today you make promises as well. Today you promise to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, and to strive for justice and peace. You promise that just as God will persevere with you, you will persevere with the world. You will press on. Endure. Stand firm. Be patient. Be hopeful, no matter what comes your way. Will you always succeed? Of course not. But will Christ strengthen you to help you throughout all of it? Absolutely. Welcome to the flowing waters of perseverance, Susan. May we all swim together in God’s love.