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Sinners in the Hands of a Tender God

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Feb 28

Texts: Isaiah 55:1–13; Luke 13:1–9

From St. Louis University, this prayer:
kind and patient
gardener of
when we are barren
like that fig tree,
soak our
make them
moist with your love.
Pour grace on us like water
on parched
until we bear fruit. Amen.

Oh, Revised Common Lectionary, you practical joker—up to your old tricks again. You know how I love the gospel of Luke. So just to exasperate me you reach into the text and pull out… this. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Yeah, great. Thanks.

It’s an affronting text for progressives. We would just as soon pretend it wasn’t there. Like people of faith everywhere, we’re really good at picking out and scrapbooking the passages that inspire us, and skipping over the ones that turn us off. If only the Bible had a “Don’t show me this again” option we could click, right? Ignore the warning passages. “Favorite” the ones about love and justice and mercy and inclusion and grace and hope and light and goodness and forgiveness and kindness.

“Let them return to the Lord, and receive mercy,” Isaiah declares in our Old Testament passage this morning— “and to our God, who will abundantly pardon. The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Someone out there has tacked those words over a photo of a nature scene and posted it as a Facebook meme to be liked and shared.

Really, doesn’t it sound prettier than “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did”? Yet people are always telling me that it’s the “Old Testament God” who is harsh.

Back in the day, preachers didn’t feel they needed to shy away from this passage, or rummage around the rest of the lectionary readings for the day hoping to find something a little less—well—hell-y.

Hell was real to them, and sin and separation from God a deadly danger. We worry about ISIS and climate change and the collapse of the American dream. They worried about eternal damnation. If it seemed like hell might be starting to slip out people’s consciousness, preachers believed it their Christian duty to sound the alarm—just like today there are many who are eager to tell you that you’re naïve if you don’t take the threat of terrorism seriously.

The most famous sermon in this genre was preached by the great 18th-century theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards, our Congregational neighbor from western Mass. Fetchingly titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” it’s about the need to repent and return to God now, immediately, while there’s still time, and it cites the very passage we heard today, about the fig tree being given just a little more time. Don’t fool yourselves, Edwards told his listeners. The only thing that’s holding you back from the flaming abyss, the only thing, is the grace of God. He preached it during the Great Awakening, the first of the major revival movements, and it made a deep impression on the crowds that came to hear him. I was going to read you a little bit of it, but when I went back and looked for the passage I was thinking about, I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to utter it out loud. Good gracious, what was my high school English teacher thinking, assigning that text to a class of 16-year-olds?
For the next couple of decades after that encounter, whenever I heard the name “Jonathan Edwards,” I reflexively thought, “hellfire and brimstone.” Then I took a church history course with our own Peggy Bendroth. “Not so fast,” Peggy said about fire-and-brimstone Edwards. That one sermon doesn’t begin to capture the fullness of the man. He was profound and complex, gentle and emotional, not thundering as we imagine, but pleading with his listeners to accept the grace of God that was being offered them.

And after all, was there no urgency? Is there no urgency now, at such a time as this? In the historical moment we are living through right now?
Don’t we thunder as we watch the news, share articles on social media about politics, climate change, racism, inequality, refugees…?

By now you may well be thinking, “Why is she dwelling on all this? When is she going to move on?”

I guess there’s just something stubborn in me that, when handed a text, by a high school English teacher or a Revised Common Lectionary, feels compelled to deal with it. To stay with it. To listen to what it has to say and try to understand where it’s coming from—or if I can’t do that, at least to respect it for what it is. Or who it is. Because behind every text is a faith community, right? And behind every faith community is a tradition, a story. No doubt a complicated story. If we dismiss that story too lightly, we may miss what it has to teach us about the real struggles of being human.
And yet it’s that very struggle, isn’t it, that’s brought us together as church. It’s the work that God has called us to be about—the spiritual practice of bearing with one another, holding each other in community, as difficult as we are. It’s that which makes church such a hard place for many people to be. Not our so-called beliefs—those are dynamic and evolving, aren’t they? Not the long, dull sermons. It’s the holding together in community that’s hard. Hard, counter-cultural, and yes, SAVING.


Saving as in, “unless you repent [and engage in this work with us], you will all perish as they did.”

Of loneliness. Of fearfulness. Of anger and suspicion, selfishness and denial, all the evils that make this country and this time feel so scary right now.

I got saved. This congregation saved me, as a difficult young person with a difficult history behind me. You gave me a place to belong when I felt lost and hard to love. You bore patiently with me and helped me grow, not just for one year, but for many. You’re still at it.

“He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”

I love that part about manure, don’t you? Any organic gardeners out there? My mother is one. She brings manure home in her car by the tubful.
Manure. Nourishment. Organic life, the teeming past, decaying, yet full of vitality for the living tree, the living church.

Nothing is useless. Nothing and no one, no life, is wasted. All of it is part of the organic mix, the beautiful work of God, turning our efforts and our passions and our faults and our heartbreaks and, yes, our hatreds and our bitterness to new energy and purpose. Compost.

Jonathan Edwards was complicated. We’re complicated. Our stories are complicated, and this gospel, which I so love, is complicated. It has a context, a backstory which pleads to be heard. The Jesus we meet there doesn’t speak with one tone of voice, or with one single simple message. The word of life he brought isn’t reducible to a single feel-good slogan.
Maybe when you’re a minister to people who’ve spent a lot of time living on the street, as I am, you get used to stories that don’t fit neatly into boxes. Stories that make you a little uncomfortable, that resist a nice tidy moral.
Those stories are hard to be with. We like clarity and resolution. We like good people to be good, and bad people to be bad, and when bad things happen, we want there to be a reason for it. It’s hard to resist the urge to blame, or to solve, or to rescue, or to fix. Anything but sit and be with pain of being a flawed and vulnerable human in an often unforgiving world.
Jesus isn’t having it.

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” he asks. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

“Everyone’s guilty, he says. Everyone has hurt and been hurt. We’re all in the same boat.” Maybe his harshness here is to cut through any lingering self-delusion we might be harboring about that. Focus on the life you have left to YOU, he tells us. Turn. Reorient. Redirect your life toward God. Change your mind, your heart, your attitude… your way of life. Love more. Forgive more. Dismantle your judgments more. Share more.

I’m not sure what he means by “perish as they did.” Is he talking about the way those Galileans died? The state of their souls? The words are ambiguous. What we do know is that the very next Galilean in the gospel of Luke to perish at the hands of the Romans will be… Jesus himself. Is he condemning sinners in this passage…? or very pointedly identifying with them?

The answer seems to come with the parable. There was this tree, Jesus says, and the person who thought he owned it was angry at it because it wasn’t making a profit. Angry person wanted to cut the tree down. But the gardener, the one who had planted the tree in the first place, and told it, “be fruitful, and multiply…” the gardener wasn’t so ready to give up on it. You kind of get the idea that the gardener loved this unfruitful tree. “You think this tree is just freeloading—taking up space in ‘your’ soil, he says. To you it’s nothing but a drain on the property.

“I’ll tell you what, the gardener says. “Let’s stop everything and just lavish this tree with attention and resources, and see what happens.”
It’s not the answer we expected to hear. Nor is it one that’s going to play well on GOP debate night.

But it is God’s so-called judgment on our life.

“Be fruitful.” That was God’s command, is God’s eternal command and blessing to trees and birds and beasts and people back in the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful.” Not “Be good” but “be fruitful.”

Paul says that means, “Practice love.” Love is “the fruit of the Spirit” he writes, and then goes on to tell us what he thinks that looks like in real life. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Generosity. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-control. We’re going to need them all, if we’re going to learn not just to live together in peace, but to build a world worth living in together.

As John Wesley put it, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Or as we say here at First Church,
Grounded in God, our hope and our healing
Growing in community with Jesus our center
Acting in love, made bold by the Spirit.

Acting in love.

Reorienting together toward an ever-deeper and deeper hospitality toward God and each other, involving more and more of our whole selves, our hearts, our minds, our resources, our vitality.
Together we are learning to BE together, all the parts of ourselves, in all our not-yet-completeness—the beautiful, the quirky, the often-difficult—all held patiently, lovingly in community, nurtured and cared for.

And even as we learn and grow together in Christ, we are boldly making space for others to come in and be at home here under our roof. If you’ve stopped by on a Friday afternoon and seen the Friday Café in action, you know what I mean. Table after table of people eating, talking, telling stories—or off to the side, quietly welcomed just as they are. The hospitality in the room is deep and palpable: not just the food, the coffee, the nap area, the books, the music, but the culture of respect, openness, listening, and care that we’ve cultivated together from the day we first opened our doors. As you once welcomed me, so now it’s my joy to welcome others with you.
And how we’ve grown. Last week we hosted 120 guests. 120! I think it’s become clear to all of us that First Church has got to have a bigger kitchen. I know! I’m sorry to bring it up, but we really do! For Sunday lunches and Friday Café and community events and all the ways we make room for life here at First Church.

“Be fruitful,” God whispers, “and multiply.” And we have.

Beloved in Christ, we have a saving word here at First Church, and a saving, radically countercultural way of life. Grounded in God, growing in community, we are learning to hold one another in love and to act together for the common good.

We don’t do it perfectly. We make mistakes. We hurt each other’s feelings; sometimes we hurt the community. We’re human, and we mess up humanly.

But when we do, with God’s help we repent and we forgive. And sometimes there’s no repentance and we forgive anyway, because… grace.

The same grace that’s come to your rescue, and mine, too many times to count.
That’s the kind of world I want to live in. That’s the kind of church I want to be part of. The kind that bears with me and helps me grow into the fruitful tree the gardener has always known was there, even when no one, myself included, could see it.

Thanks be to God, our hope and our healing—at such a time as this; in such a world as ours. Amen.

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