“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I 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.”
Let it alone until next year?
What makes this gardener think anything will be different, better, or more fertile for growth 12 months down the road? Is there something special about this round of manure to be spread? Why the call to wait and see?
It is quite evident that we find ourselves at a pivotal crossroads as faith communities, nation, and larger world. Yet, when change is happening at a rate difficult to measure, the temptation for the church is to rest in the familiar and spread supposed-fertilizer on old mission paradigms, paternalistic charitable practices, and concerns for church programs that primarily target those who are in pews, which are becoming more and more vacant. So when tenders of our congregational vineyards suggest pruning what we or those before us planted so to make space for what is new to spring, it is far easier to say, “Let it alone until next year. Can’t we just spread some manure on it one more time and see if we can make it work?”
The answer is a resounding, “No! Next is now.”
Maybe this is the intended irony of Luke, as he quickly moves from this unresolved parable to Jesus’ healing of a woman from a debilitating spirit. Jesus refused to wait to work towards liberation and love, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God” (Luke 13:12-13).
Jesus knows what is next is now. The question is, do we?
This Sunday’s lectionary is fitting, as we find ourselves again grieving a horrific act of violence that claimed the lives of those gathered to worship and pray- this time 50 Muslim sisters and brothers in Christchurch, New Zealand. The name of the community where this act of terror and white supremacy took place only adds to the horror. It reminds us their suffering is our suffering; the sorrow of our Muslim neighbors, near and far, is also a burden carried by the Church of Jesus Christ. The same was true in light of what occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018), the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas (2017), the Islamic Center in Quebec (2017), Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina (2015), schools like Marjory Douglass in Parkland, Florida (2018), and the list goes on and tragically grows. This does not even take into account the lives claimed by gun violence and demonstrations of hate in our neighborhoods throughout Greater Philadelphia. As we look around, we see more than enough barren fig trees, even memorials to the lost, and know something has to change in our language and legislation, political and faithful witness.
In light of the urgent realities of our polarized and fractured world, we must continue to ask a lot of questions, ponder critical and expose hard truths, confront racism, exploitation, phobias, and various isms, build ecumenical, interfaith and community coalitions, and talk a whole lot about where the Spirit may be leading our churches at this crossroad of faith in the midst of the complexities of the twenty-first century world. We may even need to uproot immediately, instead of spreading dung on them, those systems, patterns, programs, and practices that do not generate life and instead perpetuate the marginalization and oppression of any person or people. As the Confession of Belhar reminds us, “The church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged.” We must resist the temptation to wait until the next year, next tragedy, next shared story of devastation and death to do the hard work necessary to bear the fruit of God’s alternative dreams for a world made whole and good again.
In this season of Lent, we are invited to grieve, mourn, pray, light a few candles, and even confess the ways we are complicit with the sin of a broken world. Yet, we are called to lament not to linger. Our lamentation must lead us to mobilize in the immediacy of our present, to refuse to spread manure on trite rhetoric and call it progress. We must repent and trust the Spirit to awaken us to new, courageous, and risky possibilities today, in the stench of death, assured new life will spring if we have the eyes to see, ears to hear, and faith to follow Jesus towards the immediacy of liberation and the urgency of love.
After all, God’s next is now.