(Luke 13: 1-9)
There is a fence that runs across the back of our yard. They started building it hours after we closed on the house, and they finished it hours before we moved in. We built the fence thinking mostly about what needed to stay in – our four dogs at the time, and perhaps even the cat if it managed to get out of the house. Which is why we built the fence five feet high, so there was little chance of anything jumping over it.
But truth be told, we also built the fence with another purpose in mind, because fences aren’t just about what you want to keep in. They’re also about what you’d like to keep out. The deer, for instance, who used to make their way through the woods after dusk and before dawn. The sound of the neighbor’s cars driving on the small road right on the other side of the fence to get to two houses some developer crammed back in there on this odd little plot of land, because Charlotte. And, while we didn’t know it at the time, the neighbor behind us who is prone to wander and carry on profanity-laced conversations with herself.
Our fence, like all fences, has a purpose. It draws a line between what is in and what is out; who is on one side and who is on the other.
Which is a good thing – sometime. The downside of fences, as it turns out, is that “separation from” often winds up becoming “knowing less about.” I know very little about the neighbors behind us because of the fence. I don’t see the deer as much as I used to. I’m missing out on certain things because of the fence.
There are fences everywhere, if you think about it, figurative and otherwise. We build these fences with wood and brick; but we also build plenty of fences with words and ideologies, with fears and misunderstandings, with biases and prejudices and beliefs. And often, those kind of fences are the worst of all, because the more we are ignorant of who is on the other side, interestingly enough, the less we wind up knowing about ourselves.
Our scripture today says nothing specifically about a fence, but it is there if you look hard enough. It comes in the same part of the gospel of Luke that Grace preached on last week, this 13th chapter where Jesus is talking to his disciples and others about a variety of things. And we are told in the midst of the conversation that someone reminds Jesus of a terrible and tragic thing that happened in the temple, the specifics of which are a bit of a mystery to us. It has something to do with Pilate, the Roman ruler, doing something terrible to a group of Galileans who were worshipping in the temple.
It kind of comes out of nowhere, the recollection of this event; we’re not sure why someone is bringing it up. Sometimes the gospel writer offers a bit of a clue in the narrative, a line or two that provides an element of context, just so we know what’s going on. We don’t get any of that here.
But Jesus seems to have a sense of why, and he’s not too pleased by it. There are a handful of times in scripture when Jesus gets perturbed or angry; and while this is certainly not on the “turning over tables” level, you can hear a bit of edge in Jesus’ voice as he says:
Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all Galileans? Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.
And just to make his point clear, he brings up another tragedy – something about a tower collapsing and killing eighteen people. Again, no context provided, but we do know that Pilate’s rule saw major infrastructure work in Jerusalem, so such an accident would not be out of the question.
Anyway, Jesus brings this up – we assume it was familiar to his listeners – and then says:
Do you think those who were killed when the tower fell were worse citizens than all other people living in Jerusalem? Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.
What is it exactly that has gotten under Jesus’ skin, we wonder? True, this chapter and the one before it find Jesus delving into some heavier stuff – anxiety, judgment, denying family and following him. Everything around him building from a soft hum to a loud cacophony, the cross slowly but surely coming into view.
Perhaps what was bothering Jesus was the way people seemed to feel they were better, more justified than their sisters and brothers who suffered their tragic fate. Almost as if they had positioning themselves squarely behind a fence. Not a literal one. But a fence nonetheless, designed as all fences are to keep some things in and others out. To keep in, for them, a sense of security; that somehow the violent whims of a tyrant or random tragedies of a falling tower do not apply to them. To keep in the notion that bad things do not happen to good people – or if not that absolute, if not that cut and dry, at least the notion that sin comes in degrees, that some people are somehow and in some way more in the wrong than we are.
Fences enable us to think that – because, as we said before, separation from means knowing less about. And when we know less about someone, it is easier to put ourselves in a higher position, looking down on them as we stand behind our barrier. And from there we feel better about ourselves. We feel safer. We feel more in right.
It is so easy for us to do this. The fences are everywhere, and often we are the ones who have built them.
On New Years Day my family and I went to see the movie “Green Book” at the Manor Twin on Providence – my first time at that theater. The movie was as advertised – a poignant and hard story, tremendous acting, worthy of the multiple Oscars it received. It served as a launching pad into conversations with our boys about race and privilege, conversations that certainly have not lost their value or importance in this time.
But it was the casual thought I found rolling around in my head after the movie that put me squarely in the ranks of those Jesus was calling out in our passage today. A thought that came about as I processed this story of mid-20th century America where people of color had to have a special book to direct them to hotels that would allow them to spend the night, where restaurants would not even serve food to the one who was coming to perform there. Looking at all the white people in that movie who gladly embraced the components of legalized segregation, I found myself thinking: at least I’m not like those people!
And from the very moment I allowed that thought to enter my head, I built a fence: a fence designed to convince me that sin indeed comes in degrees, and that I am better than my mid-20th century white sisters and brothers. Better because I am more “enlightened,” because I know legal segregation is wrong – even though I benefit from systemic segregation that continues to live on over a generation later, even though all of us are swimming in the waters of our country’s long and painful history of racial division that, despite changes to our laws, is still very much with us in 2019. That wonderfully entertaining and inspiring movie made me feel better about myself and the person I am without me having to do a thing to earn that.
I bring up the issue of race because it is one that affects us all, especially now. I bring it up knowing it is a conversation many of us are weary of, and yet it is one we need to have. Because it runs parallel to what is taking place in our scripture today, and I believe would cause Jesus himself to respond in like kind: do you really think those people on the other side of your fence are worse off than you? Unless you turn to God, you too will die.
Jesus came to tear down our silly fences, because he knew the transforming beauty and amazing grace we would find on the other side. And it is almost as if Jesus catches himself in his little rant, and follows words that needed to be said with a story that longed to be heard. There is a fig tree planted in a vineyard, and for three years it had grown no fruit. The only purpose a fig tree has is to make figs. For three years, this had not happened. We are told that the owner of the vineyard orders the gardener to cut the tree down – what use is a fig tree that won’t make figs? But instead, the gardener convinces him otherwise. Let it alone for one more year, he says. One more year. Maybe it will produce fruit then.
So many things about this parable left up in the air: we are not told if the owner agrees to keep the tree another year; we are not told if the tree ever does produce fruit. In fact, the story ends at just the right place where it is entirely possible to imagine this scenario playing out all over again the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, and on and on and on…
One more year. Just one more year.
Who is this gardener, we wonder? For that matter, who is the owner? We may be inclined to think God at first, because God is the owner of a lot of things. And yet, I wonder if it’s someone else. I wonder if it’s you and me. What do you think, my friends? Is it you and me, peering across the top of our fence to a field of fruitless fig trees, ready to cut them down, because in some way we’ve convinced ourselves that we are better than they, that we produce fruit, that the wood from those fruitless trees would make some great fence posts…
One more year, the gardener tells us. If we look hard enough, if we peer over the tops of our fences, we see it is Jesus there, telling us to let it alone for one more year. Let it alone – the Greek verb literally means “to forgive.” Forgive the fruitless tree for its fruitlessness. Forgive the fruitlessness within ourselves. Forgive and give it – and all of us – a second chance.
Singer-songwriter David Wilcox shares a story I’ve told from this pulpit before:
I don’t know how long it had been since those two neighbors had talked to each other. I think it had been a couple of years. And it started over the dumbest thing. It was that stray cat. I mean, one of them thought it was his, and then it went over to the other porch across the little field. And the other farmer took it in. Each of them thought it was their cat; and every time they started talking about it, they’d start arguing. And then they just stopped talking.
So when the traveler came through town looking for work, one farmer said, “You say you’re a carpenter, huh? Well, yeah, I got some work for you. You see that house across the field? That’s my neighbor. You see this little ditch in the middle? Well, he calls that the creek. He went up on the hill and changed the way the spring comes down. Well, if he’s gonna try to divide us up with that thing, I just assume finish the job. So I want you to build a fence. All the way across. All the way up. I don’t even want to have to look at him. Can you do that?”
And the carpenter said, “Well, yeah, I could do that. But I’m gonna need a whole lot more wood. I guess I could get started with what you’ve got in your shed. You’d have to go into town to get more.”
And by the time this farmer comes back, driving up that rudded road in his old truck full of lumber, he looks out into that field where his new fence ought to be. And instead he sees that the carpenter has built a bridge. Out of his wood. Across that creek. Onto his land.
And before he knows it, here comes his neighbor, walking across that bridge; hand outstretched, big old smile on his face. And his neighbor says, “You’re an amazing man, I didn’t think you’d ever want to hear the sound of my voice again. I feel like such a fool. Can you forgive me?
And this farmer finds himself saying, “Aww, I knew it was your cat.”
And the farmer looks at the carpenter as he’s walking away, and he says, “Hey, I got some more work for you, if you want it.”
And the carpenter says, “You’ll be fine. I’m needed elsewhere.”
My friends, Jesus tells us that we all fall short, that we all need to repent, that the God we serve makes a habit of moving over the fence, and back again, because fences serve God no purpose whatsoever. No, God much prefers wide open spaces, where we truly see each other, where we truly see our own selves. Because it is there where we can best hear God’s voice saying to us: Let it alone for one more year. One more year, and a lifetime after it.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Adapted from the song “Fearless Love” by singer/songwriter David Wilcox.