Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
Originally Given on March 3, 2013 at UPC in Amsterdam, NY
A boy, born in a completely unstable family. Chronically on the run. Always looking for something that would give his life foundation and meaning. A boy always leaving home, crashing on other people’s couches, most of the time his father didn’t even know where he was, preferring that he just “check-in” every couple weeks to let him know that he was alive. Until one day, an uncle came to him with an opportunity to join a family who would always take care of him. A white power group within his community. Before long, he was shaving his head, drawing swastikas and upside down crosses on his jacket. A cry for help, maybe, but the longer it went, and the longer no one seemed to care, the deeper into the movement he went.
A girl, parents divorcing early in her life. Mom forced to work all the time, not able to parent in a manner that conveyed a message of love to her daughter. She too would soon shave her head, cut swastikas and symbols for anarchy into the sides of her hair. She began saying stuff to get attention. A cry for attention. Not knowing she was a racist, she just thought of herself as a rebel. Raised in Detroit, her perception of race was simply that you did not mix. That you kept to yourself. Soon pregnant with one, then two, then three, then four. Her life was spiraling out of control and she too was looking for someone, anyone, to help, and that is when she discovered the white power movement for herself.
For both, the white power scene provided a stability that they had been craving. For him, the family that he had always wanted and never seemed to be able to find. For her, relief and support in being a single mom. Now, finally, someone cared about her. He would rise through the ranks of the white power movement in Arizona, she would become a boarding house of sorts for white power leadership moving into the Detroit area.
But as they continued in their new families, they both began to discover that life was not so easy within the ranks of the white power movement. He, jumped from group to group, gaining new tattoos all along the way. Tattooing his face with a collection of white power symbols to prove that he was the toughest guy, the most committed guy in the group. He became an enforcer. A man who’s job it was to keep the others in line. A man who’s job it was to represent the group to other groups. A man who’s chief tool in life became a razor with which he sliced and fought his way through the ranks. He began to bounce in and out of prisons. First for this, then for that, a couple years of bouncing from one stint of incarceration to another.
She was one of the first people within the movement to truly be an active presence on the internet. The space carved out by racist message boards and forums provided a place for those in the movement to speak freely, to plan, to have a degree of anonymity should one so desire it and she was on the ground floor of a phenomenon that would change the way in which all of the world worked and she was able to use that to go deeper into the movement’s upper power structure. She would eventually marry one of them, then lose him. She would discover that within the movement she was much more valued for her body than for her mind. She would discover that all women were more valued for their bodies than for their minds.
For him, things started to unravel, when he also began to become aware of the attitudes towards women within the white power movement. He noticed how many of his brothers openly beat their wives and girlfriends. He learned how many had fathered children all over the country with no interest in paying child support, no interest in being fathers, no interest in being present in their sons’ and daughters’ lives. He saw, for the first time, with new eyes, a life that glorified drinking and cavorting. A life that glorified committing felonies, a life of epicurean pleasure in which the only thing that mattered, the only thing, was the pleasure of the self. No responsibilities. No commitments. No life that truly had meaning.
For her, things started to unravel about the time that she met this lonely boy turned hardened white power criminal. They married. She was having his baby. She was trying to put family above all else and the movement would not let her. Then one night, she was called. A hospital. He had been admitted. A fight, he was hurt. When he got out, he and she were at rock bottom. With little interest in being in the movement any longer. But what could he do. His body, his face, had been given over to the movement long ago. He bore the marks of the brokenness of the world for all the world to see. A mirror into the sinfulness of humanity brought to the light to anyone who bothered to look at him, anyone who had the potential to hire him. Every broken system, those that we would prefer not to talk about amongst ourselves, on display. There was nothing he could do.
In our gospel reading for the day, a group of people come to Jesus to tell him about the news of the day. And the news isn’t good. And the people there don’t understand. In the first instance, the Roman occupiers had killed off a number of Jews in a show of force for the governor of the region, Pontius Pilate. And they come to Jesus trying to understand why such a tragedy had befallen their brothers and sisters in the faith. In the second instance, a freak accident of some kind had caused a tower to fall down in an area of Jerusalem called Siloam. In this accident, 18 of their brothers and sisters had died and those coming to Jesus don’t understand why this has happened and so they begin to try and figure out why. And in going to Jesus they ask, the deduce that surely this happened because these people were great sinners. That somewhere in their past they had done something horrible for which they had now received retribution. “Jesus, these people who died at the hands of Pontius Pilate, please tell us they did something to deserve this. Jesus, these folks who died senselessly in the accident at Siloam, please tell us that they are the most sinful folks in all of Jerusalem and as such their death was justified. Please, Jesus, give us some way to understand the bad stuff that happens in this life because otherwise we just have to conclude that life is not fair.” And I wonder if the answer Jesus gave them left them scratching their heads, I wonder if it was not completely satisfying, I wonder if they must have had looks of disbelief on their faces because Jesus decided to offer up a parable to explain.
A man owned a vineyard and in the midst of all the grapevines, he planted a fig tree. And each year for three years he came to the fig tree expecting to find plump juicy figs growing out of it so that he could eat the figs and be satisfied with his tree. And every year he would leave, disappointed because the tree had born no fruit. And after the third year, frustrated and ready to give up he goes to his gardner and tells him to rip the tree out of the ground for it is using up the precious resources of his vineyard and what good is a tree that just takes and never gives back. Rip it out and throw it away. But the gardner, perhaps believing himself in the power of the tree to grow fruit asks for just one more year to bring fruit out of it. And if after that year, he cannot bring fruit out then he himself will take it down.
I have always thought that an odd parable. Perhaps the oddest of all the parables. And for most of this week, its oddity made me not want to preach this passage. And then, I went back to it and read it with new eyes, without the eyes of preconception. And I heard a new word of God and, for maybe the first time, it made sense. I had always read it as if God were the owner of the vineyard, ready to give up on the world, ready to pluck all those who did not produce fruit out of the ground and onto a trash heap. Ready to give up on all of us, our sinful, broken lot. And I didn’t like that story very much. But then, I had conversation Monday night and I read an article about a white power couple and the lives they had led to arrive where they had in life and I shifted all the characters in the parable over. Looking at the pictures of the man with his face full of tattoos of hate and pain, I believed that it was not God but us who were the owners of the vineyard. Not God but us who look at lives of brokenness and decide that some folks aren’t worth fighting for, aren’t worth loving, some folks will never, ever produce fruit in this life and so they aren’t even worth taking up the precious resources that we have on this planet. And if we are the vineyard owners then God is the gardner, coming back again and again, saying “Please, just one more year. I know that this tree can bear fruit. Just give it a little more time, a little more attention, a little more love. God’s grace isn’t the vineyard owner seeking to pluck out, God’s grace is the gardner wanting more time to shape and care for, more time to give nutrients and soil, more time to cultivate, and prune, and trim, and that is what we are called to do as well. And it’s not always fair. Some people are born into positions of wealth and power that others could only dream about in their wildest dreams. For some, being successful seemingly comes easy. For others, it feels like each day is a struggle just to get out of bed. And we don’t always know who is who. We never know if the person in our midst is at peace or struggling. We never know if the person before is bearing fruit or just trying to reach out of the mud and the muck. And more than that, we don’t know who will bear fruit in the future. Who will wake up one day in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of sin and brokenness and hear the call to be better, more holy, more loving, more peace-filled. If we are who we say we are, followers of Jesus, believers in the redemption of the world through Jesus, then we have to always hold out hope that the glory of God, the love of God can be revealed to all people in all times and places and it is not for us to decide who’s in and who’s out. Who has exhausted their chances, their opportunities to bear fruit. That’s not our decision. It’s God’s.
So many people are written off before they are even born. We decide that some folks are worth fighting for and that others simply will never bear fruit. We presume that folks born into abject poverty, or into broken homes, or who cover their faces and bodies within messages of hate, we presume that they aren’t worth fighting for, aren’t worth reaching out to and offering a warm embrace, a warm cup of coffee, a warm smile, a “hey, friend. How are you doing today? Is there anything I can do to help?” We tear fig trees out of the ground and decide they will never produce fruit. We turn a blind-eye to those who, in their words and deeds, cry out for help so much that we eventually switch places as our community grows smaller and our walls more rigid.
A man and a woman, existing about as low in society as you can exist and still be considered members. His body and face a cry for help, a search for meaning, evidence of the hellish conditions in which he grew up. He wakes up one morning tired of it all. And with one phone call, he begins to bear fruit. The tiny bulbs of figs begin to appear! He finds and contacts an anti-racist activist who begins to network him with earthly gardeners. People who can help. He contacts a former member of the white power movement who leads him to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Through them, he begins to seek some way, anyway to get rid of the ink of hate that mars his face. A generous anonymous donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center began the work of redemption that continues to this day in removing each mark of hate. A man, born and raised in horror. A man who sought the most depraved of human society for comfort. A man no one thought would ever produce fruit. He rededicated his life. This time, he gave his life not to hate but to love. Gave his life to speak to kids about the dangers of racism and white power. Giving the rest of his life in hopes that not one more child has to seek the answers he did. Redeemed. Amen.