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Sermon for Sunday 20 March 2022

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-20

7“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 9But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. 10And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ 11Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? 12And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. 13Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. 14Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live. 17Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. 18When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. 19And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this. 20Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.”

Psalm 85

1You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, you have restored the good fortune of Jacob. 2You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. 3You have withdrawn all your fury and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation. 4Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. 5Will you be displeased with us forever? will you prolong your anger from age to age? 6Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? 7Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. 8I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. 9Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 10Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. 11Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. 12The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase. 13Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

1For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

1There were some present at that very time who told {Jesus} about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” 6And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

A Fruitful Life

In the 12 years that I’ve been your pastor, one of the many things I can attest to, is that several of you are amazing gardeners.  And with the weather beginning to turn warmer, I imagine your schedule is getting a bit busier since we’re now entering into the spring planting season.  I read a funny story the other day about a potato farmer who was fuming because his son was arrested on a minor offense, and he would be spending the first few weeks of planting season in the local jail.  

The father called his son saying, “Son, what were you thinking?  You made a stupid mistake, and now I have no one to help me dig up the garden for the planting of potatoes.”  The son trying to keep others from overhearing his conversation said, “for heaven’s sakes, dad, don’t dig in the garden this year.  That’s where I hid all my guns.”  The next morning, the father awoke to find the local police force digging up the ground around his house.  After many hours of work, the officers left empty-handed.  Confused, the father called his son back and told him what had happened.  The son laughed and simply said: “Now you can plant the potatoes.” 

Terry has the green thumb in our house.  And while I may have studies horticulture in High School, I’d have to Google how and when the best time would be to plant potatoes.  I can personally relate to author Richard Diran who said, “I have a rock garden.  Last week three of them died.”  I admire the passion, skill, and patience of all those who garden, because it takes all these qualities to plant and tend a garden, never knowing if it will yield a harvest or not.  More than that, I appreciate all the effort you put into growing your gardens, especially when some of the fruits of your labor ends up at my house!  I’m still enjoying pickles and Jalapenos from last year’s abundance!  Thank you.

There’s a man in India who is a good example of the passion and patience of a master gardener.  His name is Kalimullah Khan, and he’s a professional horticulturist.  Khan is 80 years old, and his family owns a mango grove.  When Khan was seventeen, he saw a crossbred rose bush in a friend’s garden.  This bush bore multiple varieties and colors of roses.  Khan was so inspired by this rose bush that he began grafting different varieties of mangoes onto one tree in his grove.

Today, more than six decades later, Khan has created a mango tree that bears 300 different varieties of mangoes.  The tree is massive, its branches weighed down with pink, purple, orange, yellow and green mangoes.  Khan has named this super tree “The Resolute.”  He doesn’t say how he chose that name for his tree.  The mangoes from this “miracle tree” are free for anyone who visits his orchard.

Khan names some of the varieties after distinguished people who have made contributions to Indian society.  He’s named mangoes in honor of scientists, doctors, police officers and politicians.  But he had a funny comment about his mango trees in an interview last year.  He said, “I am surprised that for the first time in my experience of 65 years, the trees of mango varieties named after politicians have not seen a single fruit this year.  All other varieties have witnessed a lot of mangoes.  I am hopeful that mangoes named after politicians will grow on trees that are not bearing fruit yet.”  I guess politicians are the same in all countries.

In our gospel reading for today, Luke records Jesus telling a story about a landowner who was checking on the progress of a fig tree.  The landowner tells his gardener, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any.  Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?”  “‘Sir,’ the vinedresser replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down.’”  Just a little more patience, the vinedresser is advising, before you give up on that tree.  This for me highlights the first insight for today: Life is short.  Any good we would do in this world needs to be begin now!

These verses from Luke’s Gospel may sound like a clip from HGTV, but they’re actually a glimpse into God’s will for our lives.  You and I in this parable are the fig trees.  And like a master gardener, God is both passionate to see us live out His purposes, and He is patiently waiting to see evidence of our growth.  In our Old Testament reading from Ezekiel, God tells the people through His prophet, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his evil way and live” (33:11b). 

God doesn’t want to cut any of His trees down, but His patience, as immense as it is, does have a limit.  And just as the fig tree in this parable is living on borrowed time, so are we.  Life on this earth is finite.  Any good we would do for God’s kingdom in this world needs to be begun now!  As Christians we are called to produce fruit for the kingdom and in another passage, (John 15:2), Jesus reminds us that the unproductive branches of the vine will be trimmed away in order that the productive branches may bear even more fruit.  Our time to be fruitful in God’s kingdom is limited, we need to be productive while we can.

Sharon Carr was studying at Emory University with a double major in English and religion when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Sharon’s attitude of faith and hope in facing her diagnosis inspired her classmates and professors.  In the year after Sharon’s diagnosis, she wrote poems and short meditations about her struggle to find hope in dying.  One of her professors compiled her writing into a book that was published just before her death.  He titled the book, Yet Life Was a Triumph, after one of her poems.  This poem was read at Sharon’s funeral.  

I’ll read a few quotes from the poem: I had to love today, because you couldn’t promise me tomorrow. . .I had to hold tightly to purpose, because you might not give me time for carelessness, and lifeblood is too precious to spill on selfish whim; I had to cherish hope, because you couldn’t guarantee light amid despair, and I was tired of hurting . . .Because I was forced to live life boldly, thankfully, lovingly and joyfully, death is tender, and life was a triumph.”  Sharon ends this poem by saying that this realization forced her to live so abundantly that her life became a triumph.  That’s what God wants for us.  It’s easy to waste our life in selfish, apathetic, unfruitful behavior because we refuse to acknowledge just how short life is.  God is calling us to be fruitful for His kingdom while we have the time.  The second insight for today, is fruitfulness is the measure of how much our life reflects God’s character and love.

Here’s a question we all must confront at some point: do we measure our life by the length of our years, or by the positive impact we’ve made on others?  I think we would all agree that it’s the second condition, the positive impact on others, that’s the true measure of a life.  Throughout His short ministry, Jesus made it clear that any positive impact He had in life came from His relationship with God.  Jesus’ power and purpose and courage came from aligning His heart, mind and will with God’s purposes for Him.  Verse 7 gives us some insight into what a fruitless life looks like.  In verse 7, the landowner accuses the fig tree of simply “using up” the soil.

In the original Greek, the word “Katar-gei, used here refers to something that is entirely idle, inactive, ineffective, wasting the ground, has no positive effect.  It can also refer to something that has been “severed from” or “separated from” its source of power.  Back in the 12th century, Japanese gardeners created dwarf trees, or “bonsai” trees, by cutting the tree’s tap root.  The tap root anchors the tree deep into the ground so that it can grow taller and wider.  With the tap root severed, the tree relies on smaller, surface roots for growth.  The result is a tiny tree that can be grown in a pot on your kitchen counter.  Pastor Eric Ritz writes, “What our Japanese friends have learned to do intentionally with trees, many of us have done by neglect with our spiritual lives.  

How many of us have deliberately cut the tap root of faith in Jesus Christ?  How many of us try to live and grow spiritually on an occasional trip to church, by occasionally opening the Bible to read, only praying in moments of great distress, and give to the church when convenient and then with the leftovers of our financial resources?  We must be rooted and grounded deep into Jesus for us to become fruitful and productive disciples in God’s kingdom.

A few years ago, William Safire wrote about the origins of the phrase “spitting image” in his “On Language” column for the New York Times.  Have you ever questioned why we say, “that child is the spitting image of their mother or father?”  Safire explained that the phrase is a garbled version of the original phrase, “spirit and image.”  It doesn’t just refer to a physical resemblance.  It was originally used to mean that someone reflects both the spirit and image of another.  In other words, what if others could say about us that we are the spitting image of our Heavenly Father?

What would it look like if our lives truly reflected the spirit and the image of God?  If our lives overflowed with the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—how would it affect the people around us?  How would it affect our work?  How would it affect our priorities?  Fruit cannot be hidden.  It’s the outward and visible expression of the inner life of a tree.  What does our outward life—our character and actions—reveal about our inner life?  Fruitfulness is a measure of how much our life reflects God’s character and love. 

The final insight from this passage is, a fruitful life will leave a powerful, positive legacy.Few of us think of our lives in terms of leaving a legacy.  Sure, we try to be good people.  We try to do good and positive things in our work and our relationships and our volunteering.  But legacy building is an intentional commitment to acting in ways that will leave a powerful, positive Christ-like impact on the people we encounter each day.  I like what professional speaker Jim Rohn said about legacy building.  He said considering our legacy helps us to focus on the long term, and it “gives us values that we can judge our actions by.”

I read a story recently about a piano teacher named Larissa Suknov and the powerful, positive impact she had on one of her students, a little boy named Dante.  This is a thank-you note Dante wrote to Ms. Suknov: “Dear Ms. Larissa, this story is for you.  Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Dante.  He dreamed to play the piano.  He found a great teacher; her name was Ms. Larissa.  Dante went on to play the piano for his whole life, and he loved it.  He will never forget his first teacher.  I love you.  Dante.”  We all want to have such a powerful, positive impact on others.

God has placed a yearning in us, to live fruitful, meaningful lives that have a sense of mission and purpose.  We’re called to live lovingly and boldly and joyfully for the glory of God and for the sake others.  We’re called to live lives that reflect God’s character and love.  We were made for this.  Anything less leads to an entirely idle, inactive, fruitless, ineffective life, severed from the power and purposes of God.  And the warning here in this story is that unproductive trees are in danger of being separated from the grove; severed from the support and nourishment we need to thrive and be productive members of God’s kingdom.  Once a young man named Ben was struggling with an important decision.  

Ben had been struggling with the desire to be a missionary.  Ben was concerned about how hard the missionary life is.  The question that kept plaguing him was, what if he failed.  He asked his dad, “What if God calls me to do something I can’t do?”  Ben’s dad was quiet for a moment.  Then he spotted his son’s baseball glove on the floor and picked it up.  “What’s this?” he asked.  Ben laughed.  “Don’t be silly, Dad!  It’s my baseball glove.”  Dad propped the glove up against the opposing wall and tossed a baseball into it.  The ball rolled out of the glove and across the floor.  Ben’s dad picked up the glove and remarked, “Your glove is a total failure.”

Ben smiled.  “It can’t catch by itself,’ he said.  ‘The glove doesn’t work too well unless my hand is in it.”  Dad nodded.  “You are just like this glove.  God has a purpose for your life, Ben.  You put your hand inside the glove to give it guidance and strength—you give it the power to catch the ball.  In the same way, God will give you the power to do whatever He calls you to do.  It’s His mighty hand that does the work when you’re willing to be used.” 

A fruitful life begins when we place it in God’s hands.  It should be our desire and goal to reflect God’s character and love, a desire and goal to live intentionally and leave behind a powerful, positive Christ-like impact that results in bearing much fruit.  That’s what God made us for.  Life on this earth is far too short, there’s simply no time to waste our lives on anything less.   

Jesus had only a short time on this earth to pour His love, His strength, and His purpose into others.  He had only a brief period of time to heal and teach and empower those around Him.  Jesus used every moment He had to share the reality of God and God’s love for us.  And two thousand years later, His life and legacy are still speaking to people all over the world.  That’s the final proof of a fruitful life.  

The truth we must acknowledge is that life on this earth is but a breath.  Our fruitfulness will be determined by how much our lives reflects the character and love of God.  Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of God is at hand, (Mark 1:15).  Today we have the choice.  We can choose to be entirely idle, inactive, ineffective, and waste the ground, or, we can put our roots deep into Jesus.  When we do, God will supply everything we need to be fruitful members of His kingdom and leave behind a legacy that will live on and glorify God for years to come.


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