The saying goes, that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This quip is sometimes said to articulate the so-called “law of the instrument,” which asserts that we tend to rely a great deal on the tools and approaches with which we are most familiar, or have most readily to hand, whether or not that’s what the situation calls for.
You can translate this maxim into different metaphors. For instance, you could say that if all you have is an ax, everything looks like a tree.
I think you can also translate the properties of the expression into military terms. If all you have is a weapon, everything looks like a target. At least, that’s the gloss that I can add to William Davies’s excellent piece in the Times last month, entitled “Everything Is War and Nothing Is True.”* In his piece, Davies considers “the rising profile of the military in [the] domestic politics” of various nations around the world, including the U.S. and his own nation, Great Britain.
In the church we are - or at least we ought to be - always concerned with peace. Peace in its various expressions must be a priority for those of us who are the inheritors of the gift of Christ’s peace, which was given to us with the gift of the Holy Spirit. After all, every day we invoke God’s blessing by asking for the gift of God’s peace, which passes all understanding.
If all you have is Jesus, everything should look like peace. If only it were that simple.
One aspect of modern society that has abetted a rising militaristic profile, according to William Davies, is the great speed with which information travels these days. The constant high-speed exchange of information tends to emphasize or reinforce conditions of conflict. He says: “war demands a... paranoid system of expertise and knowledge.... In situations of conflict, the most valuable attribute of knowledge is... that it is up to the minute and aids rapid decision making.” He goes on to say that “the conditions that most lend themselves to military responses are those in which time is running out.”
Unexpectedly, the Gospel this morning seems to me to provide just such a situation in which time is running out. It hardly seems dire, since the time that’s running out is the time for a fig tree that has produced no figs. But, still, for the tree, it is a matter of life and death. The owner of the fig tree (a man, wouldn’t you know it?) has decided that time has run out for this barren tree, which has produced no fruit for three years running. He calls to his gardener and instructs him clearly, “Cut it down!” Now, I don’t know that the only tool the owner has is an ax, but it sure feels that way to me.
Mind you, there is a reason we read this piece of the Gospel in Lent. Jesus has just said to the people who have gathered to listen to him that “unless you repent, you will all perish.” And the church means for us to overhear this foreboding call to repentance as though it is intended for us, which it is.
If the only threat you’ve got is death and hell, then every problem looks like work for the grim reaper, I guess.
But if you want to know whether or not Jesus has more tools in his belt, all you have to do is keep reading. For, immediately he begins to tell this parable of the barren fig tree, as if to drive the point home. The owner of the barren fig tree renders judgment, and sentences the tree to perish: “Cut that tree down, since it bears no fruit! Why should it be wasting the soil? Time has run out!” And the gardener swung his ax at the root of the tree, and with a single mighty blow, it fell to the ground!
That’s what Jesus should have said to drive his point home: that unless you repent you will perish. But, of course, that is not what Jesus said. Instead, Jesus tells us about the gardener (who may in fact have been in possession of an ax). And what the gardener says to the owner of the fig tree that bore no figs, strangely does not immediately reinforce the lesson that time is running out, and that for the tree, the end is near.
“Sir,” the gardener says, “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.”
When I hear this parable I hear the inclination of violence, impatience, and anger interrupted and soothed by the gifts of mercy, forgiveness, and hope. This ought to sound like good news to us.
If all you have is manure, maybe everything looks like a garden.
Put the parable in William Davies’s terms. The owner is aware of the tree’s past poor performance. There is money to be made from a tree or a vine that could be planted in that soil that would actually bear fruit. And so, there is conflict. A certain paranoid system of knowledge and expertise suits the owner’s purposes. He is in possession of up-to-the-minute information on the fruitfulness of the tree. Rapid decision making is called for. Time is running out. So cut that tree down! I mean, I suppose I am overstating the point a little bit, but that is what I do! But if you look at this little parable through a certain lens, you can see how combative it is. Time is running out. And life and death are on the line.
Update the story, so the ax is not in the hands of the gardener, but mounted on a robotic tree-feller that has been programmed to eliminate fruitless trees, and it begins to take on more urgency, especially if you are the gardener, and you think the tree should live. And even more poignantly if you are the tree! And the robotic tree-feller is on the way! Time is running out! What is to be done?!?!
William Davies says that it is just such a “culture of an over-accelerated public sphere,” enabled “by technologies that we don’t know how to slow” that “is partly responsible for making democracy feel more like combat.”
Wait! When did this sermon become about democracy? OK. Sorry, it hasn’t become a sermon about democracy.
But, if Davies is correct, and we are living in a world in which it often feels as though Everything Is War and Nothing Is True, then doesn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ - who is the Prince of Peace - doesn’t our Gospel have something to say to such a world? Especially if life and death are on the line?
Yes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ does have something vital, life-giving, merciful, and hopeful to say to a world in which Everything Is War and Nothing Is True! To the controller of the robotic tree-feller who is causing time to run out for the tree, the Gospel has this to say, with some urgency: “Sir, let it alone! Let it alone for one more year, at least. Until I dig around it, and nourish it, and tend to its needs. Let it alone for one more year, and let’s just see if it doesn’t bear fruit. Let it alone. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be.”
Toward the end of his insightful article, Davies speaks of war and peace. He writes, “the separation of war from peace that laid the ground for liberal democracy to develop was originally a legal achievement, whereas now it also requires defending sanctuaries of slowness.”
Sanctuaries of slowness. It’s those last three words that brought you this sermon - “sanctuaries of slowness” - since the gardener in the parable of the barren fig tree seems to me to be the caretaker, even the protector, of a sanctuary of slowness, when he tells the owner of the tree to let it alone for one more year. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be.
And of course, you are the tree. And I am the tree. And sometimes the circumstances of the world, and technologies that we don’t know how to slow make it seem like time is running out for you and for me. It makes it seem like Everything Is War and Nothing Is True. And if you are the tree, if I am the tree, then this could be a question of life or death.
It is a matter of God’s unfathomable loving kindness that he calls us to inhabit, if we are able, and as much as we will allow it, sanctuaries of slowness within his church. It can sometimes be difficult for us to see this slowness as a blessing, since we live in a “culture of an over-accelerated public sphere,” among technologies that we don’t know how to slow.
But it is in the sanctuaries of slowness that the wisdom to make peace instead of war will be found.
It is in the sanctuaries of slowness that the hope for life will overcome the forces of death.
And it is in the sanctuaries of slowness that we will find, with the aid of one who has been mistaken for a gardener before, that Everything Is Not War and Something Is True.
We have that Truth. In fact, it is nearly all we have.
And if all we have is Jesus; shouldn’t everything start to look like peace?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
24 March 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
* “Everything Is War and Nothing Is True,” by William Davies in The New York Times, Feb 23, 2019