Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
1st Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
“Multnomah County Master Gardeners, how may I help you?”
“I have a fig tree that hasn't bloomed or produced fruit in 3 years. What can I spray on it to make it better?”
“I would recommend chopping it down and starting over again. Have a nice day.”
It is hard to get fired as a volunteer, but giving this answer too many times, just might do the trick. Yet that is exactly what is happening in the Gospel reading. The tree isn't producing so the landowner is ready to chop it down.
We tend to identify the landowner with God in most parables, but I'm not always convinced that is safe to do. They are parables to make us think, for us to place different people into the different roles in our minds, to place ourselves in the roles of the different characters. When am I the landowner, when the gardener, and when the tree? What if we place God in each of these roles? How about our neighbor?
As a Master Gardener, to diagnose plant problems the path would be a line of questioning that would helpfully lead to some answers as to why this is happening. Is it really the kind of plant that the caller believes it is? Maybe the person recently bought the property and just thinks it is a fig tree. How mature is the tree? Maybe the tree is too young to expect figs. Where is it located? When did it last fruit? How was that yield? Has anything changed in the past three years, like weather patterns or nearby plants added or removed? Do you see any sign of insects or animals that might be attacking the tree? What other signs and symptoms do you see—yellowing leaves, lesions on the trunk or branches, leaf drop, dead branches? If you dig up a root can you see signs of trouble there? How have you been caring for the tree—pruning, amending the soil, etc. Often operator error is the problem. Certainly you can't blame the tree. The fact that it isn't producing fruit can be a sign that the tree needs help and there are possible routes to take to help a tree, like this.
In a lot of ways a tree is a lot like a person. When there is stress on a tree, the first thing that often happens is that it doesn't bear fruit. All the resources of the tree go into keeping it alive, or fighting off the insect or disease. The tree just doesn't have what it takes to make fruit, if it is too stressed. The equivalent in our lives is that when we are stressed, we often drop what it most peripheral. If someone in our family gets sick, we might not have time to volunteer at the library or mow the lawn or go over and welcome the new family that just moved into the neighborhood. Those peripheral things, farthest out on the branch of our priorities, get pruned back and we focus on keeping the trunk and branches healthy so the family can survive, so the most essential activities can go on.
Churches do this, too. When churches are stressed, they tend to circle the wagons and start holding back, just trying to care for the trunk and branches and forget about outreach and bearing fruit. And that's why I just love the story of when this congregation was struggling to pay the bills, but that was a time to start to give to others, to start tithing to the Synod, to reach out and show some faith. It was a laugh in the face of death, which no doubt would have been forthcoming, if something had not changed. It was a leap of faith to say we aren't going to do the usual holding back and going into survival mode. We're Jesus people and what we do is to love and be generous and be a part of something bigger. We're going to keep producing fruit, despite the feeling that we might be slipping away. Even if we end up closing, at least we've given of ourselves and made a difference in the world on our way out. That was enough to begin a transformation to sustainability and creativity in this place. There might have been some that were ready to cut the tree down, but I have a hard time picturing God being so harsh, lacking any mercy.
Many times we see ourselves as the tree. For pastors, it is hard to count our fruit. Are we bringing believers into the flock? Can we measure our success by how many people we baptize or by worship attendance? Actually, I would say most who are baptized here are brought in not by anything I did, but by family and friends, and anyone who stays, stays because of the culture of welcome in this place and finding meaning here through many relationships. I can't take credit for the fruits that grow on this tree and I can't blame myself when the fruits are falling off the tree either, although that is sometimes a temptation I fall into. Maybe it isn't up to me to be counting my fruit or getting worried about the lack thereof. Then we become both the gardener and the tree. We are sometimes too eager to cut down the tree when we fail, when we don't see the production matching our expectations.
Probably, you, too have trouble counting your fruit. Do you count it by your income, by how much time or money you can give to charity, by how many friends you have, by how many Lifepax you hand out to homeless people on the street, by your church attendance, by your general feeling of wholeness or wellbeing? But then what happens when you're feeling crummy or sick or grieving? Does that mean we're not bearing fruit? What is fruit anyway?
I think we are quickest to cut ourselves off, to criticize ourselves, to think we're not good enough, that we aren't deserving of another chance. It is all too easy to get into a cycle of despair or fear or anger. We forget that time and a little manure in our life can mean the difference between a failure and a learning experience. Self-forgiveness and compassion for ourselves is one of the hardest things to learn. I think all we can do is to listen to God, to take up the water and nourishment God provides, and to reach out—to take the risk to spread out our roots and spread out our branches and take in the sun, to bask in the generosity of God.
Other times, we play the role of the landowner. We try to control our world and when something isn't working out, we might feel tempted to bring out the axe, in frustration, in fear of wasting the soil, wasting our time, wasting our resources. If a friend offends us, we might cut off that relationship. If we have a difference of opinion with someone, we might write them off. All too often we cut each other down. We forget that people have bad days, like we have bad days, and that forgiveness and mercy are what God prescribes in our relationships.
We cut down those trees out of fear of a lack of resources. What are we wasting on these people around us? The landowner fears wasting the soil. We don't feel we have enough to go around—enough time, enough creativity, enough money, enough energy. Yet none of the gifts needed to grow a tree come from humans. We know trees grew plentifully on this planet long before people were here. The seed comes from God—we can't make a seed on our own. The rain comes from God—we can't make it rain, although a watering can or a sprinkler can really help sometimes. We can't make the sun shine or the seasons change. None of it comes from us. God's gifts are plentiful. God is overflowing with new life to share, with gifts of creativity, gifts of healing and forgiveness. God certainly isn't going to run out of that and neither are we.
This beautiful, rich soil simply grows plants—it will grow plants almost everywhere and anywhere, just not the plants we want. In order to grow the plants that benefit us the most, we make conditions favorable for the plants we like, by weeding, watering, amending the soil, basically coddling fruit trees and garden vegetables that have less of a chance of making it on their own. We give to them, because they give to us.
Now, we have a gardener who is merciful. He comes and takes a look at our life and he knows we could bear more fruit. He suggests trying something. In this case it is manure, not some fancy expensive new technology or the latest trend, not something pretty, not some special skill that only a few people have, that might help this tree. Jesus goes back to the very basics, the waste products of earth creatures, broken down, dark and dirty, the unwanted, unneeded manure. That is what has value for the tree.
Did you read the story this week of the scientist who worked on the Challenger space launch? He warned his colleagues that there might be a problem with the space shuttle and they shouldn't go through with the launch, but his plea was ignored. All these years he's suffered terrible guilt that he didn't do enough to prevent the deaths of all those astronauts. His story was only recently published, how tormented he has been all these years. As soon as people heard his story, they started writing to him, telling him it wasn't his fault, that he tried, that he did all he could. Even his superiors at NASA called him, those who had ignored him before. Even they told him it wasn't his burden to carry. It was them that caused all that loss, because they wouldn't listen. This scientist was ready to bring out the axe for himself. He couldn't forgive himself. But it was others around him that that reassured him that his life had meaning. They had mercy on him and helped him finally to forgive himself. He says that now a burden has been lifted, that he can concentrate living out the rest of his life, that he has moments of peace now, where there was none.
When Jesus saw the plight of his orchard of humanity, languishing, suffering, afraid and not fruiting, he came to be planted among us. He grew alongside us in the heat and the cold, enduring the onslaught of animals and insects and diseases. His tree grew tall and strong and others found it threatening. So they took the axe to Jesus' tree and he gave up his life. That tree became mulch that was spread on the other trees. From that mulch and organic matter, the soil was enriched and new life began to emerge. Trees began to bud and flower, a leaf appeared here and there and new growth took off. A small group of Christians began feeding each other and caring for each other and telling the story of Jesus and the tree, and embodying love. Some of those trees, too, were chopped down, but the orchard could not be destroyed and that mulch, too, enriched the soil for the others who spread their branches and protected the vulnerable, produced food to feed the hungry, and gave their lives that others might live. May we look to Jesus, the tree of life. May we find ourselves, branches on his tree. May we find mercy for ourselves when we aren't producing as expected. May we have mercy on one another and not cut each other off too soon. May we have patience and plenty of manure so the tree can grow strong and share life with many.
“This is the Master Gardeners calling you back. I hope you haven't chopped that tree down yet. I did some research about your fig tree and I would recommend putting some manure around it and giving it another year. Call us back next year and let us know whether that works. If not we may be able to offer something else you can try, then. I know it takes a lot of patience, but it is worth it when you bite into those juicy figs!”