This sermon was preached on Sunday, February 27, 2016 at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Glen Rock, NJ. The scripture readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here.
Luke, the evangelist, is no arborphile. Trees have a hard time in Luke’s gospel. Fig trees, in particular, have a hard time of it in the gospels in general. In Mark and Matthew’s gospels, Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit even though it’s not fig season, and the tree withers and dies. In Luke’s gospel, trees are constantly under threat of getting axed, getting chopped down at the root.
Early in Luke’s gospel, we hear John the Baptist urging the people to repent, and warning them, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:9) And Jesus seems to be echoing this same warning, this same teaching in his parable today. (13:6-9) Once again, a tree, a fig tree in particular, bears no fruit and is threatened by the ax.
But before we get into that, let’s talk about the first part of this gospel, because it’s not at all repetitive, or reflective of other parts of Luke’s gospel or of any other gospel (or ancient text that we know of.) The opening of Luke’s 13th chapter begins will a discussion between Jesus and some bystanders of the significance of two events, very much, it seems, in the news. The word on everyone’s lips has to do with two tragic events -- the murder by Pontius Pilate of some Galilean pilgrims come to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple, and the tragic accident of the tower of Siloam which has fallen, killing 18 citizens of Jerusalem. It’s clear the people are wondering why God would allow these tragedies to befall these particular victims -- the people wonder what ill they could have done to cause God to punish them in this way.
It’s a common question, one we can’t seem to resist asking. We want to know why bad things happen; and we most often draw the conclusion that bad things must happen for a reason. But Jesus contradicts this thinking, this seeming connection between bad things and bad deeds, or bad things and bad people. He asks the people, “Do you think the Galileans that were slain by Pilates were somehow the most sinful of all the Galileans in Jerusalem that day? Do you think that the tower of Siloam fell at just the moment that the 18 worst sinners in Jerusalem happened to be walking by?” Of course not. The proposition is ridiculous.
Bad things happen because they do. They just do. And when they do, they remind us that life is fragile. And that fragility should cause within us some urgency. The very fact that we know life is so fragile should mean, should give way to, an urgency in the way we live our lives, the choices we make, the fruit we bear.
Now, let’s get back to that fig tree… Jesus leads right into this parable of the fig tree, in response to the people’s queries about the tragedies of the Galileans and the Tower of Siloam. In his parable, a man plants a fig tree, but in three long years, the fig tree bears no fruit. The man tells the gardener, cut it down; it’s a waste of soil. But the gardener begs for the life of the tree, and says, “Wait, let me tend to it, let me dig around it and add manure, and see if it will produce. If it hasn’t in another year, you can cut it down.”
Another year. One more growing season, one more chance at producing the fruit that the fig tree was created to produce. What if you were given a year, just one more year, in which to save your life, save your career, save your marriage, or save your soul? Given that clear-cut and immediate a deadline, I imagine most of us would, like the gardener, start digging. If we knew, if we were given the warning as clearly as is the fig tree, I imagine we find that life would indeed take on an urgency. And we would be quite quick to take up our spades and shovels, we’d be quick to repent, to amend our lives and change our hearts.
I imagine that with that clear a warning, and that stark a deadline, we’d take an unflinching look at exactly what sort of fruit we should be producing and start doing all in our power to produce it.
Of course, when you're a preacher, you're only given chances to preach about certain things on certain Sundays, and you gotta seize those opportunities when they come along. Given today's readings, I can pass up a chance to preach about… manure. There’s no mistaking the fact that, given a sense of urgency, the gardener’s first impulse is to start digging up some… I’m gonna keep calling it manure.
You know, when the tree stops producing fruit, it’s time to take a good look at the roots, at what they’re fed by, how are they nourished -- and what’s in their way, what’s in the way of the roots giving the tree what it needs to produce the fruit it should. Maybe the roots need some new resources in order to do their part in producing fruit. And maybe there’s some old… manure down there that needs stirring up, examining, digging out of the way, so that something that can feed and sustain us, something that can help, and not hinder, the bearing of fruit, can be put in it’s place.
So often in Lent, we give up something we love as a discipline, or we seek to add something to our daily lives, more prayer or more acts of charity, or generosity. That is, of course, all well and good. Discipline and charity are sorely missing in our culture, in our daily lives, I suspect.
But what if instead of these practices, we looked at what might be keeping us from bearing the fruit that we should; and what if we looked at our roots, and started rooting around down there, and maybe evening digging up some old… manure, and looking at how that old manure might be holding us back… preventing us from bearing the fruit we should.
Maybe Lent can be the beginning of that year we talked about, a year of digging around down there, where our roots lie, getting rid of the old… manure, and replacing it with that which is meant to fertilize, adding in that which we know is supposed to feed us and nourish us and help us to produce a goodly harvest.
You’ve got a year… a year in which to come round right, a year in which to bring in the harvest that you were created to produce. Life is fragile, and therefore most urgent… Start digging. Don’t let all that old… manure gets in the way. Dig around down there, dig out the old stuff. And feed your roots, so that you can bear fruit, the fruit you were created to bear…
And if a year’s not enough time, don’t worry. I know a gardener, who is willing to stand up for you, to beg mercy and more time, in which you can become that which you were meant to be. He’s a pretty good guy, this gardener; he’ll give a lot of his time to help you become what it is you were meant to be. And he’ll do more than that; he’ll give his life so that you might have all the time that mercy can give you, to be who it is he knows you were meant to be, to be who it is he knows you can be. +Amen.
© The Rev. Mark R. Collins