Before I post this – are there any clergy / church folk out there that upload sermon audio like I do (or try to anyway)? Right now I use libsyn, which was recommended via twitter by Sophie Hudson and I really like it, but for some reason I keep hitting my monthly storage quota. I pay for the service and don’t mind doing that, but I also feel that – for what I use it for (once a week) – I don’t want to jump up to the next storage amount. So maybe the files are too big coming off my phone (I use iTalk, although I did figure out how to make it a lower quality file, which I’m assuming makes it smaller). Long story short, if there’s a better way to do it, then I’m all ears.
Sunday’s sermon on the parable of the fig tree …
Rehoboth Congregational Church
February 28, 2016
Last fall, my Tuesday morning bible study was working through the Gospel of Luke. When we finished our reading of this story, the parable of the fig tree, everyone looked at me, like they normally do, to start our conversation. Usually by the time we finish reading whatever passage we are about to talk about, I have looked up from my bible and am scanning the room to see everyone’s initial reaction to the text and then throw out a few questions to get the discussion going.
This time, however, I was still buried deep into my bible.
If you ever want to shatter your illusion that I know everything there is to know about the bible and have every single answer to every single question about faith and Christianity, just come to bible study. Because on that particular morning, I held up my hand, started flipping through the next few pages and said, “Wait, so how does this story end? What happens to the fig tree the next year? Do we know if they end up cutting it down?” And when I could not find my answers or any kind of follow up on the fig tree in the Gospel of Luke, I threw my pen down and emphatically proclaimed, “Well, that is the dumbest parable I have ever read.”
And since God has such a wonderful sense of humor, less than two weeks later, in a worship-planning meeting with Jordan, I pulled up the lectionary and discovered that I would, in fact, be preaching on this enigmatic parable during Lent.
So let me get this out of the way: How does this story end? What happens to the fig tree the next year? Do we know if they end up cutting it down?
In short: I don’t know, I don’t know and no.
One of the frustrating parts of faith and Christianity and the study of scripture is that it often leaves us with far more questions than answers and stories that we really do not know the ending to. We do not know how this story ends; we do not know if the work of the gardener paid off and the tree produced figs or if the owner of the vineyard cut down the tree the following year. Much of this story remains a mystery to us.
And yet, this story still has so much to teach us.
As part of my ordination standing and covenant with the Old Colony Association of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, I participate in a Clergy Community of Practice. We are a group of seven clergy that serve various churches in eastern Massachusetts; we meet monthly and offer support and networking to one another, both in ministry and in life. This past week, as part of our devotional time, we read this passage; or, rather, we listened to this passage. The pastor who led our devotional encouraged us to close our eyes and put ourselves in the story as we listened to it read out loud. As I heard the story told again, I could not get help but start to feel frustrated again at the ending (or lack thereof). What happens to the fig tree, I kept asking myself. Does our hard work pay off in the end? How am I supposed to preach, “give second chances” and “do the hard work” and “don’t ever give up” if I do not even know it is going to be worth it in the end?
But before I could start my rant on the lack of parabolic closure with the fig tree, one of the other pastors in my group smiled, took a deep breath and said very thoughtfully, “Isn’t it amazing that even a fig tree sometimes needs to take a break from constantly producing something, get some rest and receive some extra love and care?”
Which is pretty much the opposite of throwing a pen and declaring this the dumbest parable ever.
But see here’s the thing: I was so focused on the future of the fig tree that I completely overlooked what the gardener wanted to do in the present. And what the gardener wanted to do in the present was so powerful and nurturing and life-giving.
I think the same often happens in our own lives, as well.
We live in a society that has come to expect very fast results. Home renovations are wrapped up in a one-hour television segment, dinner goes from ingredients to ready-to-serve in a 45 second time lapsed video on Facebook and new products are constantly being released and marketed as faster and more efficient than the one before it.
And yet, despite this time and place of immediacy that we live in today, I believe that grace can still be found when we take the time to do the work that God is calling us to do – and to wait and see where and how God will come into our lives.
But let’s back up for a minute; before Jesus told this parable, people were asking him about suffering and death and the consequences of our sins. They wanted to know if the Galileans who had suffered at the hand of Pilate were somehow worse sinners than others. Jesus replied, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Jesus then mentioned the collapse of the tower of Siloam, pondering if the people who died in that tragedy were somehow worse sinners than the other people living in Jerusalem at the time who had not died. Jesus answered his own question, again by saying, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
I read a really terrible blog post this week about this passage where the blogger compared Jesus’ call to repentance to the one-year deadline of the fig tree and essentially said that God’s patience will not last forever, that we are all on borrowed time and that we should all repent quickly because judgment is near. So much of this bothered me, not the least of which was the fact that even with the fire and brimstone approach to interpretation, I still did not have an explanation about what happened to the fig tree the following year.
But I think the biggest thing that this interpretation failed to mention is that true repentance is not a once and done kind of thing; it is a process. It is a beautiful and hard and incredibly significant process. The gardener did not offer to throw some miracle grow on the fig tree and walk away and hope for the best; instead, the gardener promised to dig around the tree, to get at its roots, to till some manure into the soil and to nurture real and meaningful growth. The gardener said that he would come back, day after day, for an entire year.
And while it still really bugs me that we do not know how this story ends, I do not think that the end result was really what Jesus was getting at here with this parable. I think it really is about the process; it is about what God is doing in our lives and also the work that we are willing to put into it as well. Very often we spend too much time looking for an image of what the final product is going to look like that we miss out on the process; we miss out on the opportunity to be down in the dirt, using our hands and doing the work that God is calling us to do. This is the work that strengthens our faith, this is the work that draws us closer to God and this is the work that helps us become the people that we all have the capacity within us to be.
Lent is a time of repentance and confession and contrition, subjects that – for good reason – we often shy away from in mainline protestant churches. It is not easy to talk about the parts of our lives where we have fallen – and continue to fall – short. It is not easy to admit the things that we have done wrong or to look deeply into our reflections and shine light on our failures. Sometimes it is so much easier to try to help others or busy ourselves with the work of the church (both really important things, don’t get me wrong!) than to deal with our shit. The truth is that when we actually do the work that God is calling us to in our own lives, the work is hard; it is real, it is humbling and it calls us to see beyond ourselves.
But it is also nourishing and powerful and grace-filled. It draws us closer to God. It heals us. It sustains us.
Because you see, no one is a lost cause; the gardener refused to give up on that fig tree and God refuses to give up on us. God refuses to cut us down simply because for one season we were not capable of bearing fruit; God knows that we are worth the hard work, that we are worthy of the process of true repentance. God knows that we are worth the time that it will take to take our broken pieces and make us whole again.
I think that is why I love the season of Lent so much – because it gives us the time to simply be in the process. We have 40 days to be in the process.
And it always ends with resurrection.
The parable of the fig tree reminds us that the work is ours to do today, even if we do not know quite how the story ends. God is working in our lives and we are worthy of the work that God is doing. The miraculous part of our faith is that we journey to the cross during the Lenten season knowing that resurrection is coming, knowing that light will shine in the darkness of our lives and knowing that God’s love always wins.
So whatever you are working on this Lenten season, know that God deems you worthy of that work. Trust the process, even if you cannot see the final result. Know that the work that you and God are doing together in your life is going to bring you strength, hope, peace and great joy.
Trust this process, even if you cannot see the finish line. Even if you do not you’re your story ends, hold on to that bold and radical truth that you are created, redeemed and sustained by a God who is in your midst, cheering you on and inspiring you to become the best person that you can possibly be.
Thanks be to God!