My neighbors have a row of fig trees in their yard right next to the road. Every summer when I walk by, I notice a sign in the yard that says, “Free figs, you pick.” Their fig trees are typically laden with the fruit and when picked at the right time, it is sweet and yummy. The trees are obviously established and have been here for some time, but they would have taken a great deal of care and patience when first planted. It can take a young tree any where from two to six years to bear fruit and in that time, the tree requires care and nourishment for growth and health.
You can’t force a tree to come to fruition, but you can help it to do so. This seems to be the basis for Jesus’s parable this morning—the tree hasn’t produced a good crop so lets give it a little more time and attention and see what happens. As with all parables, you won’t really know the outcome—that’s not what the parable is about. Instead, Jesus likes to tell parables that have the potential to offend and cause people to wonder about their meaning long after he has gone. The parable of the fig tree is no different.
That’s one of the things I like about Jesus’s preaching style, especially when he uses parables. He is able to dress up his more offensive comments in a parable so that you leave trying to figure out what he was really saying; what the parable really meant. By the time you’ve worked out the meaning and are more than appropriately offended by Jesus’s words, he is long gone. And in some weird way that is when the teaching becomes the most poignant—Jesus may be long gone, but his words remain with you and he has given you a choice—you can struggle with his meaning through self-examination and embrace the opportunity to correct your path, accepting responsibility for your life’s choices and direction; or, you can get angry and be offended by his words, laying the blame on Jesus and living into the self-denial that is easier to claim than self-responsibility; or, you can just let it roll off your back, neither offended nor motivated by any desire to search for deeper meaning or engagement in the transformed life. You get to choose. Even more than simple wisdom, the wisdom of the manifest God is to continue to give us the freedom of choice—the freedom we have had since the beginning; since Creation; since Adam and Eve and a snake all those many years ago.
The choice we are given is less about whether or not we want to follow Jesus and more about the claim we will make on our own lives. Will we be responsible for who we are and what we do? Jesus has already provided the vehicle of salvation for each of us—so it is not the question of whether or not we are saved that we answer in this life. The question we answer is whether or not we will live as saved people? Whether or not we will choose to live in this earthly realm or the kingdom realm?
Jesus has been preaching to thousands, so many that the Bible says they “trampled on one another.” He has been talking about hypocrisy, fear, and greed but he has also been talking about forgiveness and concern for the other, how to live a righteous life, the need for preparation and wisdom. And when he is told a story about some Galileans that Pilate had killed his response is to assure the crowd that their death was not due to sin. He offers another example of those who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them. Both are examples of the new teaching that Jesus is offering them; a new way of being in relationship with God.
God is no longer the vengeful God of the Old Testament—God is a God of love and forgiveness and redemption. The deaths that Jesus speaks of are reminders that we are given this life as a chance to live as redeemed people and when we do not take advantage of that opportunity through repentance and returning to the Lord, then we perish.
To perish is not to die, it is to not live. It is about not being fruitful, not bearing fruits worthy of repentance as John the Baptist would say. It is about being a curse and not a blessing to others. We perish when we refuse to allow others in; when we hold on to information instead of sharing it; when we judge another before we know them or use what we know against them; when we live in a world in which we create expectations or standards without defining them for others or allowing others to help define their own standards. We perish when we focus on our own individuality and self-reliance because it is easier to do it our self than trying to get others involved. We perish when we refuse to admit our mistakes much less own the consequences of our actions and decisions. We perish because we don’t repent. We perish because we resist change.
Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree and its barrenness. He calls it a waste of soil. And when we’ve puzzled it out, we are to be offended, because we are the fig tree. We are the ones who have heard the message of Jesus and yet in our pride or our anger or our laziness or our greed or whatever reason we can come up with, we have refused to produce fruit worthy of repentance. But the Good News is that God doesn’t give up on us even when we have given up on ourselves. God is always calling forward that which he knows is within us because he created us. God knows the fruit that we can bear and he will give us time and attention and care in the hope of a harvest.
The season of Lent is a season of penitential self-examination. It is an opportunity for us to dig away the old dirt and fertilize our life in hope and possibility, releasing the hold of sin that keeps us from leading a righteous and productive life in Christ. That sin is probably not whatever you gave up for Lent, but it may well be a practice of that which is rooted in sin; rooted in whatever is causing you to perish. Stanley Hauerwas says there are four things you do to live the Christian life: Get baptized, go to church, take communion, be Christian. That is the basic fertilization you need to grow and flourish. By participating in the life of the church—living into its seasonal cycles such as Lent—you can find new life, transformed life, redeemed life.
Lent gives us an opportunity to discover something about ourselves that is keeping us from being fruitful. It helps us to redirect and rediscover not simply that we are God’s people but that we can live the embodied life of God in this world. But we have to participate in the embodied life—it does not just happen. It takes care and attention, digging out the old and fertilizing with the new. And if we were to give our faith that kind of care and attention for say, a year, we too would bear much fruit. Amen.
Lent 3C: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, March 24, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer