A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, TX.
The Lectionary readings for the Third Sunday in Lent are here.
I am not much of a gardener. My mother was, though. We joke that she could take a dry stick an make it grow. Her flower beds and her house plants all thrived because of her care for them. And when one of her plants wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do, she tended it with extra care so it could grow.
I have two plants in my house: one is too new to know what it’s fate will be but I’m trying and one is a small cactus that was a party gift at the baby shower before my youngest granddaughter, who is now 3 and a half was born and I’m determined to keep it alive forever. I can’t actually say I ‘tend it with care’ but I make sure it gets sunlight and I water it when it’s dry and I’ve repotted it a couple of times as it’s grown. And the fruit that it bears is to make me smile as I think of my granddaughter each time I look at it.
Now, I don’t know much about fig trees but since Google knows everything, I found out it takes a fig tree 3-5 years to produce good fruit.
And, I’m thinking at least some of the folks who heard Jesus tell this peculiar story of a fig tree in response to their quest to understand why bad things happen would be reminded of the rule God gave to the Israelites as recorded in the book of Leviticus:
“When you enter the land and plant any fruit tree, you must consider its fruit off-limits. For three years it will be off-limits to you; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year, all of the tree’s fruit will be holy, a celebration for the LORD. In the fifth year you can eat the fruit. This is so as to increase its produce for you; I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:23-25 CEB)
So the man in the story wasn’t completely out of line expecting fruit in three years but he was only looking to satisfy his own wants. The gardener in the parable knew a better way, a way that honors God and creation, keeps things in proper order, and provides an abundance of fruit for all to benefit from.
It would be so much easier, don’t you think, if Jesus would just tell us plainly what he wants us to know instead of planting the meaning in a parable. But Jesus knows that if he were to just give us a simplified list of dos and don’ts, we’d most likely just file them away as a piece of knowledge to reference when we think we need it. But when we have to wrestle with what he says, really ponder what it means for us, then the lesson becomes part of who we are and we are able to apply it as wisdom to our whole and holy life.
The folks who are listening to Jesus on this particular occasion are looking to validate their own goodness by other people’s perceived ‘badness,’ bringing up a situation in which some were murdered while offering sacrifices. We aren’t told exactly what they ask Jesus but it seems apparent from Jesus’ response that they are going on the assumption that God smited, smote, smoot, whatever the past tense for smite is, them for some abhorrent sin. It must have been pretty bad if God took them out while in the middle of a sacrifice, right? And what about the group crushed by the tower of Siloam? They must have been super-duper bad.
But Jesus turns the conversation back around to them, so that they have to wrestle with what he’s saying and bump it up against their own thoughts, provoking such questions as “why do we assume that these folks had done something so horrific that God somehow caused their death? And why do we want to make God the bad-guy when something bad happens? The first group were victims of a politically motivated murder – isn’t it Pilate who is the bad guy? The second group were victims of a terrible accident. There is no bad guy.
And a final pondering: Why do we want to make others more bad than we are? Someone else being ‘more bad’ than we are doesn’t make us good. We are all sinners and need to repent in some way or another.
And then, as he gets them to really pondering all of this, Jesus follows up with a parable about an immature fig tree and a compassionate gardener who wants to care for the fig tree so it can live into what it is, a tree that produces figs for the benefit of others.
I think many of us want to make the owner of the fig tree out to be God in this parable. But what if the owner is us, demanding instant gratification for the work we’ve done. We plant a tree and demand it bear fruit for our own satisfaction. Look what I did! I can enjoy the fruit of the tree I planted. And if the tree doesn’t do what I think it should I can just get rid of it.
And Jesus comes along and tells us of a better way: a Way of Living in which we wait on God’s time and do life God’s way. In God’s time and with God’s way all of creation can be as it is created to be. Fig trees get to be fig trees, God is honored as Creator of all, and we and so many others get to enjoy and benefit from the abundance of fruit. When we try to do life on our own we are the one who planted the tree. When we seek to live life with Jesus, we are the tree being carefully tended to by the Gardener.
And in this Way of Living that Jesus teaches, also known as God’s Kingdom, we discover that life and death isn’t just physical but also spiritual. Life and death involve our whole being, body&soul. When we ignore the spiritual side, we are not fully alive. When we live only for our own ego and satisfaction, we are partially dead. We are created to be in communion with God and each other and, yes, all of creation. This is God’s Way, the purpose and plan of God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven: all of us working in partnership with the Gardener.
And, so, with this peculiar story of a fig tree, Jesus addressed the people’s understanding of who God is and who we are in relationship with God. God isn’t some autocrat sitting in someplace called Heaven waiting for us mess up so he can make a divine point by smiting us. God is The God of relationship, reconciliation, and redemption, offering to us these divine, life-giving gifts and waiting for us to receive them with our repentance, with the changing of our hearts and minds to God’s Way and be tended to and nurtured by the Gardener so that we can bear the fruit we are created to bear.
And this is where the theology can get tricky and we have to choose our words carefully. We don’t earn God’s forgiveness by repenting. God’s forgiveness is a gracious gift ready for our acceptance when we can admit we need it. But our admission, our repentance, doesn’t create God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is a gift available to all.
But then, knowing God will forgive us whenever we ask, doesn’t mean we can use that as a free pass to do whatever we please. God’s forgiveness is a gift wasted if we don’t accept it and learn to live a life worthy of the gift we’ve received.
Our repentance, the changing of our hearts and lives, is the mindful choice to turn from doing life our way and learning to live life God’s way, to give ourselves over to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in a life-long journey of discipleship as we follow Jesus.
From the beginning, God told Adam and Eve that to do the one thing he forbade meant death for them. But not just physical death, because as God created us, physical death is always a part of our everlasting life, but the true consequence of sin is living death – living not as we are created to live, in relationship with our Creator. God’s forgiveness and our repentance is so that we can live fully into the human beings God created us to be, to live fully now, honoring God, bearing fruit for the benefit of God’s Kingdom on earth.
Jesus teaches us that we can’t just put a stick in the ground and hope for the best, that we have to allow the gardener tend to us with care. To live fully as we are created to live takes intentionality, daily cultivating our relationship with God so that all of our human relationships grow and thrive.
So, on this first day of spring, how can the Gardener tend to you so you can bear Kingdom fruit? What can you learn from the Gardener about how to plant and cultivate and live life in God’s Kingdom? Amen.