As I reflected in my homily last Sunday at Bev Cederstam’s memorial service, I never thought much about gardening until I met her. She had such a love for her plants and flowers...I can remember visiting with her and her walking me through her garden pointing out the different varieties, pulling up little weeds and dead-heading as we went along. And it was Bev who taught me to appreciate gardening--watching things emerge from the soil after the winter, watering and nurturing the little plants as they grew, tending them and caring for them as if they were the single most important thing of the day.
In past years, now would be the time that I would get out my little trowel and gardening gloves and get to work pulling weeds and clearing away fallen branches. But this summer I moved and travelled a lot, so I don’t have a garden now. Instead I have 3 planters...one with rosemary in it, one with sage in it, and one with a very dead jasmine plant. So I’m eager to get out more pots and soil and buy some primroses. The labor of love that is my little pot collection is a special for me thanks to Bev, and so I patiently wait, and watch, praying that things will bloom again this spring.
When Jesus is confronted with the questions of his followers about why bad things happen in this world, they are asking questions about sin. In the ancient world, it was believed that the sins of the father resulted in consequences that could last generations. So these people who are killed and had their blood mixed with the blood of sacrifices and those who had been crushed under a fallen building…were these tragedies the result of their sin or the sin of the generations before them? Jesus doesn’t respond to questions of blame. Instead he says that if we don’t repent of our sins, if we don’t experience a complete turning around in our hearts, then we too will suffer consequences. It’s a simple lesson in cause and effect.
But Jesus wants his followers to know something about God’s judgment and grace. Instead of ending the teaching there, he takes it further with a parable about a fig tree. So let’s look at the parable again.
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
For a long time, this parable was hard for me to relate to until I saw a fig tree in a friend’s back yard. The tree looked much like the trees do right now…no leaves, no buds about to bloom…just barren branches. And my friend said it had been that way for several years. But she was waiting, watering it, fertilizing it, pulling weeds from around its base, because she knew that one day, it would bud and begin to bear fruit.
God is like that with us. Sometimes, we become barren, unable to produce the fruits of goodness, charity, love. Sometimes we get bogged down with feelings of frustration and anger, and so we can’t produce anything beautiful as a result. Sometimes our doubt and worry prohibit us from enjoying life around us. And so, God patiently waits, tending to our weeds, watering and nurturing us, hoping that we will bloom. God doesn’t look at us and say, “Well, that person comes from a long line of sinners; they’re rotten to the root.” Instead, God sees that we all have potential to bloom and grow.
This parable is a reflection of God’s grace and love for us. God continues to give us the gifts that we need to do the work we’ve been called to do—to teach, to love, to care, to bring about the Kingdom—the gifts that bring us into full relationship with God. One difference between us and the fig tree though is that the tree doesn’t have to recognize the water and fertilizer in order to do its work; we, on the other hand, have to open our hearts and minds to these gifts for them to work in us. And how do we recognize God’s fertilizer? God’s gifts are found in those things that are life-giving to us: the love we share with families, friends and neighbors, acts of kindness and generosity, prayer, meditation and being in community with each other and all of creation. The other difference between us and the fig tree is that we can choose to stay closed off to God’s nurturing love. We can choose not to bloom. We can choose not to have a change of heart. And when we make those choices, then yes, we will wither away, decay and die.
So here we are at the half-way point in Lent, continuing our journey to Jerusalem with Jesus. And we find ourselves presented with the option of accepting God’s fertilizer or ignoring it. Which do we choose? Being fertilized, accepting the call to discipleship, means that sometimes the road will be hard. Following Jesus to Jerusalem can be scary. It means being called out of our comfort zones to do mission work that might be challenging…like becoming gardeners to others. Or we can ignore God’s fertilizer and stay rooted in the way things are, only to find that it’s not life giving, but rather life ending. So which do we choose? I choose the fertilizer. I want to bear much fruit and then share it with someone else. I hope you’ll join me.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.