Sunday, March 3, 2013
Text: Luke 13: 6-9
I can’t recall when we’ve had such an early azalea season, can you? The azaleas in our yard started pinking by the end of January. Whether these precocious plants were wise to rush into their springtime dress remains to be seen. The recent cold snap may prevent the fullest profusion of Mobile’s favorite flower this year. Still, even if the azalea yield this season is less than usual, there will be lavender, fuchsia, white, pink, and the Pride of Mobile pinky-red blossoms enough. There will be enough.
The parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson describes the opposite problem for gardeners: a delayed yield, a plant that was slow to produce, a fig tree, to be specific, that bore no figs. So you might think our early blooming azaleas are detouring us from the story of the late bearing fig tree.
Until I tell you that one of our azalea plants took many years to bloom.
When George and I moved back home to Alabama, his parents gave us half a dozen azalea plants from their property in Lowndes County, small azaleas from an ancient lineage originating in Mobile and with the promise they’d grow into a lush line along one side of our lawn. My in-laws said, “If you’re going to live in Mobile, you’re required by law to have azaleas.” I never checked the city ordinances on that, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. So George planted and watered the transplanted azaleas, and sure enough, they did what azaleas do in Mobile: they thrived. All except one of the plants. Through no fault of its own. The next-door neighbor’s dog took a liking to one of the bushes, by which I mean this dog liked to “water” it. Sadly, the dog-watered plant soon died—leaving a gap in the azalea hedge. We could have bought another azalea, but my historian husband liked the idea of our azaleas all sharing the same history.
So George took a cutting from one of the healthy plants and potted it and placed it on the patio. For the next two or three years he tended that twig. Truly, it was nothing but an eight-inch stick for two years. Impatient as I am, after a few months I gave up on The Twig, as I disdainfully dubbed it, and suggested we just buy an azalea to match the others. Even if The Twig survived, it would never catch up to the others and would never thrive and bloom. But George kept faith in his twig in the clay pot. He and I would step outside on the patio some evenings, and he’d point out a new leaf that had sprouted but which I could barely see. Such a feeble sign of hope brought out the worst in me. So I’d taunt that twig with invective so awful your average twig would have just keeled over and died.
But George’s twig did not. Very gradually that unpromising twig really took root and leafed out a bit more and then branched out. So George prepared the soil for it in the place of its dead predecessor. And he put a little wire fence around the site to keep out the neighbor’s dog. And planted The Twig. And by the next season it was blooming pinkly, sidling up happily against its bigger relatives. If you go to our house today, you will see a bank of blooming azaleas, and you will be able to tell that one plant is smaller than the others–but just barely. It’s catching up. And it’s fairly beaming with blooms.
If Jesus were to recast the parable of the fig tree today, the barren fig tree would be played by The Twig, the landowner wanting to cut down the tree to make room for something bigger and better would be played by myself, and the compassionate gardener who, after three years, still held out hope that the fig tree would one day bear fruit would be played by George. The gardeners of azaleas and figs and human hearts are the ones who say, “Don’t give up on this one.” “Hold off.” “Don’t cut it down yet.” “Give her time.” “Give him a chance.”
But unlike the story of The Taunted Twig, the parable of the fig tree is left open ended. We don’t know if Jesus’s fig tree ever bloomed, or if the gardener eventually had to cut if down. Will the extra year of care be enough to help the tree produce fruit? Will the gardener’s mercy pay off? We don’t know. Which helps us more easily enter the story. Because you and I don’t know what will happen next year. Will we make use of the mercies granted us? Will others live up to hopes we’ve invested in them? Jesus apparently was not interested in crafting a story with a simplistic ending but in creating a possibility in the listener’s mind.
And so we wonder . . . maybe, maybe, with a little more time, a little more care, our prayer will bear fruit, our faint hope will blossom into a reality. Maybe.
To appreciate the fig tree parable in the wider context of Luke’s Gospel, it helps to recall a scene in Luke 3 when John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, is preaching his stirring calls to repentance. In a sermon announcing the coming of one greater than he, John yelled at the crowds, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” because “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.” (Luke 3: 7, 9) Luke’s readers should then hear Jesus’s fig tree parable tree picking up where John’s gardening metaphor let off—but converting John’s warning to a message of mercy. John’s sermon warns of an ax waiting for those things that don’t grow and produce fruit. And indeed, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark say Jesus cursed a barren fig tree. But here Jesus’s gardener pleads for more time and holds out more hope.
However, Jesus’s parable does not deny that those who don’t grow will die. That’s a fact of nature. The good gardener does not ask for an interminable reprieve. If an organism stops growing, it dies. And some things need to die. Some relationships need to end. Some ventures should not flourish. But Jesus’s parable does emphasize patience with ourselves and others. Patience and mercy. There’s time yet to produce fruit. What a gracious word I need to hear!
John the reformer was calling for the reinvigoration of the religion of his day. Our own religion is likewise in need of reinvigoration. Christianity needs systemic reforming if it’s to produce fruit to feed hungry bodies and souls. We who care about this revitalization can hear John’s dire warning coupled with Jesus’s note of patience and compassion. Both voices need to be heard. Christianity needs reforming. But it’s not time to chop it down. Now is the time to aerate the soil that gets packed down and hardened. Now is the time to fertilize with “manure”—to bring in new nutrients from some, shall we say, unlikely, sources.
Now is the time to be patient, Open Table, with all that is yet to be produced among us. We were planted three years ago as a ministry of the United Church of Christ. We are young in church years. And though much good has been produced already, let us be patient with God and with one another for the more that is to come. We are growing in some tough soil here. But we are putting down strong roots. Already we are bearing fruit.
Some of the commentaries on the fig tree parable explain that fig trees usually take three or four years to produce fruit. The gardener of the parable, then, is not just being an optimist; the gardener knows how much time and faith and work it takes to encourage growth in a fig tree or an azalea or a church.
Of course, let’s remember that John and Jesus preached not only to the religious/political systems in power. They spoke to individual folks with specific needs of body and spirit. As we apply that story to our circumstances, that fig tree might be a child, right here in our city, whose home life and economic circumstances and peer group and school setting do not have the recommended ingredients for growth. But if one person can water her spirit, she might defy the odds.
That fig tree might also be you or me. Sometimes we’re the gardener; sometimes the garden. I have not yet produced the kind of fruit that could really feed a hungry world, which Paul names as “the fruit of the Spirit” and lists as “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22). I’ve not yet produced the beauty of spirit of which we are all capable. I could use a good pruning. I could be more open to spiritual and physical nutrition. I could give up habits that keep me from branching out.
Yet there’s grace. Which reminds us that our source of life and growth is beyond us, that all of life is a gift, and that we can’t make ourselves grow or will ourselves not to die or mature ourselves into spiritual adulthood any more than we can achieve an extra two inches in height by dint of our own determination or sprout figs from our fingertips or azalea blossoms out our ears. And we have been graced with much. More than enough. When we pay attention to the grace we’ve received, we are more gracious to one another.
When our daughter was born, I, like many moms, bought a Baby Book for my child so I could record her growth in inches and pounds and first words and first steps. I’m guessing that Facebook and Pinterest have now replaced the quaint old use of baby books. But back in the Dark Ages, I filled in each of our baby’s milestones in pen on pages of paper. I froze before one page, however. The publisher had simply headed it “Mother’s Message to Baby.” Really? How could I begin to say to my daughter all that I wanted to say? Only after many years did I finally read a poem that seemed worthy of that page. It compares the growth of a young girl to the growth of an apple tree that bears good fruit for the world. This is my prayer for my child, for myself, for our church:
“Young Apple Tree, December,” by Gail Mazur
What you want for it you’d want
for a child: that she take hold;
that her roots find home in stony
winter soil; that she take seasons
in stride, seasons that shape and
reshape her; that like a dancer’s,
her limbs grow pliant, graceful
and surprising; that she know,
in her branchings, to seek balance;
that she know when to flower, when
to wait for the returns; that she turn
to a giving sun; that she know
fruit as it ripens; that what’s lost
to her will be replaced; that early
summer afternoons, a full blossoming
tree, she cast lacy shadows; that change
not frighten her, rather that change
meet her embrace; that remembering
her small history, she find her place
in an orchard; that she be her own
orchard; that she outlast you;
that she prepare for the hungry world
(the fallen world, the loony world)
something shapely, useful, new, delicious.