Lent 3 Sunday March 24, 2019
Sermon: The Barren Fig Tree
Scripture: Luke 13: 6 – 9; John 15: 1 – 8
The parable of the barren fig tree is a puzzling one – it can have several insights or messages. One obvious lesson is about productivity – how much do we produce? One lesson is about expectations – the fig tree is expected to produce figs – what are we expected to produce? Another lesson can be about patience – like the children’s video we watched this morning (youtube The Frog in The Garden) – we have to wait and be patient at times in our lives. Other lessons from this parable could be about the dangers of uselessness, of using the sweat, toil and tears of others and not giving back, lessons about hidden talents we don’t use, the withering of our spirit or soul, and even the end of life.
Abraham Lincoln is said to have said: “Die when I may, I want it said of me that I plucked a weed and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow.”
And this makes me think of our world and how we leave it. Either prosperous or not. Last Wednesday night at the University of Waterloo campus here in town, there was a public talk about the pollution of plastic in our world. The presenters were Emily Chandler, Chair of Stratford’s Energy & Environment Committee, and Jennifer Pate, a water advocate who co-founded a business called “Love the Greats.” As an expedition leader, Jennifer has travelled the Great Lakes and the oceans reporting on the amount of plastic found in our waters. This pollution is creating devastating effects on the ecosystem of our water, on our animals and plants, and on us – we human beings. We are ingesting plastic – tiny microscopic pieces of plastic found in our water. We’re cooking with it, drinking it, eating it, and absorbing it into all creation itself. It’s scary. We know about the gigantic islands of plastic floating around in our oceans – which are not dissolving – and marine life is ingesting pieces of this plastic, sometimes in small bits and sometimes in large pieces, and they’re dying because of it. They literally starve themselves to death because their stomach is full of this plastic. The animal thinks it is full, it doesn’t eat, and it dies. It is shocking. We humans are to blame. The plastic pollution is out of control. If the vineyard in our parable were the ocean instead, what would the owner say about the pollution, represented by the barren fig tree? It’s not producing good, but barrenness. Not providing nourishing food, but starvation. What would God say to us?
What would God say to us about so many things? Because the fig tree parable says so many things about God and our relationship with God. In the story, we can think that the vineyard is the world, and Jesus is the gardener who wants to give us another chance, fertilize us with his Spirit, and help us to grow – but is God the owner who would cut us down? I don’t think so. Because God doesn’t act like that. Not the God who sent Jesus to save us. God loves us so much, we human race, that he sent Jesus his Son embodying God’s compassion and grace and forgiveness. Unending forgiveness. When Peter asks Jesus how many times a person should forgive another person, Jesus replies “seventy-seven times” meaning, literally, times without number. God shows mercy towards us, always, and gives us endless chances to come back to his Spirit and be enfolded in his love.
So if God isn’t the owner of the vineyard, who is it who wants to cut us down? Who doesn’t give us another chance? Who doesn’t see the value in us? Who is impatient and ready to give up on us? Who doesn’t see our worth? This could be the tempter, who we’ve talked about over the past two Sundays, – Satan, the tempter who wants to destroy Jesus and who would gladly destroy us. Our scriptures call him a lion who prowls around the earth seeking who he can devour. We speak of evil. It is a Spirit of ill-will, a spirit to harm. We are tempted to sin, and tempted in many ways to take the wrong path, or make the wrong decision, or hurt ourselves in any number of myriad ways, and hurt others repeatedly, knowing that we do so. This isn’t good behaviour. This isn’t loving action. This isn’t kindness or mercy. Are we the owner in the story? Are we the person who would cut another person down? We can recognize that, can’t we? Who is it who gossips, and slanders, and takes pleasure in pulling someone down? We, each one of us, can readily wound each other, give up on each other, criticize, judge and hurt each other.
I like to think that it is Jesus who says: “Wait a minute! Let’s give it another chance. I see its potential. I’ll fertilize it. Let’s give it time to grow and produce.” And the fig tree is saved. Just like us. We’re taken care of. We’re given a longer period of time to grow.
It’s interesting that we don’t know how the story ends. Does the fig tree produce after a year? We know the prerequisite. It’s given one more year. And hopefully it does produce. One saving grace in a parable is that time can be representative. A year is a fairly long time, and yet not. Perhaps this lesson is to teach us that we are given time to produce for God, God is gracious and will give us that time, but God does expect results from us. We are told in our scriptures by James the brother of Jesus that faith without works is dead. We are expected to produce. To bear fruit for God and Jesus. And we’ve read this morning that Jesus is the vine, and God is the gardener. Here we find another vineyard. The fig tree, too, is planted in a vineyard. It is God’s earth, and Jesus says that God is the gardener who cuts off every branch that bears no fruit. God prunes us so that we will be more fruitful. Jesus tells us to remain in him so that we can bear much fruit. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches who must remain connected to him. And if we don’t, we wither and are thrown away.
The two stories have their parallels. And our message is to produce for God, for Jesus his Son, and bear fruit. We are to work for God, work for his kingdom here on earth, work for good wholesome food and a good wholesome environment, work for the good among each other, work for the peoples of this earth, and stay connected to Jesus.
Throughout these Lenten weeks, let us think quite seriously about what we are doing. Where we are placed. What our purpose is. How we appear to God. What needs pruning? What would God cut out? I want to be ready to produce figs, the talents God has given me, the gifts of the Spirit given to me, the love and compassion Jesus wants me to give to others, and I want to nourish not only each other but the world. I want to be a good fruit. I hope you do, too. Amen.