Tending to the figless fig tree


A sermon based on Luke 13:1 – 9 and preached on March 7, 2010. 

At our first meeting of the Lenten group that is focusing on the words of the Lord’s Prayer David began our time together by asking us to share some kind of work we’d always imagined doing, but hadn’t had a chance to do.   Al was sitting to David’s left and was the first to speak. I’m taking liberty here repeating what Al said, because David had us pledge to keeping the words spoken there to ourselves.    But I trust Al won’t mind. 

 It happened to be his 61st  birthday.   Al said that he was presently working as a nanny, and that there was nothing he’d rather be doing at the moment.  (Al has been on disability for the last couple of years because of a heart condition.  He works three afternoons a week taking care of three-year old Kathryn, a time that gives him much pleasure.)

These were remarkable words coming out of a man in our society.    For most men, the conversation regarding what we do for a living is something of a competition with a definite hierarchy, with things like being CEO of a Fortune 500 company, playing for the Yankees, and leading safaris for dangerous wild game being at the top of manliness.  For a man to say he is working as a nanny and content to do so is definitely counter-cultural, and it was liberating for the rest of us men present in the room. 

Child care isn’t a high status position in our society, and it certainly isn’t compensated well.   But there is nothing more important than children receiving good, loving care.   At the heart of good child care, is paying attention – noticing the little things in the little one’s life.  It requires great patience.  

It just so happens that these are the same qualities that are required for the cultivation of our spiritual lives.   It was Mother Teresa who said, “We can do no great things, we can only do little things with great love.”  Or, as the Apostle Paul put it, you may be a mover and shaker with a Fortune 500 company, you may hit for power with the Yankees, you may have the balls to take on lions and tigers, but if you have not love, you are nothing.  The Gospel lesson from Luke is a surefire Lenten one, focusing our attention on death and the way it shows up unexpectedly.   People tell Jesus about recent news of sudden, violent death.   A bunch of Galileans have been killed by the Roman Governor Pilate and his men.   Those recounting the story may have had two reasons for telling Jesus about this violence.  First, perhaps they hoped that it would move him to get behind a violent revolution, throwing out Pilate and all the Romans.  And second, perhaps they’re looking for some reassurance.   There is a strain of thought in the Old Testament, found most notably in Deuteronomy that puts forth the notion that if you do good and follow the Law, you will be rewarded with a good and happy life, and if you do bad and break the Law, you will be punished with misery.   Did these Galileans receive their violent death because of some kind of bad behavior on their parts?  Can we stay clear of such violence for ourselves by keeping our nose clean and keeping on the straight and narrow of God’s Law?

Jesus disappointed  both motivations.  He didn’t take up arms against the Romans. And he says that they had all fallen short of God’s glory and they all needed to repent – turn around, start walking with  God, and if not, the same fate would likely befall them as well.  (It is also worth noting that Jesus was the holiest man who ever lived, and all his righteous living didn’t save him from dying a terrible death nailed to a cross.)  

On the Monday following our first meeting of the Lord’s Prayer group, Al started feeling quite sick while working at the church to provide hospitality for a bunch of clergy who were on hand to hear a speaker about Spiritual Formation.  Gail took him to the hospital, and within a matter of days, Al had a diagnosis of acute leukemia, a life threatening disease that requires a stiff inducement of chemotherapy to knock the leukemia cells into remission.   Following the chemotherapy, if all goes well he will recuperate and prepare for a bone marrow transplant that could hold out the possibility of a cure.  

This is heavy stuff indeed, bringing to the consciousness of us all how assaults on our health can strike us out of the blue, threatening our very life.   Jesus proceeded to tell a little parable about gardening, another favorite activity , along with cooking, of Al’s.  Said Jesus, a man owned a vineyard in one corner of which a fig tree was planted.  After three years, however no figs had appeared on the tree.  The owner of the vineyard is angry with the fruitless fig tree, taking up as it does the space and nutrients.   He wants to cut it down.  The gardener, however, pleads for more time for the fig tree.   He will plant some extra manure around the fig tree, and with a little extra attention and tender care, well, who knows, maybe next year the fig tree put forth figs.  If not, says the gardener, you can go ahead and cut it down. 

In my experience the parables of Jesus are wild and open to insight in surprising ways from a variety of perspectives.   The commentators I read on this parable, however, tended to reduce it to an allegory:  The owner of the vineyard is God the Father, demanding justice; the Gardener is Jesus the Son, tempering the justice with mercy.   We are the figless fig trees.  But what if find we can identify with all three?   How easily we feel condemnation for parts of ourselves, as well as of others, that strike us at a given moment as useless.    But can we also identify with the gentle gardener, who like a good nanny, attentively pays attention to the places in ourselves and in others that seem to be barren, hoping instead to cultivate fruit heretofore unimagined from the tree?

On the third Thursday of each month I go over to Troy Hills Nursing Center to lead a worship service.  I usually get about a dozen old women present who are really appreciative of my presence there.  It’s curious, but a number of the women come at this little parable from a different direction.  They look at their lives in the terms of this world and they judge themselves useless.  They cannot walk, nor do any of the things they have always thought of as “work.”   They feel like figless fig trees, and wonder what’s taking the gardener so long to get on with chopping them down. 

I say to them, “Try to take a breath.”  If they can, then that is the most concrete sign that God wants them to go on living.   They do indeed have a holy purpose.  They’ve been missing it because they’ve been looking to high up at the things the world counts as important.  What they can do, and do better than most, is pray.  They can host in their bodies the holy presence of God, and in doing so, their very bearing becomes a blessing to whomever they come in contact.  They have the capacity to bless a troubled world in ways they will never be able to know the extent of.   All that is required is that they trust, and open their hearts in love.  In the end, this is the kind of fruit that truly matters – the fruit that the whole creation longs to taste.

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