Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Lent 3 (year C), March 24, 2019
St. James, Poquetanuck & Grace Church, Yantic
Looking at today’s gospel, you wouldn’t be far from the mark to think that we might call this "Manure Sunday". The very thought makes all the gardeners among us giddy with excitement. Gardening season is almost here, and before long, we’ll be cleaning way all the winter trash, pruning roses to encourage new growth, and hoping that we might actually get to see some hydrangea flowers this summer. In the evenings, I keep driving back and fourth in front of the pond near my house hoping to hear Spring Peepers… any minute now they’ll be there. Come holy peepers, come!
Like any good parable, the Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree can be read a number of ways, and it raises all sorts of questions. Who is the gardener? Who is represented by the fig tree? What is represented by the manure? Did the owner end up cutting down the fig tree? Is the story meant as a warning for people who lived in the past, or is it meant as a warning for us today? Who is the vineyard owner? Do they live in Preston? All kinds of questions. That of course is what is at the very heart of parables; they invite people to talk about the story and to imagine what Jesus might be trying to tell us. Often, there is way more than one way to look at the story and it’s lesson. This is all very frustrating for hardy New England people who like to hear plain talk and plain answers. But for the remaining two or three of us from California, it’s fun to think about.
In Jesus’ time, the fig tree he was talking about might have been the people of Israel. God has come among them in the form of Jesus, and during the course of Jesus’ three-year ministry, God has yet to see real fruit from these people. God perhaps is the vineyard owner… God seems to have a thing for gardens after all. Perhaps the gardener is Jesus himself, asking God to hold off for another year to see if there might not be a way to get Israel to bear the kind of Godly fruit that they were called to bear, not by raising an army to destroy the Romans, but by practicing peace as Jesus was teaching. Jesus is going to spade in a little manure around the roots of these people and see if that might do the trick. Of course, we know the end of that story… the gardener himself ended up on a cross, and as for the people of Israel, they were utterly destroyed by five Roman legions in the First Jewish Revolt of AD 66, and Jerusalem itself was smashed by the Romans in AD 70. The people of Israel ended up just the way the Jesus suggested they might.
Of course, the writer of Luke’s Gospel selected this story out hundreds of Jesus stories for a reason… it said something to an early Christian community. Maybe way to view the parable both in Luke’s community and today as modern Christians, is that Christians might be the fruitless fig tree now. Perhaps Jesus, as the vineyard owner, has an expectation that Christians should bear some Godly fruit themselves, or find themselves replaced by others who will get the job done. That’s a sobering thought. Perhaps it is the Spirit that asks Jesus to hold off a while, even though the axe is at the root of the tree, so she can work a little manure into the soil to make them grow and bear fruit again. You know, Ian Douglas our Diocesan Bishop is fond of saying that "God will have the church that God needs", and a question for us today really, is whether St James and Grace Church will be part of the God’s church in the future or not. Such a future may depend on fruit of some kind.
So lets tease this out a little. In what ways is this Parish like a fruitless fig tree? I don’t mean to sound like I’m throwing an accusation around by raising this question, but I want us to think about it… that’s what a parable invites us to do. What is the fruit that God might be looking for and not seeing from us? I think the fruits that God is looking for from us are things like healing, reconciliation, and restoration. Are we healing the wounds in this Parish? There are wounded people here you know. Are we healing the wounds in Preston, in Yantic, and in Norwich? Are we helping people to reconcile with one another in these places? Is a chicken dinner or a fish fry a place where Republicans and Democrats might come together to share a meal and find common ground? Are there people who come to these events who don’t look like most of us or speak our language? Do we go actively looking for such people? Just as a fig tree has roots and a trunk and leaves, a Parish has a Vestry, an organ, and a community meal. But these aren’t the things that God seems to be looking for… God seems to want the fruit that these things are there to produce; healing… bringing enemies together… restoring things that have grown old and worn-out and infusing them with new life. Is that what we’re really doing?
One of the things often told about St. James is that we have a love story. That’s true I think, but love is not a fruit. Think about this with me. I’m thinking that love is actually the manure that gets spaded into the soil, not the thing that hangs on the branches is summer and fall. When a gardener rejuvenates a plant, it might mean putting down some manure or compost, and spading or forking it into the soil. It might mean loosening the soil around the plant, and that breaks a few roots… it might even unbind the roots from the soil a bit to let in the air and the worms. This hurts… it is painful to the plant. And love is precisely like that. When we rejuvenate someone who has become root-bound in hard soil, with the wounds and suffering and agony of life, it hurts. It might mean breaking through hard scars. It might mean dealing transparently with awful things that happened in the past… maybe when they were children. If you are the one applying the manure to the roots of this person, it might mean that you find yourself holding someone’s heart in your holy hands. There are going to be tears and weeping. And those tears are so healing… they are like living waters. They hurt so good.
This is why Christian love is cross-shaped. It’s not just smiles and warm hugs and puppies. It is the painful healing of trauma. If St James has a love story, we ought to expect that it’s going to involve the cross is a way that hurts, because, that’s what it takes to heal a broken heart. There are no short-cuts to this. And healing is one of the Godly fruits that Jesus seems to be looking for from us. Not Vestry minutes and not fish or chicken pie sales… the healing of broken hearts. If you set down a dinner in front of a stranger, its not that they are full at the end that matters, it’s that they had human contact with someone who pays attention to them, maybe for the first time in years… and that is healing. If we go to Fitchville Home to color some eggs, it’s not that a resident has an Easter egg when we leave, it’s the eye-to-eye understanding that happens with someone who cares and engages. That’s what matters… that’s the fruit God is looking for. When we sit across the table from someone at the Owl lunch, its not so much the meat loaf as it is "I’m sorry that your husband died… would you like to talk to me about him?" It is our willingness to look at human suffering and not look away. It’s our willingness to tackle head-on the trauma that people around us have endured and not to suger-coat it. It’s our willingness to talk about our pain and suffering with others. And that is cross-shaped. When we do this, it is like opening soil to the air and the worms… it is like spading manure into old soil and making it new and full of life again.
Will you pray with me? Gracious and loving God, put spades in our hands and buckets of manure into our arms and send us into your garden to do the work you call us to do. Guard us from the distractions that come with running a church, and give us the courage we need to hold someone’s heart in our hands. Give us the wisdom to know that what we do is so much more than feeding stomachs, but filling spirits. Give us the willingness not to turn away from human suffering, but to turn into it, armed with the Spirit’s courage. Help us to know that our love story is cross-shaped… to know that there will be tears… healing tears that flow like living waters. Open the soil around our hard-packed roots with light and air and manure. May the branches of our Parish bend heavy with the weight of Godly fruit that we might be a source of abundant food for all people. We ask this in Jesus’ name, the gardener of our souls and the keeper of vines. Amen.