Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Fig Tree: To Chop or to Fertilize?

Sheespscott Community Church March 7, 2010

Isaiah 55: 1-9

Luke 13: 1-9

The Fig Tree: To Chop or to Fertilize?

When Jon and I were living on the Old Sheepscot Road back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we planted a peach tree in our side yard. A peach tree in Maine, a far cry from proverbial Georgia. The gardening catalogue said the variety was cold hardy, so we gave it a shot, took a chance. Why not? Some of you, I’m sure, have done the same with fruits, flowers, nuts and shrubs––given them the chance to survive and even thrive in our cold climate, notwithstanding the bizarre February we’ve just experienced.

The dwarf peach tree did nothing but survive for the first two years after planting, but again, in such an unfriendly climate, that’s saying a lot. The third summer we had three peaches. Lovely. We plucked them and ate them right off the tree. This is the kind of fruit you read about in literature where the flesh is burgeoning with juice which you can’t not let run down your chin and through your fingers. Sweet and delicious were those peaches. The next summer the tree was covered, hanging heavy with fruit. That was easily one of our most successful and rewarding agricultural experiments.

A similar story is that of our night-blooming cereus plant. A friend had pruned his plant because it was taking over the dining room at his house. I put the gift of a shoot in a jar of water, where it stood for six months, ugly and forlorn. My conscience got the better of me and I finally planted it. A dozen years later it had its first single blossom, the bud for which Jon had happened to espy the day before. We weren’t sure what it was, but that night it began to open at 7:30, bloomed in fragrant fullness by 10 and was collapsed in on itself the following morning––our introduction to this beautiful and mysterious tropical plant. At its height, before I became adept at pruning out of necessity to allow daylight back into the house, it had 22 blossoms one night, and nearly as many at the next month’s blooming. Blooming is June through October, usually as we near the full moon. This plant goes by the book.

These are just two examples of bloomer and fruiter, one requiring more time than the other to come to blooming, but no less rewarding when it did. We couldn’t eat those cereus blossoms, but their beauty fed the soul as surely as those memorable peaches fed ours and our children’s bodies.

By contrast my sister gave me a rowan or mountain ash tree when I was 40, which we planted out behind our house in Whitefield. It didn’t make it and was a big disappointment. My hopes and visions of rowan jelly with plenty of berries left for the birds were dashed.

In our lives, we’ve all seen both the successes and failures that these botanical stories conjure. Today’s gospel records a parable of just such an apparent failure to produce, if not to thrive. This is one of Jesus’ clearest cautionary tales, and just to review, the fig tree is in its third year when the owner of the vineyard finds it once again without fruit. He tells the caretaker to cut it down. The caretaker suggests that he dig up around the tree and fertilize it and keep it for one more year, and if there is no fruit the next year, then he will cut it down. The owner apparently acquiesces.

By way of a little background, it was not unusual to plant fig trees or apple trees in vineyards in Palestine at that time because of the scarcity of arable land. Every plant for itself! The expected fruiting time for a fig tree is at maturity at three years, and that is why the owner is ready to cut down the tree when there is nothing yet there after the third year. The fig tree was using up the elements of the precious soil and not giving anything back.

What can we learn from this? I’ll mention several things. Do we bloom and fruit where we are planted? The most searching question we have to ask ourselves and one which I think we will be asked at the end of our lives: Of what use were you in the world? Did you just take up space in the garden or did you produce good fruit? Not did your spouse or your neighbor or your child or your parent or your friend produce good fruit. Did you, did we produce good fruit?

Our lives, for which we can never render thanks enough because we can never on this side fully understand the size and meaning of the gift of life, our lives are gift to us from God and our parents. I know there are some of us who might object, Well, I never asked for it. Whether or not you did ask for it, you have life, and what will you do with it as an act of thanksgiving for it? Take up space in the garden and criticize other trees for their less than attractive crown of leaves? I advise against that. That is being less than useless in a civilization where uselessness invites disaster. The history of evolution is a history of survival and success marked by usefulness or adaptability. The useless is eliminated, as we hear the owner of the vineyard saying to his caretaker in the gospel. In case it doesn’t go without saying, there are as many different ways of being useful as there are people in the world. I am not arguing for euthanasia or selective breeding or eugenics, but recognition that we all contribute. Some, because of opportunities we have had, are challenged to contribute more, but all have a contribution to make, perhaps, something as beautiful and simple as a smile or word of encouragement to another. We don’t know what that word of encouragement might mean to another person. To say it can change the course of another’s history is not an overstatement. That is the Body of Christ in action.

Mind the caretaker of this morning’s gospel. I invite you to look on that character as the figure of Jesus, who intercedes for us. Give him, give her, give them another year, he says. And God as the owner agrees. This is the gospel of the second chance. Certainly Peter and Paul knew the meaning of a second chance and had enough character, humility and integrity to snap it up once it was given to them, unlike Judas who did not believe he deserved a second chance. But note well, there is finally a last chance. As the scripture says, The Spirit will not always contend with a man. If God’s appeal and challenge come again and again, and we refuse again and again, the day will finally come, not when God has shut us out, but when we have shut ourselves out from God, by our own successive choices, our own will. God honors that as always.

Like the night-blooming cereus that stood as a stick in a bottle unrooted for six months and eventually bloomed 12 years later in unanticipated glory, we too, no matter what our current status is, can come to God for fertilizing, for greater growth into our lives. And it isn’t Miracle-Gro that’s going to do it. Today being Communion Sunday, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, call it what you will, we can all come to the table and be fed. We heard the psalmist call out to God in this morning’s reading: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

The reading from Isaiah is like the response to that call: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost... Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Is this not what we are offered in the Lord’s supper? The richest of fare? What we will share only minutes from now? Extraordinary that Jesus makes himself available to us in just this way. Be conscious of that when you receive the bread and the fruit of the vine. They are recalling the lifegiver who offered himself to the apostles at that supper in this unique way by which they could remember him when he was no longer among them in the body. It is the same for us. He is no less among us than he was with the apostles when they remembered him in the breaking of the bread, in the sharing of the cup.

Now, hear this from Isaiah, hear it individually and as a church: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon,” as he did Paul, as he did Peter, as he surely would have pardoned Judas, and as he longs to pardon us, if we will only turn and seek the Lord while he may be found.

I was impressed with all of today’s scriptures as a member of this church as well as an individual charged to bring them to my own and to your attention. Two weeks ago I alluded to the state of the church, and I do it again today because the scriptures carry the weight of the lesson I think we are all being offered. At the last Board meeting Bill Robb expressed concern for the future of the church. As the treasurer of the church, his focus was rightly on the financial side. As the minister of the church, my focus is rightly on the spiritual side as I look to the future of this church.

I fully believe that the fig tree of the Sheepscott Community Church is living out a second chance to thrive and be self-sustaining, as well as to continue to contribute to the wider worshiping community in the ways God calls us to respond and contribute. It may be this is not the second, or third or fourth chance; only God knows that. I do now that this is a time of God’s visitation and invitation, and we have a great chance to respond generously with love and service. During this season of Lent, as we move toward Easter and thence to Pentecost once again, I believe the eye of God is inspecting this fig tree of the Sheepscott Community Church looking for fruit. What fruit? The good fruit that is a life lived for God, as God directs and rightfully expects, considering the great gift of life we have been given.

As it is written in Micah 6: 8: “You have been told, o man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Let us take in the sacrament of communion this morning as fertilizing nourishment for the tree of life that has been entrusted to us. Let us eat and drink the bread of angels, aware of what we eat and drink. Amen.

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