Text: Luke 13:1-9
The working title for this sermon was: “The Pope, Republicans and A Fig Tree.” Now some of you might be thinking that such a title would carry with it negative connotations and criticism of the pope and republicans. But you would be wrong. This past week has been an unanticipated week for Pope Benedict XVI, and for republicans. For starters, whatever you think of Pope Benedict XVI, he has shown the world an authentic example of what the word humility means. With grace and elegance he has displayed a tremendous amount of courage as he has made known to the world what it looks like to name one’s limits and live into the vulnerable places of life and faith and leadership. If he did nothing else during his papacy, he has, by example shown us what it means to live a countercultural life. One commentator wrote of his resignation: “We believe that success builds upon itself in our pursuit of power, position and prosperity – all of which, in return, assist our philanthropies, because we also believe that we are a generous nation, eager to do good by others. Today, before our eyes, Pope Benedict’s life and actions addressed all of that. Whatever his departure meant to the rest of the world, it said to Americans and their ideals, ‘no one is irreplaceable; power isn’t everything; not everything is your choice; sometimes bread cast upon the waters comes back soggy.”
As Pope Benedict entered Castel Gandolfo, he called himself “no longer the pope…just a pilgrim.” “To those who are out of work or worried about their jobs, Benedict’s move says, ‘what you do does not define who you are.’ To those experiencing ‘downward mobility’ it says, ‘your trappings make you less free; do not be afraid to shed them.’ To those who feel like choices have disappeared, it says: ‘when someone else chooses for you, what you make of it is your own.’ To those whose efforts are deemed inadequate by others, it says, ‘don’t judge yourself.’ To those living through rejection, scorn or bullying, it says: ‘there is a higher and unconditional love waiting for a chance to embrace you.’ To lives turbulent and overly busy it says; ‘prayer can be peaceful productivity.’”[i]
But Pope Benedict is not the only one this week who has taught us a lesson about living a countercultural message. This headline read in the New York Times: “Republicans Sign Brief In Support Of Gay Marriage.” That’s right. Dozens of prominent Republicans – including top advisors to former President George W. Bush, four former governors and two members of Congress – signed a legal brief arguing that gay people have a constitutional right to marry. The document was submitted to the Supreme Court in support of a suit seeking to strike down Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative barring same-sex marriage, and all similar bans. The list of signers includes a string of republican officials and influential thinkers – 75 in all – who are not ordinarily associated with gay rights advocacy. The brief argues that same-sex marriage promotes family values by allowing children of gay couples to grow up in two-parent homes, and that it advances conservative values of “limited government and maximizing individual freedom.” Whatever you think of the argument, the fact remains that political leaders who once held an ideological position on a highly intense political and religious issue have had the courage to rethink their position and come out at a different place. And in today’s political arena, that is a countercultural message. Instead of the message “hold on to your political ideology at all cost” some are choosing to lead by saying, “sometimes it’s necessary to rethink one’s ideas and move beyond power and position for what is right and fair.”
All of this brings me to rethinking repentance and the lesson of the fig tree. Repentance is one of those theological words that we tend to shy away from, especially those of us who consider our theology to be more progressive or liberal. It is one of those words that harkens to other words like sin and salvation and sacrifice that, for some of us, have been used to spiritually abuse. The word itself means to “to turn away from.” At its very core it implies that one is rethinking something. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something. It implies a reconfiguration of one’s perspective, on reality and meaning, including a reorientation of how one understands God’s mercy and love, and God’s interaction with humanity.
While we read the story of Luke 13:1-9 and the parable of the fig tree in isolation, it doesn’t occur that way. As we read Luke 13, we are actually entering an ongoing conversation. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples and the crowds along the way. In chapter twelve he has told several parables on money, foolishness and always being prepared. He concludes by suggesting that those listening are not just missing the point of his stories, but missing the boat altogether: “You may be able” Jesus says to his listeners “to read the signs to predict the weather, but you are utterly clueless about reading the signs of the times.” It is this exchange that precipitates the dialogue in Luke 13:1-9. Citing Pilate’s recent slaughter of some Galileans who had gone to Jerusalem to worship, some in the crowd attempted to show their understanding of God’s judgment as they intertwine sin with bad things happening. Or that is at least the way Jesus’ reads their questioning. And so he responds: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
This exchange between Jesus and the crowd raises one of the most common questions of faith: Is it our fault when bad things happen to us? When we suffer, is it God’s punishment? Are bad things a result of our sin? Jesus wastes no time in confronting their bad theology. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you;but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” And then he tells the parable of the unproductive, fruitless fig tree.
The scene is a familiar one not only to landowners but to anyone who has ever had a garden of any kind. All gardeners know that sooner or later you uproot the plants or trees that are not bearing fruit. So upon finding a fig tree that is alive yet bears no fruit, the landowner instructs the gardener to get rid of the tree. The gardener protests, asking for one more year, one more year to tend to the tree by loosening the soil and spreading manure around it. And then, the gardener says, “if it does not respond, I will cut it down.
The lectionary group had a good time with this parable. One person in the group told of a fig tree in her yard that, over the past 40 years, has never produced a fig. Others were confounded and disturbed by the suggestion that a tree not bearing fruit was wasting the soil. Was not its beauty or shade enough? Why the focus on productivity? There were conversations about whom the landowner and gardener represented. One person suggested that if Jesus is the gardener, then his message is the manure. Sounds offensive at first but actually it is a very profound thought. We asked questions like: “What would the people hearing this parable know about caring for fig trees?” and “What are we doing in the soil that we have been given?” It was a lively, intriguing and insightful conversation.
And here is what I took away from our conversation and the parable of the fig tree. Lesson One: Don’t ever give up. We don’t know how the story of the fig tree ends. It is a cliffhanger. We don’t know if one more year made a difference – if it produced fruit or not. But what we do know is that God does not give up on us. It is God who steps in and halts the ax and says, “Let’s give it more time. Let’s loosen the soil, spread some compassion and love around and see what happens.” Let’s not give up and see what a difference a little care might do. Lesson Two: Bad things happen, and you are not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from tending the soil of your soul. That tender, broken, hurt or fruitless place within you is a holy place. Care for it. Nurture it. It may very well lead you to life and wholeness and the fruit you are hoping to produce. Lesson Three: Repentance and bearing fruit is connected. Sometimes it is necessary to “rethink” or “turn in a different direction” in order to bear the fruit you want to bear. Sometimes we have to rethink our positions, our needs, our wants, and our desires if we want to show love and compassion and mercy. If you are not sure about this lesson, ask Pope Benedict or 75 courageous republicans.
At his emotional farewell address, to his final general audience in Rome, Pope Benedict said these words, “At this time, I have within myself a great trust [in God], because I know – all of us know – that the Gospel’s word of truth is the strength of the Church; it is her life. The Gospel purifies and renews: it bears fruit wherever the community of believers hears and welcomes the grace of God in truth and lives in charity. This is my faith, this is my joy.”
The church bears fruit wherever the community of believers hears and welcomes the grace of God in truth and lives in charity. Over the years, this congregation has borne much fruit because it has had the courage to welcome the grace of God and live in love. Now, as we attempt to read the signs of our time, may we keep rethinking our faith – and even repent when needed – in order to keep bearing the fruits of God’s unconditional love, radical hospitality and unending compassion to all who walk through our doors. And in the coming weeks, may we remember the lessons from a Pope, 75 Republicans and a fig tree.
[i] Elizabeth Scalia, “Pope Benedict’s farewell lesson is one Americans should heed,” The Guardian,February 28, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/28/pope-benedict-resignation-lesson-for-americans