Sunday, March 07, 2010

Today's Sermon: Luke 13:19 "Fruitless"

“Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”

What does it take to make us fruitful?

Patience? Good fertilizer? Good ideas?

There is a tendency, I think, to dismiss people whom we don’t think are fruitful, or useful. My children used to have a phrase for that kind of judgment: “Oh, he’s just a waste of space.”

It’s certainly easy to look around and see people whom we judge as being a waste of space. The person who seems to be sitting in Starbucks all day, reading who knows what. The kids handing out in front of the 7-11. The clerk in the store who is too busy talking on her cellphone to her friend to come help me.

And in this penitential season, I worry sometimes that God thinks I’m a waste of space. I’m nowhere near as fruitful as I wish I could be. I get distracted, don’t get things done, get lazy. Does God see me as a waste, as someone who has not lived up to the gifts he has given me? He certainly could. There are days when I would judge myself that way.

I’m not alone. As a young man, Abraham Lincoln went to war a captain and returned a private. Afterwards, he was a failure as a businessman. He was not a particularly successful lawyer in Springfield. He turned to politics and was defeated in his first try for the legislature, again defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for congress, defeated in his application to be commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts for the vice-presidency in 1856, and defeated in the senatorial election of 1858. At about that time, he wrote in a letter to a friend, "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth." He would be judged as unfruitful, wouldn’t he? He certainly judged himself that way.

But somehow, someone dug around his roots and gave him a little fertilizer, so that, given a little time, he grew fruitful.

Albert Einstein was mute until the age of 4. He did not read until he was 7. His parents thought he was "sub-normal," and one of his teachers described him as "mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams." He was expelled from school and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. At that point in his life, he would have been judged as unfruitful, wouldn’t he?

Somehow, someone dug around his roots and gave him a little fertilizer, so that, given a little time, he grew fruitful.

So, too, was the apostle Peter. He was hot-headed, impulsive, didn’t always pay attention to what he was taught, and in the moment when it counted most, he denied his relationship with Jesus three times…but he was the person upon whom Jesus built his church.

Somehow, Jesus dug around his roots and gave him some fertilizer, so that, over time, and not without a number of errors along the way, he grew fruitful.

This parable of the barren fig tree in the gospel gives us some comfort in our own feelings of fruitlessness. Let’s review the story: there’s a fruit tree in the garden. It’s supposed to be bearing figs. Figs, those luscious delicious fruits…a thousand recipes are running through my head of things you can do with figs….so sweet and fragrant. The man who owns the garden comes to pick some figs. It’s a young tree and didn’t bear fruit for the past couple of years, but it’s mature enough now so that there should be some nice figs on it. He may have a recipe in mind as well...maybe figs with some goat cheese and honey…can you imagine how delicious that would be? He’s got a taste for figs in his mouth and in his brain, and he wanders into the orchard looking for some. After all, if you’ve got fruit trees in your orchard, that’s the pleasure of it, going into the orchard to pick some nice ripe juicy fruit.

He wanders over to his fig tree. Fig trees, by the way, are a very easy fruit tree to grow in warm climates. They’re not fussy about their soil, you don’t have to pollinate them, although you do need to prune them a bit and make sure they get enough water. But they really are fruit trees for dummies…anyone can grow them. So imagine the man’s consternation when he looks up and sees not a single fruit on the tree! It’s a useless tree…what’s the point of a fruit tree that doesn’t bear any fruit?

No figs with goat cheese and honey. The man is angry – he had really wanted those figs. So he says to his gardener, “It’s useless. Cut it down!”

He says, “This tree is a waste of space.”

Those of you who are gardeners know that sometimes you have plants that are productive and sometimes you don’t. You don’t waste a lot of energy on the unproductive plants, you get rid of them and replace them with something productive. If you have a diseased tree, you cut off the diseased parts, or you remove the whole tree. Gardening is harsh work.

But the gardener in this story may be the most tender-hearted gardener in history. Even though this tree hasn’t borne any fruit for three years, he begs the man to give it another year. He promises to dig around it, to add some manure to fertilize it, to coddle it a bit. He hopes that the tree will then bear fruit, but says that if it doesn’t, he will then cut it down.

A little bit of patience, a little bit of extra help, in hopes that this tree will turn around, be productive, be something other than a waste of space and precious water.

Jesus tells this parable in response to some news that some people brought to him. The Romans were persecuting the Galileans again. The Romans had killed some Galileans as they were worshiping God, mingling the victims’ blood with the blood of the animal sacrifices. The question the people who brought the story to Jesus seemed to be asking was, what sinful thing had these people done to be punished this way?

That was the ancient belief, of course. God would exact a painful price on those who sinned. They must have done SOMETHING, or their parents must have, or their grandparents…mustn’t they?

Jesus gave them a surprising answer. He said “they were sinners, you are sinners, everyone is a sinner. All humanity is full of brokenness. God doesn’t work that way, zapping people for their sins. So what are you going to do about your brokenness? Are you going to turn yourself around, turn your eyes and heart toward the God who loves you? Are you going to be reconciled to God?”

Jesus told them not to analyze other people’s stories, parsing out their sins and judging them. He told them to look into their own hearts, to see how they had behaved in a way that tore the fabric of their relationship with God. And he told them that they needed to fix their own bad behavior, because being in relationship with God is the most important thing.

Here’s the thing: because of Jesus and his death on the cross, we are forgiven of our sins, of all the thousand ways we turn our back on God because we think what we want for ourselves is more important. But we have an obligation to own up to those bad behaviors and to work on changing. God loves us, but he expects us to honor that love by keeping on trying to do better. The only way that we lose God’s forgiveness is if we don’t admit our brokenness and ask for that forgiveness.

A few decades ago, a very bad novel and an even worse movie had as its tag line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I’d beg to differ – in our relationship with God, love means you want to say you’re sorry when you make a mistake. The gift of the parable of the barren fig tree is that our gardener, our God, loves us so much that he wants to help us be fruitful. He is willing to give us a second chance, another year to bear fruit. He is willing to give us the Miracle-Gro, dig around our roots, give us another opportunity to prove ourselves fruitful. But we have to try, too. We may be imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to do better. We may be distracted, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop and say a simple prayer of thanks. We may be in this world, with all the competing claims that the world has on us, but we don’t have to be entirely of this world. We can look to the world our God gives us, to the loving care and the second chances, and say “I want to be fruitful. Give me the tools, give me the second chance, help me be what you want me to be.”

Like Lincoln, the failed lawyer, politician, businessman. Like Einstein, kicked out of school and deemed intellectually limited. Like Peter, who ran away when his Lord needed him most and cursed those who said he was a follower of Jesus.

Sometimes being fruitful takes time. Thank God that our God loves us enough to be patient.


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