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St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Third Sunday in Lent/Year C/March 20, 2022
Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
Lord, take our minds and think through them. Take our mouths and speak through them. Take our hearts, and set them on fire. Amen.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus is teaching amongst the crowds in Jerusalem. While he was teaching, some reported to him Pilate’s bloody slaughter of Galileans while they were making their sacrificial offerings in Jerusalem. With hearts of arrogance the crowd reported the event to Jesus, and judged that if those murdered Galileans suffered in such a horrific way, then they must have really been some major sinners.
Jesus refuted this “if-then” thinking—that suffering was a direct consequence of sin. He turned the tables and said to the Jerusalemites, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Jesus then offered his own example of a fallen tower which killed 18 unsuspecting Jerusalemites.
Were these deadly events God’s payback for their sins? Jesus warned the crowds that no one is safe from suffering caused by man-made tragedies or catastrophic natural events.
There is no human alive, not even the most pious person, who is immune from suffering and death of the temporal body. That’s a pretty dark message seemingly void of hope. Yet, Jesus’ refrain, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” is a message of hope. Inherent in the conjunction, “Unless,” is the possibility of getting right with God for those who hear His word and obey it. Even as Jesus, God incarnate, stood amongst them, the people were hung up on the human condition of sin. But, Jesus came amongst them to change their fixation from sin and death to one fixed on repentance and everlasting life. Jesus was sent to create a new state of being—the human condition of repentance. There is hope in possibility.
Jesus’ parable about the unfruitful fig tree was his attempt to move the people from the helpless and hopeless mindset which kept them stuck asking, “Why do bad things happen to unsuspecting people?” As the parable unfolds Jesus challenges the people—and all of us—with a more spiritually-disturbing question, “Why do good things happen to a purpose-less fig tree?”
This image of the fig tree is a rich one. Throughout the Old Testament it has been used as a symbol for Israel. The image of the fig tree might also be seen as a metaphor for Jesus’ public ministry.
Recall that Jesus, for three years, moved from town to town calling God’s people to repentance while he fed, taught and healed them—a message of repentance that consistently fell on deaf ears. In this parable, the fig tree has failed to yield fruit by its third year.
We encounter three players—a vineyard owner, a gardener and a seemingly useless fig tree.
From the owner’s perspective, the fig tree has one purpose for living—that is to produce figs. Since it hasn’t produced figs in three years, it has no purpose. Having fallen short of its purpose to produce what is expected of it, the tree faces life or death at the will of the vineyard owner. The very life of the tree is directly dependent upon whether or not it can live into its only purpose for being. When the gardener negotiates life for the tree—the vineyard owner grants one year of mercy. We are left to dangle in the suspense of whether or not the tree will thrive or be cut down.
What will happen over the course of the tree’s fourth year of life? In the end, will it perish like the fig tree cursed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, or will it narrowly escape death having been stripped by Jesus of its purpose to bear fruit all together like the fig tree in Mark’s gospel? Will the tree grow into its purpose before it’s too late? It’s a nail biter; a cliff hanger of the life and death kind!
In the reproductive cycle of fig trees, the most common reason for a fig tree’s failure to produce fruit is its age—not that it’s too old, but that it’s not old enough. Trees, like animals, must reach a certain maturity before they can produce offspring. If the fig tree is not old enough to produce seeds, it will also not produce fruit. While a fig tree generally reaches maturity at two years old, some trees can take as long as three to six years to reach the right maturity, and nothing can be done to speed up the maturity of the tree. Yet, there is hope in time and patience.
Unlike the vineyard owner, the gardener’s focus isn’t so much on when the fig tree fruits, although the deadline is looming. His focus is that within the core of the tree’s very being, it has the potential to fruit and to grow into its purpose. Knowing that the tree is powerless to help itself to create hospitable conditions to thrive, the compassionate gardener intercedes by doing what he can to stimulate the tree, by digging around it and putting manure on it.
Just as the fig tree must reach the age of maturity in order to fruit, our own spiritual maturity is a life-long journey in Christ. Our ability to grow into our innate purpose of BEARING divine fruit to the glory of God depends on the nurturing of our own spiritual maturity. We nurture this maturity by taking responsibility for strengthening our personal relationship with Christ, and by holding the community of faith accountable to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers. We are powerless to become Christ-like without the presence of Jesus digging around in our souls and adding nutrients to our lives in the form of people and events, intended to cultivate the life-giving human condition of repentance. There is hope in time and in God’s divine patience.
Divine fruit is not some nebulus concept. We can see divine fruit in the tangible ways that you care for one another in celebration and in sorrow; in the ways that food is generously contributed for the food pantry; in the ways that courageous and compassionate conversations are taking place around racial healing in our Lenten series; and in the many ministries in which you serve your church. God’s fruit is being brought forth through you. And, thanks be to God, we have a very tangible gardener’s manual found in our Book of Common Prayer known as the Baptismal Covenant (BCP, pp. 304-305).
Today, we live in God’s mercy and in God’s divine patience awaiting Christ’s return. Our fate need not be a nail biter; a cliff-hanger of the life and death kind. While the fig tree had no ability to choose between life or death; we can, and must, choose life in the ultimate gardener of all human souls. Created in the Image of God, God’s desire for His children is that we grow into the full stature of His beloved son, Jesus Christ, who show up in this world as bearers of delicious, divine fruit. It is our life’s purpose. Amen.