Hancock Church Sermon  http://youtu.be/E0EIoU2fXJE

Rev. Paul Shupe

March 3, 2013

Luke 13:6-9


Luke 13:6-9
Jesus invites us to think with him through the use of a parable.  In this story of an unproductive fig tree, the gardener intervenes with the owner of the vineyard to obtain another opportunity for an unproductive fig tree to become productive.
Then [Jesus] told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

“Ever Changing, Never Ending”  

A great many commentators and most preachers generally read this little parable of the unproductive fig tree as a story about God’s judgment.  With just three characters, the parable seems to lend itself rather readily to this sort of interpretation.  The vineyard owner, that would be God, you see, comes into the vineyard that he has planted and is disappointed for the third year in a row, by the second character: the fig tree.  Yet again the tree has no figs on it, and the owner is impatient.  “Why is this tree still standing, taking up space, doing nothing?  Cut it down, it’s fit only for the fire.”  We have no trouble understanding the identity of the tree: it’s you and me.  Planted in the garden of God, God hopes and expects that we’ll produce good fruit, prove ourselves to be worthy of our special place in the garden.  We can hardly miss the point: unproductive trees go to the fire, unproductive people are at risk of getting the same treatment.  It is only the intervention of the third character that saves the tree from the axe and the flames.  “Wait,” the gardener says.  “Perhaps a little bit more time and attention will make it produce.  Let’s let it stand one more year, I’ll fertilize and give it some extra love.  If even then it’s still without fruit, then we’ll cut it down.”  Jesus, the great gardener in the vineyard of God, intervenes and promises extra love and care, one last chance for you and me.

It seems pretty simple at first glance.  It’s a judgment story; God can’t and won’t wait forever for us to produce the fruits of faith in our lives.  God can’t and won’t wait eternally for us to show that we belong.  We’ve got one last chance, thanks to Jesus, to change our ways.  It’s a judgment story: turn or burn.  Or so it seems.

Yet the parables are wonderful stories that invite a multiplicity of responses.  They are, in the word of the scholar Mary Ann Tolbert, multivalent.  They seldom mean one thing and one thing only.  And indeed, when we play around with the parable a bit more, we begin to see other possibilities.  For while it is true that all of us have occasionally felt as though we were the unproductive fig tree in the garden of God, it’s also true that each of us knows what it’s like to feel like the vineyard owner, finding ourselves face to face with an unproductive tree of our own.  Anyone who has ever been a boss, an employer, has been there, evaluating an employee not pulling his weight, no longer as productive as she once was.  Is there a parent alive who hasn’t been exasperated with a child who doesn’t seem to get it, who can’t or won’t cooperate and get with the program.  At one point or another in a great many of our relationships, we come to a point where the relationship isn’t terribly productive, it doesn’t satisfy, isn’t worth what we’re putting into it.  We’ve all been the judge at one point or another, faced with a person or a situation that isn’t what it ought to be.  And for every judge, one option is always just to end it all, to cut it down, to send the person or the situation to the fires.

And I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that each of us has been in the role of the gardener at one point or another.  Sometimes literally: many times I’ve seen my avid gardening wife standing and staring at frustrating shrub or plant, and I can see her wondering whether it’s time to pluck it up or whether another season and some good manure will transform it at last.  But you don’t have to be a gardener to empathize with the role.  Because you’ve been the voice of intervention before, urging time or another tool be employed as a way of healing what has been broken, or of turning what has been less than fully valuable back into something delightful and satisfying.

You see what is meant by multivalent?  What you think of the story depends upon where you see yourself in it.  At one point or another it might be a judgment story for you, a reminder to turn away from the things that separate you from God or risk making that separation permanent.  But it may also be an exasperation story, one of deep pondering if you’re the person responsible for an enterprise or a relationship.  And still a third possibility exists: that you hear this as a vindication of your patience, of your intervention, of your desire not to end or to destroy, but to heal and restore.  The unknown author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote that “To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” and she or he was right.  There is a time for judgment, and a time for turning and a time for patient intervention.  We will all be all of these things at one point or another, because that’s what human life, forged in the image of God, is like.  It’s complex and not always clear, and our role isn’t always obvious to us.  And in any event, our role will change with time and circumstance.  In this world we live in our place is ever changing: now judge, now the judged, now the patient healer postponing the need for judgment in the first place.

The art of life is, of course, to understand when we are being called to be what.  In this life we must make choices constantly, and among them are these decisions between judge, the judged, and the possibility of avoiding the judgment.  As with many, if not most of our human choices, what we should do is not perfectly clear.  Will the gardener’s intervention turn the tree into a producer of figs, or will it lead only to another year of wasted ground, the frittering of good manure?  Jesus does not tell us here, and that’s true to life, too.  For sometimes even after we have made our choices we cannot tell if they have been wise or foolish or somewhere in between.  In a world that is ever changing, as we work and live and love with other people who can be and frequently are just as difficult to work and to live and to love as we are ourselves, choices must be made without clarity and without certainty of wisdom.  Jesus’ little story of the garden of God merely reveals what we know from our own experience: that the demands of living here are ever changing, and we may never know whether we have chosen wisely or poorly.

Yet before we walk away from this passage, and this sermon, and fear that we’ve not discerned anything useful, let us remember this: all of us, judge, judged and patient intervener, all of us live in the same garden, and it is the garden that God has given to us.  The choices that we face are the choices that God has built into human life as we know it.  To be alive in God’s world is to be people who must choose.  To be alive is to choose, to be alive is to be called now to be judge, now to be the judged, now to be the patient intervener.  To be alive is to be ever changing, in a garden where choices are never ending.  And this is how God has created us.  And God declared God’s creation to be good.  What choice have we then, but this: to dwell in the garden, discerning as best we can, choosing as wisely as we can, trusting that in the dwelling, in the choosing, we are pleasing to God our creator, who seems more often than not to be not our judge, but our patient intervener: helping, healing, and remaining steadfast with us.  And so we dwell, makers of choices, in the garden that God has given to us, for our own good, and for God’s own.

That at least, is how I choose to read this story.  Amen.