Hello and Happy Spring!
March Madness is here and many of us are cheering for our favorite teams on the road to the “Final Four.” As people of faith, I hope we will not forget that we are also in the midst of March Gladness and the season of Lent. We continue to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.
Last Sunday our young people did a wonderful job of sharing their gifts and talents as they led the morning services. The perspectives and insights they shared were inspiring. Someone said: “One of the most moving moments was the ‘holy huddle’ they had before the service—over 40 of them. “It was amazing to see the whole group get together to pray.” I am deeply grateful for our young people—and their “supporting cast” of family, friends, sponsors and staff. Their theme was “Bearing Fruit,” which was based on John 15.
Some of them didn’t know that the passage is the same one that inspired the artist who created our stained-glass window—some of you may not have seen it. But there are clear glass vines and branches “growing” out from the traditional-looking window. They represent our connections—and desire to reach out beyond this place. Anyway, the Spirit was moving the youth and me in the same direction. Months ago the message I planned to share today is similar. So we might call this sermon “Bearing Fruit II or Too?!” I invite you to continue to think about opportunities to bear fruit.
Rather than using the “vine/branches” metaphor, Luke 13 describes a fruitless fig tree—and the text begins in a weird way. Jesus tells two stories as a way to get to one of our most baffling questions: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” One tragedy is a deliberate act of violence—the other is random. So we get hooked immediately as we think about similar events. Where do judgement and grace fit after horrible things happen?Where is God in the midst of it all—does the parable help?
A church member emailed a marvelous insight to me. We often ask: “Where is God in the midst of it all?” When we are confronted with this question, punctuation matters! Put a question mark after God—and a period at the end. “Where is God? In the midst of it all.”
Now let’s look for God in the midst of this story in Luke 13.
THIS PARABLE IS FOUND ONLY IN LUKE.
Yes, there are stories about fig trees in the other Gospels. Matthew and Mark tell of Jesus’ tree cursing. But Luke branches out into new territory, he turns over a new leaf, he offers a kinder, gentler version of the story. Since Luke’s story is different, let’s take a closer look at it.
First, why are we talking about figs when we’re in a vineyard? It was common for vineyards to include fruit-bearing trees. The owner’s visit is intentional—he wants it to be fruitful! But he is hacked off and wants the tree to receive the same treatment: “Why should it be wasting the soil?” But the gardener becomes the Voice of Grace at this point. Rather than letting the owner’s rhetorical question go unanswered, the gardener respectfully offers an option. The advice is based on gardening tips for three-year-old trees from Leviticus 19.
“Sir, let’s give it a little more time; let me work on it; I’ll give it some more attention—let’s see what happens.” The gardener’s solution is to offer the tree both the grace of another year and the goodness of a richer environment. And we don’t know how the story ends.
Did the fourth year also prove to be fruitless?
Or did the fruitless fig tree become fruitful?
We’re not sure—but in this story and others—we see a balance between quick judgment and grace and waiting with patience. Parables about the mustard seed and yeast quickly follow…Is it just a coincidence that they are in this place? Or are they there to echo and reinforce the message?
GRACEFUL, FRUITFUL THINGS WILL HAPPEN IN TIME.
A well-respected theologian offered this important point of view. He said: “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything. We like to skip the intermediate stages; we are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. Yet, progress is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.”
The Bible is full of stories of fruitless folks…who changed. And I don’t know about you, but I think that’s great! Most of us have never done—nor will we ever do—some of the things that these folks did—thank God! But we also see that time after time, character after character, story after story—God did not give up…God waited. Consider some of the better-known fruitful examples.
Abraham wandered and Sarah laughed, but God waited…
Moses murdered and moaned, but God waited…
David lusted and plotted against Uriah, but God waited…
Ahaz sold out to Assyria, but God waited…
Mary and Elizabeth had some pregnant pauses…God waited…
Peter petered out, but God waited…
Jesus’ fickle followers killed and buried him…God waited…
Thanks be to God that there are so many stories about people who had faults and failures and fruitlessness…who became fruitful.
FRIENDS, THIS IS REALLY GOOD NEWS FOR US!
We have a “second chance” God or “another chance” God. Sometimes we bring judgment on ourselves by making bad decisions and missing wonderful opportunities. Sometimes we suffer setbacks—and yet, even in the midst of defeat—we remember that God is working on us and with us. We may be up to our armpits in poop—like the fig tree! But for the tree—and for us—that can become a good thing. Those times can become periods of grace and growth. And if we extrapolate a bit, here’s a tough one—as God’s people we are also called to be patient and graceful with others.
Now, I don’t have to tell you how hard that is!
It is not easy to be hopeful in a down-the-drain situation. Sometimes we feel like the prophet Jeremiah who cried out: “For 23 years I have spoken persistently to you—but you have not listened!” This kind of patience and grace comes with a high cost. When the gardener in the parable volunteers not to give up on the slow-to-fruit fig tree, there is a cost, right? He commits himself to a year of shoveling manure.
Now, have a little fun with me on this one…Is there someone you would like to do that to for a year or more? And if we return to our question, “Where is God?” This parable and others remind us that God is in the midst of it. When it comes to vines, fig trees, people and fruit, God is there.
In Corinthians Paul says: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.
And the fruit God gives is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
God helps us live a Matthew 5 life in an eye-for-an–eye world.
Examples are all around us—if we have the eyes to see them. Some are in times of tragedy…some in times of triumph. Our hearts are broken again. Did you see the report in the paper about the results of a study in our country?
In the past 20 years, 40,000 children and youth under 18 have lost their lives in shootings.
Then there was the tragic massacre in New Zealand. One man who lost loved ones said he thought he had moved his family to the safest country in the world. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response has been remarkable. Swift action has already been taken regarding gun control. She said: “A role I hoped never to have is to voice the grief of a nation… (those people) …are New Zealand; they are us.” Her vision of kindness in politics has been tested—but the Prime Minister still holds fast to a vision of a fruitful future. “We represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, and refuge for those who need it.”
Many stories about the moon landing have also been in the news—it’s the 50th anniversary of that accomplishment that happened in July of 1969—some of you remember.Ellen and I saw “Apollo 11”—and it was amazing—it was more like a documentary with a lot of original film from 50 years ago. Some of you have seen “First Man,” which emphasizes more of the dramatic, dangerous moments of that incredible journey. But a friend sent a story that is not told in either of those films. I tracked it down in an HBO series: “From the Earth to the Moon.”
Do you know the first food and drink consumed on the moon?
Buzz Aldrin privately observed Communion using elements he brought from the church where he was active in Houston. Someone creatively called it “Com-moon-ion.” And do you know the first scripture passage that was shared on the moon? It’s the same one our youth chose for last week…the text from John 15. The fact that he took that opportunity to thank God is moving. I find his perspectives and spiritual maturity to be astounding.
He said: “My words to the world were meant to be inclusive. If I had it to do again, I might not choose to celebrate communion, though it was such a meaningful experience for me. We had come to the moon in the name of all humankind—Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists…whoever. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the experience than by giving thanks to God. It was my hope that people would keep the event in their minds and see, beyond minor details and technical achievements, a deeper meaning—a challenge—and the human need to explore whatever is above us…below us…or out there….”
Where is God?
In the midst of it all…the opportunities…the fruitlessness…the waiting…the fruitfulness…