Today’s Gospel text is full of the classic Lenten themes that have become main
stays, it seems these days, both inside Lent and out, of our news feeds, our
conversations, and our lives.
We’ve got it all today folks…
1) Senseless tragedy
2) the death of the would be innocent
3) charges of fruitlessness and the prophetic call to repent of it
And to tie it all up neatly… the promise of the kind of judgement that cannot be
mitigated, cannot be avoided, and cannot be survived.
Make no mistake dear friends, this morning there is no hiding from it, there is no
escaping or preventing it, If I could have, and faced myself afterwards, I would
have preached on anything else but today…the unavoidable prophetic word is
one of indictment for the many, many ways we have failed ourselves, failed our
neighbours and failed our God.
And if this melon sized pill wasn’t already hard enough to swallow we are being
forced to chase it down with an even sterner warning against the mother of all
contemptable postures… sanctimonious self-righteousness
This morning the prophetic word is an anti-schadenfreude piledriver calling us
away from pointing at the “sinners out there” to face the brokenness in here….
And when I say in here and mean in here (pointing at myself)
And in here (pointing around the church)
And just when we think we may have avoided the worst of it…
Just when we think we can get out from under all this hard and heavy self-
reflection by moving onto one of those lovely agrarian motif parables that Jesus
seems so fond of and that are always just interpretable enough to misunderstand
without any real or at least immediate consequence …
To quote a fellow Lutheran Pastor, and farmer from Alberta, the rev. Dr. Tim
“Jesus fires up a literary chainsaw and threatens to cut down His own family tree”
This nice pastoral analogy, our hoped-for refuge from the stinging call to
repentance, is turned super personal by Jesus right away in today’s text…
You see, the folk in the original hearing of this story will have understood the
classic fig tree metaphor (see Jeremiah 18:13, Hosea 9:10 and Micah 7:1).. They
will have known right away that in speaking of the fig tree, Jesus is speaking of His
own in the same way that those who report the death of the Galileans will have
been speaking of Jesus’s own. The fig tree is Israel and Judah and as such, is as
close to Jesus’ own as any can be
And these folk would have heard, as we must hear now…, no one get’s a pass, no
one avoids the banal, senseless suffering that this world seems so eager to
deliver, not even those whom the Lord loves.
Jesus is set up perfectly to finally answer, what theologians call the Theodicy,
which is the question… the age old question…
While good people are suffering…where is God?
While the world burns…Where is God?
In the face of losses at a level that beggar the mind…where is God???
But Jesus, in that Jesus way that is all at once encouraging and, if we are being
truthful with ourselves, a little bit irritating, doesn’t take the bait, He doesn’t rise
to the goading, He doesn’t provide the easy answer or any answer at all for that
matter…and the question is turned around, and the roles are reversed
and…voila…enter the perfectly positioned agrarian motif metaphor
Now, I have never been a shepherd or a farmer or a vinedresser, unlike my
colleague Tim that I mentioned a moment ago, so many times I have felt out of
my depth in commenting on any of these convenient biblical foils but about
figs…about figs I know something…
You see, as many of you know, Among the ways in which the Lord has richly
blessed me, I am married to an Italian, my beloved Rosie is Sicilian in fact which is
like Italian but with a supercharger bolted to it…
And one of the unspoken assumptions when I became husband to my Sicilian
Rose was that once we moved into our home and started our family, I would,
without delay, start planting and tending and producing figs, as any decent Italian
man does, which I did, with great joy…
To prove my tale, I submit to you this photograph of my daughters and I standing
in front of what is surely the biggest of the 3 fig trees in our front yard.
You would note, if you could see it, that the tree looks healthy and green and is
pictured on a perfect, sunny, summer day. What you undoubtedly cannot see is
the lack of fruit on it and that is because every year, since I planted it, it has filled
up with little fig buds, promising a bumper crop, only to surreptitiously and
prematurely drop all of it's fruit when the figs get to be the size of a large olive.
This maddening behaviour is even worse than no fruit, it’s the promise of a
massive fruit harvest, which, every year for going on now 16 years has turned into
an equally massive disappointment.
I cannot tell you how many times I have had the axe lain at the root of that tree,
to quote the Lord in Matthew 3:10, only to have my hand stayed by my father-in-
law of all people.
My father-in-law, who is called, ironically, Salvatore which, in Italian means
saviour, has for every one of those 16 years plead the case for grace.
Oh, figlio bello… hold on my son..
Faciamo un fosso …let’s dig a trench
e riempilo di letame...and fill it with manure
e poi vediamo cosa succede...And then let’s see what happens
I don’t think he has any idea of how poignant his advocacy has been for me or
how closely and accurately, and I mean to the detail, he has embodied this
parabolic message in my life but I am grateful for it and it is only when I think on it
later that I realize that in this particular case of art imitating life, or perhaps more
accurately, of life imitating exegesis, the role I play is of the landowner to his
It is me who is ready to cut the fruitless tree down and it is he who pleads the
case for one more year of reprieve
And when I ponder that, when I place myself in the position of the one who has
planted the vineyard, created the tree, showered it with care and invested so
much hope…I begin to understand more and more the mourning and grief that
comes from fruitlessness and the salvific effect of repentance…which is, of course,
what all of this is about
In the Greek, metanoia (meta: change, noia: mind): to change one’s mind to
change ones way of thinking, one’s perspective
And in the Hebrew, teshuvah to “turn” or to “return” to God, to one’s starting
place, to the beginning of one’s meaning…
In the end, repentance is not only the call away from something, away from
brokenness, fruitlessness, away from grief and the dwelling on what has been
lost, it is also, and perhaps even more importantly, the call toward something…it
is the call toward healing and wholeness, toward new life toward the new thing
that God is doing even in the ash the dying thing that came before.
Repentance is the call to turn and to return both metaphorically and actually to
the garden and to the gardener, to borrow the words of another, in whom we live
and move and have our being.
It’s a complicated thing isn’t it?
It’s not enough to make it to the point where we realize that a change is
necessary, the point where the prophetic call to turn away from brokenness to
turn toward the God who has never left us and who has been calling us back
Not only is the change of direction necessary but also, and perhaps even harder,
the need to let go of our mourning, and guilt, and grief over all the fruitless time
Barbara Brown Taylor speaks poignantly to what awaits us on the other side of
the hard work of repentance when she says
“Forgiveness is a starting place, not a stopping place. It is God’s gift to those who
wish to begin again, but where we go with it is up to us. Most of us prefer remorse
to repentance. We would rather feel badly about the damage we have done than
get estimates on the cost of repair. We would rather learn to live with guilt than
face the hard work of new life.”
That has to speak to some of us here doesn’t it?
We know about grief and loss here don’t we?
In the last, long 2 and a half years we have lost much in this place
Look around you…evidence of loss is apparent in the emptiness.
We have lost fellow pilgrims and friends who have gone on to other places and
We have lost cherished leaders, people who were so close and so familiar to us
that they were practically family…
We are grieving so much change, change without perhaps the necessary time to
make peace with it…
And we are grieving sooooo much lost time
And I think…it must be obvious…that we are not dealing with it!
We are refusing to repent of it
We cannot let it go, even though we are up to our necks in something new that
God is doing among us…
It is Lent though, and I suppose sack cloth and ashes is good form for the season
But I cannot help, and I hope not prematurely, to look to the east, to look toward
the metaphoric Jerusalem toward which we are all shuffling along with Jesus and
the disciples, to look toward the heartbreaking lengths that God will go to finally,
irrevocably begin a new thing…
By all means wear your sack cloth and ashes, lament and grieve the things you
have lost, it is the sensible thing to do in a world where it seems every day a new
disaster is being replaced by the next calamity on the way to complete
catastrophe…but know that the springtime of resurrection will come, even now it
threatens on the horizon…
The new thing that God has promised, the result of the gardeners gentle tending
of the fig tree has already started to bear it’s good fruit
A new thing is happening, here in this place, whether you can see it or not
I pray you see it
I pray you’ll be part of it
I hope… I will anticipate… that in a few short weeks, after a trial and a cross and
the ultimate expression of loss and grief…you will be there, at the open tomb,
unencumbered by sack cloth and ashes and ready to take up the new thing that
God has always been doing here…
I’ll be there…
I’ll wait for you there…