Richard and Carroll's Fig Tree
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Third Sunday in Lent
March 20, 2022
Richard and Carroll’s Fig Tree
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For five years, we called Charles Town home. But for 46 years, Pastor Neil and his wife Carroll, called the home we lived in, along with four of their children, their home. Pastor Neal was ordained in 1957 and stayed at St. Thomas in Charles Town for his entire ministry. Pastor Neal was a staple in the community. He taught swimming lessons at the community pool. He served on numerous community boards and organizations. He was also an avid gardener.
When Pastor Neal was not working, he was in the garden. He grew everything. Much to my chagrin, he loved planting things that required regular maintenance. My philosophy with growing things is that if the plant needs me to survive, it better evolve quickly. I remember there was a butterfly bush that he plant that was the vain of my existence. It was overgrown, never trimmed, and half of it was dying when we moved in. It took me 5 years to get this thing looking halfway decent and then we moved. Pastor Neal had all kinds of plants and trees around the parsonage. A lot of those plants didn’t make it after he and Carroll moved out. When we moved in, I tried to take over some of the care, but I am no master Gardner like Pastor Neal. I like planting vegetables mainly so that I can play with my tractor and garden tiller and have a tomato sandwich on white bread with mayo (fresh cucumbers in sour cream is not a bad reward either).
But one thing that Pastor Neal left us was our pride and joy—A fig tree. Now, if you are city boy like myself and never seen a fig tree, the image on the front of your bulletin is what you might have in mind for a fig tree. But a fig tree is more like a over sized bush. When we moved into the parsonage and Alvin told us about the tree, he said maintenance was minimal—just trim it back. And Alvin even agreed to come and do that for us which was great because me on a ladder with a chainsaw/trimmer didn’t sound all that much enjoyable. I thought I was set. All I have to do is go out back every few days and pick the figs. But after a couple of years, I notice that we were getting less and less figs. One year, we hardly got any which got me concerned. At the end of the season, I noticed my little tree was not doing so good. My neighbor across the street thought it was because of the really cold winter we just had. It was also up there in age. The low maintenance fig tree needed some serious help. So, I got my tools and started to trim the tree back. I began to dig around the base of the tree and notice that half of my tree had died. So, I got to cutting out all the dead branches. I pulled out all the dead leaves. I got some fresh soil and manure and spread it around the tree. And then I waited. And waited some more. And waited until spring and summer came. The tree survived the winter and was beginning to get its leaves. And then, the tree began to blossom and bloom, and I had so many figs that we not only ate a bunch, we made jam. The tree never produced that much fruit before and we were rolling in the jam.
Every time I hear a lesson about a fig tree, I think about that little tree in our backyard behind our garage. I think about how it fed not only the Neals’, but three other pastoral families that occupied the home after Pastor Neal retired. That tree is the perfect reminder of the work that it takes to bear fruit. For Luke, bearing fruit is only the last part in a series of progressions that he has been building upon for the past chapter. Before one can bear fruit, one must first repent.
Often when we hear the word “Repent” it has a certain meaning that is not pastoral in nature. It is used as a threat. It is used to proclaim death unless you fearfully change your ways. But notice, and it is hard to notice in the English, but notice what Jesus says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? "No! I am saying to you, unless Y’ALL would be repentant, YOU ALL will likewise perish.” Jesus ties the suffering of others to all of us. When one group suffers, we all suffer. And the only way to break the cycle is through metanoeo—to repent. Now, “Jesus is not suggesting that repentance will prevent people from experiencing a physical, catastrophic death. Rather, he is stating that changing their minds will prepare them for whatever they will experience, including producing fruit.”
Metanoeo in this context of Luke 13 is “in the present tense (subjunctive), which implies continual action = "be repentant" or "continue to repent" or "keep on repenting." This is not a one-shot event that saves one from "perishing," but a lifestyle of penitence. Luke talks more about repenting and repentance than any other gospel. For Luke, the primary content of our proclamation is repentance and forgiveness. Part of Jesus' concluding words in this gospel are: "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" [24:46b-47].
To repent is how we break the cycle, but how do we repent? Richard Jensen in his commentary on Luke says, “Repentance is not a fruit problem; it is a root problem. It is the root of who we are that is a problem in God's eyes. So repentance cannot be composed of "I can" statements. "I have sinned God. I am sorry God. I can do better." Repentance, rather, must be composed of "I can't" statements. "I have sinned, God. I am sorry. God, I've tried and tried and tried but I just don't produce good fruit. I can't seem to do better. I need your Vinedresser to work on the roots of my life. Give me a new life, God. Give me your life. I can't. You can." [p. 147]
Lent gives us a time to strip down to the bare necessities of our faith in order to get to the point of repentance. We are called to pray more, worship more, reflect on our current state of faithfulness and make changes where it is necessary. Where have I been neglectful? Where can I go in order to grow closer to God? What needs to change in my life so that I can come closer to being more like Christ? We strip things back so that we can figure out what we can’t do on our own and ask God for assistance. Lent is the season of the church year where the gardener pleads with the owner for more time. “Give my trees, my people, some more time before you cut them down. I know they are not producing fruit. Let me in there to trim out the dead branches so that the new branches can grow. Let me throw some good old fashion manure on them, because I think they just need a second chance. I know your tree, your church, can produce good fruit, I just need a little more time. But if they can’t, then YOU, the owner of the land and the tree, can go and cut it down.”
This parable from Luke also highlights that time is limited. You only got so much time to repent because at a moments notice, whether through natural or unnatural means, death can come at any moment. Those Galileans who lost their lives to Pilate and those 18 who were crushed under a tower didn’t know their lives would end so soon. They were victims of a surprising, unforeseen disaster. And like to many times before, the people of the time believed that these Galileans and 18 others were simply being punished for something they did to God. Jesus sets the record straight—they were victims of a surprising, unforeseen disaster and you very well find yourself in that same situation. I don’t care what preachers like Joel Olstien and other prosperity gospel preachers say—It doesn’t matter if you pray super hard, have all the money in the world, and do everything right. Surprising, unforeseen disasters happen every, single day to unsuspecting, innocent people. The question is, are you satisfied with the legacy you left behind, with the fruit that you have born up to this point?
Back in Luke 3, John the Baptist calls on the the crowd to bear fruits worthy of repentance and this is how you do it. You metanoeo: Redirect and Change your past ways. Leave the past behind. And then you pray and trust in God to save you. And not just once, but continually. For you have been given the good soil, the pruning and the nutrients to bear the fruit that God wants you, needs you to bear. And don’t forget, Time is limited. Lent doesn’t last forever. As figs trees, if we going to bear the fruit God needs us to bear, then the owner will come and cut you down. If we are not bearing fruit, then we are taking up precious space in the earth.
So repent—turn back to God. Make the changes that you see which need to be changed. You got what is necessary to grow the fruit and what you don’t have, The Holy Spirit will provide so that you will bear fruit, fruit that is worthy of repentance because this world is in some serious need of some fig jam.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.