The Owner, the Gardener and the Fig Tree: What is your role?
A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent
Let me tell you a good Samaritan story. It’s a story Jesus might have told but didn’t. An older woman, like any woman in this church, was driving down the street when bullets began to fly past her car and she saw a man fall to the left of her car and another to the right. She stopped and crouched low in the car. Opening the door, she went to help one man who was lying on the ground. The driver behind her had stopped when a bullet hit his car. He saw what she was doing and brought her his First Aid kit. They opened all the doors of her car to make the biggest possible shield. They dressed a wound in the man’s back. A worshipper fleeing from the nearby mosque stopped and helped to apply more pressure to stop the bleeding. The wounded man was worried about contacting his wife. The woman used his phone to tell his wife what had happened and to ask her to go to the hospital and wait for him to arrive. As ambulances began to arrive, another motorist drove three wounded people to the hospital.
Today’s Gospel reading is particularly apt at this time. Jesus told many stories to teach people how to love God and how to love their neighbours. Some of his parables were allegories where particular people or things in the story represent someone or something specific. Others were more open, leaving space for his listeners to enter into the story in different ways.
Let us look in this way at the story of the fig tree. There are three players in this story – the fig tree, the gardener and the owner of the garden.
Like many of you, I was devastated to hear the news of the terrorist attack in Christchurch. The focus of the news stories shifted as more information about the events and the reactions became available.
Waleed Aly, the prominent Muslim academic, journalist, commentator and broadcaster resisted commenting for some time but was persuaded. You could see him struggling with the task of speaking about this horrific event. [https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12213266]
While many commentators said they were shocked, Waleed said sadly that he was not surprised.
Not when there were previous attacks on mosques elsewhere in the world; not when 11 Jews were shot dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue late last year, or when nine Christians were killed at a church in Charleston.
He was not shocked because there were many precedents. This attack, or something like it, was coming.
Like those who were attacked in all those places, we are also a people of prayer. We gather to pray and to worship. We know how quiet, how focused, how God-centred these people were when the horror of evil intent erupted in their world.
The first part of our Gospel reading contains two tales of death and destruction. Some Galileans were killed and Pilate mixed their blood with their sacrifices. Some other people were killed when a tower fell on them. Jesus said, these people were no better or worse than others.
So, some things happen for reasons that seem beyond our control. We cannot control the actions of terrorists any more than we can control earthquakes or tsunamis but we can choose what we do with it all.
The fig tree in Jesus’ story is unproductive. It is not what it should be and it is not bearing the fruit it was meant to bear.
If our society or we ourselves are the fig tree and we are meant to bear the fruit of the Spirit, it may be that we need a little help. When we fail to thrive spiritually, we have a need for repentance. Repentance is a change of direction. We need to turn again to Christ. We need to know Jesus and to live in the ways that Jesus taught. We see ourselves as children of God. To be a child of God is to receive God’s grace but also to live in God’s ways. Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5. 9)
How shall we be the peacemakers in a world of terrorism? How can we influence ourselves and others for peace? This involves a leap from seeing ourselves as the fig tree to identifying with the gardener, the one who brings about the possibility of bearing good fruit. The hard soil around the fig tree is loosened and the barren soil enriched. It has a chance to make things turn out differently. This is the repentance opportunity, the chance to change and to grow in a better direction. Fruit is not certain but it is now more likely. It might become a fig tree that bears figs, a fig tree that has grown into its purpose and its identity.
How do we build a culture of peace? I offer you two rays of hope, both from social and political research. One is that change does not occur by pushing harder and harder for what we want that others do not. It comes from changing the perception of what is possible and what is normal. The biggest political changes have happened in this way. Women campaigned for many years for suffrage but it only became a widespread norm after the first world war when the capability of women to do men’s work in their absence was plainly evident. Slavery became unacceptable when the perception of slaves was moved from less than human to “people like us”. The progressive spread of seeing others as similar to ourselves rather than different from ourselves enabled them to achieve equality where it was absent while preserving differences that mattered to them.
Secondly, other research shows that people of opposite political persuasions have similar levels of compassion but that they only apply this to their political views and actions when leaders reference that compassion. When leaders instead use references that trigger fear or prejudice, their compassion is not applied to their politics. [https://theconversation.com/whos-more-compassionate-republicans-or-democrats-99730]
An Australian senator wrote a hate-filled letter in the wake of this terrorist attack. I will not name him or quote his words. He was condemned by prominent politicians including a front-bencher who said that “the normalisation of bigotry is something that is not only confined to him … We need to call it out, we need to make sure that no way any member of parliament fosters it. He wants the conflict and he wants the notoriety”.
We need to normalise peace and not bigotry, As St Francis said, Where there is hate, sow love.
Some more from Waleed Aly, "Now, now we come together. Now we understand this is not a game. Terrorism doesn't choose its victims selectively. We are one community.
Everything we say to try to tear people apart, demonise particular groups, set them against each other. that all has consequences, even if we're not the ones with our fingers on the trigger.
How can we be the compassionate gardener?
Martin Niemöller said, First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This is often quoted but it is not so well known that this is not just theoretical wisdom but repentant lament. Because of his own anti-Semitism, Niemöller failed to speak up for others and eventually he was himself taken to a concentration camp. In the post-war years he came to see clearly his own failings.
As followers of Jesus, might we see ourselves in the gardener called to help those who are suffering, and to intercede on their behalf or to change their conditions to what the owner of the garden envisaged?
Or might we identify ourselves with the owner of the garden, to love God’s world for God’s sake and to seek to spread his Shalom, to be the one who sees the potential in changing whole systems, the way things done, in order to give a second chance to the whole, to prevent the tragedy of hate and suffering instead of having to deal with the aftermath?
I invite you to reflect on Jesus’ parable in the light of your own life experience. Are you the fig tree, the gardener or the owner? Are you more than one of these?
They say that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Well, the arc of grace bends towards joy and salvation and all through the trials and repentance and second chances of that journey, we are wrapped and nourished in God’s grace.
May your thoughtful responses to Christ lead you and your neighbours to encounter God’s grace in unexpected places and in unanticipated measure. Amen.