Psalm 71:1-6 Luke 13:6-9
No sermon recording available this week
You know this is a rather strange saying of Jesus. But it is one that perhaps has a very profound meaning in terms of God’s presence with us. At the beginning of the chapter where this verse comes, there is conversation about sin and sinners but it might be best to think of it more as where God is in the context of sin? And that is where this parable comes in.
It is known as the parable of the barren fig tree and as the story goes, a man had planted this tree in his vineyard. But it wasn’t producing any figs and probably hadn’t done so for a while. The text says three years. So the owner said to his gardener: it is of no use to me, its not bearing any fruit, so cut it down. It is wasting space, wasting time, wasting and spoiling the soil even.
But the gardener says to the owner: Look, I think this tree has value. It just needs tendering, it needs to be resourced and nourished and supported and loved a bit … let me put some manure on it … some fertilizer … some dung! If after a year of this nothing happens well then we shall consider cutting it down, but let us see. And that is the end of the parable.
We are left with that … we don’t know what happened. We don’t know if it all worked. And because of that many opinions have emerged about what this little story might be saying– most writers in fact think it is about repentance, but I am persuaded by what was suggested by a very prominent 19th century nun by the name of Therese Martin or more popularly known as Saint Therese of Lisieux from the late 19th century. She was an amazing mystic of the faith, who lived a tragic life, in fact she died from TB at the age of 24, but nonetheless lived an incredibly devoted life and impacted people around the world for her simple but profound writings … I understand in fact that she is so revered that her bones have been sent around the world, and they even came here to Canberra some 20 years ago, for all to admire … what ever that may mean … The amazing gift of Therese the little flower of God as she was called colloquially, was to take hold of Scripture and the parables in particular and present them in new ways and she wrote about this parable of the barren fig tree that impacted me … so what did she say about it?
Well she recognized the context of this story, and said that this parable can tell us something quite profound about God and the call of God in the midst of the stuff of sin and sinning, and therefore that it can tell us something profound about life and faith. That often in the busyness of life and the demands of culture we can feel just like the fig tree – unproductive, useless, barren even … that for whatever reason we can feel disconnected … disconnected from things and people … or it might even be that we can just feel isolated and a deep sense that what we do whether at work or at home doesn’t make any sense to us anymore, we feel caught in a numbing place where life just seems to happen around us and it doesn’t grip us any more or perhaps in the way it used to … and for whatever reason it is difficult for us to find any sense of identity or value because we are not doing the things that are expected of a productive person any more … we are not bearing fruit. Or in simple terms we just feel like this barren fig …
And in this story the Gardener of life comes along and says: the tree does have value, yes it is struggling, yes it is barren and not producing … but it still has value so lets tend to it … lets give it some care. Let’s create an environment that will help it to thrive…Let’s put manure on it!
And here you could see that the manure is something quite basic … and we don’t have to be gardeners to know the value of giving nutrients to a plant … and Therese says to all of us … we need manure … we all need care and love around us … and we all need holy manure … something to resource us, to feed us, to nurture us, something deep and profound to hold us and affirm us so we can know again that we are of value and where-ever or whatever in life we all still have value and meaning. In this parable the Gardener of life says to us: we matter. And the manure is the fertilizer of the soul.
But there is something more that Therese talked about in this parable … in terms of what is required of us, and in terms of where is God is with us … we know conceptually the stuff of profound love … but where does that sit in terms of where we are … what we do … and this is where Therese gives us a different view to this parable than most commentaries. Because she says, you know well, the idea that God can be inferred as the Gardener of life in this story … but, maybe, we too are that for ourselves! Gardeners of our own life. That we need to tend ourselves, we need to nurture ourselves, and the example of the manure or the holy manure, is simply the stuff of life … the ordinary and the complex, the routine but also the profound, all that we do in life, the profane and also the sacred because sometimes we really don’t know what the difference might be … all of that is the manure: the manure is simply life, warts and all, the good and the bad, the holy and the sin, and so what Therese is inferring here is to encourage us to open ourselves to God and to keep on doing the stuff of life, but to trust; to keep at it, keep doing life, but to know and be aware that God is in that with us: yes we need to change that which must, but to truly transform life we need to hold on to something other and something deeper … to believe and to keep the faith that God is in it with us and available to nourish us!
And she shared this example … this picture of us and God … and it is of a young infant at the foot of some stairs, and God as loving parent is at the top who calls the infant … and the infant tries to scale the stairs but can’t … but still the parent calls … come on … we could perhaps use the image that Belinda highlighted last week from the athletics event where the message was that just like the two athletes who helped each other to finish God says to each one of us … come on get up, lets go … and well may we feel that it is impossible because the stairs are too big for our feet, well may we feel that it is just too high to reach … still the call comes. And says Therese the call of faith is to keep trying, keep stacking the manure on the tree, keep striving, keep the faith in the midst of all the stuff we face in our life … and what God will do is actually come down from the top of the stairs to embrace us and lift us into the arms of the sacred and enable us to continue on.
And from this parable the scary thing is we don’t actually know the future will look like or what will happen … It is not very reassuring … often in faith we want certainty … there’s no certainty here just a call to trust. But the sense of it is just to keep at it, keep living and keep the faith. And the more we do that, the more we open ourselves to the sacred even in the midst of pain and brokenness, even when we feel God is not there or has abandoned us – which is the lesson of Gethsemane – the more we do that … the more we will be assured that God does indeed fertilize our souls.
So here is a little message for us as we head to our Annual Meeting … and in the reflecting and remembering and perhaps in the thinking too of what the next year might look like … the message is that, we don’t really know what the journey will be but merely to trust, and in all the mundane and stuff of what we do as church, let us just see … but let us be open to the heart of God and God’s divine embrace and keep stacking, keep striving, keep the faith!