I like neat and tidy cause-and-effect. When something goes wrong, I want to know why, and I want to fix it. I like problem-solving, from the leak in my faucet to the wilted leaves on my rose bush to the ache in my knee. I want to isolate what went wrong, change what needs changing, and make it better, just as quickly as I can.
So I don't much like this odd parable of the fruitless fig tree coming up for this next Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Lent. The fig tree, as Luke's Jesus tells the story, is not bearing any fruit, and the landowner's had it. Get rid of it, the landowner tells the gardener. Now. But the gardener in this parable differs: he wants to dig in a little fertilizer, tend the tree for a while, and see what happens. He's willing to take the longer view. And then, if the tree is still a dud, he's willing to chop it down.
This parable gets tucked into Luke's gospel right after Jesus's exchange with the folks who want to know why calamity struck a group of innocent Galileeans. (Luke 13:1-9) Why do bad things happen? they ask Jesus. Did those hapless Galileeans get their just desserts? And if so, what's the recipe for righteousness? Sell us some insurance, won't you, so we can keep safe?
No, the wisdom teacher Jesus says, echoing the wisdom of Job. No easy cause-and-effect. No reward-and-punishment logic to God. No control over the chaos of life. But repent anyway, he says. Change. Turn toward God. And while you're at it, let me tell you a tale about a fig tree.
It's not a tale that helps them make sense of calamity. It's not a parable that can be translated as moral advice. It is not an allegory about God. Instead, it's one more time that Jesus comes in, like the poet, and "tells it slant," up-ending their reasonableness with the unreasonableness of God. Jesus doesn't let them package God as a Hallmark-card "man upstairs" who bestows blessings on the good guys and brimstone for the bad guys. He doesn't resolve their question but invites them to hold the tension. Instead of answers, we get a fig tree with an uncertain future.
It's an invitation to the heart of the good news, the heart of Jesus' own story.
Jesus is inviting them, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, into vulnerability. Writing for The Christian Century, she said, "It is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives. It is not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark -- not if it makes them turn toward the light.
"It is that turning he wants for them, which is why he tweaks their fear," she writes. " . . . That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life.
"Depending on what you want from God, this may not sound like good news . . . But for those of us who have discovered that we cannot make life safe nor God tame, it is gospel enough. What we can do is turn our faces to the light. That way, whatever befalls us, we will fall the right way."
Take it from me, Jesus could be saying in this fig tree parable, we cannot make life safe nor God tame. But in the darkness is the guide to the dawn; in the emptiness is the way to fulfillment; in the losing is the gain; in the dying is new life; in the folly is the wisdom-the wisdom of the cross. So in this Lenten season, take a look at your own torn-open place, your unanswerable question, your fruitless fig tree. Sit with the paradox, hold the tension. In the dying is new life.
Echoes from the Edge
By Matthew Smith, 2012 Beatitudes Fellow, Pastor The Table UMC, Sacramento - February 25th, 2013
Then [Jesus] told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" (Luke 13.6-9)
If we're to bear fruit in the future, it would seem we need to spend time tending to the soil in which we root our lives. Lent is a season for digging around in the roots in order to prepare for the mystery of new life that awaits. We're doing just that through a Lenten worship series at The Table at Central UMC called "who do you say I am?" Jesus asked this question to one of his followers and it remains central for anyone who seeks to follow Jesus in our day.
We're digging around in the roots of our tradition this Lent as we excavate old hymns. Listen to our music team bring new life to one of the historic hymns of our church here.
We're returning to the roots of our tradition as we learn to pray with icons. A few artists from our community constructed prayer walls for our sanctuary out of old redwood, candles, and paper icons. They built six walls off-site and installed them throughout the sanctuary prior to Ash Wednesday. We pray with these candles and icons each week as we wonder about who Jesus is for us. Here are a two images of our Lenten prayer walls.
Finally, the Poet
By Emily Dickinson - February 25th, 2013
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth's superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.