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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Third Sunday of Lent – March 7, 2010

When I was a little girl I learned how to tell the difference between real pearls and fake ones. I remember my mom showing me how to run the beads gently over my teeth. The real ones, she explained felt rough and they made a kind of grating sound. Fake pearls, on the other hand, were smooth and slippery. Both kinds of pearls look nice and an untrained eye may not be able to tell the difference between them. But there is a difference – real pearls are valuable. They are rough and they can make a grating sound.

Our gospel lesson this week includes one of those real pearls, I think – a parable, one of many that Jesus told to help point his followers (us included) – in the direction of the Kingdom of God – stories that Jesus told about the kingdom he came to inaugurate, the kingdom into which we are all invited.

It’s important to understand that parables are meant to be word pictures – they are open-ended for the most part – allowing the hearer to wonder – to pick the story up, inspect it from different angles, perhaps run it over one’s teeth. Parables don’t have one particular meaning, you see. They’ve got to be opened up by the hearer and in a strangely wonderful way, the hearer is often opened up in a new way. We have some freedom when it comes to hearing and experiencing parables – and so I invite you into this one with me now.

We have a fig tree – for some reason sitting in the middle of a vineyard. The tree has not produced fruit for three years and upon inspection, the owner of the vineyard is less than happy with its inability to live up to its potential. Cut it down, he orders – it’s wasting perfectly good soil – usurping nutrients that another tree might actually put to good use. But then another voice is heard – the voice of the gardener. Oh, no, let’s wait a little longer – another year. Let’s see if, with the right attention – with some air and some fertilizer, we can get this tree to produce the fruit it was meant to produce. The gardener is determined to save the tree and the owner of the land changes his mind. Okay, he tells the gardener – you’ve got one year – and if it’s still without fruit – chop it down.

There’s always a temptation to make a quick assumption about this kind of story. It is awfully easy to assume that the characters in this parable are set – easily identified: God the Father is the owner of the land of course. As Creator, the Father owns all, knows all, has the right to have certain expectations about what he has created. The gardener is Jesus the Son – the one sent to redeem, the one sent to heal, the one sent to live and die and rise again so that all God’s children would have life. The barren fig tree – well, that’s pretty obvious too – it’s all the sorry souls who just can’t get their act together.

That’s one interpretation of this parable – and it leads to a particular kind of theology – a particular kind of way to think about God and humanity. It goes something like this:

The owner of the tree, God the Father, is clearly invested in what he owns – in this case a fig tree. He’s interested in what the fig tree is up to. For three years he has been watching the progress of this tree – or shall we say lack of progress – the inability of this tree to produce what he expects it to produce. The landowner has had it – there has been plenty of time for this tree to produce fruit – and God has lost his patience. Why should he keep the slacker around? When fig trees don’t produce figs, what good is it to waste good soil on them? When a tree’s potential isn’t realized, the smart thing is to destroy it, right?

Do you see how we can be trapped into a particular way of understanding God when we assign him the role of the landowner? We end up with an angry God – a God that is demanding, judgmental, vindictive, punitive and violent.

It seems that there are lots of folks who buy into this kind of interpretation, however. Some of them are high profile individuals – like Pat Robertson – who boldly claimed recently that the devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti was God’s way of dealing with a group of people Mr. Robertson thinks deserve judgment – judgment and punishment. As one of my friends said this week, some people just seem to want – maybe even need a God who judges – especially one whose judgments coincide with their own…. as long as they aren’t the ones being judged.

And I think my friend is right – but what is even more upsetting to me is that this kind of theology has crept deep into our culture – sinking its toxic roots into our very souls – poisoning our relationships with God, with each other and with ourselves.

When we only see God as the judge of our souls, we run into some pretty ugly territory.

For example, I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve spoken with – many on their deathbeds – who honestly wondered what they had done wrong to bring about God’s wrath, God’s punishment – whether it was the pain of divorce, the horror of abuse, the devastation of a cancer diagnosis. They experienced God first and foremost as judge – and not a very tolerant one at that. Is this really the God we worship? I think we need to be really careful when we start making such assumptions. So, as I’ve run my teeth over this parable the last few days, I’ve let go of the desire to have it all wrapped up in a tidy package. Instead, I just allowed myself to wonder.

First, I wondered about all the possible characters that could play each of the roles in this little drama. And to do that, instead of looking at the identity of the characters, I looked at the behaviors associated with each role. The behaviors that I’d like think about with you this morning are judging, tending, and growing.

In this story, judgment is clearly occurring – judgment based on performance which, in turn, seems to be based on expectations. Tending – or caring for – is also occurring. The tending that occurs is based on performance. And Growing – or bearing fruit – the third behavior in this story – is not occurring, even though there is an understanding that it is possible.

So let’s look for a minute at judgment – judgment as we know it, as we experience it and as we participate in it. It occurs to me that perhaps the basis for much of the judging that occurs in our lives is based on expectations – just like the judging that occurs in the parable. We expect certain things of ourselves and of each other – and when our expectations aren’t realized – when we or others fall short – we have this strange and very powerful urge to judge.

Where does this come from? I’ve wondered this week if somehow this urge to judge isn’t based in the false notion that we actually have control over our lives. Our culture seems to thrive on the notion that we are in control – and with that strange notion of control, comes the equally strange notion that we have the right to pass judgment – on each other – on ourselves – on those we will never even know – if we detect that any given expectation isn’t being met.

In light of all this, I’ve been wondering if, in this parable of the fig tree, it might be more accurate to identify ourselves – individually and collectively – as the owner of the land. Quick to decide what is worth saving, even quicker to demand the destruction of anything that doesn’t meet our standards. Some thing, or some one doesn’t produce what we expect and we say, cut it down! Throw it out! Burn it up!

We give up on our children, we write off our parents. We give up on whole nations; we give up on ourselves. We wage war- internal and external.

Let’s look at the tending behavior of the gardener. Here we have a character who seems to be the opposite of the landowner. Instead of giving up on the fruitless tree, he is willing to hold on to the potential that lives in the tree. He understands that fig trees are supposed to produce figs, certainly – and it seems like that’s something the Gardener wants – just like the landowner. But instead of passing some kind of quick judgment on the tree– he moves to a place of compassion and decides that he is willing to put forth more effort, to take more time, to aerate and fertilize – to nurture and nourish the unproductive tree.

It’s really no wonder this character is often identified with Jesus – the one we believe was sent to save us – the one sent to restore and redeem – the one willing to nurture humanity with his teaching and, in the end, nourish us with his own blood. But what if we allow ourselves to re-assign this role based on the tending behavior of the gardener? Can we with any confidence imagine ourselves – as individuals and as a community – in this role?

Yesterday our vestry spent a day on retreat. We spent some time listening to each other and listening for God’s voice as we began the process of discerning where God is leading us as a parish family. As I listened to the stories, the dreams, and yes, the disappointments, it was clear that tending to our brothers and sisters is something that the vestry feels must be a priority. This tending can take many forms – but it always takes work. It takes time and energy and it takes discipline. Among other things, it means we won’t give up on each other and we won’t give up on ourselves.

And now the third and last of the behaviors identified in this morning’s parable: growth.

St. Paul’s has been blessed with a level of numerical growth that not many churches can claim. The willingness of the parish to step out on an unknown limb ten years ago – to offer a radical welcome to all who come through these doors and a commitment to doing church differently, has produced profound growth. We understand this as God’s work – God’s blessing.

Numerical growth, however, isn’t the whole picture – I think this was part of what the vestry was acknowledging yesterday. We need figs. We need more of the fruit that God has promised – more joy, more peace, more patience, more perseverance, more wisdom, more self-control. We need God’s grace to see the potential fruit in each other, in our church and in ourselves. And we need to be willing to cultivate and fertilize – to teach and to learn – to serve and to be served – to forgive and to be forgiven if we want more figs to sprout from our branches.

So, there you have it – three behaviors exhibited by the characters in this story – the judgment of the landowner, the careful tending of the barren tree by the gardener and the potential growth of the fig tree. My guess is that we all exhibit or participate in each of these behaviors – I know that I do. My prayer is that God will give us the grace to do less of the judging and more of the tending so that our individual trees – and the grove of trees that we know as St. Paul’s – will produce the kind of fruit and the amount of fruit that will bring glory and honor to the One who created us with exactly that potential. Amen.

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