Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fig trees in the vineyards?

"Coastal Vineyard," by Gregory Kondos
Today's sermon is based primarily on Luke 13:1-9.

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This morning we are treated to a host of grim biblical passages about serpents, clouds, burning bushes, falling towers, blood mingled with meat, threats to a fig tree in the vineyards, and a pile of manure.

So I want to talk about something else – at least for a few minutes. You may not know this about me, but I have spent a lot of time in vineyards, and not just on the way from the car to the wine tasting room.

I have spent days and days in Napa Valley, and I’ve learned at the feet of the great vineyard masters like George Hendry, Davis Bynum, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, and Mark West.

I’ve toured many of the vineyards in our Central Virginia region, and I have the greatest respect for the growers here who produce fine grapes in a wet climate.

I know that the Norton grape grows well here while the Pinot Noir grape does not.

When we lived in California, I even experimented with growing my own Chardonnay grapes, and Lori can tell you that the birds got more of my grapes than ended up as juice in the refrigerator.

I can show you how to graft a vine onto a disease-resistant root stock.

I’m familiar with how grape growers plant roses around the perimeter of their vineyards because rose bushes are susceptible to the same blights and diseases as grapes, and so rose bushes serve as an early-warning system in the vineyards.

I’m also familiar with how grape growers plant mustard between the rows in their vineyards in the winter to add nitrogen back into the soil.

I mention all of these elaborate details this morning so that you will trust me when I bring one simple fact to your attention:

No one – but no one – plants a fig tree in their vineyard.

A fig tree would consume too much ground water, the canopy would produce too much shade, and the fig tree would attract birds that would eat the grapes.

So when you hear this story about a fig tree in a vineyard, you should be alert to the possibility that this story might have to do with something other than figs and grapes.

Indeed, this entire passage from the Gospel of Luke is a cascade of figurative and metaphorical language designed to pull us out of our comfortable sense of reality.

The Luke passage begins with two historical inaccuracies: There is no record of Pontius Pilate massacring Galileans and mingling their blood with Roman sacrificial meat. He was a butcher, but he probably did not do that.

Nor is there any record, other than here, of a tower of Siloam falling on 18 people. And then we have this parable of man cursing a fig tree because it bears no fruit, and the gardener saying, give it another year.

So what is going on here? Does God hate figs?

In the time of Jesus, the fig tree was a symbol of religious teachers and their institutions. Rabbis taught while sitting under fig trees, and so fig trees were symbolic of the institutional religion of Jesus’ day.

In the Luke passage, Jesus seems to be saying that religious leaders have one more chance to get things right.

I find that a personally sobering message.

Yet there is also grace entwined in the figs and vines – even grace for religious leaders. And the grace that Jesus talks of come when we least expect it, in places we least expect, and from people we least expect.

If you keep reading this section of Luke beyond what is presented today, you will hear Jesus telling stories about how God’s grace springs forth from mustard seeds and yeast – or at unexpected times like a visitor in the night, or in unexpected places, like this fig tree growing where it does not belong, in a vineyard.

Give grace a chance, Jesus says. Let it grow. You never know where you will find it.

Yet these stories also come with admonitions that are hard to hear about sin and repentance. Not a popular topic then, not a popular topic now.

So let’s step back a few paces and look at the dreaded subject of sin. You might be surprised that the word “sin” does not quite mean what the popular culture thinks it means.

The basic meaning of sin is to be disconnected from God. To be born human, born mortal, means we are born disconnected from our creator. We are born into the noise of the world and into the deafening silence of our separation from God.

That is not a moralistic statement about good and bad, but a statement of reality. By being human, we cannot see God. In all of the Biblical stories, only one person has ever seen God – Moses. For the rest of humanity, we have times when might feel utterly disconnected from our creator.

To live in sin means to live in silence from God. It is unavoidable and real.

The sin Jesus talks of over and over is how we inherit this fractured broken world that seems perpetually disconnected from God – that is the meaning of “original sin.”

To be born requires learning how to live in this fractured broken world. We must learn many things to survive, including how to live amidst good and evil.

The allegorical story of the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve, is about this disconnection from God we all experience by virtue of leaving our mother’s womb – the Garden of Eden – and how we must learn to live.

Let me say as an aside, those who read the Adam and Eve story as a science text for “creationism” are sadly missing the point.

It is our disconnection from God that leads us to the arrogance of believing we need to rely on only ourselves – that we are more powerful than God.

And it is from that that self-centered focus that abusive “sinful” behavior comes.

To repent means to turn around – to turn back to God, to end our silence with our creator, to be humble enough to see that it is NOT all about us.

I hope you heard the words in one of the first prayers today, known as the “Collect of the Day”:
“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves…”
It is from that starting point of humility that our repentance begins. That does not mean there are no morals or ethics, quite the contrary.

Our morals and ethics spring from our compassion and connection to God, and each other. We live morally and ethically because it is right so to do, not because of an expectation of reward and punishment.

If you read closely the stories of Jesus healing people, you will notice that Jesus connects forgiveness of sin with healing, and therein is a major clue to what Jesus ultimately means by sin and forgiveness – and this is the unexpected fig tree growing in the vineyard.

The forgiveness Jesus pronounces is about reconciliation with God and not about moralistic dogmas. In the healing stories of Jesus, people come who are sick, and they’ve done nothing wrong. It has taken me years to figure out why Jesus says they are “forgiven, sin no more” when they’ve done nothing wrong. He is saying you are reconnected with God – it is not a moralistic statement. Forgiveness gives us the power to turn back to God.

To be healed and forgiven – to live in the reality of salvation – is to end our silence with God despite the brokenness of the world where we dwell.

Our sin – our silence with God – is healed, and this healing brings us back into relationship with God so that we can help heal this fractured out-of-kilter world we inherit by our birth.

The lesson Jesus gives over and over is that grace, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation comes where and when no one thinks it will. It comes like a fig tree growing in vineyard.

We do need to give this fig tree a chance to grow. We do need to be open to the forgiveness and healing that comes our way when we least expect it.

We do need to plant a few fig trees in our vineyards. We might even surprise ourselves when we see it grow. AMEN.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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