A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,[a] and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
Repent or Perish
13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Growing up, we had a large garden that we shared with my Uncle who lived next door. My Uncle had what I’d call a recreational farm. He had a few cattle, a large garden, and about 10 acres of land. We didn’t have cattle, but we did have about 6 acres of land, so we let the cattle roam between the properties.
I remember growing up and playing on our adjoining properties. Lots of great battles were won and lost as I would run around those woods and fields. But, I always had to be on the lookout for cattle and for what they would leave on the ground!
Since we had a large garden, we also had one spot on our properties that I would especially try to stay away from…the manure pile. Of course, once a year, I couldn’t stay away from it because that was the day that we’d hook up the manure spreader on our tractor and go to the pile and shovel manure into the spreader. Then we would take it and spread it on the garden…which would then fertilize the soil, give it nutrients, and, with some careful cultivation of the garden, we’d have corn, green beans, squash, watermelon, and all sorts of vegetables when it came time to harvest. Because of the process that we had with the garden, and the care that my Uncle and dad would take with that garden… and really all of our family members as we all had to pitch in…we had an abundance of fresh vegetables every year.
The setting of the gospel lesson quoted above is in 1st century Palestine. Palestine is often referred to as an agrarian culture. It was largely rural and had many crops. With its location, it was prime land that the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and Egyptians would invade and fight over because of its agricultural significance.
The folks who were with Jesus in this story knew about agriculture, as did Jesus. They had a shared identity that was tied to the land.
Within this text is a great metaphor around a fig tree.
The context is a group of folks sharing with Jesus about Pilate’s execution of some Galileans and intermingling their blood with sacrificial animals. Not only being killed, but having the shame of having their blood mixed. In a culture based on honor and shame, it’s not just death that is hard to deal with, it’s how you die…and that would have deeply held emotional responses. So, they were wondering if their sins had caused them to die in such a way. They may have asked this question out of anxiety or out of a sense in trying to trap Jesus, to see if he was pro-Roman or pro-revolutionary.
Jesus responds by saying, no, they were not worst sinners than anyone else. He even goes on to say that the same fate of being in an endless cycle of shame awaits them if they continue to live as they have always lived. They needed to have a change of heart and mind, they needed repentance which leads to growth.
Jesus also reminds his listeners that tragedy can fall on anyone. We can live life like we think we are supposed to, do what we think is right, but tragedy can come at any time. We all die, but we all also have grace in this life and it matters what we do with these lives we are given. In first century Judaism, tragedy would fall on the wicked. But, Jesus is saying that tragedy falls on us all, even on Jesus. Yet, how we grow through tragedy is what’s important. God shows mercy on all, those who are repentant and unrepentant.
The difference though, I believe, is that repentance can lead to new understanding, new growth, and can produce fruit in our lives and in the lives of others.
At first glance, we may think that Jesus is being harsh by saying that this tree should be cut down if it’s not producing fruit after years of cultivating. But, again, remember, this is an agrarian culture. What they hear is grace. This tree has been in a vineyard for a long time. The owner of the vineyard found that it wasn’t producing fruit. He calls his gardener, says that he’s been patient for 3 years, and it should be cut down. But, the gardener says to the owner, give it one more year. Let’s cultivate it, take care of it, and give it another year. If there isn’t fruit after a year, well then we can cut it down, dry it out, and use it as kindling for a fire or some other useful purpose.
The fig tree in this story is a sign of God’s mercy, it hasn’t produced fruit, but it’s still in the vineyard. The gardener has faith that the fig tree could stand a bit longer so that it can have the possibility of bearing fruit.
This story is about God’s faithfulness.
God doesn’t give up on anyone or any church or faith community. But, it’s up to us to ask questions of ourselves as persons and as persons joined together: Can we stay committed to one another, do we share in God’s faith in us, can we cultivate in our own lives the practices that produce an awareness of God’s gardening work in our lives, cultivating growth?
God continues to give us another year, another chance at growth. This can give us opportunity to consider what is really important in our lives . How we can slow down and choose to spend our time and resources to achieve what is important in our lives.
I believe that the biblical notion of “Jubilee” fits well within this passage. Jubilee was about the forgiveness of debts, the restoration of land to its rightful owners. It’s about removing the barriers that keep us apart in community. It’s about restoration of relationship, of listening to one another and treating all with equity.
It also says a lot about “abundance”. We often look around at what we don’t have, we have a scarcity mindset that keeps us locked in old ways of thinking that lends itself to transactional relationships. When we slow down, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what we see around us and in us, we can begin to live out of a sense of abundance and that there is always beauty and opportunities around us for growth and connections.
If we live into a jubilee concept, we can have freedom to consider a wide range of choices, whereas before we may have felt like we had little choice.
Last weekend, we had our friend Peter Block lead us in some conversations at Fleming Road.
It was a great time discussing possibilities and things we are passionate about. Much of those conversations were what I would even call “jubilee” imagination. How can we remove barriers from knowing one another, and how can do things to increase our connections to others.
Other jubilee conversations that I’ve had recently is how do we find ways to put finances together towards things that give us life through this jubilee mind and heartset. Maybe it means we start today, putting $20, $25, or some other amount together in a “dream jubilee fund” that we give to others in order to increase our connections and restore folks into relationship.
Our church, all of us together, also have an opportunity with Jubilee to think in new and exciting ways. I believe that Fleming Road UCC has been given a Jubilee year in 2019 to discern where God is leading us on how we can best use our abundance of time, talents, and resources to produce fruit as a church.
If we can ask those questions bravely and being in God’s vineyard together as authentic gathering of Jesus followers, then we can move towards living abundant, fruitful lives. We may want to avoid the manure piles that are necessary for growth, we may not like being pruned, but sometimes we have to get rid of unhealthy leaves in our lives, we may not enjoy being planted and replanted, but God has a vision for beautiful fruit bearing lives lived together.
If we can dare to live faithfully in God’s faith in us, if we can dare to live differently and in deep and inclusive love for each other and those in our neighborhoods, schools, and work places, we can move towards being people of Jubilee…we can take risks to love, forgive, and grow in our relationships…and change our world for the better while we’re at it!