In this age of Netflix and other streaming services for television shows it’s harder to remember a time where you had to wait each week for the next episode of your favourite show. Sure, some series are doing this now – dropping one or more episodes over a series of weeks – but perhaps some of you will remember a time pre-streaming with commercials, weekly episodes, and that dreaded “to be continued…”
I can remember groaning when those words would appear on the screen because how could I possibly wait a week – or even worse – until next season to find out what happened on my favourite show?! Well, this morning’s scripture reading is a bit like that for me. Because as I initially read the text for this week, I started flipping through the next few pages and said, “Wait a minute, so how does this story end? What happens to the fig tree the next year? Do we know if they end up cutting it down?” And when I could not find my answers or any kind of follow up on the fig tree in the Gospel of Luke, I threw my hands in the air and emphatically proclaimed, “Well, this is worse than any to be continued ever!” A tad dramatic? Yes. Are you surprised? No.
So, let me get this out of the way: How does this story end? What happens to the fig tree the next year? Do we know if they end up cutting it down?
In short: I don’t know, I don’t know and no.
One of the exhilarating and frustrating parts of faith and the study of scripture is that it often leaves us with far more questions than answers and stories that we really do not know the ending to. We do not know how this story ends; we do not know if the work of the gardener paid off and the tree produced figs or if the owner of the vineyard cut down the tree the following year. Much of this story remains a mystery to us.
And yet, this story still has so much to teach us.
One of the many gifts of ministry has been the colleagues that I have been so lucky to get to know and call friends – many of these relationships developed in our local ministerial groups. I remember as a new minister feeling like it was a lifeline as we met monthly and offered support and networking to one another, both in ministry and in life. These gatherings always started with a devotional time, and when I read this week’s gospel lesson I was instantly transported back to that group when we read this very scripture story; or, rather, we listened to this passage. The minister who led our devotional that day encouraged us to close our eyes and put ourselves in the story as we listened to it read aloud. I could not get help but remember that same frustration again at the ending (or lack thereof). What happens to the fig tree, I kept asking myself? Does our hard work pay off in the end? How am I supposed to preach, “give second chances” and “do the hard work” and “don’t ever give up” if I do not even know it is going to be worth it in the end?
But before I could start my rant on the lack of parabolic closure with the fig tree, one of the other ministers in my group smiled, took a deep breath and said very thoughtfully, “Isn’t it amazing that even a fig tree sometimes needs to take a break from constantly producing something, get some rest and receive some extra love and care?”
Which for me was the epitome of grace in a story that I have always found frustrating.
But here’s the thing: I was so focused on the future of the fig tree that I completely overlooked what the gardener wanted to do in the present. And what the gardener wanted to do in the present was so powerful, nurturing, and life-giving.
I think the same often happens in our own lives, as well. We live in a society that has come to expect very fast results. Minute by minute news bytes fill up the Twitter feed. Home renovations are wrapped up in a one-hour television segment, dinner goes from ingredients to ready-to-serve in a thirty second time lapsed video on TikTok and new products are constantly being released and marketed as faster and more efficient than the one before it.
And yet, despite this time and place of immediacy that we live in today, I believe that grace can still be found when we take the time to do the work that God is calling us to do – and to wait and see where and how God will come into our lives.
But let’s back up for a minute; before Jesus told this parable, the writer of Luke gives us some background, “some folks come to Jesus with headline news of horror and tragedy. Pontius Pilate has slaughtered a group of Galileans and mingled their blood with the blood of sacrificial lambs. Meanwhile, the tower of Siloam has collapsed, crushing and killing eighteen people. The reporters accompany these brutal accounts with a question we know so well: Why? Why did these terrible things happen? Why is there so much pain in the world? Why does a good God allow human suffering?
We can relate to asking why? How many times over the past two years have you asked — or heard someone else ask — “Why?” Why is the pandemic lasting so long? Why are so many people dying? Why can’t we make progress when it comes to climate change? Why are thousands of young people in our country depressed and anxious? Why do tyrants in our world go unchecked? Why are nations embroiled in war?
I suppose to ask “why” is to be human. We can’t help ourselves; we want to understand. We want to make sense of the world.
Jesus’ response? Ask a better question.
For thousands of years, questions of theodicy have plagued Christianity, and for thousands of years, we have failed to find answers that satisfy us. Yet we can’t stop asking the questions. We still crave a Theory of Everything when bad stuff happens. We still look for formulas to eradicate mystery and make sense of the senseless.
As Luke’s Gospel makes clear, the people who ask Jesus their versions of the “why” question already have an answer in mind. They don’t approach Jesus with a blank slate; they come expecting Jesus to verify their deeply held belief that people suffer because they’re sinful. That folks get what they deserve. That bad things happen to bad people.
It’s tempting for us to look at such “ancient” beliefs and feel smugly superior in comparison. But how different, really, are the beliefs we hold about human suffering? When the unspeakable happens, what default settings do we revert to?
The problem with this is that they hold us apart from those who suffer. They keep us from embracing our common lot, our common brokenness, our common humanity. When Jesus challenges his listeners’ assumptions and tells them to “repent” before it’s too late, I think part of what he’s saying is this: any question that allows us to keep a sanitized distance from the mystery and reality of another person’s pain is a question we need to un-ask. “Un-ask that question because there’s a better one to be asked,” Jesus says to the folks who bring him the painful news about Pilate and Siloam. “Un-ask that question” he says to us when we batter God with “why” instead of offering God our hands and feet, our hearts and souls. “Un-ask that question” he insists when we wax eloquent about other people’s suffering but do nothing to alleviate it. “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.” A wiser question, a deeper question, a truer question. A question that expands possibility, and resists fear.
So perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions. We’re mired in irrelevance. Start over again. Ask a better question. Go deeper, be braver, draw closer. Repent. Which means, change your mind. Turn around. Head in a different direction.
True repentance is not a once and done kind of thing; it is a process. It is a beautiful and hard and incredibly significant process. The gardener did not offer to throw some Miracle Grow on the fig tree and walk away and hope for the best; instead, the gardener promised to dig around the tree, to get at its roots, to till some fertilizer into the soil and to nurture real and meaningful growth. The gardener said that they would come back, day after day, for an entire year.
And while it still really bugs me that we do not know how this story ends, I do not think that the end result was really what Jesus was getting at here with this parable. I think it really is about the process; it is about what God is doing in our lives and also the work that we are willing to put into it as well. Very often we spend too much time looking for an image of what the final product is going to look like that we miss out on the process; we miss out on the opportunity to be down in the dirt, using our hands and doing the work that God is calling us to do. This is the work that strengthens our faith, this is the work that draws us closer to God and each other, and this is the work that helps us become the people that we all have the capacity within us to be.
Lent is a time of repentance and confession, subjects that – sometimes for good reason – we often shy away from in mainline protestant churches. It is not easy to talk about the parts of our lives where we have fallen – and continue to fall – short. It is not easy to admit the things that we have done wrong or to look deeply into our reflections and shine light on our failures. Sometimes it is so much easier to try to help others or busy ourselves with the work of the church (both really important things, don’t get me wrong!) than to deal with our stuff. The truth is that when we actually do the work that God is calling us to in our own lives, the work is hard; it is real, it is humbling, and it calls us to see beyond ourselves.
But it is also nourishing and powerful and grace filled. It draws us closer to God. It heals us. It sustains us.
Because you see, no one is a lost cause; the gardener refused to give up on that fig tree and God refuses to give up on us. God refuses to cut us down simply because for one season we were not capable of bearing fruit; God knows that we are worth the hard work, that we are worthy of the process of true repentance. God knows that we are worth the time that it will take to take our broken pieces and make us whole again.
I think that is why I love the season of Lent so much – because it gives us the time to simply be in the process. We have 40 days to be in the process.
And this time – we know the ending – it always ends with resurrection.
The parable of the fig tree reminds us that the work is ours to do today, even if we do not know quite how the story ends. God is working in our lives, and we are worthy of the work that God is doing. The miraculous part of our faith is that we journey to the cross during the Lenten season knowing that resurrection is coming, knowing that holy grace and love will illuminate our lives and knowing that God’s love always wins.
So, whatever you are working on this Lenten season, know that you are worthy of that work. And if you are resting this season, know that you are worthy of that rest. Trust the process, even if you cannot see the final result.
Why do terrible, painful, completely unfair things happen in this world? Instead of asking why, let us go weep with someone who’s weeping. Go fight for the justice we long to see. Go confront evil where it needs confronting. Go learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending. Go cultivate beautiful things.
Where else will our Lenten journey take us? With more Sundays ahead of us, my friends, that is…. to be continued…
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Heather Power