Since moving into our home, Nicky and I have been working on our yard. The previous owner of the house did a fantastic job marking out planting areas and putting in stone walks, but it had gotten overgrown the last few years. So we spent the last couple of years pruning, digging, moving, replanting, replanting again, and just getting things to a point where we can now say what’s next.
Late last summer, we planted some rather large rhododendron plants in the back garden. At first, they were doing great. They had magnificent flowers, and all was well. Then, one of them started to look well, less than perfect. We tried feeding it, watering it more, praying for it, and it seemed that no matter what we did, it just was not getting any better. Finally, we decided it was not getting enough sun and needed to be moved.
Moving any plant is a radical step and can kill the plant. But it was dying anyway, so we decided it was time. Finding a new place can be a challenge; it not only needs the right light, but it has to look right in the landscape. So we found it and prepared the new hole. Dug the plant from its old spot and moved it. Feed it, watered it, prayed for it, and hoped for the best.
The little plant overwintered well and seems to be doing okay, but we will not know until later on in the spring when it begins to flower.
The Gospel passage from Luke can sound harsh at first. The first half ends with a stern warning, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” But the second half of the story seems to bring some hope, the hope that we the Church needs to bring into this world.
The second half of the Gospel is a garden story, not unlike my story about our dying plant.
There is a fig tree that produces no fruit. For three years, the farmer has been tending to this tree, spending time and resources on it, and it has not borne any fruit. Space is valuable on a farm, and each inch has to be profitable, so the farmer asks to have the tree cut down.
The man that has been tending this tree asks for one more year. Give me one more year, and it will bear fruit. I will tend it, water it, fertilize it, and see that all will be well. After all of this, I will cut it down if it does not bear fruit.
This is where the story ends. I even read ahead to find out what happens, and there is nothing; we do not know what happens to this poor little tree. But let’s come back to that.
The story begins with some rather nasty things. Some folx come to Jesus to ask him a question. They tell Jesus about some from Galilee who Pilate struck down. The attempt here is to pin Jesus into a corner, as it usually is. They are trying to raise in Jesus a sense of Nationalism. Keep in mind that the people thought the Messiah spoken about by the prophets would be a military hero that would free them from the Romans.
Jesus turns to a spiritual question about sin and repentance. He asks who the greater sinners were; of course, they cannot answer to do so will invalidate their entire argument. He ends this little section by saying we are all in need of forgiveness.
The other day I posted what I thought was this funny little thing about a kid stealing a bike. It started by saying,” I asked God for a bike, but I know God does not work that way… So, I stole a bike and asked God for forgiveness.” Again, I posted this as a joke; I do that sometimes. We do not always have to be serious; we can let loose now and again. The world is so crazy right now we can laugh.
It caused quite the theological debate about the nature of forgiveness in any event. One person wrote, “asking for forgiveness and getting forgiveness are two different things.” I chimed in that I did not think so. I believe we are forgiven, even before we ask, but if we ask for forgiveness, we are forgiven.
The theological argument is that we have to be genuine, promise not to do it again, and amend our lives, but I think that just complicates things. Where does this belief come from? Jesus forgave the thief on the cross.
Just before he died, Jesus forgave one of the two men crucified with him. Scripture says they were both thieves, but only one asked for forgiveness. Now, this could have been a death bed confession; after all the man knew, he would die. There was no recorded repentance, no chance for the man to amend his life, just forgiveness. The man asked, and Jesus forgave. It’s that simple.
With that said, let me add that I believe that confession is good for the soul. Acknowledging that we have done wrong, gone astray, missed the mark, whatever term you want to use is healthy. Asking for forgiveness is healthy. Striving to change our lives is also healthy. The funny thing about all of this is that God knows us better than we do and knows that we all need help.
I mentioned before; there are no promises in Scripture other than the promise that God will never abandon us. Sure, we can leave God, but God will never abandon us.
So back to the fig tree.
The fig tree is us, you, and me. At times we do not bear fruit. The fig tree is also the Church. At times, the Church does not bear fruit, and in fact, it can cause more harm than good. Jesus is the one who asks for more time to tend to the tree. Jesus provides the spiritual food necessary, the way, the example of his life, and the Scriptures. We are fed and nourished by the Church, the Word, and the Sacraments.
In a few moments, we will come to the table to receive the nourishment of Jesus, but before we can do that, we need time to confess. We make this confession each time in preparation, not in some legalistic way, but as an acknowledgment that we have gone astray and need help, God’s help to get back on track.
The nourishment will help us grow, grow in faith so that we might bear fruit for others and be the gardener for another who is about to be cut down.
Repentance, confession, and acknowledgment of our wrongs are not meant to make us feel bad for what we have done or left undone. No, all of it is spiritual nourishment designed to make us bear fruit so we can feed others just as Jesus feeds us with his life and his words.