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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
March 20 2022
Grace to you and peace from God, our creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I enjoy walking, and I spend a fair amount of time walking through or around the Microsoft campus because it’s an easy route to get to.
There’s one particular place where a trail cuts up away from the sidewalk and traffic noise and is closer to the campus. And it’s one of my favorite places to walk because in one part there’s an overgrown area that has a flowering dogwood tree. And when it’s in bloom, it’s stunning.
And as I prepared for today, and thought about the fig tree in the parable, I thought about that flowering dogwood. And since I’ve never seen actual fruit on it, I wondered if it was just pretty or if it has other uses, so I did some googling.
And I learned a lot. Among other things, the wood of the dogwood has a high resistance to sudden shock, so it’s a popular choice for making everything from golf club heads to shuttles for the textile industry.
I also learned that, historically, the onset of the tree’s flowering marks the time for crops to be planted. And the inner bark contains an alkaloid that Native Americans used to treat malaria, and it was used as a substitute for quinine during the Civil War.
I still think it’s a beautiful tree, but my perspective on it has deepened. Because the “fruit” it produces is more than just its surface-level beauty. And it isn’t a stretch to think of fruit in terms of gifts, and that in life, the fruit we produce – the yield of our gifts – is important.
The event in the gospel reading starts back in chapter 12 and we pick up in the middle of it today. A group of people is upset because Pontius Pilate had ordered the deaths of some Galileans and then mixed their blood with the sacrifices that were on the altar.
And as the people tried to make sense of what had happened, they concluded that the Galileans died because they’d sinned in some way and were being punished and deserved what they got. In other words, they thought something bad happened to them because they were bad people.
And there were two reasons they thought that. First, that’s how the world was understood at that time. But also, they wanted an easy answer because the tragedy just didn’t make sense.
And in response, Jesus basically asks, “Come on, were their sins any worse than yours? What happened to them doesn’t make any more sense than what happened when the Tower of Siloam fell on those other people.” He was basically saying that there’s no sense to be made for events like that.
Jesus also doesn’t defend God or give an explanation for why God “allowed” either of the tragedies to happen, because God doesn’t work that way. Instead, Jesus tells them a parable to remind them that life is a gift from God that isn’t to be wasted, and that no one’s future is certain because death is coming to everyone.
So there’s a sense of urgency in what he says, and he’s telling the people to stop worrying about what those others might have done to bring tragedy upon themselves, and start looking at what they’re doing – or not doing – in their own lives, and make some changes now. Because God cares about how they live.
Usually when we hear the word “repent,” especially during Lent, what we tend to understand is, “I gotta tell God ‘I’m sorry’ or else I’m going to hell.” But, as we’ve talked about, repentance is literally turning yourself toward God. That act of turning ideally leads to a change in behavior, but our perspective is what changes first.
In the parable about the fig tree, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that God is the landowner and Jesus is the gardener. And Jesus is the gardener, but the landowner is the world – the idea that something or someone only has value if it’s producing something that has monetary value.
If the flowering dogwood on my walking route were to be cut down, it could potentially have some financial value. But in its current location, it provides flowers that can be pollinated, branches for birds to nest in, and it’s pretty to look at.
In the same way, a fig tree is good for more than just producing figs. Its root system is vital for slowing down soil erosion. In biblical times, its branches were often used as trellises for grape vines and the figs were used as bait for the birds to keep them away from the grapes.
And in certain parts of the world, its roots burrow deep enough that they break through the rocks beneath the surface soil and go into the underground water table. The water travels up along the roots until it hits a weak spot on the surface and gushes out as a spring.
So, yes, the fruit of a fig tree is valuable. But it isn’t the only thing that gives it value. And recognizing that the value of a tree or a person or whatever often lies beneath the surface, shapes how we understand and interact with the world.
When Jesus told the people that day to repent, he did it to remind them that God cares about how we live our lives and what we do with them because God loves us. Repentance, the act of turning toward God, is a response to God’s love for us because that’s what we turn to. And we discover that God’s love, Jesus’ care, helps us live.
And repentance isn’t a once-and-done thing – we don’t only repent when we’ve done something bad. As people who follow Jesus, we’re called to daily repentance and renewal in our lives. And living this way deepens our perspective on pretty much everything.
Instead of automatically looking for easy answers or someone to blame for a tragedy, or asking why God “allowed” it to happen, we remember that that isn’t how God works – and that life is sometimes shorter than we care to think about.
It helps us remember that when we talk about producing fruit and what it means, sometimes it isn’t what’s obvious. That the true fruit may lie below what we can see on the surface. It’s as much true for our own gifts as it is for the ones that others have.
And sometimes daily repentance, turning toward God’s love, strengthens us to work for something that may not have a speedy outcome. Like the work needed to dismantle racism, and to correct the effects of human-caused climate damage. It teaches us to look beneath the surface and discover what else is going on.
When we live a life of daily repentance and renewal, or as Luther put it – when we remember our baptism, we’re responding to God’s love for us. It allows us to look at our own lives and what we’re doing with them, or not doing, and make changes immediately.
It allows us to recognize that in that sense of urgency, in the midst of whatever’s going on, God is digging around our roots, loosening the soil – maybe even adding manure, because sometimes we need a little help.
It helps us remember that God loves us enough to dig, and to nurture us as often as it takes for as long as our lives will last. And God does this out of love in the hope that we’ll bear fruit, whatever it might look like. Because God cares about how we live our lives. Thanks be to God! Amen.