3/3/13, Take Up Your Shovels and Hoes

Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12, Luke 13:1-9

Recently I had the opportunity to visit an 86 year old man in the hospital.  He had lived a long and healthy life but in the past few months everything in his body seemed to be falling apart. Just the day before he had undergone a lung biopsy. Now he was thinking about death. What it would be like to see his loved ones again in eternity?

Walter’s childhood faith had been nurtured in a Catholic family. After he married a Presbyterian woman in the 1950’s, he began to attend churches of her Protestant preference.   But deep in his soul, he still longed for the experience of Catholic liturgy and Eucharist.  So after his wife died, he occasionally revisited Catholic parishes.  But why, he now wants to know, is the table of communion exclusive?  And why are gays and lesbians made to feel like lesser human beings?  And why are women not being ordained as priests?  These things bother him.

Walter was articulating his own pain at having held deep prejudices about these very issues for much of his life.  He described his moment of reckoning when in a heated discussion with other family members and friends, it suddenly hit him up the side of the head like a bolt of lightening.  “Walter, you have been WRONG! “  It was a stunning moment for him. His entire view of the world underwent a change. From that time he has looked life through a different set of eyes.  My own first impression of Walter as I looked into those eyes, was that they were kind and gentle, accepting and peaceful eyes. Yet, I will bet they were not always that way.

My visit with Walter has been sitting  inside me this week alongside reflection on the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel. "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.'"

In the chapters of Luke preceding this passage Jesus had issued to all the people following him a series of warnings about the times they were living in. Family life, economics, religious traditions, and human destiny were all in upheaval.  The world of their past was being completely transformed. They needed to change their attitudes and lifestyles in the face of this reality.   Jesus preached that personal repentance, the need for inner renewal, was necessary if God’s people were to survive the impact of this tumult. 


The Parable of the Fig Tree is a story offering hope in the face of all the warnings Jesus has given.  The image used reminds us of Scriptures in which the people of God are compared to a garden planted and tended by the Lord (Isa. 5:1-7; Joel 2:22). The fruitless fig tree planted in this particular garden symbolizes the ongoing apathy and indecision being exhibited among those who hear Jesus' message.

In the parable, the visiting master of this garden determines that the barren fig tree is just a waste of the soil it’s planted in. It should be chopped down immediately. The gardener however, pleads for patience.  He asks for just one more year of life for this tree.  During this time he will till the soil, apply fertilizer and care for it in such a way that it offers the greatest potential for producing fruit.

Despite all the rejection Jesus had experienced from the Jewish leaders of his day, he was still hoping to reach the religious system, giving them more time to repent and respond to the good news of the kingdom. This message of hope is still today held out to people who refuse to see the natural consequences that will befall if they fail to take action. There is still time for repentance, for change, for renewal. 

All we are learning about the universe we live in, and all the social, economic, political, ecological and religious tumult that swirls around us makes the fig tree lesson pertinent for today. We too are in the midst of a time where we have to make determined changes in our perspective if the tree of Christian faith is going to bear good fruit on Planet Earth.   Renewal will require willingness to set aside the same kind of apathy and indecision and resistance to change that Jesus encountered.  A new effort of tilling and fertilizing the soil of faith is essential.  We are the gardeners called to do the job.

 This tilling and fertilizing has to have its beginnings in our own hearts and minds.  Perhaps that’s what we have been experiencing here at Lumen Christi over the past several years, culminating last week with the message brought to us by Michael Morwood.  He introduced some pretty radical ideas about contemporary faith that shook us up a bit.  The need for change is desperate. Thankfully, we are held in the Presence of Divinity that has had remarkable patience with humankind over the generations of existence.    Our slowness to understand, to risk change, to chose decisive action is held in patience and grace by Love itself until we are ready to make our own response of loving action.  That, my friends, is what it’s like to live in grace.

Walter’s story is about this grace. It can be our story and the story of the Church today.  At a certain moment, we realize that we’ve been struck by a lightning bolt of change. Our eyes are opened to the fact that we’ve been WRONG!  When we are able to admit that, we are free to set about changing ourselves and our world.  Our eyes then become eyes of gentleness, kindness, acceptance and peace.  We are free to view our world and others in it without judgment.  We simply take up our metaphorical hoes and shovels to work up the soil and fertilize what has potential to grow and produce fruit. Let’s get to work!

by Sandi DeMaster