O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
As in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard ; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. “Cut it down!”
Let me tell you about two of my neighbors. One happens to be the current Senior Warden of the downtown Episcopal Church – our own Mr. Kerry Holmes – and the other shall go unnamed. Both neighbors care deeply about their yards, but they take very different approaches to landscaping.
Kerry has never met a dying plant with which he did not fall in love. Have you ever seen the clearance rack at a garden center where the distressed, diseased, and near-dead plants are marked down 75%? Kerry can not walk past that display without purchasing at least a few specimens to nurture back to health.
Last summer, when Kim and Kaitlyn went to Chicago to visit family, Kerry was given very specific orders: don’t buy any more plants! Kerry’s immortal response: “Yeah, that’s not happening.” During that time Kerry and I happened across a K-Mart that which the saddest collection of plant life you have ever seen. There was a veritable grove of “trees” twelve feet tall, ½ inch thick, with about seven leaves at the top; each marked down to $10. Because there was no tag indentifying the trees’ species, we decided to call them “toothpick trees”; a designation so humorous to us that we had to buy some and plant them in our yards. When the Holmes’ women returned to Suffolk, their reaction was less than overwhelming, as you might guess, but the toothpick trees are thriving.
One day last fall I saw Kerry digging holes across the street from his house in grass between the curb and the walk. “What are you doing,” I asked. “These crape myrtles were on sale for a $1,” he said, “So I had to buy them.”
Kerry’s back yard is a hodge-podge collection of plant life on the mend and every plant has a story. In Kerry’s mind there is a vision and a dream for what each little waif and whisper might become. It matters not if the plant is dried out, deformed, damaged, destroyed, demented, or dangling awkwardly. It matters not if it is spindly, sparse, sporadically leaved, or no longer succulent. Kerry Holmes wants to put it in the earth and see what happens. His motto: you never know.
Feel free to stop by the Homles’ any time day or night. Any time! Really! Kerry will be more than overjoyed to show you every one of his plants, to describe the condition of each when he found it, and to share his hope for what each might become. And Kim loves to entertain unexpected visitors; especially by sharing chocolate goodies. Most of the time she will have something to offer if you stop by unannounced – any time… day or night – and should the cookie jar be empty, I am confident she will be more than happy to whip up something tasty – any time day or night – while Kerry gives you the tour of the yard.
During your tour, here are two things to keep in mind. First, make sure to ask Kerry about his homemade rain barrels and raised vegetable garden. Neither should be missed. And speaking of missing, that brings me to the second thing: remember that the Holmes’ are proud owners of a very large great dane – Anna. My suggestion is that, while Kerry gives you a tour of the yard, you keep one eye on the plants and the other on where you are walking. A big dogs tend to create very large do-do’s that you don’t-don’t want to step in. Enough said.
I have another neighbor who takes a very different approach to gardening. While Kerry’s yard is a cornucopia of plants on the mend, my other neighbor’s yard is a masterpiece of symmetry, balance, and lush perfection. Kerry’s yard is something of a horticultural M.A.S.H unit while my other neighbor’s yard is more like an elite honor guard. Only the best of the best make into his ground. All manner of chemicals are applied to ensure that what should grow grows and what should not does not. Should even a tiny patch of brown appear in the lawn that does not respond to treatment, out comes the tiller, what is damaged is done in, and new grass is cultivated from the best of the best possible seed.
Last summer the unthinkable happened. One of the two plants that frames the front steps, a juniper topiary (you know, those ever-greens trimmed to have a spiral look), started to show signs of dry needles. Was it a disease? Was it lack of water? Was it too hot or too much sun or to little sun or what? Who knows! But here is what I do know. That mildly distressed tree was dug up, disposed, and replaced. The same fate befell the healthy matching topiary, presumably because it would not be the same height as the newer, younger addition.
It was a sensible decision, I suppose, but it raises an interesting question: if you were a plant, in which of my neighbors’ yards would you like to be planted: the one where it is okay to be broken, browning, and showing evidence of the battering life can inflict on us, or the one where only the perfect are planted, but removed at the first sign of a flaw?
This question is at the heart of today’s reading from the gospel. The lesson begins with a question about the relationship between calamity and sin and concludes with discussion between a vineyard owner and a gardener regarding what to do with a fig tree that hasn’t born any fruit. The two concerns are very much related.
As to the first, then as now, people struggle to make sense of why bad things happen to people. Why do earthquakes destroy cities in Haiti and Chile, killing hundreds of thousands? Why do some people worshipping in the Temple end up murdered by Pilate’s terrorists while others go unharmed? Why does a stone tower collapse in the village of Siloam, killing 18 people. Then as now there were those who said the people who died must have deserved it. They must have been worst sinners than the rest of us. They must have made a deal with the devil somewhere back in the past.
“No” says Jesus. “No! No! No! No! Quit trying to figure out why these poor people are to blame for what happened to them and use the tragic experience to remember that life is short, the future is uncertain, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today, right now, is the time get your life together, to make something of yourself with what you have been given, to get about the business of doing the work God has given you to do and to do it well.”
To bring His point home, Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree. If our sin cuts us off from God (as some where suggesting was the reason calamity befell those murdered in the Temple and killed in the collapse), then the fig tree would be cut down immediately for not being fruitful. But, in the story, our need, our lack, our short-comings, our wayward ways evoke God’s deepest, most nurturing compassion. God, like the gardener who tends the fig tree, labors to supply us with all we need so that we can be as fruitful as God dreams we can be.
I used to think of the characters in the parable in this way: the angry vineyard owner is God the Father and the nurturing gardener is God the Son. It was an interpretation that suggested God is somehow at odds within God’s self, struggling over the push to condemn and the pull to love. I now see the gardener as being a God figure: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, unified as a person of patience and compassion. The owner of the vineyard represents those people who are contemptuous and scornful, who are ready to criticize and condemn, who are quick to point out your faults from their self-perceived morally superior position. Sometimes the vineyard owner’s voice comes from a person who has it in for us, other times it comes to us from one who should have nurtured us, but didn’t, and sometimes the voice comes from within as we seek to condemn ourselves.
If you hear and believe this voice/these voices, chances are you walk on spiritual pins and needles. You are convinced that one wrong move, one false step will bring swift, sure pain and punishment. Jesus’ parable tells us something very different. It tells us that God sees us as works in progress. God knows we are not perfect. God knows we will fail. But God also is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness because God knows that what we are is not what we are becoming. We may think God sees the barrenness of our present moment, but in reality God sees the fruit to come.
Pascal said that each one of us is created with a void that only God can fill. Augustine held that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The poet of the 63rd Psalm gives voice to this when he or she writes:
O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you.
Had the psalmist visited the Wal-Mart garden center, he might have said we are like plants on the clearance rack. Our need is overwhelming. Our problems insurmountable. No one in their right mind would want us. But then God the gardener comes strolling past and is filled with compassion for us. The psalmist says it this way: “God’s loving-kindness is better than life itself.” God redeems us from the dumpster, plants us in the ground, and nourishes us from the depths of Divine love. And what happens to our weak, weary, woebegone limbs and leaves? “My soul is content,” the psalmist says, “as with marrow and fatness.” We begin to live and to flourish, to become in reality what in the eyes of God we always have been. “You have been my helper,” confesses the psalmist, “my soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.”
If you were a plant, in which of my neighbors’ yards would you like to be planted?