Sermons 2003-2004

God, the Gardener, and the Fig Tree
Home | Christmas Eve A, "Are we really ready?", Luke 2: 1-20, 24 December 2004 | "Finally! Well, almost...." Advent 4A , 19 December 2004, Matthew 1:18-25 | Faith and Doubts, Advent 3A, 12 December 2004, Matthew 11:2-11 | John the Baptist, Advent 2A, 5 December 2004, Matthew 3:1-12 | Left Behind? Advent 1A, 28 Nov 2004, Matthew 24:37-44 | Some King of kings! Proper 29C, 21 November 2004, Luke 23:35-43 | "Not one thrown down", Proper 28C, 14 November 2004, Luke 21:5-19 | All Saints and for all the saints, 2004C, 31 October 2004, Luke 6:20-36 | The Lambeth Commission Windsor Report, the Pharisee, and the tax collector, Proper 25C, 24 Oct 2004 | "Lord, teach us to pray." Proper 20C, 17 October 2004, Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30; Luke 18:1-8a | "It's all in the choosing", Proper 23C, 10 October 2004, Ruth 1:1-19a; Luke 17:11-19 | "Increase our faith", Proper 22C, Luke 17:5-10, 3 October 2004 | Proper 21C 2004, 26 September 2004, "R&R: Response and Relationships", Luke 16:19-31 | Proper 19C 2004, 12 September 2004, "Lost and Found", Luke 15:1-10 | Proper 18C 2004, 5 September 2004, "Preaching or Meddling", Luke 14:25-33 | Proper 16C 2004, 22 August 2004, "The Narrow Gate ", Luke 13:22-30 | Proper 15C, 15 August 2004 | Proper 14C, 8 August 2004 | Proper 13C, 1 August 2004 | Shrinemont: "Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses", Proper 15c, 15 August 2004 | "Lord, teach us how to pray," Proper 12C, 25 July 2004, Genesis 18:20-33; Luke 11:1-13 | The Summary of the Law and the Good Samaritan: "Go and do likewise" Luke 10:25-37, 11 July 2004 | Independence Day 2004. "The Creative Tension of the Church: Who is to be included?" | "Now! Now! Now!", Proper 8C, 27 June 2004, Luke 9:51-62 | "Star Throwers", Proper 7C, 20 June 2004, Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 9:18-24 | The more things change the more they remain the same, Pentecost 2C, 13 June 2004 | "O Holy Triune God, most Holy Trinity; here are we. Send us." Trinity C, 6 June 2004 | "Come, Holy Spirit", Pentecost C , 30 May 2004 | "That they all may be one", Easter 7C, 23 May 2004 | The Holy Spirit: Paraclete, Pneuma, Ruach, Easter 6C 2004 | Agapate Allelous: Love beyond each other, Easter 5C 2004, 9 May 2004 | The Good Shepherd and the five people you meet in heaven, Easter 4C 2004 | "The God of the Second Chance -- and of many chances", Easter 3C, 25 April 2004 | Baptizatus Sum: I am baptized, Easter 2C 2004 | It is NOT an Idle Tale: Easter Sunday, 18 April 2004 | Palm Sunday-Passion Sunday Roller Coaster: What We Want or What We Need? | Who are the Wicked Tenants, Lent 5C 2004 | The Prodigal Son -- and so much more | God, the Gardener, and the Fig Tree | "The Hen and the Fox", Lent 2C | The Comfortable Rut of Ordinary Temptation | "Getting from Uh-oh to Aha", Luke 9:28-36, Epiphany Last C, 22 February 2004 | Jesus, Jeremiah, and the Beatitudes: What to Make of it All | The Sword of the Lord and of Gideon: God working in the world | Jesus, the Archbishop, and Annual Council The Dark Abyss of Schism | The Nature of Revelation: Jesus' Sermon at Nazareth | The Miracle at the Wedding in Cana | The King of kings and the Lion King | "The Magnificat, Watching, and Waiting" | "Gaudete in Domino semper: Rejoice in the Lord always" | A Voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord." | "Standing in the Day of Battle: Isabel and the Gospel" | Dogma, Doctrine, and the Theological Enterprise | The Little Apocalypse | Jesus and theWidow's Mite | One Priest's Response to the Election of Gene Robinson | The Great Commandment: Jesus Meant What He said | Who is blind? | Eyes on Jesus and minds on mission! | Tradition or Traditionalism? | Credo: Be doers of the Word and not hearers only." | Who do YOU say that I am? | "It's about Power and Winning" | Contact Wicomico Parish Church
Lent 3C 2004 Luke 13:1-9

(Note: The Website program does not support certain punctuation marks and they have been automatically removed.)

I was in Richmond Thursday night and Friday for the work of the Commission on Ministry of the Diocese of Virginia of which I am a member and have been for three years. What is interesting about it is that I serve in a series of one year appointments appointed by Bishop Lee and am now in my fourth term, fourth year, on the Commission. There are a few of us who serve that way others serve a series of three year terms and then usually go off the Commission. I am not certain whether my lengthening tenure is reward for good work or the desire of the bishop to keep me busy and out of mischief!

We are recommending all three aspirants to the bishop for acceptance as postulants, seminary, and eventual ordination. Two women and a man. The younger woman -- twenty seven years old -- is a brilliant writer and scholar completing her doctorate in church history at Columbia University. The young man, although somewhat older, has been a key member of the Bishops staff for a number of years. His wife is finishing seminary this year and will be ordained in June. The other woman is our own Region 2 Cassandra Burton, who has been the President of the Region 2 Council. I have known these latter two for a number of years and I have been delighted to see them grow in grace and faith as they moved through the process.

Speaking of growing I noticed while I was at Roslyn the Richmond conference center of the Diocese that just outside the window of the room where we were meeting a forsythia bush was almost in full bloom along with jonquils and daffodils sending up shoots. And the maples along the roads on my way back here were beginning to leaf. Spring the season of growing things anew is upon us.

When I arrived at the rectory on Shell Creek I found a thick Home Depot spring garden catalog. It was filled with all sorts of enticing things which, of course, its purpose. There were shrubs and plants in various gallon sized plastic pots, riding and pushing lawnmowers, trimmers, weed killers, hoses and sprinklers, fertilizers of various descriptions, wheel barrows and garden carts, shovels, hoes, rakes, soils and mulches, and so on and so on. It made it all look so easy just have the right things and watch your garden grow. And there is some truth to that.

Our Gospel for today is about growing and bearing fruit. Fruit farming is important in many areas of the world. I grew up on a farm in upper South Carolina where the main income was derived from two things: peach growing and dairying. At the time, South Carolina was the worlds largest producer of peaches. And Lent was a time for heavy praying with regard to the peach crop. However it happened, peach trees would bloom just about Holy Week. And it seemed as though on average every third year, there would be the Easter freeze and the peach crop would be destroyed. I prayed for good weather because if the freeze killed the peaches, on the Monday after Easter I would be on my knees on the cold cold ground setting onions into the ground. Do you know how many onion sets there are in only one acre of ground? I think that must be the reason I took up soldiering.

But most people have heard of Georgia peaches. The story is that the peach was first brought to North America by Spanish explorers. Franciscan friars introduced peaches, native to China, to the Georgia sea islands of St. Simons and Cumberland before 1775. Currently Georgia ranks third among U.S. states in peach production.

Successful peach growing depends on many variables. Full bearing capacity is normally reached at the fifth and sixth years. Trees will continue to produce good crops for another fourteen or fifteen years with proper care. The wise peach grower never had all his orchards set out at the same time because five or six years is a long time without any income from the main crop. I remember that we tended to set out our orchards at two to three year intervals, relying on grain and truck crops in the meantime. And because of the Easter freeze we didn't put all of the land into peach orchards.

In order to flourish, peach trees all fruit trees -- require proper spacing and pruning. Furthermore, once the trees have blossomed and the peaches begin to grow they are extremely sensitive to frost and cold even after the Easter freeze. There's a very narrow weather window between blossom time and the end of killing frosts. (1)

Once the small peaches are set on the branches, they must be thinned out for two reasons. The first is that very mature trees have brittle limbs and heavy peaches will weigh them down and break them off at the trunk. The second is that the fewer peaches remaining are bigger and bring a higher price.

Pruning and thinning are only part of the work. Fruit trees of all types usually need to be fertilized to make for healthy growth. And sprayed to protect against insects, fungus, and mold.

Fig trees actually dont seem to require as much work, at least not in my experience. If you put a fig tree in good ground and give it minimal attention it will flourish. But it can take five to seven years before the fig tree will give fruit.

The owner of the vineyard might have known a good bit about grapes, but he couldnt translate that knowledge to growing fig trees. Either that or he didnt know anything at all about fig trees. Or probably both. In any case he was too precipitous in his judgement to cut it down before there was any real possibility of it bearing fruit. He was in too much of a rush and his ignorance only helped lead him astray.

The gardener knew better and handled the situation very well. He argued for another chance for the fruit tree. A chance for it to grow under the gardeners more solicitous care.

Like many of the parables of Jesus, we dont know whether the owner insisted on having the fig tree cut down and it was. Or whether the gardener had persuaded the owner to give the fig tree a second chance. Parables present us with an enigma because we cannot be certain what Jesus had in mind in parables such as this. Jesus often used parables to confound and confuse his enemies and critics. In the Jewish wisdom tradition parables could be dark and ambiguous sayings, like a riddle. Jewish teahers also used parables as a means of clarifying scriptural difficulties. As analogies in written form parables could lead someone from their understanding of the ordinary and familiar to an understanding of that which was strange and unfamiliar. This is the primary use of parables in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. (2)

But like much in the gospels, parables speak to us on many levels, like a deep whirlpool which has no bottom. We can never get it all, just as God is too infinite, too mysterious for us ever to understand God in this world and perhaps in the next. That is also something we cannot know in this time and place.

The Early Church thought that parables had three levels of meaning: literal, moral, and spiritual. The medieval church added a fourth level, allegory -- which the Reformation sought to eradicate but failed. (3) Even now commentators debate whether the gardener is God, the God of love as revealed by Jesus in the New Testament, always willing -- even anxious -- to extend amazing abounding unmerited grace, mercy, and forgiveness to his people no matter what -- or whether the owner of the vineyard is God, the God of the Old Testament, especially the prophets, endlessly judgemental, severe, strict, and conditional in giving mercy. We hear echoes of this in the current debates in the Episcopal Church.

But the words of Jesus in parables cannot be bound by human categories. Each time they are read they mean something else -- and different things to different people, all at the same time and at different times. Parables are meant to be interpreted, and it should be no surprise that those interpretations should be diverse. (4)

I prefer to know that God is love -- that he is merciful, and that grace abounds. I see this every day. I see it in the growth in grace and wisdom that have passed through the hands of the Commission on Ministry during my three years on it. And I see it right here in the way we work with each other in carrying out the tasks we are given to do.

Saint Paul once wrote to the troublesome and turbulent young church in Corinth in the middle of a quarrel over who was most important in their lives, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." (1 Cor 3:6) In the 21st Century it seems foolish to quarrel over something like that. Of course, the answer is God. But which one do you choose to serve?


1. Adapted from Illustrations for Lent 3C, from Emphasis OnLine, at
2. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, Fortress Press, 1986, pp.160-161.
3. Robert H. Stein, Parables in Metzger and Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Fortrtess Press, 1986, 568-569.
4. J Dominic Crossan, Parable in Freedman, ed. in chief, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume V, p. 152.