“Stories of Growth”

In the course of teaching confirmation class, I always ask the students discuss the question of vocation. I use an exercise that begins by asking participants to describe three “dream careers”. These occupations don’t have to be economically feasible. They don’t have to be jobs that anyone actually does – that’s part of the point – the dreaming. From there, we look for themes and threads that might begin to depict a sense of call. In one particular session, I tossed out to the class that one of my dream careers is to be an organic farmer. WHAT? One young woman cried. Don’t you want to be a pastor anymore? She asked, with a shocked, puzzled expression. Well, yes, absolutely… but…

As they say on Facebook, vocation, or calling is complicated. For me, it is always evolving. In my own life, I have a sense of reaching for something that isn’t entirely clear. It’s about what I do, but even more about who I am. I find bits and pieces of calling everywhere, in all parts of my life. Not only my paid work but also in the other tasks of my days. I know that my vocation involves food – food that is sustainable, holy, beautifully nourishing – food for the body and the sprit, food for my family and friends, as well as strangers and travelers. I feel called to a posture of hospitality — setting tables for a feast, joining others at tables they have spread. I am drawn to the mystery of growth: preparing ground, planting seeds, turning toward the sun and waiting for the rain. All that is the way I’d describe my vocation– whether my job is farmer or pastor or some other thing entirely.

So (heh, heh), I feel vindicated by today’s parable of the fig tree, and the many in which Jesus the preacher employs the imagery of his agrarian world. Jesus urges us to ask ourselves, “Are we like the fig tree?” Let’s start from the beginning of the passage. Jesus has just finished telling a series of stories about the urgency of the times. He scolds his listeners, just a couple of verses before our text begins: “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” And those in the crowd reply, OK, Jesus, if you know so much about current events, tell us about those Galileans Pilate murdered while they were at worship. Were they sinners, more than the rest of us? The crowd must have wanted to know. Was their terrible end a punishment from God? Jesus replies: No. God doesn’t use suffering to address sin – neither in the case of a moral evil, such as murder, nor, natural evil like the collapse of the tower of Siloam.

In her commentary for the Christian Century, Yvette Schock writes this: “Jesus…shows little patience for gossipy, pious speculation on the suffering of others. Instead, he shifts the conversation sharply from third-person theology to the spiritual state of his listeners. I imagine the crowd growing quiet and fidgeting uncomfortably as Jesus looks from face to face. Enough about them. What about you? Brian Stoffregen points out that Luke’s “you” is plural: “unless [you all] repent, you will all perish.”  And the parable that follows is about a fig tree, often used in scripture to represent Israel. So Jesus pivots from conversation about “them” to conversation about “us.”” (http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2013-02/grace-or-judgment)

Since I know very little about fig trees, I did a quick internet search. They are the easiest fruit trees to grow, said Organic Gardening magazine. Ditto, from the Home and Garden section of the Seattle Times and Gardening Know How.com. Wickepedia remarks that fig trees may have been among the first plants cultivated by humans, and that they are forgiving of poor conditions. According to a New York times article, fig trees are prevelant in Brooklyn. If they die in winter due to the cold, they are often able to resurrect themselves from their roots. (August 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/29/dining/in-brooklyn-an-abundance-of-fig-trees.html?pagewanted=all)

With his fig tree parable, Jesus emphasizes the urgency of the moment and the need to bear fruit. He also provides an image of hope and grace. The gardener surely knew that the fig tree was easy to grow, tolerant of depleted soil, and prone to resurrection. He had confidence that with just a little bit of support, the tree could become fruitful. The harsh demand of the absentee landlord, “cut it down!” reveals, by contrast, the wise, compassionate and patient heart of the gardener.

Aldo Leopold, the ecologist and writer, reminds me of this gardener. In 1935, Leopold and his family bought an abandoned, washed-out sand farm on the Wisconsin River. A Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays about this farm. Leopold writes about Silphium, a perennial flower indigenous to the prairie, a flower which had become nearly extinct in his day.

“Silphum first became a personality to me when I tried to dig one up to move to my farm [from a nearby cemetery]. It was like digging an oak sapling. After half an hour of hot grimy labor the root was still enlarging, like a great vertical sweet-potato. As far as I know, that Silphium root went clear through to bedrock. I got no Silphium, but I learned by what elaborate underground stratagems it contrives to weather the prairie droughts. I next planted Silphium seeds, which are large, meaty, and taste like sunflower seeds. They came up promptly, but after five years of waiting the seedlings are still juvenile, and have not yet borne a flower-stalk. Perhaps it takes a decade for a Silphium to reach flower age; how old, then, was my pet plant in the cemetery? It may have been older than the oldest tombstone, which is dated 1850. Perhaps it watched the fugitive Black Hawk retreat from the Madison lakes to the Wisconsin River; it stood on the route of that famous march.”

Are we like the fig tree, like the Silphium? Barren in some way, yet full of potential. Threatened, but still stubbornly taking hold, thriving, flowering into fullness? How would you articulate your sense of vocation, or calling? What promise do you think the gardener– approaching with intimate knowledge, delicate skill, and loving intention—sees in you? Take a moment or two to think about it. Growing is humble work. It requires that we apply the manure of repentance – that we take on the down to earth posture of turning toward God again and opening ourselves to the Spirit of renewal.

What about our life together as First Church? Are we like the fig tree? In what ways does God desire for barren branches to be fruitful? How is our gardener coaxing us to grow, to thrive? You’ll see Tim Danz’s article in the March Chimes, which asks us to examine how and why we welcome new folks to First Church. In our ministry with children, youth and families, we are taking a hard look at old models, and seeking to let something new come to birth. We continue to serve our neighbors at Lexington Commons and through Community Emergency Service, and to wonder how can we deepen our relationships and open ourselves to transformation. We are working on a long term plan for maintenance of our building, considering questions of sustainability in terms of finances as well as carbon foot print. And, in April, we will take on an extended time of reflection and action about care for the earth and climate change.

I caught a recording of a brief interview with the pianist Van Cliburn, who died this week. He said this: “We live in an imperfect world and we know not tomorrow. We must seize certain opportunities.” (Minnesota Public Radio) The Lenten season is about seizing the opportunity for life abundant, life made rich and beautiful and real in God, life shaped by a sense of purpose, calling, vocation. For a person who has settled into certain routines, or for an institution that has endured through generations, is structured for stability, and is housed in an 125 year old building, it can be unsettling to grow. Aaerating roots, applying compost, examining fruitless branches can feel disruptive, scary, overwhelming. Jesus’ little sermon reminds us that tending to the process of repentance, of change, in ourselves and our common life is an urgent matter.

The time is now to be the church for and with our generations who are in their most tender growing years. In 1970, Church School enrollment across the United Church of Christ was 1.3 million children and teens. Today, it is only 200,000. (source: Wade Zick, Associate Conference Minister, MN Conference UCC) The time is now. The need is urgent. Much is at stake. Opting for barrenness, because it is familiar and in some ways comfortable, is not a healthy choice, for an individual or community.

Now is the time to respond to our gardener God, who is patiently at work, nourishing us toward health, tending us to bear fruit, loving us into our full sense of potential. Amen.