February 28, 2016
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Figs are one of those exotic fruits that Minnesota folk are not familiar with. When we do encounter figs it is as dried fruit. Reminding us of dates or raisins, like in these gluten free fig newtons which we will enjoy together. Fresh figs are rare. Yummy but rare.
Figs are tender fruit. Soft on the inside. With a thin skin that can be purple, green or brown depending on the variety. They only last about 3 days after picking. And fig trees cannot tolerate temperatures below 10 degrees even with protection. So it is obvious why figs are not common here in Minnesota. They can only be grown in containers that need to be moved inside during the winter. And they do not travel well.
Where fig trees can survive they are fairly easy to grow. Like raspberries, to get new plants you just have to bend a branch down to the ground and keep it buried. A new tree will grow. Once they get growing, fig trees are easy. But that doesn’t mean that getting fruit from the fig tree is easy.
A fig tree doesn’t start producing fruit for at least 2-3 years after it is planted. And then if it is over fertilized or the weather has been stressful for the trees. Even if all things are perfect an immature fig tree produces small harvests for many years.
So this parable is troublesome. The tree is only a few years old, Three years! Yet, the owner wants fruit and the owner wants it NOW.
But the farmer knows the fig tree isn’t ready to produce fruit.
And the farmer knows that cutting down the fig tree NOW would ruin a perfectly good tree that is just on the cusp of bearing fruit.
So the farmer pleads the fig trees case: Lord, he says to the owner, let me give it more fertilizer, let me care for its root system, let me nurture it for one more year. Let me do my job so that the tree will have a chance.
The farmer knows the ways of fig trees. He knows that it needs a little more time. The farmer knows that the land owner is ignorant of the ways of fig trees but doesn’t want to offend the land owner so he diplomatically gives the land owner what the land owner wants, control over the fig tree.
Knowing that the only thing that truly controls the fig tree is time.
People listening to this parable would know the folly of the landowner. They know how long it takes for fig trees to mature. They know that cutting down a 3 year old fig tree would be foolish. They know that sometimes, if someone doesn’t intervene, foolish people will do foolish things and it isn’t the fig tree’s fault. Foolish people will do foolish things and it isn’t the fig tree’s fault.
And the only person who looks foolish in these cases are those who act rashly because of their own need for instant gratification or control.
Like Herod, who had innocent Galileans killed while they were honoring their God. Or the person who built the tower of Siloam whose faulty building techniques condemned innocent bystanders to death.
Rumors were flying around that these people deserved what happened to them, that it was God’s will for them because surely they had sinned, surely they hadn’t produced the right kind of fruit in their lives. Surely they were more sinful than those who had sacrificed without getting murdered by Herod. Surely they were more sinful than those who had walked beside the tower of Siloam not more than an hour before.
It is what we want to do when disaster strikes, we want to blame the victim. Because it can’t be random or without cause. Or it can’t be because the system doesn’t work right. It can’t be because the ruler isn’t just and fair. It can’t be because the builder was a shoddy worker.
It has to be because there was something WRONG with the victim. They deserved to be cut down.
Jesus says, you have to change the way you think. You have to change the way you judge others. Because if you don’t, when you become a victim of a system you will not receive the justice you deserve. You will die just like the Galileans or the innocent bystanders, blamed for something that wasn’t your fault. Your legacy will be tarnished. Your reputation will be ruined.
We are hearing a lot of finger wagging and finger pointing this election season. This group of people are responsible for the economic woes of our country. That group of people are the cause of the breakdown of marriage. Those people deserve to be sent back where they came from. They deserve to be kept out of the job market. Anyone who needs public assistance is just lazy. One of the candidates has publicly ridiculed war heroes, Barbara Bush, those with education; he routinely calls people stupid, loser and dummy. This would be laughable except that he is winning at the polls. Because most of us aren’t part of the groups that are being targeted we sit back and let the finger pointing continue. We allow others to be called less than or not worthy or sinners by their own associations because as long as we aren’t getting singled out what does it matter?
Jesus would say to us: unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. Because eventually it will get around to you.
On Wednesday evening we watched a film called Theologians under Hitler. We were reminded about how the rise of the Third Reich was directly tied into the work of the church on behalf of the hate filled philosophy of Hitler. Church leaders, clergy and theologians blessed Hitler’s scheme to produce a superior race of people by getting rid of those who didn’t fit the profile. White and German came to mean righteous and holy. Anyone else was considered a sinner. And thereby expendable. And the church was complicit, even vocal in support of Hitler’s evil schemes. We saw pictures of the Nazi flag draped on altars, of the cross with the Nazi swastika emblazoned on its center, a clergy shaking hands with Hitler and raising their arms in salute.
It was sobering and frightening.
And the question was asked, “Could it happen again?” Could such a thing happen again?
This is what frightens me the most when I hear the finger pointing and name calling by any public figure who is finding a following. By anyone who is saying: Those people are sinners who deserve what they are getting. Who don’t deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Because it could happen again. Fig trees can always be cut down by foolish land owners. Fig trees can always be destroyed by those who think their needs outweigh the future of others. Fig trees can always be dug up by foolish, foolish people who are afraid that their hunger will not be satisfied.
We need farmers, wise farmers who stop the foolish landowner. Who say with diplomatic but firm words: wait, let me care for the tree. Let me do what needs to be done so that the tree can have a chance to bear fruit. Wait. Give me a chance.
It is hard to be the farmer who will stand up to the land owner. It takes courage and wisdom and love and grace. Because what is the worth on one fig tree. It is important enough to risk your career over? To risk your life for?
Jesus thought so. Jesus died for the one fig tree that doesn’t seem to be doing quite enough, for the one person others wanted to destroy, for the one person who others said wasn’t worth it, for the one person who others said of what they get they deserve. Jesus risked his life, his reputation, his life for each and every person who others would say, the risk for me it isn’t worth it. Jesus risked it all. For all.
There is another parable written by Martin Niemöller a German pastor who admits he was an anti-semantic. Yet, he spent the last seven years of the war in prison because he could no longer be silent. He famously said:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Jesus said: Unless you change you hearts and lives, you will die just as they did...Because in the end there will be no one left to speak for you...
Thank God Jesus died for us so that we can have powerful voices. Let your voice speak words of grace: let the fig tree grow. I will nurture it. I will tend it. I will see that it produces much fruit.