The fig tree calls out

Hear today some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. This is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

When 21-year-old Sharif Said was gunned down near the Trainyards in Ottawa four years ago, his uncle spoke to the media on behalf of the family.[1]What surprised me in his testimony was how he defended not only his nephew, around whom rumours swirled that he was involved in a gang.

But then he defended those arrested for his nephew’s murder. He said that they were also victims. Khalid Mohammad and Abdulaziz Abdullah, both in their twenties and arrested for Said’s murder, were victims themselves of a “senseless violence”, the uncle said. As a result they could not value life as “precious”.

A subtle twist in the tone of the message changes the direction of the conversation about these things. Making sense of any criminal act, to begin with, can leave us confused and hopeless. And we desperately seek to be on the right side of ‘right and wrong’. We do that most effectively by assigning blame.

Then, you throw into the mix a statement coming from ‘the victim’ that offers sympathy to the perpetrators, a word that levels the moral playing field, we don’t know what to do with that.

Are we all, each and every one of us, part of a culture that creates these problems? Do we all participate on both sides—all sides—of the moral equation? Isn’t that too confusing and wishy-washy? Forgiveness, and mercy, wreak havoc on any common-sense pursuit for laying blame. An act of kindness and forbearance in the midst of senseless tragedy takes the wind out of retribution.

Admittedly, we may feel more at home with the way the ancient prophets used the image of a barren fig tree.[2]One way we tend to lean is towards despair. The prophet Micah feels lonely and depressed in the face of scarcity and evil:

‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered,      after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’

Or, we lean towards vengeance. You can hear it in Isaiah’s tone when he speaks of his ‘beloved’ vineyard. Despite all his hard work to create conditions for abundant growth it yielded only wild, undesirable, grapes:

‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down …’

Indeed aren’t these the usual go-to’s when bad things happen to good people—we either slip into despair or shake our fists in anger against someone or something we blame?

When an Ethiopian airliner filled with people crashes and all are killed including eighteen Canadians onboard. When Galileans are slaughtered in cold blood by the hand of Pilate and the Tower of Siloam falls and kills innocent pilgrims at the pool of healing.[3]When randomly, bad things happen, and we can’t really make sense of it. Well, we try.

Do you despair? Or do you get angry and try to find who or what to blame? The people in the Gospel text today tried to get Jesus in on their blame-game and despair-mongering ways.

And Jesus comes back to the ancient, scriptural image of the fig tree again. When he first mentions the fig tree, the crowd must have gotten really excited. Because they knew where this story was going, knowing their prophets Micah and Isaiah: Despair. Vengeance. The lead-up sounds good.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from underneath their expectations. The twist Jesus offers to the familiar image of the barren fig tree is his emphasis on forbearance and mercy. Staving off a swift impulse to cut the tree down after three years of neglect and barrenness, the vineyard’s stewards will give the fig tree yet another year’s chance to bear fruit. The fig tree is given yet another second chance. The hope is that the fig tree will be rehabilitated.

It is important to note, moreover, that in the parable it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness. Not the fig tree. It can’t do anything, by itself. It is stuck in a cycle of barrenness (aka poverty, violence). First, the gardener has to plead his case, be the tree’s advocate, to the owner of the field. Then, the gardener has to do the work. By constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure, the gardener employs all the gifts and resources at their disposal to allow for a positive outcome.[4]

The fig tree calls to us. Who or what does the fig tree represent in our lives? Now, parables are not meant to be taken literally, so we can rule out any divine gardening tips here. This parable won’t appear in a google search for ‘how to grow a fig tree’.

Who is the barren fig tree in your life?

When and where do you sense in your life or another’s, a feeling of being at wit’s end? When all resources have been explored and used up. When a group of people or individual cannot to do it on their own any longer. When someone is stuck in cycles of behaviour that they cannot see the way out, by themselves. When a call for help is evident by a lack of fruitfulness in their lives.

You will notice that this parable comes to a rather abrupt end. The narrative is not neatly tied up into a certain, ‘happy’ ending. We just don’t know whether the fig tree will produce after all this advocacy and gardening work is done. You could say, it’s up to us to write the ending to this story. Will it be judgement? Or, salvation?

Every time we worship together, though, we pray not ‘mykingdom come’, not ‘our kingdom come’, but ‘Thy kingdom come’. Jesus tells a parable about a gardener determined to tend a fruitless fig tree because he is open to a future possibility that he does not control.

Our task, as American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry says it best, “is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God. We labor now for a future we are not meant to control.”[5]

When forgiveness and mercy dictate public discourse in the media and in response to horrific, tragic and painful events around the world and in our lives, we may not be able to explain it easily. But maybe that’s not our job.

Maybe our job is to seek understanding in the other, and thereby show our love. Maybe our job in the church and as Christians is to speak and work for God’s values for the sake of others amidst pain and suffering.

And in hope and trust, let God write the end of the story.

 

[1]cbc.ca, posted May 7, 2015

[2]Micah 7:1; Isaiah 5:1-7

[3]Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]Daniel G. Deffenbaugh in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.96.

[5]Michael B. Curry in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.95-97.

One light in the dark world


The bible doesn’t always help alleviate a low grade angst growing at this time of year. Abduction-type images are splashed on the canvas of our imaginations: “one will be taken, one will be left” (Matthew 24:40-41). The notion of the Second Coming of Jesus can often arouse anxious feelings of impending doom and destruction. Certain Christian groups devise popular theologies that articulate with great detail and certainty how it’s all going to come crashing down on us some day.

And what is more, some will say the Bible contains implicit warnings (as in the Gospel for today, Matthew 24:36-44) that we can prevent it all from happening by our good works, by being ready, if only we can break the secret code, figure out the hidden message and solve the riddle — a la Dan Brown.

The way of Christ is never that easy. And the Gospel text will throw a wrench into any neat and tidy philosophy. In this image-rich text Jesus confronts our pretence. “You don’t know and you cannot know.” Neither did Noah when the flood came “unexpectedly.” “But about that day and hour no one knows … and they knew nothing …”

What is this ‘knowing’? If we cannot predict how it’s all going to shake down in the end – whether we are talking about world politics, climate change or our challenging personal relationships – what can we know? 

We do know certain things are best not known: How we are going to die. How the meat we are eating at the dinner table was actually produced. Many probably are better not to watch a YouTube video of the surgery they are preparing to undergo. In some facets of life, it’s simply best not to know.

And life will continue to remind us that it is futile to pretend we can: None of the pundits and polls — even early on election night in the U.S. a few weeks ago — could predict the actual result of the presidential race. 

And, in my generation it must have been the falling of the Berlin Wall which had divided Germany for over thirty years. Who could have predicted it, given the enduring and seemingly entrenched geo-political tensions of the Cold War, let alone begin in evening candlelight vigils held in German churches? A small, warm light started to melt the cold, dark and divided world.

The season of Advent fits like a glove; it gives warmth in the cold atmosphere of our lives. “Keep awake for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … be ready, keep awake.” So we hear instruction from Jesus. Being ready and keeping awake are fundamentally about being aware. Awareness in the present moment.

What DO we know? Saint Paul, in an accompanying text for today writes: “you know now is the moment for you to wake from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now that when we became believers … Put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13:11-14)

Putting on the armour of light is not a call to violent, combative behaviour, action which narrows the vision and snuffs out awareness. Putting on the armour of light does not constrict the soul into locked patterns of thought, but expands the scope to embrace the truth and vision of God right now.

You may have heard of the story: All along the Western Front in 1914, a few short months into a war that would eventually claim 17 million lives, a kind of miracle happened on Christmas Day – a rare moment of peace:

Trooper Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, recalls that special night: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on ‘no man’s land’.

It is estimated that over 100,000 troops from both sides honoured the Christmas Truce of 1914 that lasted some days.

Hearing the text today from the prophet Isaiah, you may have noticed some very familiar words and phrases. Because a few weeks ago, on All Saint’s Sunday, the words of Micah we heard: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (4:3). Sound familiar?

Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah share precisely the same words. And, in Psalm 46 — the great “Lutheran” Psalm we heard on Reformation Sunday last month, and also on Christ the King Sunday last week — the Psalmist echoes the sentiments of the major and minor prophets: “God makes wars cease to the end of the earth, he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (v.9).

A major message throughout the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament envision wars to cease and violent divisions among people to end. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus preaches. (Mathew 5:9; Luke 6:27-31)

Knowing is not knowledge of facts and manipulation of data to suit one’s ideology. Knowing is not formulating intellectual and persuasive strategies that demonstrate airtight logic and rational impunity. Knowing is not about getting more information. This kind of knowing keeps one distracted, in the past or fretting about the future.

Knowing is more about living relationships of love, grace and peace in the present moment; this is the biblical understanding of ‘knowing’ – more a function of the heart than of thought.

Advent heralds the start of a new church year. This season calls us to watch, to wait and wake up to the reality of Christ in our lives, and Christ coming again. Like All Saints’ Sunday, in Advent the future and the past converge on the present moment. Now.

We can enter this season full of hope. Today, contrary to what the headlines imply, the earth is less violent than it was in the past. We are not living in dangerous times any more than what always has been. In fact, according to statistical trending over the past few decades, the world over is safer and more peaceful. (see Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack’s article “The World Is Not Falling Apart” (Slate: 2014), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12 )

“Now”, Paul writes, “we are closer to salvation than before.” And, now, we are called to love others, to strive for peace and an end to all divisions — in the world, and in our lives. Even when it might appear hopeless. We are called, like the Germans and English during the Christmas Truce of 1914, to cross the dividing lines of our lives and sing together of a holy night, a silent night, a night still and always shall be bathed in the light of Christ.

Pray for peace. Commit to one small, act of kindness and generosity, especially to one with whom, for whatever reason, you have been estranged. Without any strings attached, no expectations of any kind about how the other ‘should’ respond, commit to an act of unconditional love. Because God is bringing all of history into the vision of peace and harmony reflected in the prophets’ writings. This is our hope. This is the present reality.