“Repent and Fertilize”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 13, 2016
University Baptist Church
I’ve been dealing with a pesky apple tree in the back yard. It’s pathetic, really. It always blossoms, but rarely produces decent fruit. I mean sometimes it does, but it’s not reliable. Maybe we’re just spoiled by those nice ripe round apples that you get at the store or the orchard. At least we can boast that we don’t use pesticides. In fact, we don’t do much at all. We’ll water it when we remember, put mulch around its base, cut off the dead branches. We didn’t plant it, but we’ve been tending it for the past 15 years. Maybe it’s an homage to the apple trees that our extended family cherished at the family farm in Cleveland. But like those old trees, this one has seen its better years. I’m sure when it was planted, it was not so dwarfed by the sugar maple 20 feet away. I’m sure that the planters didn’t count on the power line company coming by to chop off its higher branches to clear the way for the power lines 20 feet above the ground. But every spring it blossoms those white and pink fragrant flowers. Every fall, it produces apples that mostly get gobbled up by the squirrels and deer. We tend this pathetic tree, our little piece of feeding the wildlife. We really mean to pick the apples, but seldom really get around to it.
Trees. We vilify some, and give thanks for others like the ones that give us blessed shade on a hot summer day. The ones that flower in the spring and explode with color in the fall, the maples that give us their sweet nectar, the pines that give us privacy year-round, the boughs on which birds live and acrobatic squirrels dance and tease our dog 30 feet below.
There are trees that I have cursed, like the maple seedlings that sprout in our garden after thousands of helicopters have landed there. No matter how often we pull them, they still return. When I turn my garden in the spring, there are always roots from an adventurous and opportunistic tree. Even though none are nearby their roots are there, which make me wonder what else is lurking below our consciousness.
And so we enter today’s scripture reading. We learn of a pathetic fig tree that hasn’t born any fruit in three years. The farmer is ready to cut it down. It’s just taking up space. It’s blocking the nutrition of the sun and soil from the other trees. Get rid of the offending tree. But Jesus says, wait, let’s fertilize it. Let’s give it one more chance. Who knows? It may yet bear fruit.
Gayla Marty wrote about fig trees in her book, a memory of Trees. Here’s an excerpt:
The first tree named in the Bible is the fig, whose leaves formed the first human clothing. In the Hebrew scriptures, the fig tree is mentioned many times as shelter and a source of sustenance. In the Christian gospels and Revelation of John, it’s a metaphor for signs of apocalypse.
I came to know real fig trees when I lived in Tunisia, ancient Carthage. With olive trees and pomegranate, they dotted the countryside and filled market bins with dark fruit, among the best figs anywhere. The common fig thrives in rocky places, but the hundreds of ficus species in the world range from the edible fig to huge old groves of rubber trees, like the double row down the central boulevard of Tunisia’s capital. I admire their dark glossy leaves, smooth gray skin, and deep shade under spreading branches.
Across the street from the apartment where I lived in Tunis in 1979 and 1980, a new mosque was under slow construction – so slow that its progress was hard to discern over the course of the year. A huge hole had been dug carefully around an old ficus tree. When I returned fourteen years later, that same old tree shaded a beautiful courtyard and made the new mosque look as though it had been there for centuries. It was a tender sign of veneration of the old and beautiful, I thought, and a subtle rebuke to ancient Rome.
In the days of the Roman republic, more than a century before Jesus and seven centuries before the Arabs brought Islam to North Africa, Carthage was at the peak of its power across the Mediterranean. The Roman senator Cato saw Carthage as a threat and a barrier to Rome’s future glory, and he relentlessly sought support for a war to vanquish the city and possess its land. He ended every speech, no matter what the subject, by declaring “Carthago dalenda est!” – Carthage must be destroyed!
To prove what power and riches Carthage had and how close they lay, Cato brought to the Senate an armful of North African figs, still fresh after a three-day voyage. At the end of his speech that day, he shook the giant figs out of the folds of his toga onto the floor to gasps of disbelief and roared, “Carthago dalenda est!” With this, Cato secured the vote to wage the third Punic War.
From Memory of Trees by Gayla Marty, University of Minnesota Press 2010, pp. 178, 179
Figs are no ordinary trees. They are symbolic.
So what does this have to do with us? Just a few things: Trees take time and energy. Forgiveness takes time, so does repentance.
Give it time. Time can heal wounds and it can also wound heals. Time without truth-telling just lets things seethe and ferment a bit longer. Jesus says that we are to let the fig tree have its time to heal, but let’s help the healing along with some fertilizer, some TLC, some water. Some compost. Imagine what rotten things we have held onto for years. Is it taking up the best space in your life, in your brain, in your soul? What toxic sludge might need to be turned to compost? Transforming yuckiness to hopefulness.
Jesus told this parable about the farmer and the fig tree right after he was confronted with a laundry list of how bad the Romans were. They mingled the blood of the Galileans with the sacrificial blood, meaning they killed Galileans—Jesus’ hometown friends. They also participated in the deaths of 18 people on the tower of Siloam. They ought to be punished. If you were a real messiah, they implied, you ought to run a war against the Romans. The people were seething with rage, much of it justified. But did they have the power to go up against the Roman army and live? Did they have the clarity to see a better way? Was their justifiable anger going to get them anywhere? Not if it’s not tended to well.
Take that anger and strategically redirect it, implies Jesus. Take that anger and make it into something that will bear fruit.
Hold people accountable, but don’t expect a quick reversal. Hope for one, but don’t write someone off because they didn’t get it all right all the time.
We are all works in progress. Withering figs that receive the curses of farmers and horticulturists. We need help to make it through the seasons of wayward ways.
I think about this as we look at our leaders who are in the stump and in the debates. We are quick to call people to task on what they have done 30 years ago. Have they repented? Have they changed their tunes based on new information? Or are they still doing the thing that they did those many years ago? Judging people by who they are now is better than judging someone based upon what they did in the past. That’s the real radical work of Christianity. Go forth in faith and leave judgment to God. Actually leaving judgment to God is a big part of faith.
Parables teach us deeper truths. Maybe Jesus was not talking about trees at all. Maybe he had seen demagoguery and he was fighting back. Imagine replacing “fig tree” with “Muslims” or “Mexicans” or “Protestors” or even “ISIS”—any vilified group. Would Jesus have them all deported? Blocked from entry? Carpet bombed? Taken out with drones? All are the same thing as cutting down the fig tree. Or would Jesus have us try something better, longer lasting?
I think that Jesus would have us look at the toxic soil in which a tree grows. If this soil is stained by racism, by violence, by greed, be fear—then it cannot bear fruit. You can look at the neighboring field juiced up with pesticides and genetically modified crops. Its farmer shouts, “let’s make your field great again…and anyone who doesn’t believe like me is stupid.” But it is sustainable? What happens when it withers, like it always does? When the ground is stripped of its nutrients? Who will be left to pick up the pieces?
The answer is the fruit-bearing trees that take years to grow. Tend them well. Treat them with compost and rich loam and water—fresh, non-toxic water. That’s what they need to bear fruit.
Jesus told us to be good soil in the parable of the sower. Good soil that is rich and has natural balance. Good soil that naturally keeps out toxins and allows a diverse ecosystem to exist. Good soil that values diversity and is not threatened by it. Good soil where love is the driving force, not fear.
Our leaders in fits of rage with big crowds behind them are saying cut down the tree that has born no fruit. It it taking up space in our garden. There is something that is more deserving of our attention if we are to make the garden great again. And the rage against the poor tree almost topples it. But Jesus stands in the way and says, wait a minute. You’re right it’s not bearing fruit, but have we given it the right tools to hear fruit? Have we given it attention? Have we given it a fair hearing? Have we nurtured it with the best of our cooperation? For we are all in this together. Who doesn’t like a good fig? We can’t be blinded by our rage. We can’t just cut down what takes years to take root. We need to work it and tend it and nurture it, like a good fruit farmer. A fruit farmer is different from a crop farmer. If you don’t like your crop, you can plow it under and plant something else next year. But if you have an orchard, it takes years for you to see the fruits of your labors.
We have an apple tree that is planted on University Avenue. It is a hybrid with three different kinds of apples. It’s not in the greatest place and it hasn’t born any fruit yet, but I’m committed to watering it and seeing if we can make it grow and bear fruit. Will this be the year it blossoms? Wait and see.
As we ready our gardens for the spring season, what do we need to prune back? What do we need to give some fresh TLC? More to the point, of what do we need to repent? What mistakes do we wish we could take back? How might we have wronged someone? How might we have not embraced our best self—betraying ourselves? How might we want to change our ways and get better?
Remember that God is forgiving and patient. God wants us to get better. God wants us to repent. God is the gardener who tends the tree and gives us one more year, one more chance to get it right.
What trees do we tend? Is the soil ready and will it sustain the tree? How might we best approach our lives so that we can bear fruit in the seasons to come? What do we leave for our next generation? What is our legacy?
Wendell Berry wrote:
“Say that our main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest. Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.”
How do we live with patience and purpose at the same time? What we plant now may not make a difference to us, but it will to our descendants.
So, plant hope. Clear the soil through penance. Water the tree with prayer and purpose. Keep the tree from being choked out with the seeds of discord like self-righteous anger.
May they bear fruit because we have patiently tended the gardens and planted the trees with deep roots of faithfulness, we have nurtured their branches with prayer and we patiently await the day when we sit down and feast together on the banquet of their fruit.
One of the things I love to do is to give away the fruits of my labors. Many of you have been over to our house when we have made maple syrup and have gone home with a fresh jar. Invariably, I take a case or two of syrup to the summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, affectionately known as peace camp. And I pass out jars of syrup to those who mean so much to me. I like seeing their faces light up.
One couple gives me fruits from their own harvest in exchange. At one time we had a real falling out, over a conflict at my last church. Since it involved a mutual friend, the other friend felt she needed to take sides. And we did not speak for several awkward encounters. That’s years of peace camps. It hurt deeply. Eventually, she broke the ice a few years later and said, “I think you were both doing the very best that you could do.” And as a peace offering, she gave me figs. Ever since then figs symbolized time, healing, repentance and forgiveness. We could have written each other off and harbored all sorts of anger and shame. But we chose instead to try to build a bridge instead of a wall. Now, we are close friends and we enjoy our blessed reunions.
My friends, use your best energy wisely. Don’t rush to curse and condemn. Piles of sludge make really good fertilizer. Tend the gardens of our relationships well and help them to bear fruit. If you can do that, then you are better able to deal with the weightier elements of the world. Repent and fertilize, that’s the Jesus way.