The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’
My husband Lee has many abilities- including gardening. In fact, he gardened in Kentucky off and on for 30 years. Now that we are in North Alabama, he is picking up where he left off. He has discovered that there are lovely spots for tomatoes, okra and such in the backyard of the episcopal residence. But since Lee is from Texas, he wants something bigger.
He was elated to find a potential plot nearby — a big one! — where he planted squash, pumpkins, and corn. But there was one major issue with this 2nd garden spot. Kudzu. If you have ever dealt with kudzu, I do not need to tell you about it. If you have not dealt with it, nothing I can say will adequately describe it. Kudzu is funny in a comic strip, and funny along the road; even rather pretty, in fact. But believe me, it is not funny in your garden.
Lee is an excellent gardener, though, who is not easily discouraged. Last year he transformed the kudzu patch into a beautiful garden. Do you know what his secret was? Cultivation.
That is the word on my heart as a United Methodist bishop, and as a born-and-bred, passionate follower of Jesus Christ. Cultivation.
Today’s Scripture passage is a parable about a gardener who fully understands the power of cultivation. As the gardener and the orchard owner are walking through the garden, they happen upon an unproductive fig tree. The orchard owner is ready to give up on the fig tree. In essence he says, “Look here is a tree that is substandard in production. This is the 3rd straight year that it has produced zero- zilch- nothing. I am running an orchard, not a home for fruitless fig trees. This is taking up space and wasting your and my time. It is a goner – cut it down!”
But the gardener has a different perspective. He prefers to cultivate the tree rather than eliminate it. He dares to hope that with time and attention the tree can produce fruit. So he pleads for another year: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down!” (Luke 13:8-9) Cultivation. That is the word.
Do you hear both the call for accountability and grace in this parable? The gardener requests that the tree be given one more year, during which time he will give it special attention and fertilizer. He believes that after this year of intense cultivation, the tree may bear fruit again. But if it does not, the gardener agrees to cut it down.
This parable applies directly to the situation in which we United Methodists in the United States find ourselves. I am an optimistic person who tends to see the best in people and situations. I consider the glass half-full as opposed to half-empty. I think anything is possible, even my sports team winning when the odds are against them. I smile at the word “can” and cringe at the contraction “can’t”.
However I am also a pragmatist, especially when the data verifies my conclusions. Here is the truth as I see it when it comes to mainline denominations in the United States in general – and specifically the United Methodist Church. We United Methodists have not been bearing fruit to our full potential for the past forty plus years. Thankfully our denomination is thriving in parts of the world. And most of our Annual Conferences have some growing churches in them. But overall in the United States, including the Bible Belt, we have diminished in membership, worship attendance and influence in recent decades.
In spite of this, I am not discouraged. In fact, I awaken most days with a fresh commitment to cultivate for renewal. Because I am certain that at our best, we United Methodists still have much to offer the world. We are a people who nurture both a personal relationship with God and a commitment to make the world a better place. We place a high value on Scripture, appreciate and respect tradition, encourage study and reason, and use both our minds and hearts in following Jesus. There are some examples of fruitless United Methodist churches in every region of the country. But there are also numerous instances of churches that are bearing fruit year after year. This shows our potential for even greater influence and impact in the years to come. Such churches remind us that the United Methodist movement has a unique and important place in Christendom.
Because I believe that God is not yet finished with the United Methodist Church, I have started thinking of myself as a gardener. I know some of you are doing the same. That is, we are investing a lot of time and energy in cultivating by “digging around it and giving it a little fertilizer.” Not for the sake of saving a denomination. That vision would be too small and self-serving for the people called United Methodist. But to be a part of God’s renewal work in our world. To cultivate for the purpose of reaching others for Jesus Christ.
Here is the part that has surprised me. Guess where God has led me to start with this cultivation for renewal in our church and world? Not where I would like to begin. I wish it began with those persons who get on my nerves. (Most of us have a few such persons in our lives – just as we are usually that in the lives of one or two others!) But I have come to realize that cultivation for renewal does not start with “them.” It begins with me. Cultivation for renewal starts with you and me.
What a wonder! Not only does God make kudzu patches, fig trees, churches and others productive – God makes you and me new. Maybe it is a wrong attitude that we need to lose, an addictive behavior that is controlling us or some other way in which our life is out of sync with Christ’s way. Though the specific needs vary from individual to individual, the One who renews us is the same Person every time. God is the One who makes fig trees produce fruit, denominations thrive, and you and me new.
We have a significant part to play in the process, though. One of the primary ways in which God cultivates us for renewal is through our practice of the holy habits. As we regularly pray, read Scripture, worship, give, serve, journal, fast and such we are brought face to face with the Gardener of the orchard. God uses the opportunity to cultivate our lives in ways that will make us new.
And here is another miracle in it all. What God does in our lives affects not only us, but others. God’s work in us has a far greater impact than we can begin to imagine. Though renewal starts with one person, it has a ripple effect beyond what we would ever dream possible.
I invite you to join me in considering 2 questions. The first one is a personal cultivation question, which is a starting place for renewal.
1) How is God cultivating you personally for renewal?
The second one is an action cultivation question, which is an outgrowth of renewal.
2) How is God leading you to be a part of cultivating transformation in your church, community and world?
I have heard it said that if revival is going to come in this nation, it will be through the Methodists. We have the disciplines if we will practice them. We have the structure if we will use it. We have the doctrine if we will live it. I will add to this a comment in the spirit of the Luke 13 parable. There is no time to waste. Indeed, the time is now. I am committed to giving intense attention to cultivating for transformation in our beloved United Methodist Church. I know that many other bishops, clergy and laity are committed in a similar way. You and I serving as gardeners in this beautiful Methodist orchard can make a difference.
My husband, Lee, is a gardener through whom God has made productive a Birmingham plot formerly overcome by kudzu. This is miraculous to those of us who have been around kudzu. It is only a glimpse, though, of what God is doing across this world. God does not choose to do it alone, either. God is calling you and me to serve as gardeners, together, in the Methodist movement — cultivating to restore our church so that we will bear more fruit. This venture starts with God’s cultivation work in your life and mine. So be it! Amen.