Luke 13:1-9 (NRSV)
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
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 around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
So this week, it’s all about fruit. Good fruit and bad fruit and how to tell the difference. In our sermon teaser sent out on social media, I made the point that we always check our fruit at the grocery store, to make sure it’s good fruit. Meaning, it has no bruises, mold on it, and it’s to the desired ripeness, depending what we’re using it for. If it’s good fruit, we buy it. If it’s not, we leave it there for the next person to determine if it’s good or not. After enough time, enough people choosing that the fruit is not to their liking, there will be some fruits determined ‘bad’, and that fruit will be thrown away or donated or will be gotten rid of.
In today’s scripture, Jesus is talking about fruit, not literally, but as a symbol of the fruits of the spirit. We can name them probably, many of us in song. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These fruits are planted in each of us by God, and they are grown throughout our spiritual lives. Just like growing anything, we need to take care of the plant, in order for the fruit to grow.
That growth happens for us, growing our fruits of the spirit, by doing our spiritual practices, certainly. We read the bible, pray, go to church, or whatever other things feed your spirit, connecting you to God. And when we do these things, similarly to watering the trees, fruit will grow, and it will be good fruit, we hope.
So what about the story? What happened there? In our passage, the farmer has this tree, and nothing good has grown on it in three years. Yet, this farmer still refuses to cut it down, so that a new seed can be planted, one that’s healthy and can produce good fruit.
The thing about fruit, about growth, is that even though something grew there once, it doesn’t mean that ‘one time’ is enough to sustain the tree and produce good fruit forever. Growth requires effort and change. Sometimes, in order to grow, we need to let something die, or uproot it to have space for what is next.
The other thing about growth, is that we can water something, and give it the right light as much as we want, but if the foundation is bad, nothing will grow, even with all the persistence in the world. When we plant something, we need to be sure that we lay good groundwork, that our roots are being fed by something healthy, something with substance.
In our lives, we are offered a lot in terms of foundations. The foundations are often the places and the people who feed you spiritually. It could be a church, or a mentor, or a close friend. It could be an organization or a source of media you consume. We are offered a huge amount of foundations, and each have the ability to help with growth or to hinder it.
When we remember that without a good foundation, we can’t grow, and without growing well, we can’t produce good fruit, the question becomes whether or not our foundation is allowing us to produce good fruit.
1 Thessalonians 5:21 tells us to “test everything; hold fast to what is good”. We as followers of Jesus, are given the gift and the permission to verify the fruitfulness of that which we consume. And with that permission, we are also being asked to speak up when our trees are not producing the fruit we hoped they would have.
It is hard for us to admit when our work is ineffective, when we are not producing what we want to produce. It’s hard for us to discover that a tree is not growing like it should. It’s hard for us to look at something and say that it is dying.
Whether that tree is our own personal growth, or the growth of a church, a new ministry, or the growth of an idea, we must monitor it. We must evaluate the health of the tree, even before we can see the fruit on it. We must make difficult choices, if it comes to a point where we see that an old way or idea or ministry needs to die.
The beauty of this, of evaluating, of the reality that some things will need to die, is that we are Easter people. In being Easter people, we believe in the story of Jesus; his life, and his death, certainly. But as Easter people, we also believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
Like the tree that is uprooted so new seeds can grow in its place, we too are reminded that good things can come after death, like resurrection. Jesus teaches us that out of death, we spring forth new life, new life that when it’s grown with God in mind, it bears good fruit. It’s okay to cut down a tree not bearing good fruit. It’s part of death. It leaves room for resurrection to be a part of the story.
It takes work to bear good fruit. That work may lead us to reveal scary parts of ourselves, or may make people angry. It’s scary, but if we bear bad fruit, are we really living out the gospel at all?
Our invitation today, is to take a look at the metaphorical fruit you are consuming. Or maybe notice if you’re consuming any at all. Just like you would at the grocery store, examine the fruit in your life.
Does it have bruises?
Is it moldy?
Is it of your preferred ripeness?
Is the love coming from you love that is lifting people up?
Is the patience you produce sustaining itself in your tough conversations?
How are you exuding gentleness or self-control?
May we seek to do this work today, tomorrow, and on the next day, as we allow those trees to follow their unique life cycles. May we know when it’s time for death, knowing that resurrection comes afterwards. May we uproot messages bringing death, and instead plant new fruit-bearing trees in their places, trees that give life and love to all humanity. Finally, may we remember that we are given permission to determine what is good fruit and what is bad fruit, and that good fruit will always lead us towards God’s love. Amen.
God of life and growth, we give you thanks for being our source of life. You provide us with nourishment, with tools, with a foundation of rich sustenance. Help us to examine our roots, gathering those pieces of ourselves, our ministries, and our church, seeking to find life or create life in all that we are a part of. Help us to provide good fruit to those in our care, as Jesus does for us. In your name we pray, Amen.