The Gospel rightly announces that what we hear this morning is a Parable. Parables can be original or retreads, echo old stories or be brand spanking new. Their purpose is mostly to illustrate by parallel association something the speaker wants to covey that might not otherwise stick in our minds. So using a parable is meant to jar the listener into a different way of thinking or believing.
What was the purpose of the parable of the fruitless fig tree as used here by Jesus? When we look at the wider context of this passage, it is part of a series of sayings that begins at Luke 12:1. At the beginning of this series of sayings, Jesus says, "Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known." ( Lk 12:2)
Jesus then calls his followers to fearlessly confess him as Lord, admonishes them to seek first the Kingdom of God, and to be watchful and ready. Just before the passage we read today Jesus says, "I come not to bring peace, but division," (Lk 12:51) and then admonishes his followers to interpret the present time and judge for themselves.
THEN, in the passage we read today, he calls for repentance, and tells the parable.
So the Gospel we read today is part of a series of preparation sayings: All will be known, acknowledge the Lord, seek the kingdom, be watchful and ready, prepare for conflict, know when to act, and now change your barren ways and bear the fruits of all this.
Jesus is using this story to jolt his followers into understanding that the community to which he is pointing - variously understood as Israel, his followers, and even the church now, are charged to some form of action, "bearing fruit".
What good does it do to keep tending the fig tree that will not produce? Or the community that will not? And the notion of "bearing" is filled with the images of fecundity, of birthing, ripening, coming to fruition. It is action that is creative and organic.
The story has an odd quirk in the middle. One might think that the owner's comment to the vinedresser "… three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down…" would have been enough to get the point across. No product, no support. If Israel does not produce, cut it down. If the Church doesn't produce, cut it down. If the state doesn't produce, cut it down. If you or I do not produce, cut us down.
All of this is quite violent. It is not peace, but division, not peace but a sword, or perhaps an ax. But it is clear.
But Jesus inserts a response by the vinedresser. It is this insert that is odd. The vinedresser says, "Let it alone this year also…til I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down."
Here we seem to have a reprieve from the violence and a call for patience, but only for a short time. Judgment is close at hand. A year is very little time.
The vinedresser's response is preemptive. It is an attempt to deflect the violence for a short time.
Christ Church is engaged in a program called "a year of Peace", and in it you are exploring the idea of preemptive peacemaking. Perhaps the vinedresser is hoping for a moment of preemptive peacemaking. The violence is put off for a time so that there might be the possibility of change, of repentence.
So the question is, how does this parable apply here and now, in the church, in the world, in our hearts? Again, if the judgment against the church is already in, and here is no reprise, no preemption, then there is nothing to talk about.
If there is a preemptive moment for renewed productivity or fruitfulness, how does that express itself? And how does this moment reflect back again on Jesus's words that "nothing is hidden that will not be revealed," the words with which he began this teaching?
There is, as you no doubt know, a series of contentions in the Episcopal Church these days, contentions that may lead to the partial breakup of the Anglican Communion and the internal fracturing of the Episcopal Church. Some of that is an unfolding already under way.
Watching the Church wade through the issues in contention in all this is not a pretty sight. It is like watching sausage being made: great violence is done to the body and things and people are ground down to become filler for the links.
There is a great deal of violent language about. The Episcopal Church has been compared to a cancerous growth that needs to be cut out of the body. Some speak of the Episcopal Church breaking communion, tearing the fabric, or rending the net that holds us together.
And of late judgments are coming in fast and furious. We are told that if the Episcopal Church can't produce sufficient signs of repentance, and the fruits of renewed and repentant life, we will be cut out of the Anglican Communion, or, as has already happened, cut off from communion with other Provinces of the Communion. As with the fig tree, the ax is at hand ready to cut us down. All of this is violent, certainly not peaceful, and certainly distressing.
The most recent meeting of the Primates (the chief bishops of each province) has granted a stay of execution for a brief time, time they suggest, in which the Episcopal Church has opportunity to show it can produce a repentant life. We have a few brief months.
Is this to be understood as a parallel to the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree? I think not.
The Episcopal Church is required by the Primates to show "fruits of repentance." The Primates require that the bishops of the Episcopal Church "make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention" and "confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent."
There are all sorts of problems with these requests, not the least of which is that they are ultimatums, not requests. They are also not achievable without seriously undermining the polity of this church already bent by the Port Lucy Statement on limitations on the application of the canons regarding the ordination of women. The possible unilateral action of the bishops of jurisdiction holds before us the possible end run around the need for joint consents by Standing Committees and Bishops.
But at the moment I want to ask this: why haven't our companions in the Anglican Communion seen the fruit we have produced on this tree called the Episcopal Church? This tree is not barren. It is not the fig tree of the parable. We have indeed produced much.
The Episcopal Church has determined that women may hold seat and voice in all levels of the governance of the church, may hold any office of this church and may be ordained to all orders. This is the result of considerable repentance on the part of the Church. The Episcopal Church is still learning the fruits of repentance as concerns our long history of racism and willingness to various cultural chauvinisms. But we are working at it. We are growing, ripening, and are increasingly fruitful. We are just beginning to repent of our rejection of Gay and Lesbian members of our church, in which it was first argued that unless sexually abstinent they might be denied baptism, and later that they ought to be denied access to ordination and blessing of committed relationships. We are beginning to acknowledge that Gay and Lesbian fellow believers have been profoundly productive in our common life, they have brought gifts of great value to our life in community, and they have shown a faithfulness that is all the more remarkable for its presence in the face of adversity and prejudice.
It is not our lack of productivity that bothers some in this church and some in the Communion. It is that we are indeed productive, and they don't like the product.
This changes the application of the parable a bit, doesn't it?
We need to be clear: the critics of the actions of the Episcopal Church do not criticize us for being barren, but for producing that which they believe is evil rather than good.
The Episcopal Church, slow as it is sometimes, has mostly come to the conclusion that denying blessings to Gay and Lesbian persons is wrong, and denying them the possibility of being in leadership positions is wrong. We have already repented and are bearing new fruit.
If we believe that everything that is hidden will be made known, perhaps this extends even to the moment we find ourselves in. Perhaps the temporary stay of execution (until September 30) gives time, not for the bishops to swear off blessing and ordaining gay folk, but for them, and us, to show the good that these sacramental actions have produced.
Now is the time for us to show forth the fruits of good works, not to brag, but to assure the owner of the tree, who is not the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Primates, but the Lord Jesus Christ, that we are productive of life worthy of the Kingdom of God.
Then, if the Primates cut us down, we can be assured that God, who grants the true moment of preemptive peace, will judge us by our actions, and all will be known, nothing hidden.
Then we need not worry about being part of the Anglican Communion, for we will be kept close to the heart of God and not destroyed.
Perhaps what this old tree, the Episcopal Church, needs is some nutrients, some manure, to give us energy we bring our good works out from the hidden shadows, so that we might make known what was hidden.
Perhaps a moment of preemptive peace is possible, in which we might bring out what was hidden, and shout to the roof tops that which we said in secret.
There are those who cry, peace at any price. But of course this is not the way of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Peace for Jesus Christ requires brokenness on the cross, and perhaps peace requires the brokenness of the Anglican Communion (a much less central issue).
And preemptive peace will perhaps require the willingness to die in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.