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Pastor Dan’s Sermon (3/12/17) on Luke 13: 6-9, 31-34

Ladies and gentlemen, I respectfully submit for your consideration Ficus sycomorus, otherwise known as the sycomore fig. It’s one of two species of fig tree referred to in the Bible, and I say that because fig trees come up in holy Scripture a lot more than you might expect. It goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, where Genesis describes them making the first sets of clothes out of fig leaves. Figs and fig trees pop up here and there throughout both testaments of the Bible, and even Jesus seems to have a weird fascination with them. One of my favorite protests signs I’ve ever seen was a rainbow colored piece of posterboard that said in big letters “God Hates Figs,” and underneath it cited all the verses that showed Jesus or another prophet of the Lord cursing or condemning or otherwise whining about the primary ingredient we find in Fig Newtons.

Do you remember that story about Jesus yelling at the money-changers in the temple and flipping their tables over like the Incredible Hulk?

Do you know how that day started for him? He didn’t get breakfast because the fig tree he stopped at didn’t have any fruit. He cursed that tree out like a broken coffee maker and went off to Jerusalem hungry and angry. Jesus was hangry when he entered the temple that day, and on top of that he had to deal with these blasphemous money-changers. I’m not making any of this up. It’s no wonder he snapped; fig trees are the worst.

I do have a couple of fun facts about the fig tree that I think are important to note. It was brought to the area today we call Israel from Egypt, but it could only reproduce when a certain species of wasp pollinated it. No one ever brought the wasps to Israel, so the only way the fig tree could grow ripe fruit was if those caring for it put a great deal of effort into tending it and causing it to fruit by hand.

The other fun fact about these fig trees is that they normally took three years to reach maturity. If they hadn’t fruited by then it was pretty much guaranteed that they never would.

So we come to today’s Scripture from Luke 13, another chapter in Christ’s complicated relationship with a tree. Speaking to a crowd, he told a story of a man who owned a vineyard; there wasn’t a lot of good deep soil to be found in the region, and vineyards were a common place for people to plant a few of the hardy fig-trees. So the owner approached the three-year-old fig tree looking for it to have finally born fruit, and found none. He told the gardener he employed to cut down the disappointing waste of soil.

But the gardener, risking the anger of a man who could have him beaten or killed, told him to give the fig tree another chance. The gardener promised to fertilize the soil around the tree and nurture it for another year, certain that it could still fruit.

Despite all the failings of fig trees evidenced throughout the Bible, Jesus shows us an example of a gardener that sticks his neck out and nurtures the tree, giving it another chance to bear fruit.

Through Christ, we recognize in God the complicated love a parent has for a child… the complicated feelings we have for anyone we love, really.

A parent can be disappointed in the child they gave life and still love them. I’m sure it’s happened to many of you here more times than you can count. A parent can be disappointed when their child does wrong or fails to live up to expectations, but they still yearn to care for them, to shelter them from danger… to forgive them. A good parent then puts effort into nurturing their child’s growth and providing them fertile soil. Love is about second chances.

The second part of our Scripture today shows Jesus planning to enter Jerusalem again. A city home to plenty of people who wanted to kill him, people who had failed to live up to God’s teachings, people who had made mistakes. People who would soon shout “Crucify him.”

“Jerusalem,” he cries, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you are not willing!” But as the Lenten season guides us toward Good Friday, we remember that he went into Jerusalem anyway.

Now, this passage like many in the Bible were traditionally used to demonize and vilify the Jews. Historic religious leaders and churchgoers alike have read moments throughout the New Testament as condemnation of the failures of the Jewish people. Christ-killers, they called them. Disappointments. Abandoned by God and replaced with Christianity. It’s where a lot of modern anti-Semitism started.

But look at the threads running through these passages. Look at the words that are hard for us to see in the thirteenth chapter of Luke, surrounded as they are by paragraph after paragraph of judgement and consequence. In the same chapter that some Biblical editor decided to title “Repent or Perish,” we see Jesus refer to himself as a mother. A hen that yearns to gather her young beneath her wings. Jesus came to Jerusalem not to condemn its citizens’ failures to live up to God’s teaching, or their disregard of God’s son, but to reach his arms around them—over them—to protect and care for them at his own expense. To give them another chance to do better, in love.

I was listening to a beautiful podcast series by an Anglican bishop, who shared a bit of folk wisdom from the farmyard. “Sometimes,” he said, “when there’s a raging fire in a farmyard and all the animals are scattering for cover if they can, the hen will gather her chickens under her wings. And when the fire has finally done its worst… you may find a dead, scorched hen… with live chickens under her wings.” This image of motherly love and protection brings us right back to Jesus and the crucifixion Lent is pulling us toward.

In the parable of the fig tree, the gardener puts everything on the line and puts all his faith into a struggling tree to give it another chance to prove that it was capable of doing good all along.

Lent is a time that we look at ourselves and recognize our sin. A time when we unpack and analyze the ways that we fall short, the ways that we fail, the ways that we do wrong. And it’s so easy to think of God as someone who sees all the s—stuff we that do wrong and judges us for it… a God that looks down at His children with disappointment.

But stories like this show us that while God does see when we get it wrong and doesn’t ignore it… God chooses instead to nurture us. To fertilize us. To shelter us under Her wings. To give us another chance.

But the journey doesn’t end there. Because we’re not just a tree. We are beings made in the image of God, called to follow Christ’s example. As we have been sheltered and nurtured and given another chance, so too are we called to live into that.

The pastor I grew up with always said, “As we have been given much, we too must give.”

We are loved, by a God that reaches out to shelter us, nurture our growth, and provide us with all those chances to do better. So too are we called to reach out with that same love to our fellow human beings.

Now this conversation could get very political in today’s climate. You can certainly go there, and I could certainly go there… but I don’t need to this morning. Because we aren’t nations or world leaders… we’re just people in a church in a town called York. And there are people right outside those walls in this very community who need food, or nurture, or shelter… people who need fertile ground to have another chance at life.

There are chickens in this town and all the towns you live in that have no wings to gather under, that need as much as we need another chance to bear fruit. In the darkness of Lent, as we reflect on all the ways we have fallen short, Jesus’ love has given us another chance to fluorish.

So how do we respond to that? How do we pay it forward? How do we reach out to the community we live in and care for those in need the same way the gardener promised to care for a down-on-its-luck fig tree?

A good place to start is on the front of our bulletins. It should be familiar to most of you by now; we voted on it not too long ago.

Plant that seed in your mind and let it grow. Find people in the pews around you who care about the same things you care about… and find ways to spread your wings. Together.

Because there are a lot of chickens out there that could use another chance, and there are a lot of different ways each of us could help them get it.

Thanks be to God for that. Amen.