Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, June 30, 2015
Texts: Psalm 106:21-23, Luke 13:6-9
(In our service today, we pay special tribute to all our graduates. We honor their academic achievements and call them to service.)
The story begins, “A man planted a fig tree in his garden.”
Some of you will hear this and immediately imagine putting your kids in the car and going to Sky Nursery or some other local plant dealer or maybe to Home Depot or Lowes or McClendons. There you will wander among the enticing specimens until you find just the right tree. You go through check out, then scratch your head trying to figure out how to get it home. You manage to fit the pot on the floor behind the passenger seat tipped at a forty-five degree angle so the branches are in the face of your kid sitting in the back on the left side of the car. That kid is not happy.
You get home and dig a hole for this tree. The ground is rocky. You have to use a pick or digging bar. After excavating a hole large enough to bury your car, you empty into it the two bags of top soil you bought. You are surprised that the two bags which loomed so large in the trunk of your car appear to be merely teaspoons of dirt in the hole. But it's what you have. You slide the tree out of its pot and carefully set it in place on the little bump of topsoil. You fill the hole with water, then begin shoveling the remaining dirt into the hole.
You baby your tree through the year, watering it in summer, wrapping it with burlap during cold snaps. It survives the first winter and leafs out, but no figs.
Oh well. Next year.
The second summer still no figs.
The third summer. STILL no figs.
You google “barren fig trees.” You learn everything there is to learn about encouraging fig trees to fruit. Years go by. You spend money and time chasing your dream of figs.
If this is what comes to mind when you read the opening line of this story, you'll miss a key element of the story.
“A man planted a fig tree in his garden.”
This man is a landowner, a wealthy farmer. Like a major apple grower in eastern Washington or an almond farmer in central California. He is an executive farmer. When the Gospel says, “He planted a fig tree,” the word plant in that sentence means something similar to the word “play” in the sentence we played in the Superbowl this year. The man planted the tree vicariously. He said to Manuel, “Manuel, I think a fig tree would work great here on the terrace. Can you make sure we get one in the ground this season?”
Manuel dug in the rocky soil. Manuel added soil amendments. Manuel kept it watered through that first summer. The next summer, at some point, when the farmer noticed there were no figs on the tree, he was glad Manuel was taking good care of it so that surely next year there would be figs.
The next summer again, at some point the executive farmer, the land owner, noticed there were no figs on the tree. Oh well.
Of course, all this time, Manuel was managing the irrigation on the farm. He made sure the tree was getting adequate moisture. Manuel did the pruning.
The third summer, the farmer again notices the lack of figs on the tree. “Hey, Manuel. What's up with this tree? We should have figs by now. This tree is taking up space and water that could be put to better use. Cut it down and let's get something here that will produce.”
It was an easy decision for the farmer. He was an executive. He was used to making decisions with an eye to productivity only. The farmer's only interest in the tree was what it could produce. The farmer had no personal investment in the tree.
Manuel, of course, also wanted the tree to produce. But Manuel was attached to the tree. He had spent three years watching it nearly every day. He had directed irrigation water. He had watched for bugs. Manuel was attached to the tree. Manuel wanted fruit, of course. He was, after all, a gardener. He wanted fruit yes. But he specifically wanted to see THIS TREE produce fruit.
Manuel objected to cutting down the tree. “Not yet. Give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I'll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. If we get figs next year, fine. If not, then you can cut it down."
Jesus' story does not tell us if the gardener was successful. He does tell us if the tree started producing. The story leaves us hoping. We don't want the tree cut down. We hope Manuel will be successful. We don't want him to be disappointed. We hope for the tree.
This story offers profound wisdom for graduates.
In our society, graduation marks the acquisition of power. Graduation opens the door for advancement. You graduate from preschool, and this opens the door to kindergarten. You graduate from kindergarten, and the door opens to first grade. We pass through high school and a diploma opens the door to college or a job. A bachelors' degree increases your employability or sets you up for graduate school. A master's or Ph. D. again opens doors. (At least we hope it does.)
With each advance, we acquire greater power to make a difference, to shape what happens in the world. Higher education frequently opens the door to higher status in society, increased opportunity to influence what happens to other people.
As a Church, the question we ask is, “What are you going to do with that power?”
Who is the landowner? Who is the gardener?
In classic Christian interpretation, God is the landowner and Jesus is the gardener. The story is a warning to the Jewish people in the context of Jesus' ministry. Jesus has been preaching for three years and still the nation hasn't repented. They have one more year before their final judgment.
But what does this story say to us? The landowner and the gardener represent two different views of God. The fig tree represents people.
The landowner, the executive farmer, is concerned about production only. The tree produces or does not produce. If it doesn't produce, cut it down. Get rid of it. Applied to people, God is watching. If you don't produce, beware, God will cut you off.
The gardener is concerned with production and with the tree. Applied to people, Jesus aims to see people reach their greatest potential. If they are unproductive, Jesus asks what can be done to help them grow. How can they do better?
Since we are Christians, we understand Jesus to be the supreme revelation of God. The other picture of God, the vision of God as the stern, even ruthless landowner pursuing the sole objective of maximum production is something we pointedly reject. That is not what God is like. That is not a model for moral behavior.
The highest morality is characterized by hope and mercy. Yes, in this story there is an awareness of limits. At some point, even the gardener would agree the tree needs to be cut down. But that is seen as exceptional, unlikely, undesirable.
Graduates, your education has given you power. The power of knowledge and skill, the power of credentials. How will you use that power?
Will you act like the landowner—ruthlessly eliminating everyone who fails to live up to their potential, everyone who is less productive than you imagine you would be if you were in their place? Or will you join Jesus, in cultivating people, in working to help them live better?
Will you work in hope?
This is our highest calling. This is the truest purpose of education.
(We can find support of the idea of two views of God elsewhere in the Bible. Moses at Sinai bluntly countermanded God's verdict of annihilation, Abraham defended the Sodomites, the Woman of Tekoa persuaded David to overturn the law of capital punishment, the Syrophonecian woman blithely dismissed Jesus' statement of the limits on his mission. In each of these cases, the explicit statement of God's will—which was destructive—is reversed or qualified and the reversal or qualification is clearly shown to be the “higher will” of God.)