My paternal Grandmother had what many would call a green thumb. Through out her home she maintained a myriad of exotic indoor plants. Most of these plants started out as gifts from friends, often times in pots containing shoots from larger plants. In her dining room she installed a garden window where she kept her most prized plants. There was the gardenia that would be steamed on a regular basis as my grandfather showered, and then would bloom and fill the house with the sweet overwhelming perfume that only gardenias can generate. It seemed there were always a dozen or so African violates on shelves and stands on the widow sill, with at least one or two always in bloom. And then there was the Christmas Cactus. It literally held court in the corner of the dining room. This was perhaps my grandmother’s favorite plant. It was a gift from her good friend Gootie who gave it to her just before she died. Its pot was massive as its multiple branches hung deeply below the stand. At Christmas and Easter my grandmother would hang chocolate ornaments from its branches. And then usually by the end of January, it would become ablaze with pinkish red flowers.
Just after Maureen and I were married, my grandmother presented us with a small pot of shoots from her cactus. For the past twenty-seven years, that plant has journeyed with us from place to place. Often times it has suffered damage in the course of a move, or from being knocked over by one of the dogs or the kids. Despite these setbacks, the plant continues to grow and flourish in the family room of the rectory. Except for one simple issue, it has not blossomed in over five years. I have tried everything. Cathy Martin suggested not watering it during the month of October and then placing it in a dark room during November. The result. . . wilted branches, but no flowers. My neighbor took the plant in for a summer, transplanted it, fed it and in general gave it a lot of TLC, but still no flowers. For the last year or so, I have contemplated propagating new shoots and getting rid of the larger plant, but something inside me just will not part with this connection with my grandmother and my childhood.
In this morning’s gospel we heard the parable of the fruitless fig tree. Like me and the Christmas cactus, the owner of the vineyard had to make a decision, should he chop down the fruitless tree or should he allow it to take up space in the field. The question being asked was reasonable. After all, the purpose of any plant in the field is to provide fruits to be sold at the market and provide income for the owner and those who worked the field. A fruitless plant was of no use to the owner and took up valuable space and resources that could be better used on another plant.
As we read this parable, we could easily assume that Jesus is again making veiled criticism of the Pharisee’s and the Sadducees, but this interpretation does not make sense of the context. As we review the context, we realize this parable is addressed to Jesus’ followers and is told after they have asked Jesus about those who have suffered execution and then their blood was defiled by being mixed with the blood of animal sacrifices. The question the followers were asking had to do with sin and punishment as they wondered if those who had been killed and defiled were somehow less righteous than others. To this Jesus tells them, the issue of righteousness is not measured by the boundaries of sin and punishment but by how fruitful we are in bringing about the Reign of God.
This is not the only time Jesus addresses this issue, in Mathew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that unless we have taken the time to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visited the imprisoned and comforted those who are sick, we will not be known by him in heaven. And to the wealthy young man who has done everything right, he is advised to sell everything. In essence, he is advised to give his wealth to the poor as a gesture towards justice.
Today, we need to answer the same question as those who were contemporary followers of Jesus by asking, if we are fruitful members of the divine vineyard. As we contemplate this question, I believe it is best asked in terms of how we understand what the Church is in the context of the modern world.
Over the past few years, at least at the diocesan level, we have been grappling with the role of the Church in the post-modern world. The issue we keep knocking our heads against is how we understand what the Church is. For many, the Church is understood as a combination of buildings and institutional structure. And when combined with our over identification as consumers, the Church is someplace we go to worship, learn about God and to leave somehow feeling better about ourselves. When we approach our relationship with the church from this perspective, often times our relationship with Christ is simply for personal salvation and nothing more. In many ways we become like the tree in the middle of the vineyard, sucking up nutrients and enjoying the attention of the grower as he aerates, feeds, and waters the soil around us, but we feel no need to bear fruit.
The second model from which many understand their relationship with the Church is that of,” I am the Church.” This is often referred to as a mission oriented understanding and can often lead to wonderful heartfelt acts of social justice. But when this understanding is taken to an extreme, we loose sense of our need to be grounded in community, and in many ways bear the fruit the vineyard owner seeks from us. But, when we fail to pay attention to the needs of our roots, in time, our roots die off and ultimately our entire being with it. In this model we truly see ourselves as cooperating with Christ in transforming the world into the Reign of God, but in our haste, our work becomes more about what we want for the Reign and not necessarily what God is asking from us.
Somehow, in order for us to grow spiritually strong and to bear healthy fruit long term, we need to find a balance between both models. We need to approach the church both as consumer and as missioner. We need to expect to be provided the support and spiritual nutrition through worship, fellowship and the study of Scripture so as to be assured of our own salvation. And, we need to allow the Church to transform our hearts and minds so we can go forth and bear the fruits of divine transformation in the world.
When we find the balance between consumer and missioner, our questions of faith shift from, “am I saved or not, or from, who is or is not saved,” to, ” how can I collaborate with God to advance the Reign of God?” And we arrive at this then we bear the healthiest fruit of all.
The Christmas Cactus in my home is fortunate because it is more valuable to me than the flowers it is meant to produce each year. As a living link between myself and my grandparents, it serves me well and most likely it will remain in the rectory for many years to come. But as Christ tells us this morning, we may not be so fortunate. As much as God loves us, we have been put here with a divine purpose . .one we are expected to fulfill. . . .to collaborate with Christ and to bear the fruits of God.