My paternal Grandmother had what many would call a green thumb. Through out her house she maintained a myriad of exotic 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. Here she kept her most prized plants. There was the gardenia that would be steamed on a regular basis as my grandfather showered. Then it 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 the shelves and stands on the widow sill. Here at least one or two were always in bloom. And then there was her 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 friend Gootie who gave it to her just before she died. Its pot was massive as its branches hung well below its stand. For Christmas and Easter my grandmother would hang chocolate ornaments from its branches. 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-nine years, this 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 one of the kids. Despite these setbacks, the plant continues to grow and flourish in our home. Except for one simple problem, it chose not to blossome for ten years while we were in Syracuse. I tried everything. Cathy Martin, my secretary 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 couple of years, I contemplated propagating new shoots and getting rid of the larger plant, but something inside me just could not part with this connection to my grandmother and my childhood.
In this morning’s gospel we heard the parable of the fruitless fig tree. Like me with 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 he asked was reasonable. After all, the purpose of any plant in the field is to provide fruit 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. It took up valuable space and resources that could be better used for a more productive plant.
As we read this parable, we could easily assume that Jesus is making veiled criticism of the Pharisee’s and the Sadducees. This interpretation does not make sense within its 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 had their blood 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, visit 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. We need to ask 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.
For years, at least in Central New, we grappled with what the role of the Church should be in this post-modern world. The issue we kept 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. When combined with our over identification as consumers, the Church is someplace we go to worship, to learn about God and to leave feeling somewhat better about ourselves. When we approach our relationship with the church from this perspective, often times our relationship with Christ is focused simply on our own 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 or obligation to bear the fruits of the Kingdom.
The second model through 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. This often leads 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 by the community. In many ways we 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 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.
In order for us to grow spiritually strong and to bear healthy fruit long term, we have 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?” When we arrive at this, then we bear the healthiest fruit of all because we are now working with God and not for Gos or expecting God to work for us.
The Christmas Cactus in my home is fortunate. It has always been more valuable to me than the flowers it is meant to produce each year. It has served well as a link between me and my grandparents. This is why I never got rid of it. However, an interesting thing happened during our last winter in Syracuse, it bloomed once again. The only explanation I can give for this sudden burst of new color is that the sun shield shattered on the skylight just above where I kept the plant when a giant icicle fell or possibly my foot went through it while clearing snow off our roof. However the shield broke, for the first time the leaves of the cactus were able to absorb the unfiltered rays of the sun and produce the energy it needed to put forth flowers. What I learned from this cactus and this morning’s parable of the fig tree, is no matter how hard we try to produce the fruit of Reign on our own. No matter how hard we try to tend to our own roots and seek our own water, it gets us no where fast, for it is only by nurturing our connection with God and God alone that we become fruitful on God’s behalf.