March 4, 2013

The Waiting Year


Lessons for this day are found at this link.

Text: Luke 13:9: “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Out at the little farm Judy and I have in the town of Hardwick, right behind the house about seventy or eighty feet from the back door, there is an ancient apple tree bent with the years of New England seasons. I would guess that it has stood in that spot for at least sixty years, and very likely longer.

It is not an especially lovely tree, and it does not bear especially lovely fruit. It does not produce the sort of picture-perfect apples you would find at Whole Foods. It makes the sort of apples that have a destiny in applesauce, or maybe apple pie.

It has survived ice storm and snowfall, summer heat and winter freeze, hurricane wind and nor’easter rain. And two years ago, in 2011, for some reason it produced an immense number of apples. Never in all our years there, a place we have known for almost twenty-five years, had I known that tree to produce so much fruit.

It really was nearly a burdensome amount of fruit. I collected whole brown-paper grocery bags filled with apples. Even when the freak snowstorm came that year on October 30, there were still apples on that tree. The deer got to keep the ones that hit the ground, but even with that loss there were pounds and pounds of apples that came from our tree.

That was two years ago.

Last year, a year with a temperate to slightly warm summer and an average amount of rainfall—so, a pretty typical New England summer--—the old apple tree did not produce a single apple, not one. It budded in March and blossomed in April, it put out the usual leaves and even threw off a few new branches, but it did not produce a single piece of fruit.

And now we are wondering: What will happen this year?

•  •  •

The story Jesus tells about such a tree isn’t really a story about the tree. It’s a story about the gardener, and about the owner of the tree. Like the apple tree, this fig tree gives no fruit; the owner who planted the tree is more than willing to get rid of it and put something in its place that will make better use of the soil, better use of the rain and the sun, better use of the gardner’s care.

And the gardner intercedes. Give it a year, says the gardner. You never know what might happen. Don’t be so quick to judge. Let me work with it again this year.

So the spring is nearly here; it will be here before Palm Sunday. And now we are in the waiting year. We are in the year of waiting to see whether the tree will bear fruit.

Of course, the parable isn’t really talking about fig trees or apple trees. The parable is giving us something of the dynamics of the relationship between two aspects of the person of God, two persons of the Trinity—the creator and the redeemer, the maker and the savior, the owner of the vineyard and the gardner of the tree. The trees that bear fruit—or that don’t—well, friends, those trees are where the parable is talking about us.

We are a tree planted in this vineyard. We were planted here long, long ago on this corner, and over years and years and years here we have borne fruit. We have baptized and blessed, we have laughed and cried, we have sung our hearts out and given our silent prayers to God, we have brought people into the faith and we have prayed them out of this life.

But the Lent lesson here is that our past, as beautiful and as noble as it is, is not the thing the owner of the vineyard is interested in. It is whether we will bear fruit now, this year. It is whether we show promise of continuing to bear fruit—of witnessing to God’s love, of being a community of reconciliation and forgiveness, of being a place that is willing to explore every possible way we can find of doing God’s work, of being God’s hands, in the world.

We are now in our year of discernment—not just discernment about me, not just discernment about the clergy person whom we call to be among us, but about ourselves; about our ministry; about our witness. We are in a year of praying and thinking and working to understand what God wants us to do, what God wants us to be, as a community called by and representing the gospel of Jesus.

And it is just possible, sisters and brothers, that this is our waiting year. It is just possible that while we are having this conversation among ourselves, a different conversation has already gone on about us between the vineyard owner and the gardener.

“Where is their fruit?” is the question. What are they doing? Are they making good use of what I have given them—the possibility of awakening what is divine and holy in each one of their hearts, the gift of engaging each other in true and mutual community, the possibility of genuine and blessed friendship with each other in sharing the knowledge of my love for them?

Are they trying to figure out how to bear fruit in the years ahead? Are they bound down and overgrown with the deadwood of fear? Or are they reaching toward the warmth and light and stretching themselves in new ways?

And it is just possible that the gardner, our brother Jesus, has interceded for us yet again. Give them this year. Let me tend them this year. Don’t be so quick to judge. Let me work with them again this year.

Let me feed them and water them and shine the light of love on them, the love that turns problems into possibilities and hesitation into hope. Let me lead them just a little deeper, just a step closer, into the crazy life Christian disciples. Let me do a little pruning, a little work on their roots. Let me talk to them.

And then, let’s see what happens. Let’s see if they bear fruit.

This is our year of discernment. It is important and serious work that we do. But while we are doing this work, it is just possible that this is our waiting year, the year the gardener is looking to us in hope, standing up for us, shielding us from judgment, shedding on us love and light and tending us—and giving us a chance to bear fruit. How then shall we respond?