February 28, 2016 – The Rev. James Richardson

This morning we are treated to an avalanche of colorful biblical images about clouds, burning bushes, a pile of manure, and threats to a fig tree in a vineyard.

And that’s just the shortened version of these passages. The longer version, not in your program, includes references to falling towers, blood mingled with meat, and serpents.

What on earth is going on here?

And what is it with fig trees? Fig trees always seem to be getting cursed in the New Testament.

Let’s start in the vineyards. We know something of vineyards here in Sonoma County, right?

You may not know this about me, but I have spent a lot of time in vineyards.

I have experimented with growing my own Chardonnay grapes, and Lori can attest that the birds get more of my grapes than we do.

While I am strictly an amateur, I am familiar with how grape growers plant roses around the perimeter of their vineyards because rose bushes are susceptible to the same blights and diseases as grapes.

Rose bushes serve as an early-warning system in the vineyards.

I’m also familiar with how grape growers plant mustard between the rows in their vineyards in the winter to add nitrogen back into the soil.

As I am sure you’ve noticed, this last week, the mustard was in full flower all over our beautiful valley.

I mention these details this morning not to impress you, but so that you will trust me when I bring one simple fact to your attention:

No one – but no one – plants a fig tree smack in the middle of their vineyard.

A fig tree would consume too much ground water, the canopy would produce too much shade, and the fig tree would attract birds that would eat the grapes.

So when you hear this story about a fig tree in a vineyard, you should be alert to the possibility that this story might have nothing to do with figs and grapes.

Indeed, these biblical passages today are a cascade of figurative and metaphorical language designed to pull us out of our conventional ideas of religion, and our all-too comfortable sense of what is possible.

In the time of Jesus, the fig tree was a symbol of religious teachers and their institutions. Rabbis taught while sitting under fig trees, and so fig trees were symbols of the institutional religion of Jesus’ day.

In the Luke passage, Jesus spares the fig tree, and by so doing seems to be saying that religious leaders have one more chance to get things right.

I find this a personally sobering message.

Yet there is also grace entwined in the figs and vines – even grace for religious leaders.

If you keep reading Luke, you will hear Jesus telling stories about how God’s grace springs forth from mustard seeds and yeast, and is like a hidden pearl.

You will hear stories of how grace comes at unexpected times, like a visitor in the night, or grows in unexpected places, like a fig tree growing where it does not belong in a vineyard.

Give grace a chance, Jesus tells us. Watch for it. You never know when or where you will find it. Let it grow.

Yet these stories also come with an edge about sin and repentance, hence we hear these stories in Lent. Not a popular topic then, not a popular topic now.

You might be surprised that the word “sin” does not quite mean what the popular culture thinks it means.

The basic meaning of sin is to be disconnected from God. To be born human, born mortal, means we are born disconnected from our creator.

We are born into the noise of the world and into the deafening silence of our separation from God – this is the meaning of the concept of “original sin.”

This is not a moralistic statement about good and evil, but a statement about the reality of being human. By being born, we cannot see God face-to-face. To be born, is to be distant from our creator.

In all of the Biblical stories, only one person has seen God – Moses – and as you hear in Exodus today, even Moses turns his face away.

It is an unavoidable and real – and even painful – fact of being human. We are born disconnected from God, and we keep turning our face away from God.

The story of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge is an allegory about this disconnection from God that we must experience by virtue of leaving our mother’s womb – the Garden of Eden.

Let me say as an aside, those who read the Adam and Eve story as a science text for “creationism” are sadly missing the point.

It is this disconnection from God that leads us to believing we should rely on only ourselves. It is from this self-centered focus that abusive, arrogant, “sinful” behavior comes.

To repent means to turn around – to turn back to God, give up our arrogance, and dwell in the compassion of God’s grace.

It is from this well of God’s grace that our own compassion springs forth, giving us the strength and courage to do things we did not think possible.

Grace is like a mustard seed, or a missing pearl, or yeast that grows a barrel of flour, or a fig tree in a vineyard.

Grace will grow in the vineyards of our souls, and grow even in unexpected places where we think it doesn’t belong.

But grow it will, and grace will take root, nourishing the soil deep within us, and will spread everywhere, bringing healing and hope, love and forgiveness into this very hurting and wounded world.

God’s grace will even come through our own hands and our own heart. Watch for it, wait for it. And go forth and live fully into this gift of grace forever. AMEN.