Scripture Reading (CEB) Luke 13:1-9
1 Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. 2 He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. 4 What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” 6 Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ 8 The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. 9 Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”
Good Enough – Lots of things can bring growth
Last week’s recap: The world needs our compassion, forgiveness and love and we choose and control how we respond to our out-of-control world praying Spirit, Open My Heart to the joy and pain of living. Saying that however, there’s a theological question that we must wrestle with: Assuming we are not in control of the world…do we believe God is in control?
Do we believe in the God who replaces stony hearts in order that we might care again? Do we follow a God who shapes generation after generation guiding the moral arc of the universe with a bent towards justice – trusting we too will grow tired of systemic racism and prejudice, rampant exploitation of others, and destruction of the earth for capitalistic gains. God got there a while ago and is just waiting for us to catch up.
In my reading this week, the theologian flipped the question on its head. They asked – where would the world be without God’s staying hand? How much worse would it be? The theologian’s point was that our world is only as good as it is because of God’s inspiration and trust in us, both in and out of the church. I can say that it was pretty inspiring to hear that the Canadian Red Cross easily exceeded their matched donations of $10 million dollars, and how over 80% of Canadians would accept unlimited Ukrainian refugees. Inspiring yes, but a challenge for us going forward to extend the same compassion to all people, regardless of how they look, what they believe, and what circumstances led to their fleeing. With all the good, our humanity always manages to mess things up. Those Black and other identifiable non-whites from Ukraine have not experienced the same compassion and love in their fleeing; they’ve not received the same treatment even while standing in the same line trying to escape the same war and destruction. We can always do better.
6Then [Jesus] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
In our Lenten theme of embracing one another as good enough children of God, caring for a good enough world that requires our compassion, forgiveness and love, we discover that good enough leaves a lot of room for improvement. This parable of the unproductive fig tree is a powerful demonstration of this. The owner and the gardener are arguing over what to do with this tree, after investing three years of growth into it. (Which – and I had to google this – is barely enough time for a new tree to start producing fruit as they really don’t produce until the third year, some not until the fifth!) With room for improvement and better soil and manure, with patience, the gardener believes there’s hope for the tree yet. Wait. Be patient. Put in the work. And let’s see what a year brings. The owner just wants to cut his losses and move on, but is silent after hearing the eloquent sermon-like response of the gardener.
Sometimes cutting your losses is all you can or should do. When you don’t see change or growth – when buds of new life refused to appear in the places of dead-trimmed branches – when infection spreads throughout the ecosystem and compromises the tree, there are signs of when wasted soil is still too high a cost. Not every situation bears fruit. Not every situation bears life. Trying to figure out what is worth your time and effort and faith is such a difficult discernment. I say this because this passage could be used to convince people to stay in toxic, unhealthy relationships, in abusive situations hoping situations or people will change…wait, be patient, put in the work, and let’s see what a year brings is exactly what kept housewives in the 50s in situations that compromised their health and wellbeing. As the old wisdom goes, considering how hard it is to change ourselves, is the start to understanding what little chance you’ll have in trying to change others.
But I think that reading is based on a misunderstanding of our place in the story – because I believe we’re less the owner of the tree, than we are some strange mixture of gardener and tree itself.
The gardener and the tree make the argument for leaving room for improvement. That we could always try a different technique knowing that lots of things can promote growth, even the “manure” (imagine that as another colloquial word) that the world throws at us. We can grow in both in both healthy and unhealthy environments. I’ve served a few churches, and supervised even more over my ministry career – and no matter what the environment, I’ve managed to grow and learn, continuing to improve my skills, while still making plenty of mistakes and maintaining that long list of what I should have done, or should have said. I would never have grown if I believed myself perfect. Instead, I focussed on growth, to strive to always become a better minister, a better husband, a better father…recognizing the journey of growth rather than striving for perfection that will never exist.
We’re going to talk more about perfectionism moreso next week, but
perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth…Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? While [p]erfectionsim is other-focused – What will they think?
When we become obsessed with perfectionism, we lose perspective – we become obsessed with what others will think of us, we focus on our failings, rather than our growth. We look to the Ukraine refugee situation and become obsessed with how we’ve failed those Black or other people of colour, instead of remembering that it wasn’t that long ago when Jewish refugees were turned away en masse in the midst of war. If we’re not wasting our time in the mire of criticism fueled by an obsession with perfection, then we will discover that we have strength enough to grow.
For I wonder if the tree owner would be satisfied if the tree bore one singular fruit the next year? Would that seem like enough to someone who was ready to cut down the tree and move on? Would that growth be honoured as good enough because it was “less than” a tree full of fruit? The gardener demonstrates a healthy, inwardly focussed growth mindset – asking the question, how can I improve – that both the gardener and tree work towards. Instead of being concerned with what the owner of the tree thinks, the gardener wonders, how can I improve?
As people of faith, we must continue to ask ourselves the same question. How can I improve the lives of those in our care, the world in our care? How can I put in extra efforts in times of crisis, but so too, to recognize the limits of our time and energy and money and faith? Good enough means striving for more while accepting our limits.
Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are…and we choose authenticity by cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough.
Embracing this good enough tree is the grace-filled blessing of the gardener. I don’t even think they care if it produces fruit or not – so long as the effort is there. If we know that we’ve tried our best, we must learn to let our best be enough.
But it reminds me of our original question: do we believe God is in control? For in between the molecules of nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium – the very movement of God through strength and struggles nurtures the connection with whole earth. Beneath the hard, outer bark of protection and perfection, there is the vulnerable tree, where growth occurs, where new life begins, where only God sees what comes next.
Do we have the courage to do everything in our power to work this earth, offer care and concern and compassion and love and forgiveness, to give ourselves and others every possible opportunity to live their most fruit producing lives, their most loving selves, encouraged to love themselves and others and God? Do we have the courage to do all that work, and then step back, embracing the belief that we’ve done enough and placing the future growth in God’s hands?
For God, the gardener, believes we, the trees, are all worth a little bit of waiting, patience and work. Thanks be to God.
 Brown, Brene, The Gifts of Imperfection, p56
 Brown, Brene, The Gifts of Imperfection, p50