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There is a gardener

“Perhaps a bent-over church or a bent-over nation, unable to stand up straight, needs Jesus,” says Bishop Christian Alsted.
BISHOP CHRISTIAN ALSTED

Nordic-Baltic Area UMC

alstedMy wife Elisabeth loves figs. When we get into fig season in the early fall, we will have figs at least once a week, in salads or for dessert. She just can’t get enough. And yes, we have a fig tree in our garden; it is four feet tall, but we are expecting a great harvest in four to five years. We will be looking for at least enough for a couple of desserts.

A man had a fig tree planted in the fertile soil of his vineyard. The problem was, there was no fruit. He had come looking for fruit on his fig tree for three years in a row and found none. Everything has a limit, and I am sure my wife would agree. What good is a fig tree without any figs? (See Luke 13:6-17.)

There is a limit to the patience of God as well. This cannot continue; a people that turns its back on him and doesn’t carry any fruit has no future.

I have been part of closing churches quite a few times, and I don’t like it. As a district superintendent I closed my mother’s church, the church I became part of when I was young, and where I had important spiritual experiences. We gave thanks for all the blessings and all the ministry through the years, but on the inside I was crying. I was mourning.

I know all the good reasons why a church cannot continue, and I don’t blame the few faithful people who make the decision to discontinue the ministry. However, I am painfully aware that when we close down a church and a congregation we lose a witness in the community; a fellowship of Christians that could have been an oasis in the desert, a sign of hope and new life, disappears. It is mourning.

Perhaps it’s one less place to worry about for the cabinet, and God knows there is enough to worry about. However, if the tree is cut down it’s all over, and for sure there will be no fruit. Once a local church is gone, it will not easily come again. To start a new church is a demanding enterprise.

I have seen promising pastors and leaders who got off track, who lost hope and faith and gave up. I am painfully aware of times when pastors didn’t get the right support and care when they needed it the most. I know of situations when a local church or a national leadership said no when they should have said yes — or who didn’t say anything when they should have said no. And now we live with the consequences. This is yet another kind of grief.

We United Methodists are part of a denomination that has been struggling for decades with its understanding of human sexuality, and now we have come to a breaking point. This one question consumes almost all of our energy and resources.

For three years in a row the man came and found no fruit. Absolutely nothing. Failure, missed opportunities, disappointment, separation, deceit, fear, schism, disaster, you name it, and it’s all there…

In this parable we find a clash of two images of God. There is condemnatory God, who expects unconditional submission to his rules and expectations. For three years in a row he hasn’t found any fruit. His demands are not fulfilled, time is up, and now the axe is at the foot the tree.

“There is condemnatory God, who expects unconditional submission to his rules and expectations. For three years in a row he hasn’t found any fruit. His demands are not fulfilled, time is up, and now the axe is at the foot the tree.”

But. But there is another image of God. There is a gardener who sees sprouts where we only see barren and unfruitful land, who sees opportunities in the failures, who sees opportunities in the impossible — and he is not willing to give up yet.

“Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year.”

There is a name for this: GRACE. There is always a second chance, always an opening for a new beginning, a way back. If only the faith community is nourished and has some living water; if only she gets some nourishment and power from God’s Spirit, life can begin to emerge and then there will be fruit.

Figs are delicious. And we enjoy all the good figs of the Christian fellowship. “Do you remember the 1979 summer camp.” “Do you remember, when our kids were small.” “Do you remember those days of revival and renewal.” “This week our Sunday school class celebrates its 25th anniversary and we are still the same participants.” Surely we enjoy the fruit.

But the tree doesn’t produce fruit for our enjoyment. It carries fruit to survive, to pass on life. And this is why the fruit is so important: without new life, without new Christians, without passing the faith on to the next generation and to our new neighbors, without new faith communities and new churches — we die.

There is a gardener, who desires for the tree to produce fruit. There is gardener who makes everything fertile and fruitful. There is a gardener, who makes all things new.

And now, in the very next verse, he is facing a woman who has suffered from her disease for more than eighteen years. Day by day her perspective has changed. Gradually, she has become more and more bent over. For many years she hasn’t been able to see the sky or even to see straight ahead. She no longer remembers the color of the sky. She feels the sun, but she can’t look up to see it anymore. She hears the birds singing, but she is unable to see them.

Could she be the bent-over country of Syria, bombed into ruins, eaten up by hate, violence, death, fear and a perverted abuse of power?

Could she be a bent-over western world desperately protecting its wealth, closing its borders and only sharing crumbs with an increasingly impoverished global south?

Could she be one of the thousands of bent-over United Methodist Churches, whose story is never told apart from when they are labeled “declining, dying or ineffective”?

Could she be The United Methodist Church, bent-over by disunity, suspiciousness, distrust and fear?

Perhaps a bent-over church or a bent-over nation unable to stand up straight needs Jesus to see her, summon her and put his hands on her saying: “Woman you are set free from your sickness…” Perhaps this is what he is saying, right now. Perhaps he has said it for some time.

Could it be that the gardener is longing to straighten us up to new life in him? Could it be that he has a greater purpose and future for us? Could it be that he’s calling us to shift our attention from ourselves, to begin to deal with the real problems and the real needs in this world, bringing hope and redemption to bent-over people who have been exposed to oppression and marginalization for far too long?

After Jesus heals the woman, the unfruitful and unproductive become the spectators. Those who are offended by him not following the rules? They are the referees, those who always know what is right and best, who always know what’s wrong and absolutely not allowed.

But Jesus is far too busy caring about people to care about rules. This is about bent-over people, people on the run, people who belong to a different culture or religion, people on the margins — all those whom the referees would judge as sinners. Jesus reveals and confronts the hypocrisy among these religious leaders, who ought to know better. Jesus is not addressing politicians or those who make comments on Facebook. He speaks to people like us, church people: leaders, deacons, pastors, bishops.

Look at her; she is a human being just like you. She is not a nobody, she is somebody. She has a name, she has a story. For more than eighteen years she has been bound, for more than eighteen years she has been crippled and bent-over. Shouldn’t she be set free even if it is against the rules? 

There is a gardener who sees sprouts where we only see barren and unfruitful land, who sees opportunities in the failures, who sees opportunities in the impossible — and he is not willing to give up yet.

This is not a nobody saying these outrageous things. He is not just a provocateur making trouble. It is the author of life speaking. It is the author of the rules speaking, telling us, if you oppress people with the laws I have given you, you are totally missing the point. These rules were given for your joy, to protect you, to help you live and move and exist in me — not to make your life miserable and certainly not to assist you in making life miserable for others.

When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame. When he says this, I am put to shame. I am put to shame when I think about how we spend our time and resources as a church focusing on our own denominational belly button, while the rest of the world is going to hell.

“But all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.” I understand why Jesus had a magnetic influence. I understand why bent-over, crippled and needy people loved him and flocked around him. He was so utterly and completely filled with life, hope and joy; they just wanted to be close to him.

What happened to the fig tree? Was the gardener successful? Did it produce fruit the following year? No one knows; it’s not part of the parable, and it doesn’t really matter either. What is interesting and important is that the gardener tells us there is always a second chance, there is always hope — for nations, for people, for communities and even for the United Methodist Church.

You see, there is a gardener saying, “Just give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year.”

Don’t you know? There is a gardener, and he loves figs.

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