Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Gospel of Fred the Fig

“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none…’”    — Luke 13

Once upon a time… a time not so long ago, in a small valley in Nevada not too far from here, there was a beautiful vineyard.   And it did well in Nevada’s sandy soil.  It was not just a vineyard that produced wine, but one that produced champagne.  You have to grow three kinds of grapes to make champagne.  Two of them are black with white juice, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier.  The other one is a white grape with white juice, the Chardonnay.  But this is not a story about the grapes.

There was a fig tree planted in one corner, and his name was Fred.  He wasn’t beautiful and delicate like the vines.  He had flat, broad leaves, and stalks going everywhere.  Sometimes he was jealous of the grapes that people gathered with such care and praised.  You see, Fred had no fruit.  He also knew he wasn’t as important because he was stuck in the corner.  Secretly, he wished he could be a grapevine.

Fred had two friends: God and the Gardener.  God sent the sunshine, and water, and gentle breezes.  And the Gardener?  Well, Fred loved him.  He would come out some days and sit in Fred’s shade and have lunch.  Sometimes they would talk . . . well, mostly the Gardner would talk, or he would read to Fred after lunch.  You may already know that fig trees are very good listeners because they rarely interrupt you.  Just every now and then, Fred would say, “Is that so,” or “How interesting,” or “Tell me more.”  All those nice things friends say when they’re really listening to you and want to help you tell your stories.  The Gardener never seemed to tire of Fred’s company, and never said a mean thing to him about not growing any fruit.  Still, Fred never confided his sense of failure or secret wish to his friend, the Gardener.

No, Fred tried to go it alone . . . grow it alone.  He had curious roots.   His soil in the corner was not as carefully tilled as the floor of the vineyard, but there was some chalky subsoil added, and he tried to break up the tough Nevada soil beneath, but it was hard.  Any of you who’ve tried to dig in your own back yard here know that mostly of what we grow in Nevada are rocks.  He knew he had to spread his roots if he was ever going to produce fruit, so he didn’t give up… but it wasn’t much good.  He actually grew quite large, although fig trees tend to spread out sideways, not get tall.  But still, there was no fruit.

Unfortunately, the kindhearted gardener wasn’t the only visitor.  There was a road on the other side of the vineyard.  Sometimes people would pass by after champagne tasting trips and stop for a rest.  Sometimes they would talk with each other of strange things: terrible accidents that had happened in the town, and even acts of violence in the news.  Sometimes they would attribute these terrible things to God.  Fred couldn’t understand that kind of thinking: God was his friend who sent the sun and the rain and the warm breezes.  The Good Gardener would shake his head sadly when Fred told him about these conversations.  He explained that good happens to the good and the bad; bad happens to the good and the bad.  God didn’t cause the accidents or violence, people did.  What God did was send help:  bystanders who stepped in; police and Firefighters to protect; doctors and nurses to heal; Friends and neighbors to pray and listen.  That made a lot more sense to Fred. 

Some of these strangers were looking for maybe a ripe fig or two for lunch.  When they found no fruit, they would get angry and say rude things to him, and that would discourage him more than ever.  A few people had gotten so upset with Fred they snapped a couple branches, and just to be even meaner, they didn’t break them cleanly off, and the broken branches dangled there, and it hurt.

One man in particular had stopped by only once a year during the three years of Fred’s young life.  Fred always trembled when he came close.  He knew he was important.  He had heard he was the owner of the vineyard.  The owner would look at him disapprovingly for a few moments, and then walk away to look at his prize-winning champagne grapes.  This year, however, after looking at him disapprovingly for a while, he muttered three words: “What a waste!”  Those three words were the final blow to Fred’s gentle figgy soul, and he wept.  It’s one thing to have others disapprove of you, but when someone who’s really important to you is disappointed it’s almost too painful to bear. 

The kind Gardener, passing by, heard Fred weeping, and asked, “Why are you weeping?”  Fred told him about what the owner had said.  The Gardener quietly said, “Yes, there are impatient people like that in the world.  Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.”  The Gardener went and talked to the owner.  Fred couldn’t quite hear what was said.  Finally, the owner walked away, and the Gardener returned to Fred and reassured him it was all handled.

While the Gardener sat down in Fred’s shade, took out his lunch and began to eat, Fred, for once, began to talk.  He told him of all the sadness in his heart because he had not grown any fruit.  He told him about people who had hurt him and broken off branches.  He even told him his darkest secret: that he was sometimes jealous of the grapes and wished he too could be a grapevine.

The only time the Gardener interrupted was when Fred mentioned he also knew he wasn’t important because he was planted in a corner.  The Gardener looked surprised, “Don’t you remember?  I planted you here.”  Fred didn’t… you must remember he was only a little twig at the time.
“Why?”  Fred asked
The Gardner said, “For a vine, the corner is wasted.  Only you could grow and produce fruit here.  Vines wouldn’t have even made it a season.  You’ve been here three years.  You’re right where I want you.”

They were quiet for a while, and then the Gardener asked, “Do you really want to produce fruit?” 
Fred whispered, “Yes!”
The Gardner continued, “I can help, but you have to let me do the work.”
“Oh, thank you!”  Fred exclaimed.
The Gardner added, “Your fruit won’t be like the grapes.” 
“That’s OK,” Fred said.
The Gardener warned, “Sometimes it’ll hurt.  I’ll have to do some deep digging, and some pruning.” 
Fred was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “I’m ready.”

So, the next day, the kind Gardener got to work.  It took a long time.  Sometimes it was
painful, and it smelled bad when the Gardener spread manure around him.  But Fred trusted the Good Gardner and time passed.  One day in early spring, Fred woke to a warm sun and a gentle breeze.  He yawned and looked down, and he gasped — he was covered in delicate yellow fig blossoms!  It had begun.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a champagne grape.  I’m more of a fig tree… I suspect most of us are.  Although I work to grow and bear fruit, it’s a great comfort to know that the Good Gardener is willing to take on most of the hard labor in my life: breaking up the hard, rocky soil of my heart to let the fresh air of the Spirit and the Water of Life get to my very roots.  He will give me everything I need to grow and bear fruit.  My fruits may not be champagne grapes, but figs are good too … yes, they’re good.

This is the Gospel of the Kind Gardener,
and the Gospel of Fred the Fig Tree,
and… the Gospel of the loving God who always gives you and me another chance.  Amen.