Don’t Be That Church
A sermon based on Luke 13:1-9
It was just over twenty years ago that I preached my very first sermon at a Sunday morning service. I remember two things from that experience. One was that I was so nervous that I was soaked in sweat. I believe I was shaking as well. The second thing that I remember is the passage I was preaching from. I was given the choice of any passage that I wanted and I chose the very parable that we are looking at today.
I will share how my view of this parable has changed but before we get there, I want to shift gears. On the continuum between optimism and pessimism, where would you put yourself? I remember as a young person being confused by optimists. How could they always expect the best? The are just setting themselves up for disappointment. I felt I was being much wiser by embracing pessimism. Either I would always be right or I would be pleasantly surprised. It seemed like a win-win situation. But it wasn’t. I found that pessimism drained the hope and joy out of me. It also didn’t make me a very fun person to be around. I would now describe myself as a realist. By this I mean that I am aware of the potential problems and challenges and I attempt to prepare for them. At the same time, I try to live a life of hope and I expect some good things will happen.
I share this because the parable we are looking at is dealing with expectations for the future. I would argue that it presents a call for realism rather than optimism or pessimism for our future.
Not much has changed in two thousand years. Like today, people back then would discuss the news. They would reflect on what had happened recently, usually the bad, news and then take on the role of armchair political and social commentator. There had been a number of serious incidents where some Jews had lost their lives. Rather than just mourning their deaths, people wrestled with why this happened. Some concluded that it was because those Jews were bad, while the other Jews were exempt from such tragedy because they were good. Seeing the misfortune of others reinforced their confidence in their own blessing. These Jews were feeling optimistic because all the bad stuff had been exhausted in the experience of those other Jews.
Jesus did not have much patience for this baseless overconfidence. The truth is that bad things could happen to any of them. He them explained the truth with a parable.
Jesus used a situation that the people were familiar with. Figs were a popular crop in that area. They would understand both the challenge in growing a healthy plant and the joy of eating those fresh figs. Jesus told a story of a man that owned a fig tree. The problem was that there were no figs on it. People did not grow fig trees just for decoration. They were valued only for the fruit they provided. The owner was understandably frustrated by the lack of fruit and asked his worker to dig up the tree as it was a waste of soil. This would be an example of pessimism.
This story reminds me of my parents’ attempt to grow cactuses. You would think that cactuses, as desert plants accustomed to harsh environments, would be easy to care for. You would think. But the cactus was getting smaller and less colourful. Every time the cactus would look a little worse, my dad would move it a little closer to the back door, warning the cactus what its final destination would be. I knew by the time it got to the dining room that it was a goner.
The owner of the fig tree wasn’t interested in warnings. But his worker was not a pessimist. He wanted to give the fig tree another chance. He hoped that with some fertilizer and some tender loving care, the tree could produce some figs. At the same time, he was a realist and understood that might not happen. The fig tree was given another year to provide fruit and if it didn’t, it would be dug up.
At this point I will share where I took this parable twenty years ago and the different direction I’m taking it now. Back then I was a youth pastor and my focus was in helping teens grow in their faith at an age where it was difficult to be a follower of Jesus. I saw the fig tree as each individual Christian and in my context, especially teens. I called the congregation to be like the worker and not give up on the figs. I encouraged them to spread “spiritual manure” on them so that they could grow in their faith. That application is fine, but my perspective has changed.
What if this parable is speaking not to individuals but to the church? What if this is a warning that are content without being fruitful?
Think about those Jews who were critical of the misfortune of other Jews and feeling rather smug. Can we imagine something very similar when it comes to churches? Having moved to St. Catharines, I’m struck by how many churches have closed down. They are mainline and evangelical and charismatic. Some were always small and some were large and were considered the trendy churches to attend. Those churches are gone.
We could look at those church closures and compare ourselves. We must be doing something right in that we are still here. We may not be perfect but at least we are not like those churches that closed. We must have some advantage over them. Basically we could have the attitude that Jesus warns against.
It is in this context of churches closing and churches continuing that the parable of the fig tree speaks. How is the fig tree judged? Is it by how big or small it is? By how beautiful or plain it was? No, it was judged by the fruit it did or did not produce.
This is the same judgment that God uses on the church. I don’t think God cares about the size of the church. It could be a mega-church or a house church, it could be 12,000 or just 12. The question is, is the church producing fruit?
What is the fruit that a church should produce? It is not enough that we just offer worship services, to sing certain songs and pray certain prayers. There should be certain outcomes from our existence.
We could discuss different kinds of fruit that should appear. One could be growing disciples, seeing people both knowing more about and being more like Jesus. Another could be seeing people take the step of baptism. Another could be building community. Another could be reaching out to people outside the church.
But couldn’t this lead to an oppressive atmosphere of requiring a certain level of performance and productivity? I would suggest that God doesn’t care how we compare to the other churches in our city. We need just to provide fruit according to our capacity. I think that the owner of the fig tree would have been happy if it produced at least one fig.
What about those churches that did close? Was that God’s judgment for not doing enough? There are two things to consider. One is that when a church stops being fruitful, it will naturally end. The other is that some churches who no longer meet as a congregation, no longer have a building are no longer formally organized, are still fruitful.
In some cases, parts of one plant are grafted onto another plant and the result is increased fruitfulness. That can happen when one congregation joins with another congregation, bringing the gifts and abilities together. That is the case with our church. We are stronger because of those who have joined with us.
We could do a survey of all the churches in our city. If we revisited that survey in ten years, we would find some of those churches closed down. The scary thing is that we would not be able to predict which would close. Size, style or tradition would give us no hints.
Could our church be one of them? If we say no, we are both ignoring this passage and what we have seen with other churches. But I don’t think we should be pessimistic. I have been to churches whose only goal is to keep their doors open another year. We are not there.
I see this church as being fruitful. I see leaders developing. I see people getting baptized. I see children growing in their faith. I see our congregation making an impact on our community.
But what if we stopped? It has happened to other congregations. Any church could get to the point of resting on past accomplishments. Our job is to keep our mission as our focus and make ourselves available to the Holy Spirit’s work within us.