“Let It Grow”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 28, 2016 — Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:6-9

 

In Eastern California, close to the border with Nevada, lies one of the most extreme climates in the world. Death Valley is the site of the highest air temperature ever recorded on earth, a whopping 134° F. It is the site of the lowest elevation in North America, 282 feet below sea level. It is the driest location on this continent, averaging only two inches or so of rain each year. It is not exactly a place that seems hospitable to life.

If you look at satellite imagery of that part of the world, the predominant color is a grayish brownish hue—the color of sand, of stone, of parched, bare earth and barren, fruitless ground. Until, that is, you come across a place called Furnace Creek. If you zoom in on Furnace Creek, you will see lush, green grass, and rows of leafy trees, and even a pond or two, spreading across the 18 carefully-manicured holes of the Furnace Creek Resort golf course. The contrast on the satellite map is startling—from parched to lush, from bare to verdant, from desert to oasis.

Of course, this is not the only place in the world where we humans have convinced the earth to produce vegetation different from that which it would grow naturally. But to me, at least, it is one of the most striking, because it goes so abruptly from an inhospitable, completely alien landscape to a scene that, except for the palm trees, you might see here in Woodstock. Of course, it requires immense investments of energy, water, fertilizers and pesticides, equipment, infrastructure, ingenuity, money, and time to make the land do something so different from its normal baseline. This forced transformation of the landscape comes at a cost.

I can’t help but wonder if this might be a key to understanding the parable in today’s scripture reading. We are told of a landowner who owned a vineyard where there was planted, among other things, a fig tree that had not borne any fruit for three years. It could be that it was just a dud of a tree—but I wonder if it had more to do with the soil. Perhaps that fig tree was planted in the wrong place, in a spot that simply did not want to grow figs. Perhaps the particular location in question would have been great for dates, or olives, or grapes, or barley, but it just did not provide the nutrients or sunlight or water that a fig tree needs to thrive.

The landowner, seeing that the tree did not produce any fruit, instructed the gardener to cut it down. The gardener pled for clemency, and the landowner granted a one-year reprieve. We are not told what happened the next year—did the tree demonstrate sufficient improvement in its performance to be spared from the axe? But I wonder if perhaps the gardener could have tended that tree in the ways he knew how for years upon years, trying with all his might to make it bloom and bear fruit, and seen no noteworthy change in the results. Perhaps he could have fertilized that tree and aerated its soil and watered it just so, and still it would not have produced fruit for the landowner to eat. If he had lived in our time instead of 2,000 years ago, if he had had access to the energy, water, fertilizers and pesticides, equipment, infrastructure, and ingenuity that humans have developed in the intervening two millennia, perhaps he could have made the land do something different from its normal baseline. But the forced transformation of that landscape would have come at a tremendous cost to the gardener, to the landowner, and to the land itself.

This is where I think that perhaps that landowner was smarter than we give him credit for. Usually, he is portrayed as an impatient cost-cutter, interested only in efficiency. But perhaps he was actually gifted with a creative wisdom that let him see beyond that barren tree to a new set of possibilities.

What if, instead, they cut down that fig tree and let the garden grow what it would? If Death Valley is any indicator, the result might be nothing short of breathtaking. This year—right now, as a matter of fact—the apparently inhospitable landscape of Death Valley is covered in the blooms of more than 20 species of wildflowers. They’re calling it a “superbloom.” Where there is typically only sand and rock and a few hardy shrubs, now yellow, white, blue, and purple blossoms blanket the ground as far as the eye can see. That soil that normally looks so barren turns out to be filled with seeds of every kind, just waiting for the right conditions in which to burst into riotously beautiful life. And if all that land had been turned into fairways and greens, that superbloom never would have happened.

 

So I wonder: what efforts do you make to landscape your life into submission to the way you think it’s supposed to look? What did someone somewhere tell you, perhaps long ago, about who you should be and how your life should unfold? What expectations have you placed on yourself about the kind of fruit you should bear and the timeline on which you should bear it? And what is the cost of all those efforts at transformation?

Maybe it’s something about the kind of job you should have, or the kind of grades you should get, or the kind of clothes you should wear, or the kind of house you should live in… Maybe it’s something about the way your body should work, or the kind of family you should have, or the kind of person you should love, or the kind of children you should raise… Maybe it’s something about the kind of priorities you should set, or the kind of issues you should care about… Maybe it’s something about the way your life should unfold… Maybe you have a nagging sense that there could be something different, something fuller, something more…

What if, instead, you chopped down those expectations and took the axe to those preconceptions? What if, instead, you let your life bloom where it would? What would you discover about the seeds that God has planted all throughout your life—seeds that are just waiting for their moment to burst into life and bloom riotously? What new beauty would you bear? What new beauty would you glimpse in the lives around you? What superbloom might ensue if we were all unafraid to let our own particular, peculiar beauty have its way?

The great American theologian, philosopher, educator, civil rights leader, and author Howard Thurman once wrote, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

In that spirit, I invite you to take the green slip of paper that’s inserted in your bulletin and write on it an expectation, a convention, a constraint, a demand placed on your life, either by yourself or by someone else—something that limits your creativity, that prevents you from coming alive, that keeps you from living fully as God designed you to live. Then, I invite you to come forward (up the side aisles) and place that paper into the shredders you’ll find there, in a symbolic equivalent of chopping down that fig tree so that the soil can blossom naturally, wildly, riotously, beautifully, and faithfully, as God intends.

 


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