The Marvelous Gardener
I started looking around my garden on Friday. It’s time to start turning over the soil, and taking out some of the heavy spent stalks of the winter vegetables, like the Brussels sprouts and cabbage, and adding in our finished compost. The Egyptian walking onions have already greened and resumed their slow march across the South End of the second bed. I wonder how far they’d really walk if I didn’t step in to guide their path? Sometimes I imagine they’re on their way to Washington Square. A gardener’s role — her very job — is to guide, encourage, strengthen, and nurture. A gardener provides support —stakes and ties — when harbor winds threaten a gorgeously top-heavy blooming sunflower, and serves a side-dressing of extra nutrients to sustain fabulously fruiting tomatoes.
Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel invites us to remember how invested a gardener is in the garden’s thriving. It’s a tough parable, told to a crowd of “many thousands,” Luke’s gospel tells us. Repent or perish, Jesus tells the crowd. That’s a hard message to hear. And the parable that follows doesn’t make us feel any better or safer. Here it goes: A vineyard owner had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. Year after year, he checked it for fruit and didn’t find any. So 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?‘
Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, often says when you wonder what a parable is about — keep in mind it’s about you. Ouch — right? Even though I’m a committed gardener myself, I suspect I’m the underperforming fig tree in this parable. And I don’t know about you, but I’m very relieved by the gardener’s nurturing, hopeful compassion. Without the gardener’s persuasive argument for my stay of execution, I — the underperforming fig tree — would be out of time in this parable — repent or perish, right? Parables are complicated, and they unfold differently every time we open them, revealing new truths applicable to our context in the moment. Here, the gardener respectfully calls the vineyard owner “sir,” like the vineyard owner is the boss, but the gardener’s hope and mercy shines through as God’s own activity in the world. The gardener says to the vineyard owner, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’“
There’s a lot that can happen in a season, especially with a gardener’s special attention, and especially when survival is a victory in itself. The gardener’s work is marvelous! Doesn’t the gardener sound like God here? And, as Emmanuel Church and our whole community emerges from the pandemic into an ongoing relationship with the virus, another season of growth can make all the difference. Like the fig tree in the parable, with a little more time, nutrients, and sunshine, we’re very likely to bear a bumper crop of good fruit. We survived the rough season of online and then outdoor worship — of masks and vaccinations and isolation and tests and even COVID illness.
And when we looked like that poor, fruitless fig tree in the parable, barren after three seasons, God the gardener got us another chance and a side dressing of nutrients. God planted Newport Classical as a companion plant, staked up our music program with Randy as our new Director of Music, and Randy helped us find our new organ. We’ve submitted three grant requests for essential repairs to the church building, and we’re thriving together like tomatoes and marigolds can when they’re planted together! It’s all about the nematodes, wise gardeners have told me.
What about Jesus’ message to the crowds just before the parable — repent or perish? The gardener’s hope and mercy has guided us — and staked us to — repentance, and we will not perish. Repentance is all about adapting to the new realities of our environment, growing ever toward God like a plant turns toward the sun. Repentance is about seeing, being in, and relating to our environment in a new way, and God is right here helping us do that.
Repent or Perish
Preacher Brian Stoffregen makes the point that the YOU in Luke’s gospel is plural: “unless [you all] repent, you will all perish.” And the parable that follows is about a fig tree, often used in scripture to represent Israel. So Jesus pivots from conversation about them — Pilate’s storm troopers who had mingled Galileans’ blood with their Roman sacrifices — to conversation about us. His invitation to self-examination, repentance, and renewal is a call to a community. And if this conversation is about us, who are we? I’d say our garden extends beyond our pews here at Emmanuel. Jesus’ admonition to repent or perish — rephrased more hopefully and mercifully in the parable as the gardener’s invitation to bloom where we’re planted — is an invitation to our whole community — Emmanuel Church, Newport Classical, our kitchen partners, the hydroponic program, and all of Newport, Middletown, and Aquidneck Island.
The gardener has done marvelous things! How can we respond to the gardener’s grace? It’s about adapting and thriving under our new conditions — with the help of a side dressing of nutrients and some time. That’s the repentance that Jesus is talking about. Repentance is in the haloes we’ve been talking about during Lent — those radiant crowns of our very best hopes and dreams for each other and our community.
The first Sunday in Lent we wrote on purple ribbons the things that keep us from seeing our own and each other’s haloes — like self-doubt, distraction, grief, fear, litter, anger, traffic, and masks — all those things that get in the way of repentance. Last week, we wrote on gold ribbons the habits we can cultivate to help us see our own and each other’s haloes: Gentleness, curiosity, hospitality, asking for help, helping others, enough rest, remembering birthdays, and smiling can all help us to see, and relate to each other, in a new way.
Today, we’ll write on rose colored ribbons the things we can do to show our haloes to the community, which is all about repentance. (I know that Rose Sunday is next Sunday, but rose fits well with our gardening conversation today.) How do we show our best intentions to our community? Soup’s On? Hydroponic gardening? Making a gift to Episcopal Relief and Development to support our Ukrainian sisters and brothers? Volunteering at Emmanuel or MLK? Voting in local and national elections? Attending Emmanuel and community events? Clear signage? Inviting a friend to church? Holding an event at Emmanuel? Telling someone about Annie’s catering?
We’ll tie our ribbons to the fence throughout Lent as we explore how to help our whole community see our best intentions for each other, and speak and act those best intentions into being at Emmanuel. After Palm Sunday, we’ll gather up the ribbons, wash and iron them, and weave them into an altar cloth to use in our worship, representing the way in which we are woven into the fabric of our community. God has done marvelous things at Emmanuel, and we’re only starting to flourish. Amen