The following sermon was preached at St George’s Transcona’s service for Sunday March 20, 2022. You can learn more about St George’s and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.  Photo credit: Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I love Broadway musicals and Hamilton is a recent favourite -I’ve listened to the soundtrack more times than I can count. On one of my first listens I was struck by an unusual image in a line sung by George Washington in the song “One Last Time: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.”

The line puzzled me because it seemed strangely specific – why a fig tree? Why not just any old shady tree?  Figs only grow in warm climates like California. Is Washington longing to move to California when he retires?

Finally I realized that he’s quoting the Bible.  Micah 4:4 says, “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”

Fig trees are a pretty common image in scripture – the phrase “fig tree” appears 41 times from Genesis to Revelation – but I’ve never really taken the time to think about why it’s a common image until I began to prepare this sermon.

I’m pretty sure we don’t have any fig trees in Winnipeg unless they are in a greenhouse so you might not be familiar with what they look like.

Fig trees are native to the Mediterranean and western Asia and have been “cultivated since ancient times” for the fruit they produce and for decoration[1]. The trees are quite beautiful.

Technically a fig tree is a shrub but it’s a shrub that can grow to be 7-10 meters tall. Sounds like a tree to me! And with leaves that grow from 12-25 centimeters in length, it’s also a tree that produces a decent amount of shade.

Those large leaves make these trees a shady respite from the heat, but they have also had another practical use you may be familiar with.  In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve disobey God and eat fruit from the one tree God tells them not to eat from.  Verse 7 says, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

The Collegeville Commentary explains that in first-century Jewish thought, the fig tree was not only the source of the clothing that Adam and Eve create for themselves, it was also the forbidden tree. The one they were not supposed to eat from.  Additionally at this time, a fig tree in bloom was a sign of God’s kingdom and the end times.  This may be why Jesus, as he is helping his disciples to both understand and anticipate God’s kingdom, chooses to tell stories about fig trees. But more on that later.

God will punish Adam and Eve for their disobedience, expelling them from the garden and literally cursing the ground promising that producing food will be a difficult process, “cursed is the ground because of you,” God says, “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” (3:17)

In Genesis, a fig tree is the forbidden tree and the source of the first clothing but by the time we get to the book of Isaiah, the symbolism of the fig tree will be reversed so that, like in the verse from Micah quoted in Hamilton, fig trees are something to long for, a source of hope and strength.  A place of peace where people can rest under the safety of its shady leaves.   Fig trees are now a symbol of peace and prosperity.

Take 1 Kings 4:25 for example, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of the under their vines and fig trees.”

Now let’s fast forward to today’s gospel reading.   Jesus is speaking to a crowd who have questions about a disturbing local incident.  Pilate has killed some Galilean people. What are they do make of this?  Jesus doesn’t address the specifics of these events, rather he offers a warning and a parable: “unless you repent, you will all perish…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. 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?’ He replied, ‘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.”  (Luke 13:5-9)

What’s happening in this parable? First, it’s important to remember it’s a parable, a story meant to get us thinking, to get us asking questions. It’s not historical fact.  Second, like many of Jesus’ parables, we are told the story but not how to interpret the story, meaning we can’t really be sure what it means or – and this is the interpretation I prefer – we are free to ascribe multiple meanings to the story.

The point isn’t to crack a code, the point is to get us thinking.

This story has two characters, a landowner and a gardener.  The landowner is frustrated because he has a fig tree on his land that is not producing fruit.  It hasn’t produced fruit in three years actually so not only does he feel like the tree isn’t living up to his expectations, it’s also stealing nutrients from the soil that the rest of his garden could benefit from.   It’s a liability, and he wants it removed.

When I used to read this story I felt like the gardener was the bad guy. How mean of him to remove this tree!  But over the past few years I’ve been doing more gardening and now I see think he’s just being a good steward of his land. Now this seems like a practical and caring decision to me.  If one plant isn’t doing what it is supposed to do, and it’s taking valuable nutrients that other plants could benefit from, then it makes practical sense to dig it up and add it to the compost pile.

But the gardener disagrees and asks that the tree be given one more chance. And not just another chance, he asks that it receive a little extra TLC too.  He’ll loosen up the soil, add some manure which will provide additional nutrients and then hopefully, next year the tree will produce as they have both hoped it will.

Who do you identify with in this story? Are you the landowner? The gardener?  Who do you suppose Jesus identifies with?  One character? Multiple characters?

I wonder, perhaps, if we’re meant to identify with the fig tree.   We’re here just taking up space and sucking up vital nutrients but we aren’t producing any fruit.  I don’t always feel that way, but if I’m honest, that describes me at least some of the time.

And even though I don’t like thinking about it all that much, I know that my calling in life is to produce good fruit, and that one day, I will have to account for my choices, the ways I either did or did not do what I was called to do.

I wonder if we can see aspects of God’s character in both the landowner and the gardener.

The landowner is practical and a good steward of resources. If something isn’t producing and is robbing other living things of nutrients, he removes it.  God is like that.

The gardener is someone who values the production of good fruit.  They are patient, willing to do whatever they can to help the fig tree do what it was created to do. They are willing to give second, third, and even fourth chances.  God is also like that.

What else can we learn from this story?

First, the fig tree’s purpose is to bear good fruit.  If it doesn’t, then it’s not doing what it was created to do.

In Galatians 5: 22-23a we read, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  This is what good fruit looks like.  This is what we are supposed to look like.

Second, the fig tree doesn’t live in a vacuum, it’s part of a larger system and it can have a positive or negative impact on that system. When it’s doing what it was created to do, it produces fruit that helps others live.   When it’s not giving anything to others, it still takes from them, absorbing nutrients from the soil that others also need to live.

Another thing we can learn from this passage it to avoid complacency in our own lives. Just because you are still here, doesn’t mean you are producing fruit.  So don’t get complacent.  I think one of the most dangerous things about the current pace of life in North America – even during the pandemic – is that we are often so busy doing things that we never slow down long enough to ask if the things we are doing are in fact worth doing.   Do they make us feel productive or do they actually produce good fruit?

These are important lessons to learn, but none of them feel particularly… uplifting? Encouraging? Hopeful?

And that’s where the gardener comes in. I am encouraged by the gardener. The gardener is patient. The gardener is willing to work with even the most stubborn of trees – the most stubborn of us – to help us bear fruit.  They can’t force us to, but they will do everything in their power to ensure that we can bear good fruit if we choose to.

The gardener will break up the soil around our roots, add rich nutrients to help us grow, plead for patience, a little more time, a second chance to get it right.

The parable puts the idea of God’s judgement – we will all be held accountable for our actions – within the context of God’s grace.   Even the most stubborn one of us will be given every possible chance to choose to change our ways and live a life that bears good fruit.

The story of the fig tree says that we’re going to be given chance after chance after chance to get it right.  We will be tended by a good and loving gardener who will do everything short of remove our free will to help us live the best life we can.

There is good news in that for each one of us I think.

And by the way, I’m jumping ahead a few weeks here, but when Mary first sees Jesus resurrected after his crucifixion, who does she initially mistake him for?

That’s right, a gardener. (John 20:15)

I went to the grocery story this week and they were selling vegetable seeds.  The massive piles of snow in front of my house are slowly beginning to melt and the weather is getting warmer.  It is starting to feel like spring and I am starting to think about gardening.

As an amateur gardener in Winnipeg, I don’t have anything like a fig tree in my yard, something that produces fruit every year.  Rather, every year I either need to start seeds inside my house at this time of year to be planted later, or purchase plants at a greenhouse.   Some years I’ll do a mix of both.

It seems to me that many of us, and perhaps even St George’s as a parish, are in this early seed planting time.   There are seeds under the earth that we hope will bear good fruit, but we can’t even see green shoots yet, let alone enjoy fresh beans and tomatoes.

Most people and parishes – maybe even all people and parishes? – are currently in a time of transition.   We’ve lived through two years of COVID and it has changed us.  The pandemic is not over yet, and it will continue to change us, but even though it’s not over I do think we are in a time when we can begin to look around the metaphorical gardens of our individual lives and our common life as a parish  and ask,  “Which of these trees do we want to keep because they bear good fruit?”   “Which do we need to get rid of to allow other new life to grow?” and “Which trees aren’t doing so well right now but they just might thrive is we give them some extra TLC and a second chance?”  “What new things do we want to plant so that we can enjoy them in the future?”

Now is an ideal time to ask and begin to answer those questions together.  Helping you as a parish ask and answer those questions is one of the key roles of an interim priest actually.  My role is described as an intentional interim because it has intentionality baked right into the job description. I am not just here filling time until you can hire a new priest. I’m here to help you take a look at the garden you have created – to celebrate the good, to weed out the bad – and then to help you both imagine what you’d like this garden to look like in say one years’ time or five year’s time and what steps you can begin to take right now to help you get where you believe God is calling you to go.

It’s an exciting time – at least I find it exciting – but I want to caution you that, just like planting seeds, it often doesn’t feel like much is happening.   There is an incredible amount of work that goes into the creation of just a single tomato and most of it happens under the ground.  But it does happen, and the tomatoes are worth it in the end.

Lent is also a wonderful season to begin to prayerfully do this sort of work in your own life as well.  What in your life is bearing good fruit?  What should you maybe stop doing altogether?  What isn’t doing so well just now but could bear good fruit with a little extra time and TLC.

Especially at this time, after two difficult pandemic years, I imagine we all have some aspects of our lives that aren’t doing so well. The pandemic has been hard on them, but they are still worth giving a second or even a third or fourth chance to grow.

Only you know what things fit into each category in your own life, but I want us all to hold onto the image of Jesus as the good gardener who says we are worth the extra time and extra manure.  That he will be patient with us and that we can be patient with ourselves and each other as well.

Because that seems like good news to me.

In the strong name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.