Last week in church, we heard the audacious words “imitate me” from the apostle Paul. (Philippians 3). In my sermon, I joked that if someone speaks with such arrogance they are probably not to be imitated. But then, I pointed out that Paul didn't command people to imitate him in order to become successful. No, Paul’s “imitate me” comes on the heels of confession and humility.
I asked the congregation to talk about this question: who is your hero of faith? As our athletic heroes keep failing us and our government teeters on the brink of this sequester, it can bolster all our spirits to remember the countless humble people whose heroism doesn't result in arrogance. They are inimitable precisely because they don’t think there’s anything particularly grand about themselves. They help point us to Christ.
This week, the gospel (Luke 13) includes a short parable. A landowner wants a fig tree cut down because it hasn’t given any fruit. The gardener begs for mercy, saying: “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.”
When to nurture and when to cut? When do we give mercy and when do we say “enough is enough?” This is far from a theoretical question. Lawmakers debate the death penalty. Congress figures out what programs to cut and when. Parents struggle to discipline a child. People in hard relationships try to figure out if they should leave. Decisions have consequences but indecision does too. We live in this tension between mercy and endings.
Jesus’ tells this story to remind us, first and foremost, that we are all of us in need of mercy. Remembering the many ways that people have been merciful to us helps reframe this question. But still, I picture the gardener for that whole year begging the fig tree to bear fruit, doing all he can to make it thrive. At some point it will become clear whether or not it will work. Will he let it go if it doesn't bear? Will the landowner have the heart to cut it down? We don't know how this one ends.
be at peace - Sarah
Note: each week I email the congregation a brief snippet from the previous week's sermon along with my thoughts on the upcoming week's texts. I repost these words for the week here.