Post Conference – One More Year
One day Jesus was speaking to a large crowd. He told told a parable or two of the coming of God’s judgment, then warned the crowd to understand the signs of the times and to be faithful. Luke 13 opens this way.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
These five verses tell of Pilate sending his soldier to kill some Galileans making sacrifices. Rather than ask the circumstances, which is what you and I would probably do, Jesus challenges his listeners to rethink their own assumptions. By the way, he adds, don’t forget the eighteen people who were just standing around, minding their own business when a tower collapsed on them. Were they guiltier of sin than the other people of Jerusalem? No! Jesus is warning those who think themselves righteous: unless you repent you will nonetheless perish.
Then Jesus told a parable:
A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil? "Sir," the man replied, "leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down."
There are three characters in the parable: the man who owned the vineyard, the gardener, and the fig tree. Of course, the fig tree is a character because this is not a story about trees. It’s a story about you and me and the world we live in. It’s a story about condemnation and grace, of dismissal and reconsideration. It’s a story about repentance, mercy and judgment.
There is a man who owns a vineyard and in the vineyard, he had a fig tree. For three years the owner looked for fruit to be produced by the tree but there was none. So, the owner tells his gardener, "Cut it down!"
The gardener begs the owner to let it stand. Give it one more year, the gardener pleads. He promises to turn the soil around the tree and take special care of it. Then if it doesn’t bear fruit, he says, you can cut it down.
And that’s the end of the parable. Did the owner agree or did he insist on immediate destruction? And if he agreed to the gardener’s plea, what happened after a year? Was there fruit or not? And if not, what then? More importantly, what happened during the year? Did the gardener keep his promise of care or did he just let the tree succeed or fail on its own?
Jesus doesn’t say. These are blanks he left us to fill in.
Some of you know that before General Conference began, I said that it was really just a warm-up for the regular General Conference in May of next year.
What happened this week was not a good outcome.
If the One Church Plan had passed, that would not have been a good outcome.
If no plan had passed and the status quo had been maintained, that would not have been a good outcome.
This General Conference could have been scripted by a Greek tragedian. It was a three-act play with no possible happy ending. To anyone who rejoices in the outcome, heed Jesus’ word: "unless you repent, you too will perish." And to anyone who despairs or is angered at the outcome: "unless you repent, you too will perish."
What this conference shows me more than anything was that we, as a denomination, must repent. We are more like Washington than New Jerusalem, God forbid! But we have a year, do we not, until May of 2020? Even one more year is God’s gift. While we are living, God is working with us and for us, trying to get us the bear fruit for the strengthening of his kingdom. One more year to get right with God.
But we do not have forever to decide about forever. The ax can still fall. So, there is a particular urgency to start producing fruit pretty quick. A "lesson of the fig tree is a challenge to live each day as a gift from God. Live each day in such a way that you will have no fear of giving an account for how you have used God’s gift" (NIB).
It’s also an instruction for us to examine the way we treat one another. The parable invokes each of us to ask whether we are more eager to cut than to cultivate. It was easy to watch or listen to the Conference over the internet and announce how the delegates, the bishops, or the presiding elders were all screwing it up, and how this delegate or that one was either bigoted or godless. Then I remembered the words of Saint Augustine:
We are hopeless creatures, and the less we concentrate on our own sins, the more interested we become in the sins of others. We seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse ourselves, we are ready to accuse others.
There will be no better Methodism until there are better Methodists. One more year of care and cultivation is before us. God is merciful. Are we? If the gardener represents that God is slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, how well are we doing in that department? The sad fact is we are more likely to swing the ax than cultivate one another to be fruitful.
Why is that? It’s not the example Christ gives us. Here’s a tree that isn’t producing fruit. What is the solution? Cut it down? Not at all! The solution is so unexpected – so foolish, really – that it could not occur to anyone but God. The answer is to give it more water, more nutrition, more nurturing and more care. In the coming year, this tree can bear fruit. It is the year of the Lord’s favor.
Paul wrote, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). That is a gardening God. Where there is barrenness of spirit or service, barrenness of love or discipleship, there you will find God, humbly kneeling, turning the soil of our lives and cultivating with care. What else can God do with us? It’s in his interest for us to bear fruit, too.
But we cannot be passive. We have to respond to being cultivated by the Holy Spirit and by the godly people of our church. We have to accept cultivation, to listen, to learn, to serve, to pray, to repent of barrenness, and then bear righteous fruits of faith and godly works. God, like a gardener, patiently works the soil of our lives. Bad things happen and we are sinners anyway, but God’s grace abounds all the more.
One more year. What is the fruit you will produce, or I? Will we cultivate godliness and fruitfulness in one another or just swing the ax? That part of the story we will write ourselves.