February 19, 2017
Sermon: “Planted for a Purpose”, Rev. Steve Anderson
For almost 50 years, my grandfather on my father’s side was a steamfitter on the old steam locomotives for the Illinois Central Railroad. One summer, when my father was in high school, he worked for the railroad. My father’s job was to sweep a huge area of concrete all day with a push broom. This was back in the days when they built boxcars out of wood. The workers would occasionally drop nails and instead of stopping to pick them up, they would have one of the summer high school kids pick them up for them. The boy who was doing this was not real bright and another of the high school boys had convinced him that if he started to pick up a nail and the head was to the right that it went in one container. If the head was on the other end, it was a “left handed nail” and went in a different container. Everything went well until the kid came upon a nail that had a head that was pointing straight toward him. He looked around for a moment, quietly put the nail in his pocket and continued his job.
We all have problems knowing what to do sometimes. There are situations when we aren’t exactly sure what something is or what to do. I have trouble telling the difference between black and navy slacks. My initial experience with this scripture was a bit confusing. As I first began to wrestle with it, I thought I knew what the passage was about. But when I looked at it from a different perspective, I saw something very different. The story takes place in a vineyard. In that part of the world, soil is pretty sparse and things were planted in every square foot of good soil they could find.
The request of the landowner was reasonable. The plant had been planted there for a purpose. Remember, the fig tree was not being asked to do anything that it couldn’t do. The landowner wasn’t asking the plant to produce bananas. He didn’t expect it to be an oak tree, or a rose plant. All that he wanted was for it to do what it was designed to do—produce figs. If a plant is taking up valuable space, water and sunshine but not producing what it was intended for, shouldn’t someone chop it down and plant something else there?
The soil is too valuable to waste with non-producing plants. I think that this parable teaches us that something that only takes from its environment cannot survive. We all know people and groups that do this; people that take more than they put back. This parable is not just about fig trees. I have heard several sermons based on this passage. They all follow the same structure. They begin with how bad we are and how if we don’t make some drastic changes right now, we’ll be cast out into utter darkness for all eternity.
Most of us cannot go through the day without failing to do something that God has called us to do or doing something that is outside our God’s plan and purpose for us. While I may not say it that way, I think that we’d all honestly admit that we have all done things that have separated ourselves from God. We call this missing of the mark “sin”.
Mark Twain has suggested that the reason we are not all that God has intended us to be is that God made people at the end of the week when God was tired. Each of us were created for a purpose and everyone was given one or more gifts from God. Some have beautiful singing voices. Others are artists. Several are good with numbers.
We have been given gifts and the miracle is that through repentance and forgiveness, these gifts are released and used for the good of all people. The only way that we can fix the gap between our performance and God’s purpose for us is to let God know how sorry we are, remembering that we aren’t telling God anything that God doesn’t already know, or that God has never heard before.
The second step is to accept the forgiveness that God has waiting for us. It’s not something that we have to earn. It’s waiting for us, available as soon as we are willing to acknowledge our need. This is so simple and yet so difficult for many people. Many of us are happy to admit our sins, as long as we don’t have to change anything in our lives. The more that I read this scripture, the more that it dawned on me that there is a second message. We are not told if the tree was cut down at some point. Some would insist that it must have been. It wasn’t doing what it had been created to do. Some of us would be quick to quote the law of cause and effect, reward, and punishment.
Let’s assume that the fig tree was spared. Let’s imagine that the landowner was as gracious and forgiving as we hope that God would be with us. I think that we can see this in the parable. There will be another chance. If this is the case, then the message of the parable changes from one of warning of punishment for non-production to one that announces an unlimited supply of second chances. For a lot of people, this is where the rub comes. It’s not black and white. It’s not cut and dry. We are left with a combination of judgement and grace.
On the one hand, we wonder if we can continue to sin without any concern for the future. After all, no matter what we do, no matter how often we do something, God is sitting there willingly eager to forgive us. One of the questions we must ask at this point is whether there is ever a point that God will say “that’s it. I’m tired of forgiving this person. How many times are they going to mess up and expect me to bail them out?” Is there a limit to God’s forgiveness? If God forgives us each time we ask for mercy, at what point do we end up with grace that has been cheapened by our continued reliance upon it?
Some will say that if God’s love is too freely given, then the death of Jesus is belittled and cheapened. Can we go so far as to say that God will forgive anyone if they repent of their sins? What if they are some sort of mass murderer? Do they have the same opportunity for forgiveness as you and me? I’m sure that if we made a list, we could probably think of people that we would assume that God would not forgive. If it’s too easy to get God’s grace, then have we inadvertently “cheapened” it?
Maybe I’m over thinking this problem, but I believe that we have two very contradictory messages here, and somehow we have to bring them into some sort of accord. I’ don’t know if it’s because I’m a first born, or that I am a type A personality, but I think that we ought to be productive for God. My immediate response to this idea is, “yes, but how?” I know that I ought to be more sensitive to others, and more loving to my spouse and family, and more understanding of the weaknesses of others. But how?
As Christians, we know the kind of lifestyle that we ought to live, in response to all that God has done in our lives, but if we are honest, we all realize that we fall short of where we ought to be. Just like an appliance that plugs into the wall, once we are separated from our source of power we are unable to continue to operate as God intends for us to. If I asked you why we exist as a church, some might respond that it is to see friends or get some sort of spiritual “recharge”. Beyond that though, I think that we exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We are called to fish for men and women and boys and girls, not just to take care of an aquarium. Just as we can act differently in different situations, I think that we have a picture of God as a stern judge that requires that things and people be replaced if they are not doing what they were created to do, and at the same time an absolutely gracious, forgiving savior who loves us and is merciful in spite of our ability to be all that God intends for us to be.
What i think that we have here is a struggle between needing to do the best that we can to represent God in our world and the realization that we’re never going to make the grade, that we’re never going to be good enough, or do everything that we should. The combined message is a deep seated sense of urgency to be all that we can be, combined with a radical sense of God’s grace.
What this may call for is a new pattern of living. This parable calls us to do the things that God calls us to do, not seeking a reward, but in response to the undeserved love that God offers us every moment of our lives. Our purpose as a church and as Christians is to bring people to God through faith in Jesus. We have been sent to this place at this time to do that. We have been planted here for a purpose.