I was told the other day that I should make my sermons more challenging and less comforting. Happily, today’s readings make it really easy to avoid being overly comforting. But then, it is Lent, and perhaps we should expect the lectionary to dwell upon the difficult stuff, just for a while?
First, we have St Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Today’s passage is only three short chapters before the wonderful poem to love that is so often read at weddings. And it’s only two chapters before the famous image of the church as the body of Christ, each member playing their own part in harmony. But chapter 10, today’s reading, on the face of it could not be more different from these two much more famous and inspiring passages. It’s a little history lesson, dwelling on the less triumphant episodes in the history of God’s people – those moments during their forty years in the wilderness when they turned to idols because they’d lost their trust in God. What’s hard about this is that Paul uses their time of challenge and failure as an example – “don’t be like them,” he says, “but do learn from them – don’t make the same mistakes.”
George Santanaya said, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Our memories (whether collective or individual) really do shape who we are, and all individuals, communities and nations tell stories about themselves, to try and make sense of who they are and how they came to be where and how they are. The ancient Israelites were no different. They constantly told and retold the story of their own salvation, and it was a story of their own failings, as well as of God’s mercy and patience. The way that they told that story, particularly the way they told the period from the exodus from slavery in Egypt to the conquest of the Promised Land formed their identity as a people and nation – later, their experience of Exile in Babylon would be added to that story, becoming almost as central to their identity as the Exodus.
I wonder how many of us have a particular overarching story that we tell about ourselves – not an individual anecdote, but some sort of summary of our lives. We, too, have a need to explain ourselves (to ourselves as well as to others!) – to provide some kind of narrative that makes sense of who we are and how we came to be the people we have become. Some people’s stories talk themselves up: the stories of the self-made men who overcame childhood poverty or disadvantage and made good, achieving success and fulfilment beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and often proving their detractors wrong. Others talk themselves down: things that were done, or that were not done become the explanation for continuing failure. Most of us have a story that they tell about our life which seeks to find patterns, to make connections, to work out why we are shaped the way that we are. Understanding our past is undoubtedly crucial to understanding our present. But there can be times when we need to turn a page in that story, to stop repeating the patterns that have governed our life thus far and dare to make the next chapter different.
In this passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul, a devout and highly knowledgeable Pharisee, draws on the story of his people, and makes explicit the need to go beyond merely repeating it, saying instead that the new Christians in Corinth must learn from it and undertake to write the next chapter differently.
He particularly wants them to be able to do this because they are in the midst of a time of huge challenge. They are persecuted from outside the faith and face huge divisions and arguments within it. They have been through the mill and need some serious spiritual direction about how to redefine themselves. This chapter invites them to take a look at where they’ve come from, while chapters 12 and 13 will go on to show them what Paul calls ‘A more excellent way’ for their future.
There are times for us, too, when we need to take one last look back at where we have been, and then consciously decide how far we are going to be defined by that story, and how else we might start to define ourselves. What will be the values by which we live from now on? Who are we, as individuals and as a community of faith, if we’re not any longer the people we’ve always been?
As I’ve said, Paul gives his own answers to some of those questions later in his letter. But we also see a hint of an answer in today’s gospel reading, particularly in the parable of the fig tree.
The image of the vine had long been used by God’s people about themselves, so Jesus’ first hearers would have immediately realised that the fig tree could well stand for them. This is also not the first time that the vine, or the fig tree, has failed to do what it’s supposed to do; Isaiah 5 is the most famous ‘failed vine’ passage in the Old Testament. In this parable, Jesus shows us a fig tree that’s been there, growing in the middle of the vineyard for years, and never really done much. The landowner thinks it’s had every chance, but the gardener wants to try one last time to see if he can coax it back into being fruitful.
For me, what’s really significant about this parable and what links it with what I’ve been saying about the other reading today, is that the gardener knows there are certain conditions which are necessary, or at least helpful, for the fig tree if it’s going to get its act together. It needs decent soil, that’s been dug through to let the moisture drain to the roots. It needs rain and sunshine, it needs care and attention, and pruning. He’s convinced that if it gets everything it needs, it will yield a rich harvest of figs.
Here’s the thing. We may or may now know what the ideal soil conditions are for growing fig trees. I certainly don’t. But do we know what the ideal conditions are for our own fruitfulness? If we’re bearing rich fruit already, there’s a good chance that we have the right environmental conditions for our thriving. But if we’re not, what would that manure, or sunlight, or rain, look like in real life? And what would need to change in order for us to get what it is we need, so that we can then also bring forth what we’re being called to bring forth?
The figs grow out of the years of growing that the fig tree has done, and the sunshine and rain of past years, together with the relative attention or neglect of the gardener over those years do make a difference to what it can do. But the main factor is what happens this year, this season. If it’s never borne fruit before, why would the gardener keep on doing the same things? But if he does something different? If the fig tree gets some different attention, some different nourishment? That’s a new chapter, or at least a new page in its story, and this is the year when the gardener does it. It’s not sometime, it’s now.
So what does that look like in real life? The answer will be different for each of us, I suspect, but if I can be very didactic for a moment I’d suggest that that combination of soil, weather and attention might well include prayer, scripture and fellowship with one another. And if the way you’ve been doing those things has stopped feeling fruitful, it could be time to do it differently, or at least try it differently.
In January the open ministry and mission meeting ended up talking a lot about how this church works – how we create (or sometimes fail to create) an environment that enables people to grow in faith and in love for one another and for God. We talked particularly about the value of the small groups that exist within church: the Ground Floor Group, the Bible Study Group, the Sunday Lunch Group, and more. These groups create safe environments in which we can discover who we really are, in which we can tell the stories that have formed us, and yet also move beyond them, growing and changing and developing, and in the process becoming more fruitful.
For this growth to happen there has to be a certain amount of input: honesty, trust, good humour, much drinking of tea and eating of cake usually, courage, emotional investment, and more. These are the things that create an environment where people can grow – grow into their identity and grow beyond the historic identities that risk keeping us stuck in a fruitless cycle of doing what we’ve always done and always getting the same results.
This is never about change for change’s sake; it’s about being honest about the parts of ourselves individually and the parts of this community that are not being all they could be. The parts that are stuck retelling the same story all the time, never able to move beyond it. The parts that are simply not bearing fruit. And it’s about asking ourselves serious questions about what might make our next chapter better, more alive. As a church, we need to ask that question together. And hopefully what we do together will create some of that safe space for us to ask the question of ourselves, too.