A Tree grows in Valparaiso. There’s one on the city flag, one on the city seal, and one in today’s Gospel reading. A rich image, a tree; there are times when, despite the richness of one appointed text, another won’t let us ignore it.
In light of society’s image of Christians as anti LGBT, our congregation’s being RIC, and my relentless preaching on the topic, one sentence screams louder than any other read today: “We must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, and 23,000 fell in a single day.” What shall we say about that? Paul refers to an incident in the book of Numbers in which the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, went, “Hey, what happens in the wilderness stays in the wilderness!” and began enjoying the local women and their gods. God responded by sending a plague and saying, “Nope. There are still consequences to your actions.” The story fits Paul’s fiery response to news that members of the Church in Corinth are still visiting temple prostitutes, eating meat sacrificed to idols, and that one dude is even openly having an affair with his stepmother. The Corinthians have the attitude that Christ has saved them so now they can do whatever they want.
Paul, for his part, is trying to get the Church in Corinth to live in God’s grace and to embody the genuine human community that Paul believes is possible through Jesus Christ. In Paul’s vision, being Christian is a way of living. Everyone is united in one body of Christ, just as leaves, branches, bark, and roots are united in a great tree. We do well to bear this in mind when examining the rich image of the fig tree in Luke 13. John the Baptist warned us in Advent, “Already the axe is lying at the root.” He wasn’t kidding: the owner has found that the tree is not producing fruit, and he orders it removed. We are all a part of the tree, we cannot detach ourselves from the situation and say, “Such a pity,” or “You know, they brought this on themselves.” Our tree is not producing fruit. It is not doing Christ’s work of bearing witness.
Somewhere along the line God’s people (that is, we) finally got it through our skulls that God wanted us to be witnesses. Isaiah proclaims this. For years (300 according to the Bible’s somewhat creative historical timeline) the people of Judah trusted in the everlasting covenant between God and David. The King in Jerusalem could claim Davidic descent. But then Jerusalem fell to Babylon and the people were hauled away into exile. The promise seemed broken. Some of the Bible’s authors concluded that people were to blame for the broken promise. Second Kings takes that route: Judah’s kings sinned so severely that God cut them loose. By our thoughts and ways that explains things. Today, God speaks through Isaiah with another possibility: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and our ways are not God’s ways. God has remained faithful. The covenant with David was actually that David was a witness—his faithfulness, his returning to God whenever he slipped, and his faithful psalms, all made him a witness to God’s work. Now, God says through Isaiah, the work of faithful witness extends to all of God’s people. The work of witness belongs not to one part, but to the whole tree.
A tree grows in Valparaiso. Has it borne witness? Perhaps the matter before the tree is, “Does our giving and spending embody faithfulness to God?” Does our spending as individuals and families serve God’s purposes? Can I point to my purchases and then with a straight face say they were to the glory of God? Do we believe in Trinity Lutheran Church as a vital piece of God’s mission in Valparaiso, and does our giving and spending bear that out? We passed a fairly modest budget last month, knowing that giving levels for last year fell tens of thousands of dollars short of what we anticipated spending this year. Is our tree going to bear fruit? Or do I hear the vineyard owner coming?
Or Perhaps the question before the tree is, “Do our actions as a congregation and as individual members of it embody Christ’s radical embrace of outsiders—say, minorities?” We have bias motivated crimes in Valparaiso. Does our being Christian take flesh in our daily challenging Valparaiso to be a place where it is not just white people who feel safe? Do we encounter Black or Latino or Asian members of the community and treat them as human beings? Is our tree going to bear fruit? Or do I hear the vineyard owner coming?
Well I hear the owner, and I also hear the gardener! Clearly the gardener is the hero of our story. Without him John the Baptist’s prediction comes to pass and the tree falls. Instead, the gardener implores the owner, “let it alone for one more year.” Whew! …Only, “Whew!” is often the extent of our response to God’s faithfulness, and “Let it alone” is often the summary of the Christian attitude toward the world. (It sounds a lot like the attitude of the Church in Corinth: “whatever, Christ saved us so it’s cool.”) How often do we have sympathy for someone right up to the point of actually having to do something for them? How often are we concerned for the faithfulness of the Church right up to the point where we personally have to make a spending decision? How often are we concerned to treat others as human beings right up to the point when we personally have to risk backlash and call out behavior as unfair? The gardener’s intercession is not a reprieve. Hard work is coming. The gardener has considerable digging and fertilizing in his future. He will be getting his hands dirty. Christ has some filthy business to attend to.
In language similar to that used to declare his impending death and his promise to share the true Passover after his death and resurrection, Jesus offers that his work is a lot like shoveling manure. (We’ll stick to calling it manure. Jesus uses a stronger term for it, one you can say on TV but probably don’t want your children using.) The work ahead of him is backbreaking, smelly, honestly a great big pile of you know what, and it will cost him his life. The result though is fruit on the tree. Christ digs around the tree and fertilizes it with his death and resurrection.
The tree eats and drinks the God who gives his life to the world. The food and drink of Christ’s Church is giving that knows no ending. Time and again Christ, almighty and infinite, pours everything he’s got into a piece of bread and a gulp of wine for you. When that is the case, the Church cannot help but give, for we cannot help but be reminded of Christ’s self-giving life in every decision we face.
Christ’s brutal death as a despised minority lies at the root of the tree. We eat and drink the god who would face the worst backlash that the world can offer rather than silently watch the strong bully the weak, Rome bully the world, and his own people segregate themselves from all they consider inferior. When that’s the case, the Church cannot help but challenge today’s world to embrace all people, for we cannot help but be reminded that Christ faced the backlash all the way to Easter morning.
God’s faithfulness even in the midst of disaster lies at the root of the tree. We grow skyward because we are rooted in God’s faithfulness. When that’s the case, the Church cannot help but be a faithful witness, for we cannot help but proclaim God’s faithfulness.
Our tree grows in Valparaiso. Christ urges us to bear faithful witness. Christ urges us to dig around the tree with him, to get our hands dirty as we search for ways to help our tree produce fruit. Christ calls us to dig around the tree so that our lives—as individuals and as a congregation—glorify God. Christ calls us to dig around the tree, so that our giving and our spending bears witness to a hurting world that Christ keeps on giving. Christ calls us to dig around the tree—accepting that we are going to get some manure on us—so that we may bear witness to the world that Christ wants everyone in Valparaiso to feel safe. Christ calls us to dig around the tree so that the fruit it bears, whether we’re talking its finances or its social action, embodies the genuine human community possible through Christ.
For it is but one tree, and whatever aspect of our ministry together we’re talking about, we’re talking about our one tree, our one genuine human community through Christ. Christ planted it here to bear witness to him. There will be digging. There will be…manure. There will be Christ.