Friday was Earth Day, and today in our worship we are celebrating God’s Creation and thinking about the environment. I’m going to accept a few things as “givens” in this sermon: climate change is real; our patterns of consumption and overuse of resources are neither healthy nor sustainable; both collective action and personal choices are necessary in response to these challenges. I’m not an expert witness on any of the particulars of environmental policy, so I’m not going to lecture you about the environment today; I’m a pastor, so I’m going to tell you a Bible story this morning, and at first it’s going to seem like it has very little to do with Earth Day.
What I hope to remind us this morning is that the natural world and all of its parts are intricately woven into the pages of our Holy Scriptures. God’s Creation is not a tangential social issue that you might be convinced to care about if you are a good Christian. Creation is centrally involved in God’s whole story, it is the home of our life together and all its history, and without it, nothing else in the Bible takes place. Not to love and care for our planet is literally to contribute to the end of days. We need to remember and celebrate Creation. So I’m going to remind you of just a couple of Bible stories today where God’s Creation has central place.
We’ll start with the parable of the fig tree: It’s not one of the most well-known stories Jesus tells, like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, but it is found in three out of the four Gospels, and is referred to by Jesus multiple times—it seems to deserve our attention.
The story is simple and anyone who has planted their share of trees and shrubs can relate to it. A man has a fig tree planted in his vineyard but it bears no fruit on the expected timetable, so the man tells the gardener to rip it out. The gardener asks for a chance to care for it for one more year to see if he can get it to grow. Thanks to a wise telling of the story, we are left to wonder what will happen. Most of the time when the story is told, we say it’s about whether one will follow Jesus or not, or about being given one more chance. In one of my Bibles, the editor’s heading reads, “Repent or Perish.” I’m sure plenty of good sermons have been preached on these subjects.
Not long ago, I grew in my understanding of this story when I stumbled upon a wonderful children’s book. It’s called The Good for Nothing Tree. It’s part of a series of children’s books by biblical scholar AJ Levine, who I studied with at Vanderbilt. She co-authors them with Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso of Indianapolis, who just happens to live a mile from my parents’ home and be the mother of Debbie Sasso, who I danced with in high school show choir—so there’s some useless Adam trivia for you. I come to these children’s books by some direct connections, but I assure you they are wonderful books, telling important Bible stories in fun and interesting ways. I’ve put a copy of each one in the children’s library down in the Social Hall if you’d like to check them out.
Anyway, here’s my favorite part of The Good for Nothing Tree: It tells the story of the parable of the fig tree, and partway through the story, Levine and Sasso highlight the moment in the story when the fig tree is bearing no fruit. Many of Jesus’ stories include naysayers, these sort of voices from the sidelines who comment about what’s going on—this story is no different. When the fig tree doesn’t grow any figs, this page reads: “Some people shook their heads,” and said, “This tree will never amount to anything.” And “the tree dropped a tiny leaf.” And they said, “It’s good for nothing.” And “Two more leaves fell, and tree shivered in the wind.” And we remember that not only do we react this way to trees and shrubs that are struggling, but sometimes this is how we react to children who are struggling. They hear that they will never amount to anything. They hear that they are good for nothing. And they drop their leaves and shiver in the wind.
This 1 page in a children’s book quickly shows the deep importance of this story about a fig tree and reveals its countless practical applications. The way we raise our children and the way we react to their friends. The importance of our Sunday School and Youth Ministry, our mentoring ministry with Third Presbyterian Church and our interaction with homeless children who stay in our building through Interfaith Hospitality Network. The grief and memories we ourselves hold about our own childhood and the messages we received about what we could expect to amount to. It’s about all of our relationships with each other, both here at church and everyplace else we go.
Like all of the parables of Jesus, the parable of the fig tree provides just enough detail to get us thinking, and leaves the rest for us to wonder about.
· How are you like the landowner in this story and how are you like the gardener?
· What messages are you sending to the young people in your life?
· When confronted with a tough situation, are you curious enough for your mind to be changed?
· Do you believe that people you don’t like might bear fruit? Do you believe they need love?
· Are you willing to expect that the gifts of a person you know might be different gifts than the ones you care about?
· When a person really does struggle to thrive, are we able to grieve and navigate that reality with them?
· Do we realize that these questions are the content and purpose of our church community? Or do we prefer to show up on Sunday, dressed up and looking perfect, as if our lives are perfect and our families have no problems?
We are called to all of these authentic and vulnerable questions, by a little four verse parable buried in the 13th chapter of Luke.
Fig trees, and just about everything else, need several things in order to grow—good dirt, sunlight, love and care, and of course, water. We baptize people with water—so that they can grow. We make commitments to grow together with them. Today at our 11am service we will do/have done that, and when we do that we present the baptized person to the congregation and we ask you to recite the words to a congregational question. To many of you, that may seem like an uninspired, rote, Presbyterian ritual.
Let me break it down for you: the child or adult being baptized is one of the fig trees in our garden, and when you say the words of that congregational response, you are making a commitment to that person—today her name is Isla James…–and you are making that commitment to her family, and you are reminding yourself of having previously made that commitment to every other baptized person here. Your commitment is that in our community at Knox, every person will be encouraged to grow and thrive, and will never be told that they will not amount to anything. Sometimes we try at these things and sometimes we fail. But if you do not seriously intend to honor that commitment, you should not say the words.
At church, a person should never hear that they are good for nothing or that they will amount to nothing. We do not see one another that way, because God does not see us that way. Many of us drag ourselves around in life, wondering why we made this mistake or that miscalculation and if we think hard enough about it, wonder if God has forgotten about us. In baptism, we are marked by God with the water of life to remind us forever that we belong to God. God has planted us here and has given us gifts for a good life in this world, and if your gifts have become buried in a lifetime of shame and guilt, it’s time to dig them up and let them thrive. Church is the place where we do this work together.
Fig trees, water, bread, wine, floods, rainbows, soil, mountaintops, valleys, rivers, sheep, wolves, lilies, ravens, locusts, starlight, whales…I could choose from countless things in God’s Creation and point you to the story where God’s Creation teaches us faith. God’s Creation is not window dressing for Bible stories, it is the very thing that shows us the mystery of the love of God.
I will tell you one more bit of trivia about water and then I will let you go. Biblical scholar Ched Myers notes that when Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, the word that is used for “in” is the Greek “eis” it actually means Jesus was baptized “into” the water. We are baptized “into” the water, invited into our part in God’s created world. (Myers, Church of the Wild, 58-59) Creation teaches us faith if we pay attention, but the earth is not just there to provide for us, it is not simply a disposable tool for us to use and throw away. When God claims us, we are baptized “into” God’s Creation, we are claimed as part of this whole story that God created and then called it good. So we commit to care for it just as we commit to caring for one another. Our faith finds its substance in the commitments we make, to our children, to each other, and to the earth itself. In the mystery of how we come to bear fruit, we find God. Let us go out into the world today to love and appreciate its gifts, remembering how much God has done for us. Amen.