St. Philip Lutheran Church
20 March 2022 + Lent 3c
Rev. Josh Evans
“Bloom where you are planted” … or so the saying goes. It’s well-meaning enough, similar to the equally popular: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
The apparent wisdom behind these sentiments is to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. Don’t get distracted or discouraged by what’s going on around you. Keep on keeping on! Just do the best you can with what you’re given. Bloom where you are planted.
The problem with that particular phrase to me, though, assumes that you’re planted in the right place. It also assumes that blooming is the goal.
“The first thing I want to know,” one preacher writes, “is why a fig tree is in the midst of a vineyard.” Vineyards are for grapes, after all, and figs are not grapes. She goes on to suggest that the fig tree has been planted “only so that no inch of the ground is squandered.” (Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia)
In reading and interpreting parables, I was always taught that the most important person or the one with the most authority stood in for God. That becomes problematic though when you look at the landowner in this parable. The landowner doesn’t care for the fig tree itself – a waste of soil, he calls it. The landowner is only concerned with what his crops can produce – and if they don’t produce, cut it down! And plant something that will produce in its place.
Where’s the grace in that? Where’s the Lutheran theology of a God who loves us unconditionally not for what we do but for what has been done for us?
If we’re looking for God in this parable, I’m much more drawn to the patience of the gardener who manages to spare the fig tree: “Let’s give it a little more time, a little more care, some water, sunshine, and fertilizer. Let’s see what happens then…”
Plants don’t – and can’t – bloom and grow on their own. They need external sources – like water, sunlight, and fertilizer-rich soil.
Still, I struggle with this parable. Even after the patient tending for one more year, what happens next year? What happens if the fig tree never produces any figs? Can the fig tree have any worth even then?
It’s similar with people. We’re raised by our parents, grandparents, and caregivers, and formed by our teachers, mentors, friendships, and perhaps religious communities.
But even with the most nurturing relationships, still we’re caught up in a cultural climate that values what we do and what we can contribute – how we can “bloom.”
As the Trappist monk and theologian Thomas Merton puts it, “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, people are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness.”
When we meet someone new for the first time, after exchanging names and maybe sharing where we’re from, what’s usually the very next question? “And what do you do for a living?” Or if the new acquaintance happens to be a child: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Imagine if the answer could be: “a compassionate human being who strives to embody love and justice in the world.” That would surely raise some eyebrows at the next social event!
What if we could re-learn what it means to be worthy? Not for what we do for a living, or how long our to-do lists are, or what we can accomplish – but for who we are, as beloved children of God caught up in the great big family of God.
If the fig tree never produces figs, that doesn’t make it any less a valuable part of the vineyard. Its uses are many, even if they’re less readily apparent or visible.
Maybe the tree becomes shade for the gardener under the noonday sun, or a home for birds or other animals. Maybe the tree just exists and breathes, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and creating oxygen so others around it can breathe and exist too.
The parable of the fig tree invites to reimagine what it means to have worth and to be worthy.
What happens to the fig tree next year? The story doesn’t tell us. All we know is that the gardener gives it more time now, more care, more water, more sun, more fertilizer now. The gardener does what they can with what they have.
We also know that it’s been this way for three years. Who’s to say this is the first conversation like this between the gardener and the landowner? Who’s to say the same conversation, the same bargaining, won’t happen again next year?
Bloom where you are planted. Or maybe, better yet: Just be where you are planted.
None of us is expected to be or do everything. That’s the whole point of embracing diversity. We “be” and “do” in different ways.
In a homily from November 1977, less than three years before he was assassinated, Archbishop Óscar Romero, now celebrated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church and commemorated on our own liturgical calendar every March 24th, preached:
“How beautiful will be the day when all the baptized understand that their work, their job, is a priestly work, that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench, and each metalworker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market woman at her stand, is performing a priestly office! How many cabdrivers, I know, listen to this message there in their cabs; you are a priest at the wheel, my friend, if you work with honesty, consecrating that taxi of yours to God, bearing a message of peace and love to the passengers who ride in your cab.”
Romero never suggested that everyone should become a priest, nor did he expect a medical doctor to know the first thing about running a produce stand at the market or driving a taxi.
None of us is expected to be or do everything.
We are worthy not for what we do or produce, or for what we can contribute, but because we are loved wholly and unconditionally by God.
And God, who loves us, invites us in each moment to do the thing we are moved to do. To embody love and justice in the place where we are, however we can, with whatever we have, entrusting the rest to God’s care.
God, who loves us and cares for us, invites us to be – and maybe to bloom – where we are planted.