One of my fondest memories as a child is of spending time with my grandmother in San Diego. She was a loving, down-to-earth woman who loved and served God with her whole heart and soul. And it was through her, and the times we spent together, that I began to learn about what it is to be a person who follows Christ.
Her lessons were never overt. Instead, they were taught in subtle and earthy ways. Ways that I could somehow hear, and that took root to sprout later in life. For example, she had a many fruit trees in her back yard. She would save her kitchen scraps, and after meals, we would march out and spread the organic scraps around the base of the trees. She told me that the sandy soil in coastal San Diego made growing fruit trees difficult, but with proper care and extra nutrients it was possible. I remember one day harvesting several ripe figs from her garden, warmed from the sun, and then returning to her porch swing to enjoy our feast. As we enjoyed the figs, she read me the parable from Sunday's (Lent 3) gospel.
A MAN HAD A FIG TREE PLANTED IN HIS VINEYARD. AND HE CAME LOOKING FOR FRUIT ON IT AND FOUND NONE. SO HE SAID TO THE GARDENER, SEE HERE. FOR THREE YEARS I HAVE COME LOOKING FOR FRUIT ON THIS FIG TREE, AND STILL I FIND NONE. CUT IT DOWN!!! WHY SHOULD IT BE WASTING THE SOIL? HE REPLIED, SIR, LET IT ALONE FOR ONE MORE YEAR, UNTIL I DIG AROUND IT AND PUT MANURE ON IT. IF IT BEARS FRUIT NEXT YEAR, WELL AND GOOD; BUT IF NOT, YOU CAN CUT IT DOWN.”
Let me dig around it and nourish it…if it bears fruit next year well and good. If not, you can cut it down…
Today’s gospel raises the question, how can we, as communities who profess to follow Christ, dig around and nourish ourselves so that we bears fruit?
How do you know if your congregation is “baring fruit”? A great deal of my work involves traveling and speaking at provincial and diocesan conferences, both in the US and overseas. I always ask people why they made the choice to take a Saturday and attend. Almost universally the response is “because we want our congregation to grow!” It’s always a set up, because the one characteristic most linked with decline in attendance in a congregation is the desire to grow. Most often, wanting to grow means a congregation is looking a little empty on Sunday mornings, or maybe that the congregation is aging a little bit, or that finances are getting a little tight. Growth, or wanting to grow, is not how we tell if a congregation is baring fruit.
Instead, a congregation is baring fruit when people are being transformed by the love of Christ. This means that with in the congregation member’s lives are being transformed, and that the congregation is reaching out, and transforming their corner of the world and, possibly, beyond…Transformation is the fruit of the congregation in full bloom. A bi-product of transformation is that the congregation that transforms people and wider community usually does grow, but growth in numbers in the congregation, in and of itself, is not the end.
This Sunday I'm attending a new church...here's hoping that as my family and I walk in we find a place as welcoming as my grandmother's porch swing, and discover a community of people happily producing plump figs, warmed by the sun...