A Tale of Two Trees

By the Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 13:1-9 and Exodus 3:1-15.

I think of our Scriptures today as telling a Tale of Two Trees: the burning bush that Moses saw on the slopes of Mount Horeb in Exodus, and the unfruitful fig tree Jesus tells about in his parable in Luke. Between them, these two trees set before us the Scripture’s message about the need for repentance and the promise of grace.

Repentance is, of course, the theme of Jesus’ parable in the gospel. There was a fig tree growing in the middle of a vineyard, Jesus says, and for three years the owner came to get the fruit from the tree but found none. So he said to the gardener, “Cut this tree down! Why should it waste space in my vineyard?” But the gardener said, “Give me one more chance with it: I’ll aerate the soil and I’ll put on fertilizer – and if it doesn’t bear fruit next year, well then go ahead and cut it down.”

And the allegory in the parable is pretty clear. The tree is us, God’s people; the owner of the vineyard who looks for fruit is the judgment of God; and the gardener who wants to give the tree another chance is the mercy of God – especially the mercy of God incarnate among us in Jesus. And the moral of the story could not be clearer: the time to repent is now, while we still have the chance. The time to bear the fruits of repentance, fruits of love and compassion and mercy and service and devotion, the time to bear fruit is now, before the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, and every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. We’ve heard that kind of language of judgment in the gospel before; and now it’s being brought home to us in the image of the parable. The parable questions us: What kind of fruit will we bear?

And that question takes us to the other tree image in today’s readings: the image of the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses. What Moses sees is that this bush, this little tree, is blazing, shining with light, radiating warmth – but it is not burned up, it is not consumed. And out of the heart of this blaze, out of the heart of this fire that burns but does not destroy, the Voice of God speaks to Moses, and summons Moses to a mission, and assures Moses that God’s presence and God’s power will always be with him. And as a sign of that presence and power, God reveals to Moses the Divine Name: I AM WHO I AM, ehyeh asher ehyeh – or in the short form, the personal form, Yahweh, I AM.

Scholars and theologians have been wrestling with that Name for millennia. The Hebrew – ehyeh asher ehyeh – is not entirely grammatically clear, it’s not a complete sentence; and it can be translated “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or even “I am the one who causes things to be according to the being of my own nature,” if you want to get technical. All of those meanings (and perhaps more) are folded into the Divine Name – and they all point to the revelation of God as the Source of Existence, the Great Creator, the One who radiates with the power to be, and who through that power calls all things into being. The light that shines from the bush, the fire that burns but does not consume, is a kind of outward and visible sign of the creating, sustaining, redeeming power of God: God is like a fire that does not burn up or destroy, but builds up and creates and makes new.

And it is that very creating and redeeming power that God calls Moses to proclaim to the Israelites (and to Pharaoh!) – it is the fire of love that renews and builds up that God calls Moses to show forth, as Moses leads the people out of bondage and slavery, as Moses leads them in to a new land, and a new life, and a new relationship of covenant with God.

That same fire led the people, as a column of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.

That same fire blazed on the summit of Sinai, in thunder and lightning and flame, when Moses received the covenant and the Tables of the Law and the Torah.

That same fire shone in Moses himself, when he came down from Sinai, carrying the tablets, and the whole congregation of the people of Israel saw that the skin of Moses’ face was shining, because he had been talking face to face with God.

That same fire became incarnate and lived among us in Jesus, and was revealed in the light of Jesus’ Transfiguration, and his Resurrection, and his Ascension.

That same fire danced as tongues of flame over the heads of the apostles, when the Holy Spirit came on the first Christian Pentecost.

And the fire of holy love, the fire that burns but does not destroy, can burn in us, too, if we open our hearts and open our minds and open our spirits and let the fire in. We can be filled with the creating and renewing grace of God – and we can show forth that grace, in the creating, renewing, loving things we do, the creating, renewing, loving fruits we bear.

So the image of the two trees puts us to the question: What kind of tree are we going to be – an unfruitful fig tree, or a tree ablaze with the fire that burns and renews and creates? What kind of tree do you want to be? What kind of tree do I want to be? What kind of tree will we grow into together, in community, in response to what God wants us to be?

At Diocesan Convention a few weeks ago, Bishop Mark told a story of a congregation where the priest noticed a new family one Sunday, sitting near the back, and the mother was signing to her children everything that was happening in the service. The priest noticed again when they came back the next week, and the mother was signing to the children everything in the service. So he got to know them, and learned that both children were deaf, and through them and got to know some other families with deaf family members. And he planned with them one Sunday when an interpreter who would sign the service for the whole congregation. And then another Sunday. And before long they had a thriving ministry with and to the deaf community in that town, extending love and compassion and sharing and mutual respect to a whole group of people they’d never had contact with before. They recognized in that opportunity the creating and renewing fire of God’s love, and they responded and bore fruit.

Years ago I knew a woman who thought she might be called to be a priest. She entered the discernment process, but the commission on ministry said, “We recognize that you have many gifts, and you are good at ministry, but we’re not sure you’re called to the ministry of a priest.” She took that hard, as a kind of rejection; so the bishop asked me to meet with her and mentor her and explore with her what her ministry might really be. And as we talked it emerged that she really felt called to a ministry of healing, especially reiki and healing touch and prayer. So we explored ways she might do that ministry, in the church and outside the church, whether or not she was ordained. Before long she discerned a whole ministry path she’d never even thought of before. She was afraid she’d end up being unfruitful because she couldn’t be a priest; but she came to recognize in that disappointment a movement of the creating and renewing fire of God’s love, and she responded and bore a new kind of fruit.

There is a story told about a desert monk who was visiting with an elder. And the monk said, “I do what I can: I say my prayers, I keep my fasts, I obey my rule. What more can I do?” And the older monk stood up, and spread out his hands, and it seemed like flames leaped from his fingertips; and he said, “Why not become all fire?”

What kind of trees will we become? Why not become all fire? Lent can be for us a time to burn with the fire of God’s Name; a time to move from the ashes of mortality on Ash Wednesday to the fire of new life kindled at the Easter Vigil; a time to burn away all the things that distract us from the fire of God’s love. Lent can be for us a time to grow in bearing fruit that shines with the radiance of grace.

I pray for you that God will grant you the fire of love this Lent, and the fruit of new life this Easter. Amen.