I imagine there's not a congregation we preach in that doesn't have within it somebody who's been hurt when something bad's happened to them or to someone close to them. Of course this works on the assumption the people concerned are good, or at least not bad. But don't we all think of ourselves like that? Are there many 'chief of sinners' types among us any more?
The first time I came across the big 'why do bad things happen to good
people?' question was as a fairly new priest visiting a migrant family
newly arrived from England in the early sixties of last century. (Wow!
Last century!) The father told me pretty straightly he'd 'stopped believing
when Hitler started bombing London'. I was taken aback by that. Didn't
respond very well, I suspect. The situation hadn't been improved by the
wife & mother of the family dying comparatively young in England before
the man & his children migrated. I wasn't wise enough, nor experienced
enough to be much use to them as they settled into life in a new land,
certainly not experienced enough to help them 'unpack' this double burden
of unbelief & loss they were carrying.
Mind you, though I know a bit more & a bit better now, I'm still neither wise nor experienced enough to be able to help all people through all their deepest puzzlements & hurts. The preacher has a unique opportunity to open up this kind of thing in a way people can hear the issue(s) so that there's the possibility of moving on to a more open agenda in individuals, families, congregation, the wider community. Are we sufficiently tuned to what's going on out there in our margins & laterals, asking the right questions, listening to people's hearts & minds, to be able to do that?
The fig tree takes us into different but related territory. My wife & I just love figs. We have a tiny, well tended, just beginning to fruit tree in a pot, & now discovered what looks like becoming a much larger one growing self-sown (thanks to the birds) in a wild spot of the garden. Since we've spotted that fig growing there we've treated that bit of garden with a whole lot more respect! (For respect read more water, fertiliser, & t.l.c.). But respect is also what we need to treat those who hear us preach with, too. Sometimes they seem to come to us already potted & nurtured from their spiritual journey thus far. Others are still in the semi-wild state, don't even know how they got to this stage, but look to us to help grow them on. They all deserve our respect. Quite apart from other considerations, they belong, we all belong to God!
Threatening people with 'the axe' doesn't translate well to human 'fig-trees'
(does excommunication ever work, for instance?) but the idea of investing
more time, nurturing more intensely does. It fits exactly with Jesus' imagery
of shepherding, sowing, viticulture, etc. It might help us all whether
nurturing or nurtured to grasp that in the 'great eternal plan' we are
all living in borrowed time, every extra day we're granted. (Heart surgery
brought that home more vividly than any sermon some years ago!) Time doesn't
belong to us, nor should it be allowed to master us. It's there to serve
God's ongoing love & compassion for us all, fruitful or not at this
stage. Let's none of us ever give up on ourselves or others. God doesn't.
(N.B. It's not the owner, but the gardener who represents God in
this little parable!) God is as good at gardening to grow people as he
is at shepherd -ing 'sheep', sowing good 'seed', 'fishing', etc.. It all
takes place in God's extra year, extra mile of grace granted to us.