St. Augustine pointed to the humility of Christ the gardener, who is not afraid to get their hands dirty; to use earthy matter, manure to bring fruitfulness. This is a very helpful corrective to views of God in Christ that suggest a heavenly being of little earthly use. In times like this we need a God who can get down into the mess of life with us and help us with the stuff that is really difficult, from terrorism to child abuse...
Yet Jesus is having none of it. He does not react to their nationalistic fervour nor is he buying in to the idea that people suffer because they have done something wrong. Humans jump to this conclusion far too easily. But Jesus points out that sin and suffering do not belong together in this simplistic way. Instead He responds with a gardening parable that is about mercy and patience.
Gardening seems to me a very patient occupation and one requiring a great tolerance for loss. Sometimes things grow. Sometimes they do not and it is not necessarily the fault of the plant or the gardener. It is just how it is. In our era we tend to be impatient and quick to blame. The conservatives blame the radicals, different religious groupings blame one another, the political parties all blame each other. Meanwhile the planet continues to heat up and it seems that it is left to our children, who went on strike this week around climate change, to do the gardening.
So, what is the cure? I believe the cure has to do with patience and mercy, with taking time, and digging in the manure from a humble and Christ-like place. Things that matter take time. Think of Abraham waiting all that time for the fulfilment of God’s promises – a fulfilment he would never live to see in full. No wonder he started to get impatient. Yet faith encourages us to take just the next step and leave the rest to God.
Today our church calendar remembers St. Patrick, the fifth century missionary who was one of the first to take the gospel to Ireland. Patrick had no illusions about himself or his ability. He describes himself as ‘a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and contemptible to many.’ He was an outsider in Ireland and viewed with suspicion as a possible heretic by his religious superiors in Rome. As such he is an excellent saint for today, as we realise again our very human failings and our inability to live at peace with one another. Those like me who lived through the Irish troubles in the UK are no stranger to the violence that human beings can inflict on one another. We know that for human beings suffering often appears to have no meaning and that the quest for nationalistic identities can produce unspeakable acts of horror.
So, if the human fig tree is to produce good fruit, we need another way. As the editor of the Irish Times expressed it this week, “We have learned the hard way that Irishness has to be open, supple and generous if it is not to turn in on itself. For that reason, chauvinism, sectarianism and hatred of others have no part in it.” The same could be said of the entire human project. If events like those this week in New Zealand are to be avoided and indeed if human life is to continue on this planet; if the horrors of climate change and its inevitable political, social and economic consequences are to be averted or at least mitigated, we need to be much more open, supple and generous in all our relationships. And that takes humility and patience - gifts of the Holy Spirit from a Christian perspective.
Humility allows us to own up that we do not have the whole truth about anything; there is always more to understand. Humility allows us to own up that we do not always live out of the little light that we do have, but rather choose darkness. Humility enables us to ask for help from God and from others. Humility as the word suggests, takes us back down to the earth, to the dust, the essential matter of which we are all formed. The sun shines and the rain falls on all of us alike, and we are to recognise one another as equal in the sight of God. Our best hope then is to ask for some manure for our roots - the grace of God that comes to us all when we pray; when we spend time in gratitude for all that is good; when we seek to share with generosity our goods and our knowledge.
We have the potential to bear good fruit. Hence in the midst of suffering and violence there is always hope. The eight year old girl who stood up on Friday here in Brisbane at the strike for climate change and expressed her longing for a different world and a different way speaks for all of us. Let us have the humility and the patience to allow Christ the gardener to dig around our roots and put in the manure, so that good fruit may come to be. In the name of Christ. Amen.
by Penny Jones, 17 March 2019