Bear Fruit or Die

rose of sharon

Luke 13:1-9 NRSV

One of the great things about living in southern Louisiana were the countless stories I heard about two infamous Cajuns named Boudreaux and Thibodeaux.

Reverend Boudreaux was the part-time pastor of the Boondock Bible Church and Pastor Thibodeaux was the minister of the Backwoods Gospel Church located directly across the road. One day, they were both standing out by the road in front of their churches, each pounding a sign into the ground as fast as they could. The sign read:

Da End is Near
Turn Yo Sef ‘Roun Now
Afore It Be Too Late!

As soon as the signs got into the ground, a car passed by. Without slowing down, the driver leaned out his window and yelled as loud as he could: “You bunch of religious nuts!”

Then, from the curve in the road they heard tires screeching and a big splash.

The Reverend Boudreaux yells at Pastor Thibodeaux across the road and asks:

“Do ya tink maybe da sign should jus say ‘Bridge Out’?”

Now, because I am a seminary-educated minister that has spent the bulk of my ministry preaching from mainline, downtown pulpits, I have always sought to differentiate myself from the so-called religious nuts. The repent-or-be-sent, turn-or-burn, reach-for-the-sky-or-fry, get-saved-or-get-microwaved style of preaching has never been a part of my repertoire.

Thus, when I preach a passage of scripture like our gospel lesson this morning, I have steered away from any interpretation that sounds like what Jesus is actually saying here is: “The end is near! Ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

For example, I have used this passage as an opportunity to have a deep, theological discussion on the problem of evil. I have said that here, in this passage, we have two basic types of evil in the world. There is natural evil, and there is personal evil.

The tower of Siloam, I have said, represents natural evil. In this fragmented world, sometimes tornadoes and straight-line winds destroy property and take lives.

And the Galileans massacred by Pilate, represent personal evil. In this broken world, sometimes a broken person will grab a gun, fire shots out their car window while driving down the road, then walk into a place where he once worked and begin shooting anyone in sight.

And with Jesus’ very emphatic response, “No, I tell you!” Jesus is saying that God does not will such tragedy because of human sinfulness or any other reason. In this imperfect world, sometimes bad things happen to very good people, and there is no divine explanation or driving purpose for it.

However, maybe, to avoid sounding like a religious nut, I have actually missed the very simple point of this passage which is, “The end is near. Ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

Maybe the point that Jesus is really trying trying to make here is: “Unless you repent, you will perish.”

You have a little more time, but unless you start producing some figs, start bearing some fruit, at least start sprouting a bloom or two, you are going to die.

“But, Dr. Banks, that sounds too much like the hell, fire and brimstone sermons of those backwoods churches in the boondocks, far from the lights of downtown, and you know that we moderate, educated clergy in our mainline, sophisticated pulpits are way too smart for that.”

However, I have a feeling that through this passage Jesus is arguing that we may be too smart for our own good!

People had gathered together, and they started doing what people do best when they gather together, even in the church. They began to gossip, especially about the sinfulness of others, the sinfulness of “those” people. “Those” people who had this tower tragically collapse on top of them.

Sadly, I believe this may be the only reason some people go to church these days: to hear about the sins of all those who are not in church. It makes them feel good, religious, superior, righteous.

And Jesus is emphatic, “No, I tell you!”

It is as if he is saying: “You better stop judging your neighbors and start taking a look at yourselves. Stop worrying about the speck in your neighbor’s eye and worry more about the log in your own eye. Look, bad things happen this world. People die. It’s not a matter of degrees of rightness or wrongness, sin or sainthood. Everyone dies. And one day, you are going to die. So, you better repent. You better change. Ya better turn yo sef roun now. A fore it be too late!”

And to drive the point home, Jesus tells the story about a fruitless fig tree. And the moral of the story is simple. Bear fruit or die.

Reverend Sharron Blezard believes this text is begging the church today to ask: “What are we doing to bear fruit, to bloom where we’ve been planted?”

She says, that far too many congregations are merely existing like a barren fig tree, wasting the soil. There are no signs of any fruits, no promise of any blooms. These churches exist primarily to get together, and sadly to do what people do best: to gossip, to talk about the sinfulness of those outside the church, to lament about the moral decay of society, and to pine for the return of good old days.

And they’ve lost hope. They’ve grown too weary, too worn down, too disheartened to invest the energy, creativity, and passion to share the Good News of Jesus with a broken and hurting world. While many congregations do provide a place to take care of one another, they have no sense of mission to be the Body of Christ that is sent by God into the world bearing fruit.

She says, think of it this way: fruit always “grows outward from the plant into the light. So, too, a healthy church grows outward.”

Several years ago, my mother gave me a Rose of Sharon root. She told me to plant it, and it would grow to be one of the most beautiful plants in my yard, with its flowers blooming all summer long.

Well, although the plant grew, it did not produce a single bloom that summer. I called Mama and said, “I think you must have given me a dud.”

She said, “Oh no. It’s not a dud. It just needs a little TLC. You may need to dig around it, give it a little fertilizer. You may even need to dig it up all together and plant it in better soil. Make sure it is in soil that can soak up water and is growing in a place where it can get good light.

As always, I did what Mama told me to to do. I ended up transplanting it to a spot that had better topsoil. I kept an eye on it, watered it, cared for it, and the next year, just like mama said, it produced the most beautiful blooms all summer long.

From the short time that I have known you, it is obvious that God has given this church many good gifts. The talents and resources that are here are astounding. There is not one dud in this room. And because of that, God expects us to be fruitful with those gifts. God expects our church to bloom.

I believe Jesus is asking us to take a lesson from a barren fig tree. To bloom and bear beautiful fruit will require some work, some sacrifice. We may need to dig around, put out some fertilizer, even transplant a thing or two. It may take some cutting back, pruning, shaping and nurturing.

Yes, it is scary. It is difficult. It is risky. But, Jesus says that it is the only way to life, the only way to bear fruit that nourishes the world.

Eddie Hammett, my friend and church consultant, loves to say that Christians need to stop going to church, and start being the church.

I believe he is talking about the difference between a church that is inward focused, therefore barren, and one that is outward focused, therefore bearing fruit for the world.

Hammett says:

Going to church is routine and easy. Being church in the world is challenging, difficult and calls for prayerful intentionality. Going to church keeps us safe…. Being the church makes us uncomfortable and challenges us to learn to BE salt, light and leaven. Going to church is familiar….Being the people of God as church is unfamiliar to many and overwhelming to most. May we press on in the faith…

And as much as I may want to avoid sounding like a back woods religious nut in the boondocks and speak only articulate, sophisticated words that make us comfortable from this mainline, downtown pulpit, maybe what we really need to hear is that the time is coming, the day is approaching, as it was for that barren fig tree, there’s going to be a reckoning.

What we really need to hear is that we must bear fruit or die. What we really need to hear is: “The end is near, so ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

May we use the gifts God has given us to press on in the faith, step up and out in our discipleship, do the hard work of getting out the fertilizer and the shovel, doing some digging, getting our hands dirty to produce some figs.

May we quit worrying about empty pews and why more people are not in church these days and begin worrying about what we are doing to be good stewards of the the gifts we have been given.

In the words of Blezard: “For there’s a big world out there, a world that is thirsting and hungering for the love of God. May we go out and bloom, bearing fruit in the image of Christ” (paraphrase).