Wisdom From a Plant

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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


After a particularly memorable visit with friends, a truly amazing meal, or an exceptional movie viewing experience, and depending on how transformative that experience was, I will find ways to replicate or prolong any good feelings. So I might plan a return visit with friends in hopes of even more fun. If a meal was really good, I might search online for similar recipes, or find good restaurants nearby. Or if a movie was exceptionally good, I might look up movies like it, or find others by that same director, or featuring those same actors, or scored by that same composer. I suppose after a really good experience, it makes sense to want to keep coming back for more.

It is no secret I enjoy visiting Australia and New Zealand, and there is great likelihood I will return, but not during our upcoming capital campaign or building project, which will be happening soon. So in between visits, I like to remember fondly the people I met, the places I visited, and the good food I’ve had. Sometimes there are pictures to help remember. Sometimes I have only my memories. One such exceptional experience is of the delicious and abundant selection of tropical fruits. So this past summer I decided I would grow passion fruit and kiwi, which are not readily available or affordable in the Shenandoah valley. I sent for some young plants in the mail, and re-potted them into these large clay pots that sat on the back porch all summer. Now that the weather is cooler, I have moved them indoors. And after a few overcast and rainy days, one of them was in desperate need of sunshine. So I moved it by the living room window to enjoy direct sunlight for a few hours. And I went to work. When I returned home to let the dog out, I saw to my horror a pile of leaves on the floor beside his bed. The plant in question would have produced kiwi fruit someday, but it seems I will have to wait a little while longer. And I am sure the dog is not vegetarian.

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What lesson did I learn from the kiwi plant? To keep it far away from the dog next time? Plants don’t volunteer useful information very readily, I don’t think. Or I’m not well attuned to them, since I have caused an early death to a few of them. Maybe word has gotten around, and all my plants live in dread for their lives. I did notice they grow very quickly when they are given more room. My passion fruit vine has climbed up a small frame I stuck in the pot, and wrapped around itself a couple of times. I think it’s telling me it needs to climb higher. I’m not sure where to let it do that right now, probably not in the house. But the kiwi plant just looks sad without leaves. Before all this I did not know they worked together in pairs, one male plant, one female. So I put the leafless plant next to its mate, wondering how much time to allow for grieving, and when the time was right to get another. I’m sure this has been very traumatic for them. People usually need time to grieve. I wasn’t sure how much time a plant would need.

“Learn a lesson from the fig tree,” Jesus told his disciples. We recall what he was talking about just before this passage. “They will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, and from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.” Scripture scholars think that the sacred writer was attempting to encourage his target audience of Christians at a time of great political instability, while perhaps channeling some of the events and sentiments of that time into the narrative. So when Jesus spoke of “the days of tribulation, how the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” the writer was describing a scene of total and utter chaos. But instead of giving in to fear and trembling, the Christian community is encouraged to look to Jesus for hope and assurance. We look for “the Son of Man [to come] in the clouds with great power and glory,” presumably to protect his faithful followers and defend them from harm.

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But what of the fig tree? “When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” I am no expert, but from this bit of information, I am led to believe fig trees don’t stay green all year round. They sprout leaves in the spring, bear fruit in the summer, then lose their leaves in the fall, and remain dormant through the winter. The lesson of the fig tree is that everything happens in its proper season. If we pay attention to what’s going on in the world, we see signs of turmoil and instability all around us. That means we need to prepare for Jesus’ coming with power and glory.

Every generation sees its share of triumph and tragedy. Nothing extraordinary about that. But there has been quite a lot of turmoil across the country and around the world in recent weeks and months—the student protests at the University of Missouri that forced their president and chancellor to step down, and the unrest it has triggered in other university campuses in other cities and states; the brutal and savage killings of innocent people by radical Islamic fundamentalists in already devastated and war-torn countries across the Middle East; the massive and unrelenting deluge of political and economic refugees from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries, people leaving everything and risking their lives to find freedom and a better life for their children far from home; and more recently the horrendous acts of terrorism on passenger airlines and last Friday widespread violence in unsuspecting and peaceful city centers like Paris perpetrated in retaliation for other acts of violence, feeding an endless cycle of even more violence, turmoil, and instability. It is not difficult to think that the end is near. Jesus seems to say we will know it from all the chaos and turmoil that must happen first. And yet he also tells us, “no one knows [the day or hour], not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” But if … then … So if not yet … then more yet to come? Everything happens in its proper time. So much for signs.

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And we are drawn back to the fig tree. By its sprouting leaves in the spring, bearing fruit in the summer, dropping leaves in the fall, and sitting dormant in the winter, the fig tree still does not make the seasons happen. It doesn’t have that kind of power. So we can’t force Jesus to return in power and glory by our hardness of heart. We don’t have that kind of power either. Instead we should be patient and diligently prepare ourselves for when he does come.

Jesus gained forgiveness for our sins by the one sacrifice he offered on the cross, a sacrifice which does not ever need repeating. But we need as much help to remember, which we do whenever we gather to hear God’s Word and celebrate at God’s Table. It is through our remembering that we gain strength for the challenges of each day. So with that strength we will always be prepared, which is exactly the lesson of the fig tree. You just never know what you can learn from a plant.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2015