Yesterday afternoon I noticed that our pansy bed looked pretty bleak. Too many of the blooms had disappeared and stared forming bulging seed pods. My mother taught me years ago that unless you pinched off the dead heads then all the pansy’s efforts and energy would go into self-preservation. Pansies want to make seeds to propagate new pansies, but my mother wanted more blooms, not more pansies! If you let the plants spend all of their nutrients in forming seed pods there would be no new flowers.
This is an interesting analogy for my Monday morning thoughts about the United Methodist Church, Pope Benedict’s upcoming resignation, and the church at large. How much of our energy is spent in preserving the institution or producing blooms? I’m headed tomorrow to the General Commission on Religion Race where I serve as a Director and member of the Executive Committee. We have listened carefully to the findings of the United Methodist Church’s Call to Action: that we need younger people, more diverse people, and more people. To accomplish this do we do what we have been doing and preserve a valued history, or do we reach beyond our legislated responsibilities of monitoring the past? This is the crux: monitor the past or resource the future! Will we proactively focus on assisting annual conferences and local churches so that they produce fruitful diversity?
In my Monday morning devotions I usually try to focus on the next Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the lectionary. This coming Sunday’s text is Luke 13:1-9 about the fig tree in the vineyard that is about to be uprooted for lack of fruit. For three years the landowner has been looking for fruit and it hasn’t produced. It has been using up valuable nutrients for the surrounding grapes, too. However, the vineyard worker’s argument for patience won out over the landowner’s desire for figs. The fig tree was given another year’s extension with the proviso that there would be plenty of digging and fertilization to produce figs, or “Up she goes!”
I know that this is a parable with implied meanings that aren’t even close to being literal. Jesus answered the people’s ponderings of why there were sudden deaths in Luke 13:1-5 with this fig tree/vineyard answer. Jesus uses this parable to say that unless we bear fruit we’ll be uprooted and die, too. In other words, his answer sidestepped questions of why sudden tragedies occur and turned philosophical pondering into action. It was as if he were saying, “Everybody is going to die, but is everybody ready? Time is running out on your usefulness!”
But is this all that there is to the parable? My mind has been whirring like a top this morning! I never noticed before that this is a fig tree in a vineyard full of grapes! The vineyard worker knows grapes, not figs. Fig trees don’t get deadheaded or pruned; grapes do. Why would anyone want a fig tree in a vineyard anyway? Was its purpose to provide snacks for the vineyard workers? Am I thinking too literally? Probably, but I never noticed that this was a parable about cross-cultural appointments!
Ah! We’ll I am a District Superintendent and I know the hard work of cross-cultural/multi-cultural appointment making. One of the best ones in our Annual Conference is occurring because we spent a year preparing everything, and it has taken five years of digging and fertilizing to see a great return on our efforts.
We get the results that we work for. If we want flowers instead of ungerminated pansy seeds, we have to deadhead the vampire pods that are sucking the life out of making blooms. In the church we often avoid the difficult tasks of discipleship assuming with false hope that things will turn out okay if we just passively wait things out. That kind of inertia preserves the institution, but doesn’t bear fruit. Oh, we can make excuses about not being planted where we’re supposed to be; i.e., with other fig trees in an orchard tended by someone who understands in ins and outs of fig trees, or we can bloom where we’re planted, even in a vineyard surrounded by grapes that are raisins in the making!
I often think that we would rather preserve the institution; i.e., the fig tree, the vineyard, the pansies, the papacy, and the church than dig around, add effort for change and upset the status quo! We would rather focus on what we know which are grapes than deal with an opportunity to branch out, pun intended, into fig production. God help us if we are so myopic that we miss the fact that this world has more opportunities than we can imagine if we are willing to diversify and broaden our thinking!
Wouldn’t the Roman Catholic Church do well to address its male-only priesthood? Will the Roman Catholic Church use this critical time as an opportunity for change, or spend its energy preserving the institution? There are huge questions that the United Methodist Church must answer, too. Can we solve spiritual problems with structural solutions? How do we profess to have open hearts, doors, and minds yet find ourselves fractured by both liberal and literal fundamentalism that leaves no room for compromise? Are we arguing among ourselves more than we’re making disciples? Every general church agency, every local church and every Christian has a question to answer: What are we here for – to produce more pansies/new churches, or to produce more new blooms/disciples? What do you think the answer is, deadhead or not?