Being There, a movie from 1979 starring Peter Sellers, tells the story of Chance, the gardener. Chance grew up secluded in a house in Washington DC the apparent offspring of a very wealthy eccentric named Jennings. Chance’s life is simple and routine. He’s allowed to garden in the small plot in the walled-in backyard, and dressed in expensive handmade suits. His only knowledge of the outside world comes from watching television. But when Jennings dies, and no provisions were made for Chance, the housekeeper is fired, Chance is evicted, and the house is sold. Chance walks out of the house for the first time in his life and encounters a street gang, which he tries to make go away with a remote control TV changer, and then, after a freak accident ends up in the home of a wealthy but dying industrialist and his wife, played by Shirley McLaine.
McLaine’s character misunderstands him when he says his name is Chance, the Gardner, she thinks he says Chauncey Gardner. Over time the characters in the movie find great wisdom in Chauncey, his simple minded statements about gardening are applied to life as if they revealed great wisdom.
For example, responding to a question about the economy Chance says:
"In a garden, growth has its season...as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden."
The movie is a political satire commenting on the shallowness of American culture, of appearances over substance. Chauncey appears to be well-bred and so he is readily welcomed into the upper eschalons of society. And, yet things are not as they appear.
The people in the Gospel reading this morning are trying to make sense out of some events that have them all riled up. There’s been an injustice, they are full of righteous indignation and they want Jesus to get all worked up too, blaming Pilate and the Romans for harming Galileans. But Jesus doesn’t get angry, instead he points out the hypocrisy in their self-righteous anger, look at your self, work on your self, he says, instead of pointing fingers at others. Things may not be as they appear, Jesus says.
Last week the clergy of this diocese had the privilege of spending an hour with our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry who was in town for the weekend. Bishop Curry brings a strong unifying message to his term as our chief spiritual leader in the Episcopal Church. He says we are part of the “Jesus Movement.” By this he means that our response to the anxiety in the world is to follow Jesus. The parable of the fig tree in the Gospel of Luke helps us understand what Bishop Curry means. Essentially, to be a faithful person means we take our best step forward and leave the rest to God. We are charged to witness to the love of God in Jesus, a love that Jesus shared widely and with abandon for all of God’s creation, a love that left the end result up to God. In other words, things are more than they appear.
The fig tree cannot decide for its self that it will just suddenly produce fruit. It needs the gardener to tend to it and nurture it, and with any luck it will produce fruit. But not even the gardener can make it produce fruit, the end result is up to God. Jesus, and Bishop Curry, remind us that we are the gardeners of our souls called to work on ourselves, to grow more aware of how we are living in the world, and to be good stewards of the world God has given us. As part of the Jesus Movement our task is to labor on, enter into the mystery of God’s work on earth, do our best to love God, love others as ourselves, and leave the rest to God. We can’t force good fruit to come forth, all we can do is be faithful.
I don’t know about you, but this is not easy for me to do. I don’t like to step out in faith without having some sense of the end result. I don’t like to trust in an unknown, I want things to be crystal clear. And, its always easier if there is someone to blame when things don’t turn out as anticipated. But when it comes to faith we are called to be accountable to ourselves, to not point fingers at others, or as Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, take the log out of our own eye first. Most important this reading reminds us that the task we have from God is to being willing to do what it takes to grow in our relationship with God, self, and others, and leave the end result to God.
Difficult as it may be, and perhaps more than any other time in recent history, this season of Lent invites us to be open to the possibility of a future we do not own, manage, or control. Yet, we are to trust that through our faithful labor to be kind, to love others, to show compassion and mercy, and grace, to bring forth equality and justice for all, to live as Jesus teaches us, through these efforts to be and become the most faithful we can be, somehow through us, through human kind, God will produce good fruit. Yes, we need to tend to our faith, nurture our spiritual lives, and allow for time to grow. But in the end the fruit that God produces doesn't come about by chance, and it isn’t superficial, but it bears the distinct possibility of being the best kind of fruit of all.
(a reflection on Luke 13:1-9 for Lent 3C)