174a Hoylake Road
Fig Tree Christianity
On the wall in my study is a cartoon. It shows a sheep lying upside down at the bottom of a hill, its legs sticking into the air, looking very dazed. Beside the sheep is a bicycle. The caption reads: “One afternoon Daisy decided she would go into the town to do some shopping. She got on the bicycle and cycled down the hill. She was halfway down when she suddenly realised she was in fact a sheep and that she could not ride a bicycle. Then she fell off.”
Like that sheep, there are times in my life when I discover there are things I cannot do because I am not made in a certain way. But like the sheep of so many Biblical stories, one thing I am seriously good at, as my church members know, is getting lost. Even trains can confuse me. Shortly after coming to Moreton, I took the train to Liverpool for the first time. Ruth Wynn had said getting back would be easy – all I had to do was take the Wirral Line from Lime Street underground. What she did not say was that there are more than one Wirral Line branches, something I discovered as I reached the outskirts of Chester. Psychologists say that spatial awareness and our sense of location is worked out by a tiny organ at the base of the brain, the hippocampus. Indeed, it is claimed that London taxi drivers with “the knowledge” have enlarged hippocampuses. If that is the case, I have a hippocampus the size of a shrivelled pea. And, yes, ten years after being in Moreton I can still get lost in the town.
So, I feel as if I personally know the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable. I know what it is like to feel totally lost, a feeling of utter stomach-churning panic that I can trace back to my final year psychology exams at Edinburgh when I arrived at the wrong exam hall. (Fortunately, my girlfriend was on hand to scoop me up, put me back together, drag the quivering wreck of my body through the streets, put a pen in my hand and shove me through the correct door.) It must have been a huge relief for the sheep when the shepherd found him. Perhaps that is why we like the story – we have been that sheep. We have been lost. Or we might turn to the parable of the Prodigal Son and focus on that sumptuous banquet and the homecoming celebrations. Or perhaps you have lost your keys or wallet and you can sympathise with the story that Jesus tells of the woman who loses a silver coin and turns the whole house upside down, sweeping the whole house in a panic before she finally finds it?
Of course, all these stories have a happy ending. But there is a time when the sheep is lost and does not, cannot, know it will be rescued. The sheep, if it thinks at all, thinks it will die. The prodigal son far from home may think “I can never go home, for if I do my father will throw me out.” The woman searching for her coin is crying her eyes out, fearing she will never find the precious coin – it is lost for ever. And so for every moment we celebrate a sheep that is found, a son who comes back or a coin that turns up, there is a sheep right now that is lost, a son who is far from home and a woman searching for that coin. And these are not moments. There are times that if you are that sheep, if you are that son, if you are that woman sweeping her house, the feeling of hopelessness seems destined never to end. If you have experienced such times which drag on and on…and on, you are living out the NOW of the gospel. Sometimes we walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and find that there are no short cuts.
I call this fig-tree Christianity. The way Matthew and Mark relate it, it is one of the most challenging stories in the gospel and I do not pretend to fully understand it. (Hey, folks, if there were such a thing as A Level Christianity, we would all fail.) Not because Jesus is hungry and wants some figs. Not because he petulantly curses the fig tree when he finds it has no fruit, but because of what Mark adds: it was not the season for figs. I repeat: it was not the season for figs.
Jesus uses this episode to tell the disciples what faith can do. I am not sure if that helps the tree! And surely Jesus remains hungry. You will have you own interpretation of this story, but to me it suggests two things. First, that Jesus too must live his life hour by hour, minute by unforgiving minute – he is subject to the Father’s time. It is not the season for figs so Jesus will stay hungry. Jesus is living out the NOW of the Christian life; it is of course a foretaste of a bitter fruit he will taste – the utter loneliness on Friday’s cross. And he can’t, or won’t, make the seasons pass just like that.
Secondly, the story reminds us that there is a time for everything – a time to be fruitful and a time not to bear fruit. We must live out our life season by season, month by month – and during this time of “stay at home” and self-isolation, we are beginning to realise that it is not an easy lesson to learn. There is a time for being lost too, a time to be helpless before we are found, a time for running away like the prodigal son, and a time for coming back. That is fig-tree Christianity – we are not masters of nature or time. We do not have instant answers. And, yes, it is not easy to wait. When will this time of staying at home end? The experts are agreed: “We do not know.” As I write this, I still have fresh in my memory The Queen’s words from her broadcast to the nation on Sunday evening as she invoked the war-time spirit and the words of Vera Lynn: “We should take comfort that while we may still have more to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” Fine, Your Maj, but be honest – does that make the waiting any easier for us?
We do not like waiting. Not this long. Have you ever gone to the cinema and wished you could speed up those boring love scenes and get to the action? Or read an Agatha Christie whodunnit and been tempted to skip to the end? But life is not like that. We are not masters of time. Can faith speed up the clock? Can faith put an end to our waiting, our longing to be found, our hope of coming home, even of returning to a familiar and special church whose gates are now locked to us? No! God answers prayer, but sometimes that answer is an unpalatable “NOT YET!” Later, my son, my daughter, later…perhaps much later.
The writer to Ecclesiastes puts this more eloquently than I can (Ecclesiastes 3 vv 1-8). It is after visits home to the Philippines that I appreciate the changing daylength and indeed the seasons. Back home in Manila, if it is the dry season it will be sunny for months, day after day. If it is the wet season, it will rain today, tomorrow and the next day. And the hours of daylight barely change. Leslie finds it difficult to comprehend the British obsession with the weather and our old saying, “If you are fed up with the weather, never mind, it will be different in 15 minutes!” In Manila in the dry season there usually means a water shortage followed by the inevitable water rationing. In our house in San Roque, we look to the sky and hope it will rain today so we do not need to wait until 10pm to turn the water tap on and wash. And we wait. And wait for the rain. For everything there is a season.
We must live with those little words, NOT YET. We must accept that, either because of our faith or because of nature, there are things we cannot do and questions we cannot answer. It is not a nice feeling. But that is not the end of our Christian story. Because something wonderful and too miraculous for words will happen later this week, not on the cross on Friday, not on Easter Day when Jesus rises from the dead but on Holy Saturday, the day between, that NOT YET between cross and resurrection. We will return to the theme on Saturday, but I will say this:
Because Jesus has blessed that long terrible day when he lay in the tomb, because he was there in the grave not for seconds or minutes but for a whole day, because he has blessed our waiting, he is there when we are lost. He is there with the sheep when its heart is beating faster and faster and it is bleating in panic. He is there with the prodigal son as he lives with the pigs and eats their scraps of food. God is there too with the distraught woman as she searches her house looking for that coin. He is there when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And there for those barren days, months or years of waiting for us to bear fruit.
For everything, there is a time and a season. But, my friends, Holy Week tell us this: every time is God’s time, every season God’s season and in that long, awful not yet when we are lost and searching, God is there too. And if you are anxious today, worried or wondering when this time of self-isolation will pass, waiting for it all to end, God is here, waiting with us.