Sermon: Fasting – or Feasting?

“Fasting – or Feasting?”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-3
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price. 
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
  and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. 
Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
   my steadfast, sure love for David. 

Luke 13:6-9
Then Jesus told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

This morning’s gospel passage features the parable of the fig tree. You may have heard me say before: a parable is a story with a twist. It starts out in a familiar way and then hits the listener with an unexpected outcome.

This parable begins simply enough: the owner of a vineyard comes to check whether a fig tree he has planted is bearing fruit.  At the time, it was common to plant fig trees on the edge of vineyards; but they consumed precious water and could invite birds that would eat the grapes on the vines, so it if wasn’t producing fruit it really was doing more harm than good.  It makes sense that a vintner would want to uproot an unproductive tree.

The vineyard owner says as much to his gardener: “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

If, like most of us, you know nothing about fig trees, you just missed the twist.  But as members of an agrarian society, most of Jesus’ listeners probably knew that fig trees don’t bear fruit the first three years they are planted; it takes 4, 5, or even 6 years before a fig tree matures enough to produce fruit.

Suddenly, instead of seeming prudent and practical, the vineyard owner seems impatient, rash, and plagued by poor judgment, doesn’t he?  

The gardener, on the other hand, deftly suggests a different approach: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Let’s give it some time and some TLC, he says, and we’ll see results.

Traditionally, the parable of the fig tree parable has been interpreted as God being the angry vineyard owner who wants to strike down the fig tree (usually interpreted as symbolizing Israel, or sinners in general) because it hasn’t produced any fruit.  And Jesus is the gardener who steps in and pleads Israel’s (or our) case.


Not only does this interpretation set God up as a harsh judge, it also makes God look ignorant, like a city slicker who’s bought a vineyard for the fun of making wine with his name on the bottle but has no clue how agriculture really works.

Not exactly the God we know and love – the God portrayed elsewhere in the Bible as “slow to anger and abundant in mercy,” or in this morning’s passage in Isaiah as  full of “steadfast, sure love.” Not to mention the God who is the Creator of every plant on earth, the God who would be intimately familiar with the way a fig tree works.  

So if the vineyard owner isn’t God, who is he? That is, if Jesus is the gardener, lovingly tending and pampering a growing plant as gardeners in love with their plants are wont to do – who is he trying to persuade to give the tree another chance?

Maybe it’s us.

Have you ever held your coworker, spouse, child, or friend to what you thought was a reasonable standard, then judged them or cut them off when they didn’t meet it?  Have you ever held yourself to a standard you couldn’t meet, then felt ashamed and worthless, a failure, because you weren’t able to produce?  I bet we’ve all been there.

Maybe, as the gardener, Jesus is saying to us: your expectations aren’t in line with the nature of the person or situation out of which you expect so much.  Give it one more year. Let me add a little compost, let me water this plant more deeply, and then we’ll see.

After all, according to Isaiah, God’s love is a feast of rich food, an abundant banquet laid out for all who hunger or thirst – not a punitive hoarding of resources meted out by someone eager to write off those who aren’t performing satisfactorily!

One of my favorite movies to watch this time of year is Chocolat, starring Juliette Binoche. It’s the story of Vianne, a chocolatier who arrives with her young daughter in a small French village in the middle of Lent, planning to open a chocolate shop. Her timing enrages the mayor of the village, the Comte de Reynaud, whose oppressive sense of piety is evidenced by the extremity of his yearly Lenten fast. In one scene, we see him engage in a battle of wills with a tea tray. As he debates whether he’ll eat the simple snack left for him by his maid, he manages to make smelling a pot of jam – not even tasting it, but smelling it! – look like a supremely sinful indulgence. He inhales longingly, then drops the little pot back on the tray as if he’s been burned by this temptation straight from hell.

Fasting is actually an ancient and well-loved tradition in the Christian church, with roots reaching back into the observances of our Jewish forebears. Done with a joyful heart open to the ways in which God will sustain us despite our foregoing a favorite treat – or foregoing food altogether – it can be a way to draw closer to God and to feel deeper gratitude for all that we have. And as any of you know who have chosen to give up chocolate, coffee, alcohol, TV – you name it – for Lent, it can also reveal a lot about how much we rely on material comforts to insulate and distract ourselves from stress, our feelings, and our fears.

Yet if we fast to punish ourselves – to deny ourselves because we don’t deserve anything good – if we let our sense of never quite measuring up squeeze pleasure entirely out of our lives – we’ve missed the point.

At our Lenten study series on Wednesday night, a participant (who gave me permission to share this) asked for prayers that they would be able to enjoy making time for creativity and art instead of feeling like such life-giving activities are frivolous in the face of “real” work. Their prayer request is one we’re probably all familiar with on some level; almost from the day we are born, we’ve been taught that our worth lies not in how much delight we take in God’s creation, how much we connect with beauty or use our imaginations or practice pastimes that make our hearts sing – but in how productive we are: what grades we earn, whether we’ve done our chores, how many colleges we apply to, how many hours we put it in at our job, how many errands we run, how many emails we answer, how many extracurriculars we cram into our children’s free time or how busy we are in retirement.

Friends, that kind of metric is so very far from the way God measures things. As the generous-hearted gardener reminds us, rooting up the tree and starting over when we don’t “produce” isn’t God’s way; neither is “labor[ing] for that which does not satisfy.” No, the gardener sees value not just in years when the tree is fruitful, but also in years when the tree is simply existing. And that same Gardener lays a feast for all those who hunger, not because we have worked hard and deserve it, but simply so that our thirst might be slaked by the lavish love of a generous God.

If you’ve seen Chocolat, you’ll remember that despite the Comte’s meddling to keep things proper and pious, an unconventional grandmother reunites with her estranged grandson; a woman leaves her abusive husband to discover an independent life; and a widow and a widower fall in love at an age that shocks their neighbors. And at the end of Lent, on Easter Sunday, the village awakens to find the Comte de Reynaud passed out in the ruins of the elaborate window display of Vianne’s shop, his face and clothes smeared with the chocolate he has gorged himself on. It may be an overcorrection, but it’s one which symbolizes the ways in which the Comte and his fellow villagers have finally learned to let joy into their lives instead of trying to deprive their way to salvation.

The Comte’s long-delayed redemption reminds me of the gardener’s words to the vineyard owner about the barren fig tree: ““Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’ Somehow I have a feeling that this plea will be repeated next year, and the year after that, and every year after that – until that lovingly-laid manure, that rich feast, has simply saturated the tree’s roots, and it cannot help but burst forth into fruit.

Friends, God’s love isn’t a test or a trial; it’s a rich mix of compost meant to fertilize, a feast meant to satisfy. Our task isn’t to somehow earn God’s love, but simply to find a way to absorb it – to soak in all the rich, life-giving dirt Jesus is adding to our roots, to open our thirsty hearts to the water God is pouring into us, that one day we might bear fruit – not as a badge of our productivity, but purely for the sweetness of it.

Lent is a perfect time to practice this attitude – to grow ourselves spiritually, to put down deeper roots into God’s goodness and abundant love for us. Whether you’ve dutifully kept a Lenten observance since Ash Wednesday or you never even thought about one, why not try this for the rest of the season? Take 5 minutes each day to soak up God’s love – by walking in nature, by listening to a beautiful piece of music, by playing attentively with your beautiful child, by sitting in silence with a grateful and open heart. Let the Gardener water your thirsty places, and see what blooms in you come Easter. Amen.