Jesus does Gardeners’ Question Time: Fig Trees & Listening to God

IMG_2837The end of our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 13:1-9) sounds like a lost script from a 1st century edition of Gardeners’ Question Time.

Q:   “I have a fig tree which I planted three years ago and yet it’s still not producing any fruit. Can the panel please tell me what I am doing wrong or should I just pull it out and start again?”

G:   “Well fig trees are often ready to produce fruit after two years, but they can take up to six years to mature sufficiently for fruitlets to appear. Can I ask where it is?”

Q:   “It’s in my vineyard against a south facing wall.”

G:   “Well that sounds like an ideal position. Figs don’t like to be cold and in cooler climates you can need to winter them in a greenhouse and protect them from frost. Have you been feeding it?”

Q:   “Not much, no.”

G:   “Well they like to be fed with well rotted organic matter, manure is great, and dig around the base to get all those nutrients into the roots. I suggest you give it another year or two, with feeding and care, and see if the fruitlets appear then.”

Q    “Thank you very much.”

Jesus is not of course giving gardening advice. He is telling a story about the need to bear fruit, respond to the call and the challenge he brings, and also that different people take different periods of time to get there. They mature spiritually at different speeds, but nonetheless do need to get there. Just as the fig tree needs the right conditions and feeding so do we. And Rob spoke a bit about the conditions, the cultural climate that we live and grow in, last week. That brings its own challenges and particular care needs to be taken when there is a cold wind blowing or to protect from the frost of a culture that values the material over the spiritual. Or as our first reading put it, “why do you spend your money on that which is not bread?” (Isaiah 55:2) Once we have the basics of life, we enter a level where the endless possessiveness becomes damaging and starts to be a noise we need to hush if we are to hear the deeper voice. I was at a retirement presentation on Friday for a man who said that you get to a point where you can only spend so much money and other things are more important. He had given up a business career to work in a school and apply his business acumen to managing their resources. He had enough and decided to give back.

I’ve been reading about St Bruno[1] this week; doing a bit of research for a piece I am writing for the Cathedral Friends Journal. St Bruno is not the patron saint of the tobacco industry but the 11th century Canon of Reims Cathedral who started the Carthusian Order. It is their motto which is written in Latin at the bottom of the large crucifix in the Cathedral, the subject of my piece. Bishop Hugo from the wonderfully named place of Châteauneuf – pass the cork screw – encouraged him to set up a house in the French Alps, in the Chartreuse massif, from which their name Carthusian comes, via the Charter House foundations they set up. The seven companions who set up this first house are represented today by seven stars on the Order’s coat of arms. Their rule of life is characterized by silence and solitude. It is in the separation from the world and the contemplation of God in silence and solitude that they feel able to focus on God. The highest vocation and call to them is the contemplation of God and total surrender so that they may receive from God. They need the inner and external simplicity for this to become possible. By descending into the inner self and struggling with the hell that we can find there, as they put it, we are able to find the mercy of God. We will find God in the muddy abyss of the inner being. St Bruno recognized God to be present in all human beings, and to write there love and knowledge of his commandments. We all possess a secret garden in ourselves. This is our heart and it is here that we meet the intimacy of God. We need the stillness and simplicity, which focusing on material things alone drowns out. The stripping away may sound austere, but it is to the Carthusians the profound faith that the essence of life is to be found elsewhere.

Not everyone by any means is called to be a hermit or to follow the way of solitude and total silence in that way. Monks and nuns who do this are for us a sign and symbol of a profound attuning to the mystery and presence of God. They become a resource that brings the fruit of their stillness, and being in their company can bring a presence for us that is deeply shaped by their connection in the silence. They bring an appetizer of the depth there is to enter. Lent is a time to strip away the unnecessary, through our fasting and self-sacrifice, through acts of generosity and charitable giving, and as we do this to be able to enter the foothills of the way of silence and solitude.

How we do this is very much down to each of us to work out. And it is easy to make excuses about why we can’t. For some life is so full of noise and busyness, of interruption and constant barrage that hell is much closer to the surface. We don’t have to plunge too deeply to find it. And this level of prayer is different to just going to services and worship. In fact one of the challenges I find in my multiple roles is that I go to so many services, but that is not the same as being still with God. I have needed to make space at other times to enter the solitude, the silence and the stillness to wait on God and go more deeply into this level of communing. Sometimes I am more successful than at other times. I’ve had people come into my study and say that they have entered a profound place of stillness and peace. Well it doesn’t often feel like that to me.

So the story of the fig tree in our Gospel reading is an image of responding to the call of Christ to follow him. To do that we need the right conditions and that can require making space against a background of an at times inhospitable culture of noise and material possessions. St Bruno and his spiritual tradition of the Carthusian Order reminds us of the importance of making space to enter the silence and stillness in which we can be at one with God and enter deeply into the mystery. Lent is a time when we are challenged to step aside from the busyness of our daily life, to hush the noise, and make space to be with God and reflect deeply on the turmoil we may find deep within us. We need to see how we can do that, with honesty and not rushing to easy excuses.


Sermon Preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th February 2016


[1] Tim Peeters When Silence Speaks: The Spiritual Way of the Carthusian Order (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2015)


About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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