As I reflected in my homily last Sunday at Bev Cederstam’s memorial service, I never thought much about gardening until I met her. She had such a love for her plants and flowers...I can remember visiting with her and her walking me through her garden pointing out the different varieties, pulling up little weeds and dead-heading as we went along. And it was Bev who taught me to appreciate gardening--watching things emerge from the soil after the winter, watering and nurturing the little plants as they grew, tending them and caring for them as if they were the single most important thing of the day.
In past years, now would be the time that I would get out my little trowel and gardening gloves and get to work pulling weeds and clearing away fallen branches. But this summer I moved and travelled a lot, so I don’t have a garden now. Instead I have 3 planters...one with rosemary in it, one with sage in it, and one with a very dead jasmine plant. So I’m eager to get out more pots and soil and buy some primroses. The labor of love that is my little pot collection is a special for me thanks to Bev, and so I patiently wait, and watch, praying that things will bloom again this spring.
When Jesus is confronted with the questions of his followers about why bad things happen in this world, they are asking questions about sin. In the ancient world, it was believed that the sins of the father resulted in consequences that could last generations. So these people who are killed and had their blood mixed with the blood of sacrifices and those who had been crushed under a fallen building…were these tragedies the result of their sin or the sin of the generations before them? Jesus doesn’t respond to questions of blame. Instead he says that if we don’t repent of our sins, if we don’t experience a complete turning around in our hearts, then we too will suffer consequences. It’s a simple lesson in cause and effect.
But Jesus wants his followers to know something about God’s judgment and grace. Instead of ending the teaching there, he takes it further with a parable about a fig tree. So let’s look at the parable again.
“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 around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
For a long time, this parable was hard for me to relate to until I saw a fig tree in a friend’s back yard. The tree looked much like the trees do right now…no leaves, no buds about to bloom…just barren branches. And my friend said it had been that way for several years. But she was waiting, watering it, fertilizing it, pulling weeds from around its base, because she knew that one day, it would bud and begin to bear fruit.
God is like that with us. Sometimes, we become barren, unable to produce the fruits of goodness, charity, love. Sometimes we get bogged down with feelings of frustration and anger, and so we can’t produce anything beautiful as a result. Sometimes our doubt and worry prohibit us from enjoying life around us. And so, God patiently waits, tending to our weeds, watering and nurturing us, hoping that we will bloom. God doesn’t look at us and say, “Well, that person comes from a long line of sinners; they’re rotten to the root.” Instead, God sees that we all have potential to bloom and grow.
This parable is a reflection of God’s grace and love for us. God continues to give us the gifts that we need to do the work we’ve been called to do—to teach, to love, to care, to bring about the Kingdom—the gifts that bring us into full relationship with God. One difference between us and the fig tree though is that the tree doesn’t have to recognize the water and fertilizer in order to do its work; we, on the other hand, have to open our hearts and minds to these gifts for them to work in us. And how do we recognize God’s fertilizer? God’s gifts are found in those things that are life-giving to us: the love we share with families, friends and neighbors, acts of kindness and generosity, prayer, meditation and being in community with each other and all of creation. The other difference between us and the fig tree is that we can choose to stay closed off to God’s nurturing love. We can choose not to bloom. We can choose not to have a change of heart. And when we make those choices, then yes, we will wither away, decay and die.
So here we are at the half-way point in Lent, continuing our journey to Jerusalem with Jesus. And we find ourselves presented with the option of accepting God’s fertilizer or ignoring it. Which do we choose? Being fertilized, accepting the call to discipleship, means that sometimes the road will be hard. Following Jesus to Jerusalem can be scary. It means being called out of our comfort zones to do mission work that might be challenging…like becoming gardeners to others. Or we can ignore God’s fertilizer and stay rooted in the way things are, only to find that it’s not life giving, but rather life ending. So which do we choose? I choose the fertilizer. I want to bear much fruit and then share it with someone else. I hope you’ll join me.
Lent I: Luke 4:1-13
“God of the wilderness, your Spirit leads us to face the truth, unprotected and exposed: in our times of trial, help us to resist the worship of empty power and the illusion of invulnerability that we might find our true food in Jesus Christ, the Broken Bread. Amen.”
--Prayers for an Inclusive Church
On Wednesday, we were invited into the observance of a holy Lent. We confessed, we were reminded of our mortality through the imposition of ashes, and we shared the Eucharist. And now we find ourselves in the desert wasteland with Jesus, and there are temptations all around.
If we go back to chapter 3 of Luke, we are reminded that Jesus is sent out into the desert by the Holy Spirit just after his baptism...just after the heavens are parted and God declares that Jesus is the beloved. Imagine the wilderness...it isn’t a forest of trees like we have here...between the central plateau of Judea in Southern Palestine and the Dead Sea was a thirty five mile stretch of dusty hills, bare and jagged rocks, peeling limestone, hollow sounding ground and it was hot like a furnace. It is not a place of tranquil walks on hiking paths, it is a place known as Jeshimmon--the desolation.
The wilderness wandering is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and some scholars argue that he goes out into the wilderness to figure out how his ministry will be--how will it be different from other self-proclaimed Messiahs, how it will be more encouraging and transformational, and how it might be more revolutionary.
William Barclay, New Testament scholar and theologian, posits that three temptations speak specifically to the ministry that Jesus is about to embark on: “The temptation story shows us Jesus choosing once and for all the method…[for his ministry]. It shows him rejecting the way of power and glory and accepting the way of suffering and the cross.” (The Gospel of Luke, 42).
Following Barclay’s theory, let’s reimagine the conversation between the devil and Jesus. Verse 3 reads, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” In other words, “If you want people to follow you, use your wonderful powers to give them material things”--bribe them. Jesus’ response is that material things are not life giving.
In verse 5, the devil takes Jesus to look out over the kingdoms of the word and says, “I shall give to you all this power and their glory...All this will be yours if you worship me.” In other words, “Strike a bargain with me...compromise a little with evil and [people] will follow you.” Jesus’ response is that you can never compromise with evil; you can never compromise with the standards of the world. This is hard. We are taught to play nicely, to play fairly, to be willing to compromise. But when we are asked to compromise our integrity, to compromise our beliefs, to compromise our ministry for the sake of glory, power, wealth...the answer has to be no.
And finally, in verse 9, the devil says that Jesus should throw himself down from the parapet of the temple, causing the angels to support and save him. In other words, give the people a sensation--a miracle--give them something they want to see over and over again. It is the temptation of fame, of the 15 minutes of headline news, in our world...becoming an internet sensation. But that sensation doesn’t last.
So what does Jesus learn about his ministry out there in the desert? That bribing people to follow him, that compromising his integrity, and trying to claim fame for himself will not work--these are not in line with the message of love, grace and forgiveness that he wants to invite people into.
I think these are lessons that the church wrestles with today. How do we get more people inside our walls? What traditions, beliefs and rituals are we willing to let go of to be more appealing? What flash in the pan, super exciting event or other miracle can get us in the paper this week? There’s nothing inherently wrong with revisioning the mission and ministry of the church...it’s actually very important to our vitality. But when it becomes about US--getting people inside OUR walls, letting go of OUR identity as Christians, getting OUR name in the paper--then we’ve given into the temptations of the wilderness. Jesus’ mission was and is to love our neighbor and our enemy, to care for the widow, the orphan, and those on the margins, to seek and give forgiveness freely. Jesus’ mission isn’t about self-service, but the service of others.
But what about the personal wilderness and the temptations we face on a personal, day to day level? I know I face the temptation of complacency, anger and frustration, an inability to forgive myself and others...surely I’m not the only one.
So what does the story of Jesus in the wilderness teach us? Where is the good news? A friend who is really struggling right now with his own wilderness said to me the other day, “Jesus went into the wilderness as a sign of solidarity with all those who are suffering, wandering, tempted and lost. He engaged the devil as a model for us; as a way of learning how to say no in the face of great temptations.” Pretty profound reminder for me.
So what are the things that we need to say no to? In looking back to the Litany of Penitence from the Ash Wednesday service, there are some themes that I think we could consider for our own individual Lenten disciplines:
--saying no to holding onto anger, frustration and resentment, and instead offering forgiveness
--saying no to complacency, blindness to suffering and indifference to injustice and instead offering care, support and service to others
--saying no to over-consumption, waste and pollution and instead practicing good stewardship of the environment and our treasure
--saying no to prejudice, judgment and exploitation of others and instead listening carefully and opening our hearts and minds to transformation
--saying no to distractions and over-commitments and instead spending time with God, with family, and with one another.
Some of these disciplines are hard and take time; they require us to be vulnerable and willing to change. The wilderness is a hard place to live in. We too have a choice about how we want to live and be in the world. May this holy Lent be a time of self-reflection, listening, and forgiveness.
With awareness comes transformation, and transformation is on the horizon. For the last few weeks of Epiphany, we’ve been reading about change… at Jesus’ baptism, he is called the Beloved and is re-membered, he changes water into wine at the wedding feast, he goes out into the wilderness and returns filled with the holy spirit, and then he claims his prophetic voice. And now on the mountain top, he is again, changed. All of these events in the life of Jesus are ultimately pointing the way to Jerusalem, where he will undergo suffering and death, only to be transformed again in the resurrection.
No one likes change. We don’t like to be in a state of discomfort or unknowing. Sometimes in the church (and in our lives) complacency is easier than change. And when we become too comfortable in our complacency, then any kind of change seems dramatic and scary. But change is necessary and important to our growth. This week I saw a sign that said, “Don’t be afraid of change, it’s leading you to a new beginning.” Can you imagine living into that reality? Can you imagine embracing change as an opportunity? It’s hard work! It’s good work for sure, but it’s hard.
So what is it about change that causes anxiety?
The story from Exodus for this Sunday (34:29-25) is about change. Here we have Moses who has come face to face with God (or at least as close as one can to God), and now he returns to the people to share with them what God has taught him. The text tells us that when the people saw him, “the skin of his face was shining and they were afraid to come near him”. In the experience with God, Moses was changed. He was transformed. And while this transformation was first scary and uncomfortable for the Israelites, they are called together by Moses and Aaron. This transformation served as an invitation to continue to be in the presence of and in relationship with God. We know how the story goes with those early Israelites. Like us, they sometimes get it right, and they sometimes get it wrong. But through the transformation of Moses, the people are transformed too...their relationship with God became more intimate. God had called Moses, and the people responded to that call.
In the Gospel (Luke 9:28-36), Jesus takes Peter, James & John up to the mountain top. And there in that moment Jesus is transformed and is joined by Elijah and Moses. While Peter thinks that it’s appropriate to build tents for the three, what we realize is that he’s trying to contain the situation...to manage the change. You see, tents would confine the Law, the Prophets, and the Fulfillment in such a way as to make them subject to control. Out of his own anxiety, he is trying to manage the situation. Instead, God breaks in and says “listen to him”. Up to this point in Luke, Jesus has been experiencing various transformations as he sets his sights on Jerusalem to fulfill his ministry. Jesus’ death and resurrection will mean change. And change implies that there will be loss, fear, ambiguity and vulnerability...things that we want to control and avoid.
But you see, we know the “end” of the story and the disciples don’t. We have the ability to say, “well of course Jesus had to die and be resurrected…it was how the Kingdom was going to happen…it was a necessary change”. But we’re not in the shoes of the original disciples. They didn’t understand how the death and resurrection of Jesus would change the world. They didn’t understand how it would empower them for ministry, to become prophetic leaders, to heal, preach and teach. They didn’t understand how necessary change was to their mission.
And sometimes we don’t either. The church needs change in order to continue in the role of prophet, preacher, teacher and healer. So why is it that when we talk about change in our churches we tend to get nervous and filled with anxiety?
A few weeks ago when it hit the news that The Episcopal Church had been sanctioned by the Anglican Communion, my facebook and twitter feeds were blowing up...what did this sanction mean? Were things going to change? What about the affirmations that we had made on same sex marriage during General Convention this summer? There was so much fear and angst out there, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. Is it because we don’t know how to express our grief over what we might lose as a result of change? Is it because we might somehow destroy or defame our “traditions”? Is it because change is ambiguous and sometimes uncomfortable? I don’t know. If anything I felt even more certain that we had made the right choice in electing Michael Curry to be our Presiding Bishop because of his leadership and commitment to welcome everyone into the church. The work that had been started years ago under previous Presiding Bishops--including our own Ed Browning--to include everyone at the table and that no one would be unwelcome--that transformation was happening in the moment live through the media. And I was proud...just as I know some of you are too. I was proud that Michael had the courage to be transformational among his peers. I was proud that we were leading a change in the church.
So what do those early Israelites, Moses and the disciples do after these incredible moments? They engage in their ministries. They don’t stand around looking up to heaven, or hang out on top the mountain. They continue on. Where exactly their journey takes them is unknown at the moment. They have been changed.
And what are we to do when we’ve experienced God’s revelation and been challenged to make changes? What do we do when we’ve come face to face with God? Do we hide under a veil or stay on the mountain, or do we engage in the relationship with God and do our ministry? My hope is that we continue our journeys into unknown places, not always having the answers; that instead of being afraid of change we embrace it and see how it leads us into a new beginning.
My dear friend, Andy Wade, composed this prayer that I want to share with you today. Let us pray:
You created the heavens and the earth, declaring them “Good”.
Forgive us when we retain power and control over resources which are yours.
You formed man and woman in your image, placing them unashamed and unjudged in the garden.
Forgive us when we forget that all are created in your image.
You released your grip on us, setting us free to choose the path we would follow.
Forgive us when we control others instead of encouraging the gift of God within them.
You invite us to participate in the redemption of your creation.
Give us wisdom to steward the opportunities you place before us.
You call us to walk in humility, doing justice and loving mercy.
Show us how to partner with others in ways that honor your desire for relationships.
You transform our lives from darkness into light, from brokenness into wholeness.
Help us, O God, to offer ourselves as agents of your healing and hope to the world.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.