Monday, March 8, 2010

Drinking Sand

Homily for 3.07.10 (Third Sunday in Lent)
Isaiah 55.1-9; Psalm 63; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s gospel: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”

I made a quick trip to Pittsburgh midweek for the Confirmation of one of my nephews. He’s a wonderful 13-year-old, he took this step very seriously. We were all so proud and happy for him—and for ourselves in being part of his growing up in this way.

Two people were not able to be present however, Patrick’s godfather and his wife. Ten days ago, she was delivered of her first child by C-section. Little Bryce is fine, but some twelve hours later Katie began to have seizures and was found to have a blood clot on her brain. She is now breathing on her own, but is in a coma with massive neurological damage. Imagine three such events colliding. The birth and the confirmation were full of hope and promise, and then this totally unexpected tragedy. I am telling you, not only so you can grieve and pray for Katie, but because it has shocked me into taking Jesus’ words today more seriously.

People have been telling Jesus about two horrible events, wondering what the victims had done to deserve them. Unlike Job’s friends, however, Jesus refuses to speculate about crime and punishment. “Do you think they were worse sinners than anyone else because they suffered?” he asks. There are no simple answers. Shallow theological thinking about those others keeps us from thinking about ourselves. It also betrays a very deep fear. Something like this might happen to us—has happened to us or those we love. Over and over again, we ask “Why?” Should we fear divine retribution? Jesus challenges us in two ways: Knowing that we are all flawed, he asks each of us to consider the state of our own souls and then helps us understand what to do next.

He uses the word “repent.” That’s a hard word to swallow and it means hard work. To explain, Jesus tells us the parable of the fig tree. Fig trees are pretty important in the Middle East with their juicy, fat, ripe fruit. Substitute pear or peach, if you like, fresh-picked in summer from your own tree. Now think of yourself as a dead-ripe fig or pear or peach, the perfection of what you were created to be.

Well, here comes the absentee landlord, all ready for his harvest, and for the third year in a row a particular tree has produced nothing for him! It’s wasting the soil. Chop it down! Certainly a tragedy for the tree. But the gardener—could this be Christ?—has another idea. What he doesn’t say is “Oh, we have plenty of other trees and plenty of room. Let’s not be hard on that poor old tree. I love it; I’ll just let it be.” No. He gives it another chance. He will loosen the soil around it and add compost to nourish it. Well, actually, he doesn’t say compost; he uses the blunter word “manure.” Maybe such effort will transform the tree and it will become more productive.

Jesus was talking about us! Are we bearing fruit or just taking up space, year after year? Maybe we can become juicier. We can interpret the challenge of this parable in many ways. One thing is clear. The parable ends without an ending. The gardener doesn’t know for sure what the results will be. What the future may bring is a mystery, known only to God, whether it is a physical healing, or the gradual transformation of a stony heart, or the success of a mission project that we’re involved in only at the beginning.

The returning landlord in Jesus’ parable might be dismissed as the God of the Old Testament, a God of power, anger, and judgment. But it would be unwise, I think, to believe that God never judges. For Jesus, God’s judgment can be balanced, softened, restrained by mercy. In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus’ warning is also a compassionate invitation. God wants us to share in unfolding a fruitful future for ourselves and for those in widening circles around us. He wants us to drink deeply, and not of sand, which sticks in the throat and cannot hold any nourishment.

How do we do that? Repentance or metanoia requires us to turn around, to change direction. What kind of tilling, what kind of manure will it take? Because of my farm, my own manure pile at home is impressive. We call it Mount Muckmore. Powerful stuff—and transforming! It’s black gold, a constant source of nutrients for any garde, if my woodchucks allow me to have one. Sometimes I think I need a Mount Muckmore of the soul: an endless composting of humility, of selflessness, of obedience, of faithfulness, of trust. You can fill in your own needs.

What Jesus urges is for us to start that tilling and composting. We know that life is fragile and that all the foresight and love in the world cannot protect everyone we love or ourselves. Jesus tells us here that such tragedies are not God’s doing. If we are given another year or five or ten, that time is a gift of God’s love and mercy: A time to gather together the gifts we will present to God and a time to make the best use of the gifts given to us by God.

These gifts are not only personal. They are also sacramental and that means that in our work, we are not alone. On a Sunday on which we share Holy Communion with one another, surely we might see that the prayers, the bread, and the cup are ways in which Christ, our gardener, tills and nurtures us, pouring his sacrifice, his very life, into the roots of our being. Through the gift of his flesh and his blood, he transformed and is still transforming the soil in which we are planted and from which we can grow and flourish.

Let us pray: Dearest God, through your grace, open our hearts to praise and thanksgiving this morning, so that we can take your sacrament to our comfort, knowing that the Holy Spirit makes us one with your Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. Amen.

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