Sermon Third Sunday of Lent

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            In our Gospel passage from Luke today, we hear about the unproductive fig tree. In the parable, the owner of the land is frustrated that the fig tree is not producing fruit.  Oh, the shame of being unproductive! Cut it down, he tells the gardener. Make room for a more dedicated and hard-working fig tree! But the gardener offers an alternative medicine–nurture it slowly, letting it soak in the manure all around until it can get the nutrients out of it. Give it time and then see how this tree may bear fruit.  In our times of struggle, times when we are sick or injured in mind, body or spirit, it is hard to be patient.  We want answers as soon as possible, but sometimes, it takes time…and how many of us have learned the hard way that medicine does not have all the answers.  There are many ways to find hope and healing.  Let us pray, O Holy One, we trust that you provide many paths to healing.  Help us to be patient, to be open to the many amazing ways you send us healing and hope, comfort and care.  In Jesus’ name, we pray this day. 

            Rev. Terry Hershey shares a wonderful story in his book, This Is The Life: Mindfulness, Finding Grace and the Power of the Present Moment.  “In 1905, the sculptor Rodin hired the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as his assistant which led to a close friendship.  One day Rilke confided in Rodin that he had not been writing.  That he had some kind of ‘writer’s block.’ Rodin offered odd advice.  He did not suggest anything to do with writing.  Or change of diet.  Or change of relationship.  He told Rilke to go to the zoo.  “What will I do there?” Rilke asked.  “Look at an animal until you see it, ” Rodin told him. ”And two or three weeks may not be enough.”  As a result of his time spent with the animals, Rilke’s composed The Book of Pictures, which includes the poem, The Panther.”

This story of the unproductive fig tree is a helpful parable for all of us in this Lenten season and, truly, in all seasons of our lives.  We might think about times when we were dealing with a serious health issue, and as much as medicine can be miraculous, sometimes the things that most helped along the journey were the small gestures of care that others shared with us.  Sometimes, like the tree, Lying fallow and getting fertilized with laughter and tears in the hard stuff of life can help heal what ails us.  And, if we sometimes get caught up in the obsession that we must accomplish much, earn much, produce much, and then find ourselves getting burned out, it is a really important reminder that all of us need time to just be.  We need time to rest certain parts of ourselves so that they may heal.

In the beautiful passage from Isaiah, we hear this invitation: “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.” It is  important to remember that God offers us enough love no matter how much we seek to attain or achieve.

Usually, when the parable is shared in Worship during Lent, it leads to sermons on repentance, because it is Lent after all.  We want to approach this in a new way today as we consider the fig tree, and that despite its struggles, it needed to be tended to and cared for so that it might bear fruit.  We know that successfully nurturing anything takes time and patience and sometimes a little TLC. We all have different paths which allow us to heal and to flourish; we all have different needs. And sometimes, we need to think in new ways about this whole journey of life.

 When asked whether the Galileans or Jerusalemites who perished were any worse than others as a reason for their demise, Jesus says a flat-out no. BUT, he suggests,  if the right conditions for thriving are not met (being in right relationship with God, oneself and  our neighbors), thriving is impossible and like the fig tree, we may feel like we are unable to bear fruit. What medicine do we need to help what ails us… to “turn us around”, which is ultimately the definition of repentance? In times when we feel most overwhelmed, too many of us revert to the same tried and true techniques, we try to pull up our bootstraps and do the best we can.  But has that worked before? Perhaps it is time to try something different.  We know there are many things in our lives that can bring us healing and respite.  Traditional medicine can work miracles, but it does not have all the answers and sometimes, alternative paths or supplemental paths must be sought for self-care, for healing, for renewal. 

This past week, many celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day.  We often think about it in reference to all of the festivities that are synonymous with the holiday, especially in our country, but Saint Patrick was a real man who lived a long time ago.  Patrick was one of the lucky ones, perhaps we may think of it as the luck of the Irish. He was fortunate in that he heard God’s call clearly. He knew exactly what he was to do with his life. His purpose was to bring the Christian story, the good news of the gospel, to the people of Ireland. He wasn’t the first one to do so, but he was the most successful.

Rev. Kelly Boyte Brill shares that “There were other missionaries in Ireland before Patrick. They went into the country aggressively and arrogantly, insisting that the people learn to speak Latin, change their calendar, and dress differently. As you can imagine, this form of evangelism was met with resistance. People got the message quickly – we’re not ok the way we are. We have to change everything about ourselves in order to be called Christian.”

Patrick approached his vocation in a completely different way. Much like Jesus’ story of ministry, he chose to first get to know the people of Ireland. He learned what was meaningful to them. He spoke their language. Most important of all, he communicated to them that he loved them and cared about their well-being. As he began to tell them about Jesus, about Jesus’ acceptance and grace and unconditional love, the content of Patrick’s message and the

ways in which he shared the stories made sense to the people as he was a living example in the ways in which he treated those he met.  People saw grace in Patrick, so it was easy for them to understand the grace of Jesus. Patrick embodied unconditional love even as he told them about the unconditional love Jesus taught and lived. Patrick gently invited the people of Ireland into community. He didn’t demand that they sign creeds or agree to every tenet of the faith. He believed that belonging would lead to belief (not the other way around), that being a part of a community of compassion, justice and service would help people form their faith much more effectively than having dogma pound into them through preaching and teaching.

When we celebrate the memory of St. Patrick, it is important to know that his legacy is still important in our time and place. He sincerely trusted that he was calling those he met to a life of love with God, because God calls everyone to a life of joy and meaning and purpose. Patrick understood that a spiritual life is a central part of what we need as human beings to flourish and grow and yes, to bear fruit.  And bearing fruit as defined in the Christian sense, is to be co-creators in this whole kingdom building enterprise.  Whether it was the 5th century AD in Ireland or today, we all seek purpose and hope and healing.  And when we are thriving, we are most able to share our gifts and receive the gifts of others.  And when we are struggling, we need the compassion and support of our friends and family; we need something deeper to turn to and we seek the compassion and grace of the One who loves us beyond all measure

Some of us have looked to history to gather strength and understanding for this time of the pandemic and now a war in eastern Europe.  We know that over a century ago, the flu pandemic coincided with the Great War or what later became known as the WWI.  Not only were the 1920’s known as a time for carefree living, they also were a time when artists and writers flourished.  In the years following  the bubonic plague which completely devastated Europe in the mid-1300’s, there was an extended period of new activity in the arts, culture and learning which was a time of exceptional creativity and artistic expression. That time would be known as the Renaissance, a word that literally means “rebirth.”  In the early months of 1665, when Isaac Newton was twenty-three years old, he returned to his home in a rural village for two years to escape the plague that had closed Cambridge University where he was a student. He later shared that these years were his most fruitful and creative, including 1666 when he wrote his theories of motion and gravity. 1666 was called a “miracle year” because of the importance of Newton’s work in that year following a plague.

In this season of Lent, we have the opportunity for reflection and prayer.  Perhaps we might imagine new ways that we may practice self-care and allow ourselves to heal the parts of ourselves that call out to us even when we have attempted to move forward without properly tending to them.  Are we stuck in a rut after 2 years of a pandemic?  Are we overwhelmed by fear and sorrow, whether because of events in our own lives or as we watch the suffering in Europe?  Can we seek let ourselves lie fallow; can we quiet our hearts and minds long enough to allow the healing power of our God speak to us in new ways?  Maybe we can start by naming what it is in our lives that we wish to heal and then consider what new ways we might embark upon that journey.  What may be reborn within our souls that may open us to healing?  Our spiritual practices can allow us a period of rebirth as well, for our souls, our church, and the world God

loves.  So, Go to the Zoo. You never know what you might find there….

-Resources on Saint Patrick from Rev. Kelly Boyte Brill