March 24, 2019

Lent 3 March 24, 2019  Psalm 63, Isaiah 55, Luke 13:6-19  

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We’re in the season of Lent, a time, according to ancient tradition, for repentance. Repentance, meaning literally turning. Turning to God – turning from whatever distracts us from the love of God… and loving our neighbor as our self…

And lent means literally Spring. The word lent comes from an old English word lencten, meaning lengthen – which was also an old English word for Spring, as in lengthening days that come with Spring. Spring has sprung. Thanks be to God. Happy Spring…

But… as anyone who’s lived in New England any length of time knows – Spring is unpredictable. One minute it can be sunny and warm – half an hour later, a snow squall. Sunny again – then rain or hail… New England weather is notoriously ever-changing, especially in this season we call Spring…

Yet, in spite of all the un-predictability of our seasonal weather… Most of us look forward to Spring – as among other things, a time when baseball starts up again. Song birds are back in big numbers, nesting in trees, singing their songs.. Fishing begins… .and it’s time for preparing and planting gardens. Our garden seeds just arrived this past week… Linda and Tom already have flowers blooming.

Near the end of Lent Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane…

Then on the third day, Easter begins… With Mary Magdalene searching for the body of Jesus in the garden, at the tomb in which he has been buried… Only to meet him… speaking with her in that same garden – Risen from the dead.

So – perhaps it’s no coincidence – the prophet Isaiah and Jesus our Lord are both speaking in gardening language today… I picture them each out in a garden, in their gardening clothes…Shovels in hand. Isaiah comparing God’s word with the fertility of seed planted in soil, bearing fruit…Jesus comparing the turning over of garden soil… with turning to God… Using earthy language, as he talks about turning a load of manure under, mixing it well with all the dirt around this proverbial fig tree that hasn’t yet given a fig… for the owner of the vineyard in which its planted…

It’s a parable – God is never explicitly named the owner of this vineyard – though vineyard and fig tree are familiar metaphors for Israel in scripture… Jesus doesn’t explicitly name himself as the gardener… The word repentance is never used….Though Jesus has been talking directly about repentance just before start of today’s gospel reading. So its not a stretch to guess… we are expected to be thinking repentance – as we hear this fig tree’s going to be cut down next year if it still hasn’t produced fruit for its owner. Which makes this a serious (even a life-or-death-kind-of-a-parable)… for this season of Spring…. Season of Lent…

Meanwhile…

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Isaiah the prophet tells us up-front directly – we need to practice repentance – saying:

Seek the Lord while he may be found – call upon him while he’s near –

Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts –

Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them – and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Notice how Isaiah makes the case for urgency in the making of repentance – while simultaneously leaving no doubt as to the mercy of God. Saying God will abundantly pardon.  And the good news gets even better, as Isaiah tells us – as we  repent – turn back to God – we find deep joy… Listen again, how Isaiah says it, as he speaks to us… words God has spoken to him:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God’s ways are not our ways. God always gives better than we deserve…

For as the rain and…snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it break forth and sprout –

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater –

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth – (God says–)

it shall not return to me empty – but it shall accomplish that which I purpose – and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God’s promises, in other words, are not like human promises. God’s promises are always fulfilled… Though, like thirsty land in a time of drought, we may need to cry out to God… and wait for God…

And God’s wait is always worthy of the wait… because…

When we return to God – God tells us – we find joy wider, deeper, longer lasting than Springtime… as God says –

…You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace –

the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you;

there’ll be shouts of joy, and all the trees of the field will clap, will clap their hands  – And all the trees of the field will clap their hands…

while you go out with joy….

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And maybe a bit like how March is supposed to come in like a lion, go out like a lamb – but often here in New England March gets it backwards – in like a lamb, with a sunny warm day or two – out like a lion, with a cold snap – temperatures down in the twenties at night – even a blizzard sometimes… Maybe it shouldn’t be a big surprise in Lent, which means Spring… that we see and hear today…

The notoriously tough-love prophet Isaiah telling us about the sheer joy of repentance – while gentle Jesus preaches tough love – telling us its turn-around-time – talking about spreading manure to provoke a half-dead tree to produce fruit. What can be up with Jesus today? Well…?

In the middle of today’s gospel reading, between his two parables, Jesus heals a woman in the congregation who has been bent over, painfully, for 18 long years… And because he’s bending the law of Moses as understood by the leadership of the church, by healing on the Sabbath – Jesus is rebuked for deviating from the letter of the law… and…

Jesus rebukes back – calling not only the one who has spoken, but others in authority too – hypocrites, plural – since all bend the law – leading their ox or donkey to water to drink on the Sabbath….and…

Jesus heals on the Sabbath habitually and seems to suspend any rule of law that gets in the way of saving life and healing… Especially for those who have been neglected or passed over… by those with power and authority…

Jesus reserves his strongest words of judgment for those who ignore the suffering of the poor while insisting on good order…So…

Maybe Jesus is getting tired of preaching joy and peace and love and radical sharing and healing… and too many people not listening…Not taking him seriously. Maybe Jesus is concerned because of people who call themselves God’s people… taking the grace of God for granted…. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred under Hitler, called this “cheap grace” – Christians assuming we’re hunky-dory with Jesus, even though we’re not taking up our cross and following… or doing what he’s said to do…

Jesus tells us elsewhere in Luke’s gospel (6:43-44) – no good tree bears bad fruit, and every tree is known by its fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thorns. Grapes don’t come from bramble bushes, Jesus says. So if we’re not bearing the fruit of the Spirit (which we’re told in Galatians 5 is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) – the gardener of our parable needs to be urgently digging manure around our roots… To get us to produce good fruit. So, according to the logic of this parable, if I’m hearing it right… If life sometimes seems like we’re up to our ankles in cow poop….Consider the possibility– this might be Jesus, the gardener, trying to grow us into new life…

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And the more we read the gospels, the more we hang out with Jesus, and pray with Jesus… The more we know… Jesus really is always very gentle… When he’s doing the tough-love thing with us… It’s always to save us… and heal us… and bless us…

And I’m not saying any one parable fits every situation… If a shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it. If a tree is healthy and producing well… probably no extra manure is needed… The poopy stuff that gets dumped in our front yard isn’t necessarily from Jesus. Even if it comes with his permission, it may be just our share of something that has to come down on the whole neighborhood, whole nation, or whole earth… We are all related – and into each life some manure must fall… But when the poopy stuff happens, should we not at least consider the possibility? This may be gentle Jesus’ way… of helping us grow in grace…

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And notice finally – in the last part of our gospel reading – how Jesus gives another parable, about a different kind of tree… Not a fig tree… just a small, mustard seed tree, now… that grows as if all by itself… Starting as one of the smallest of seeds… But growing to become a tree big enough for the birds of the air to make nests in. A tree of life, like the tree on our bulletin cover this morning, with all manner of birds of a feather and fellow creatures, singing together…

This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of God is like…

Grace growing from very small seeds of faith planted in ways we don’t always even notice – in the giving of a helping hand… in the sharing of joys and sorrows… in prayers lifted up for others… in smiles and kind words shared for no special reason… In the sharing of faith and grace with one another… In every small act of trusting in God…

The kingdom of God is made known… As we grow and become trees of life together… And the birds and the hills join with us together in song….And trees clap hands for joy…. As we are led forth… in peace and in joy… by God’s Spirit, together…

Thanks be to God. Amen.