March 2016 – Late for Lent

I think I was almost ready for the start of Lent. At least our Ash Wednesday evening worship service was, thanks to the Holy Spirit, and thanks to our music leaders and singers, a rich spiritual experience for me… (It didn’t hurt a bit that a pair of snow storms just before Ash Wednesday had given us a little more time to enter into the spirit of preparation for Lent…)

But suddenly we’re nearly halfway through Lent…And I’m nowhere near where I hoped to be… in this season of slowing down… making more time for prayer… fasting and abstaining… and other spiritual practices.

I’ve been intending to pray more and cut back on time spent on the computer. But I don’t feel up to speed on either of these. (Though maybe that’s not the best metaphor… for this season…)

I don’t know exactly where the time has gone, but… in one of our recent Sunday gospel lessons Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, saying “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:31-35.) And I can imagine a very large brood of little chickens, with myself in the midst of them all, and us all chirping together, “Lord, I’m trying to get there under your wing, but… I’ve got meetings to go to, people to call back and visit, chores to do, and a whole lot of email to answer before I can get there… But I really do mean to be there, under your wing, real soon… Well, at least just as soon as I can… Meaning, I guess… eventually….”

And I can also hear Jesus speaking in the parable he gives us in this coming Sunday’s gospel, where a landowner has a fig tree and he complains to the gardener about this tree that has not born fruit for three years. “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” And this gardener (who sounds like an old fashioned organic gardener, since he’s not apparently planning to spray with high potency chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc.) says “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.” (Luke 13:6-9.)

And it can be easy to give in to a sense of gloom or defeat… And wonder if I’ve been bearing any fruit at all….Depending on how I hear this story Jesus tells. It’s often been assumed by interpreters that God must be the landowner in this parable, and Jesus must be the gardener, pleading for a little more time for the tree, which must be Israel or the church or perhaps each of us…. Which on one level does seem to be implied… But maybe there are other ways to hear the story?

Maybe Jesus intends for this parable to get us pondering fruitfulness from a different angle. In another gardening story (John 15) Jesus tells us he is the vine – and God the Father is the gardener – who prunes the vine, cutting away unfruitful boughs (so there is still accountability in the story) but mostly pruning back branches to get them to bear more fruit. Which seems to be the goal also in the fig tree parable. And as we read on in Luke’s gospel, we see God the Father (in the prodigal father and sons parable of Luke 15) running out to greet the long-lost son who has left home for wild living and squandered his inheritance – welcoming that son back with a big party… Which doesn’t match up at all with the image of a father demanding that his helper chop down a tree…If that father is supposed to represent God, and if that tree is supposed to represent the people of God… or each of us.

So – with the help of some other interpreters – I’ve begun considering another possibility….That seems to fit better with the spiritual disciplines of Lent.

What if the one in this parable who owns this vineyard is not God, but we ourselves – and/or the world we live in? Demanding a fruitfulness that we are all incapable of producing? (At least on our own.) A fruitfulness perhaps attainable…Only when we slow down and hold still… long enough for God the gardener to get good manure down around our roots…

Maybe this parable is yet another strong suggestion from Jesus… That if we don’t want to end up as self-chopped cord wood… Better give God time to bury all the stuff that the world (and we ourselves) often consider our biggest problems… What if it’s all about letting God dig all the stuff of this world’s admittedly dire problems into the soil of the soul… translating troubles that claim so much attention into fertility-inducing plant food… For the reviving and revitalizing of God’s people?

I love the possibility that God is really out to revive our ability to give (many) a fig… Enough to give this parable and this season at least another try… So, excuse me, please… I’m running late for my slow prayer walk…

If I don’t hurry…Maybe I can be on time.

God’s grace and peace be with you,

Pastor Tim