Scriptures for the Third Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
An older Italian man lived alone in New Jersey. He wanted to plant his annual tomato garden, but it was very difficult work, as the ground was hard. His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament:
I am feeling pretty sad, because it looks like I won't be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I'm just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot. I know if you were here my troubles would be over. I know you would be happy to dig up the ground for me, like in the old days.
A few days later the father received a letter from his son:
Don't dig up that garden. That's where the bodies are buried.
At 4 a.m. the next morning, FBI agents and local police arrived at the old man's house and dug up the entire area. However, they didn't find any bodies, so they apologized to the old man and left. That same day the old man received another letter from his son.
Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That's the best I could do under the circumstances.
How many of you are gardeners? Gardening is one of those things that I think you either love or hate! I grew up in a family of gardeners. My grandparents on both sides had acres of corn, beans and peas, along with rows and rows of squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. And there were plum and apple orchards, and flower beds, and I spent most of my summers helping in some way with the gardening. Planting, weeding, watering, harvesting. So when I grew up, it was really no surprise that I have felt a need to garden everywhere I’ve lived. I loved gardening! But gardening is hard work. It takes time, dedication, and physical labor – all things that I find myself having less capacity for as I get older. Even houseplants are starting to be neglected in my house these days. So the parable that Jesus tells in our gospel lesson today is one that I can appreciate.
I’ve heard someone say that gardening is ruthless work. You have to be willing to yank out the growing weeds along with weak or diseases plants; to kill insects and rodents; to prune and chop and deadhead and divide. So in that respect, it’s not that hard to understand why the owner of the vineyard would look at a tree that seems to be weak or sick and say, “yank it out. It’s taking up good dirt and space that could go to a healthier plant.” But we gardeners sometimes get attached to the things we’ve planted, don’t we? And the gardener intercedes, and advocates for giving it a little more time with focused attention. ‘I’ll aerate, I’ll give it better fertilizer; don’t give up on it quite yet.’
My dad is a huge fan of Miracle Grow. Anytime I have something growing, he reminds me to make sure I have a regular schedule of fertilizing it. Sure, whatever I plant will do okay with decent soil, water and sunlight – but add in a regular routine of fertilizing, and you suddenly become a master gardener! The leaves are greener, the stalks are hardier, and the blooms are double or triple what they would have been, which, of course, yield two to three times more produce.
Jesus tells a story here that has a good lesson for us in and of itself – as followers of Jesus, there’s certainly an expectation to bear spiritual fruit. In one of Paul’s letters to the early church he explains that allowing Christ’s Spirit to live in us produces fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) But as it goes with Jesus and his stories, there’s more here for us. Jesus tells this story right after a group of people have come to him with a story of what amounts to a horrible act of state-sponsored terrorism – Pilate having a group of Galileans killed in the temple, and mixing their blood with the blood of their sacrifice! The agenda here was to test Jesus, to see if he would be just as outraged as they were, to find out if this Messiah was ready to take up their cause to overthrow the Roman empire. That’s what they were hoping and waiting for – a militaristic savior who would lead the Jewish revolt against the occupation and take back their land once and for all. The people were also very much ruled at the time by the idea that any sort of pain or affliction was divine retribution from God for a person’s sins – either their own or someone in their family. That’s why people with diseases or other physical ailments were considered ‘unclean.’ They must have done something that has cause God to curse them so.
Jesus sees through their agenda here. He is neither going to play their game of inciting fear and violence against the Roman government, or going to cast judgement on the Galileans. He asks them point blank if they think those Galileans who were murdered in the temple were worse sinners than a crowd of people who died the other day when a building fell on them. He’s trying to lead them to think deeper about these long-held assumptions about God. God who led our people out of slavery in Egypt; God who fed them in the desert with bread from heaven that was new every morning, and quenched their thirst with fresh streams of water that flowed from a rock! God, who has the best wine and the best milk and tables overflowing with the best foods – at no cost – free! Free, free, free! God, who made an everlasting covenant with Abraham and David. God, whose plans are no our plans, and whose ways are not our ways. Jesus is trying to help them remember that God is faithful, and just and full of mercy! God doesn’t go around striking people dead. Everything does not happen for a reason! Your status in life, your physical health, even your mental health – these are not divine punishment! Please hear that from Jesus. Our God is merciful and tender, like a gardener who sees something that others might flippantly cast off as just taking up space, not producing fruit, something that seems to be weak, and says, “let me add some fertilizer, let me nourish it and feed it.” God’s mercy is like that!
Over these past two weeks of Lent, we’ve also been called to remember – to remember God’s faithfulness to God’s people in the wilderness; to learn from Jesus’ own example of wilderness and temptation and to remember that God is always with us, providing for our every need, even in our wandering. We’ve been reminded that we can trust God to shelter us from those things that threaten to harm our spirits, and our faith. And that God, like a mother hen, will ultimately sacrifice herself to save her chicks. Today, we’re invited to think of God as an attentive gardener, tenderly nourishing our spirits back to health. But…
Jesus ends his parable with a warning. “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die” just like those Galileans, or those people in Jerusalem who were crushed by a collapsing building. Unless you start producing fruit, you’ll be cut down just like that fig tree. These may seem like harsh words from Jesus, especially now that we’re feeling all warm and fuzzy from such pleasant thoughts about God’s care and nurture. N. T. Wright, whose reflections we’ve been reading on the gospel of Luke in our Daily GPS Guides compares these words of Jesus to those of a fireman who bursts into a building to find people sleeping on the top floors while the building is burning below them. The merciful thing is to tell them to Wake up! Get out of here, or you’ll die! These words of Jesus are not meant to be a scare-tactic. He’s not joining in with the fear-mongering of those who presented this story to Jesus to begin with; he’s trying to wake them up. Don’t you see – these stories of divine punishment, they’re distracting you from noticing that I’m here to show you what God is really like. God sent me to build God’s kingdom on earth like it is in heaven – NOT like it is in Rome, or even in the old days when David ruled. God’s new kingdom will not depend on a government to rule justly – God rules justly over all kings, all governments, all powers. Don’t put your hopes in some nationalism, hoping to “Make Jerusalem Great Again.” Turn around! Repent! Notice what I’ve been about for these three years – restoring sight to the blind; healing the sick and the broken; feeding the hungry; befriending the sinners and tax collectors and the outcasts.
The Greek word used here for ‘repent’ is ‘metanoia’ – ‘meta,’ meaning change, and ‘noia,’ meaning mind. So it literally means a change of mind. Lent gives us an opportunity to repent – to turn around and notice Jesus more. To spend time reading and reflecting on God’s word, to increase the time we spend in prayer by giving up those things that crowd out our faith, and by responding in some way – producing fruit – living our lives in such a way that others see Christ in our actions and reactions; in the way we serve, in the way we love our neighbors, in the way we exude joy, or practice patience, kindness, goodness and self-control. In the way we die to our selfish wants and desires, and allow God to give some fertilizer to that faith inside us, so that God’s Holy Spirit produces a harvest of spiritual fruits in us.
We can think of Lent at that period of time when Jesus the gardener says, let me add some fertilizer – let me see what can happen when one of my followers turns around and notices me, and adds scripture reading, and prayer and service to their daily lives. Let’s see if following me, and growing closer to me produces fruit in them that turns their grief to joy, that turns their bitterness and resentment to gentleness, that turns their apathy and laziness to love and service, that turns their worries and fears and anxieties to peace. That’s the kind of harvest God wants.
The question for us is, will we repent? Will we have a change of mind, a change of heart, that allows us to turn around and notice that instead of shopping over there where everything’s marked up, and nothing is quality, and nothing lasts, God has the best wine and the best milk right over here – and it’s free! Free, free, free! Will we stay barren like the fig tree, just taking up space, not caring about anything but ourselves, our comfort, our self-righteousness, or will we decide that my dad really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to scheduling a regular feeding of Miracle Grow! Will we accept the nourishment of spiritual disciples so that God’s Spirit can grow in us.
Our reading from Isaiah 55 stops after verse 9, but listen to verses 10 & 11:
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
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.
Jesus is on his way to the cross. But on the way, he’s warning us – Wake up! Notice me while I’m here. God’s ways are not your ways – God is merciful and tender, longing to feed us, to nourish us… so repent! Change your mind about what you think you need. Let me break up that hard, arid dirt. Let me add some fertilizer. Then see what God’s Spirit can grow in you!
Prayer: Rejoicing yet thirsting (based on Psalm 63 by Christine Jerrett)
We do rejoice in you, God our God
We rejoice in your steadfast love and faithfulness
— a rich feast for our souls.
We rejoice that you shelter us in the shadow of your wings
— strong protection against the storms.
We rejoice that you are more powerful than
the troubles that trouble us.
We rejoice that, when we wander far from You,
losing our way,
you do not leave us on our own.
You come to us in Jesus, your Word made flesh.
dwelling among us,
full of your grace and your truth.
O God who has drawn near, you know us as we are:
the songs of praise
tell only part of the story.
We have wandered down many paths,
seeking happiness or glory,
we have trusted in lesser gods,
looking for safe haven from the dangers that threaten.
But the deep hungers are not satisfied;
the fears and anxieties still haunt us.
And now we know:
our souls thirst for you, the living God.
Show us your power and your glory.
Take our weariness
and send your Holy Spirit to renew our hope.
Take our fears
and grow new courage in us.
Take our resignation to the way things are
and pull us into your passionate love.
you meet us in the wilderness of our days,
and fill us with the bread of life.
You meet us in the desert of our loneliness
and streams of living water start to flow.
We drink deeply of the gift of your presence,
and we rejoice,
for you have made us glad. Amen.
~ posted on Christine Jerrett. https://christinejerrett.wordpress.com/