Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fertilzer for our Souls: The sermon I did preach

Being There, a movie from 1979 starring Peter Sellers, tells the story of Chancy Gardiner. His real name is Chance, he grew up secluded in a house in Washington DC the apparent offspring of a very wealthy eccentric named Jennings. Chance is always fed on schedule, by the long term cook who has known him all his life, is allowed to garden in the small plot in the walled in backyard, and dressed in expensive handmade suits. His only knowledge of the outside world comes from watching television. But when Jennings dies, and no provisions are made for Chance’s up keep, the attorneys kick him out and sell the house. Chance walks out of the house for the first time in his life and encounters a street gang, which he tries to make go away with a remote control TV changer, and then, in a freak accident ends up in the home of a wealthy but dying industrialist and his wife, played by Shirley McLaine.

McLaine’s character misunderstands Chance when he says his name is Chance, the Gardner, she thinks he says Chancy Gardiner. Over time the characters in the movie find great wisdom in Chancy, his simple minded statements about gardening are applied to life as if they exemplified the greatest wisdom.

He says such things as:

“First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”

- On economics (actually on gardening):
"In a garden, growth has its long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden."

The movie is a political satire commenting on American culture; of people persuaded by appearances, Chancy wears very expensive clothes and in 1979 they couldn’t Google him to learn more, these high powered wealthy people judged him on his appearance and found wisdom where there may only have been a simple minded innocence.

The movie reminds us that we are a people looking desperately for meaning.

We want to know that our lives have a purpose.

We just don’t always look in the right places…

Often we want to believe that we can create that plan ourselves and direct the course of our lives. First college, then a career, then relationship, marriage, family, house, fulfillment.
I went to college in 1974, I was 17 years old, having graduated from High School a year early. I chose to major in Agriculture. I had this naïve dream of having a small farm and raising all my own crops and a flock of chicks. I thought it would be a lovely life, raising kids, raising food, living simply off the land.

But then, I was only 17 and it was 1974.

Within a year or so I changed my major, and then I changed it again.

The naiveté of childhood grows up and we have to face the reality that life is full of change, and sometimes bad things happen to good people.

People get sick.

People lose their jobs.

We struggle.

We wonder where God is.

We wonder why bad things happen.

And sometimes we may wonder why God is doing this?

Is this God punishing people?

In the 1980’s AIDS was the “punishment,” although this continues to be a prominent issue in other countries...

In the 21st century it’s been acts of terrorism and natural disasters that catch our attention most. And in the midst of these disasters some people will point out that somehow “they” deserved it….

This kind of thinking, blaming the problem on some action of the person, begs the question asked by the Galileans: “Will this happen to us too?”

To this, Jesus responds:
“Do you think that these Galileans suffered this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you, unless you repent you will perish as they did…”

As always, Jesus points us to stop looking at others, and to look at our selves first.

What are we doing?

Regardless of whether are lives are going well or are filled with challenges, we are called to look at own lives, judging, if you will, where we are, and not judging others. Yes, bad things happen. No we can’t prevent every thing that happens.

And, no I don’t think God is doling out punishment for our "benefit."

Bad things just happen.

So, remember, to repent means to turn to God. Jesus is telling the people to turn to God.
To turn or return to God, because if we don’t we will loose our grounding in life, we will wander lost and confused. We will “perish.” With God at the center of our lives we can be focused even in the worst of times.

God may not cause the bad things to happen to us, but God will help us through them.

In Lent each of us are called to ponder if God is at the center of our lives.

Or, do we need to turn back to God?

Do we need to work at ways to have God be an active presence in our lives?

In times of strife this is all the more challenging. But it is also the time we are most likely to invite God in. This morning Jesus reminds us that we are not to wait until problems come to nurture our relationship with God. We are to do this all the time. No, I tell you unless you repent you will perish as they did…

turn and return to God.

Seek ways to be firmly rooted in God.

“For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

Nurturing our spiritual lives, our lives of faith, needs to be an ongoing process. We are shaped and formed as Christians over a life time. The purpose of our intentional formation is to give us deep roots into fertile soil from which we can produce good fruit.

Deep roots of faith.

Deep roots of connectedness.

Deep roots of belonging to this faith community, to these people.

Deep roots that can sustain us and make us stable.

The roots of trees grow all winter long, that’s why we plant them in the fall, so the roots have time to grow. While the world seems cold and barren, covered in snow, the roots of trees are growing deeper into the ground, stronger, more firm. These strong roots are then able to support the rest of the tree as it blossoms in the spring and sends out green leaves and produces fruit.

The winter of our souls are also times for growing deeper roots in order to make us stronger, healthier, more stable and to prepare us for spring, to prepare us for producing fruit.

As a faith community we are living in winter. We have many worries and concerns. I encourage us to see this as a time to grow stronger roots, to become more stable, and to prepare for Spring.

“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.”

As we are seeing, this reading is a parable, which means that it has multiple layers of meaning for us to unpack.

In the end I think I’ve become a gardener of sorts. I’ve had small gardens in my back yard and raised lettuce, cucumbers, green peppers, the usual Midwest crop. But mostly I think I have been the gardener of my spiritual life. And I have also become the gardener of the spiritual lives of a congregation, a garden of people.

One thing I know, from a life time of gardening…it isn’t just about the quality and expertise of the gardener. That helps.

But gardening is about much more, and a good produce depends on other factors.

“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.”

So, consider that we are all the gardener, the caretaker of the fig tree. And the fig tree is a metaphor for our spiritual lives. We are supposed to nurture our own spiritual lives, to make ourselves available to God. We do this through prayer, through worship, through bible study, through our Lenten program, singing, helping others, and through our relationships with one another…it is in and through our relationships with others that we come to know God in ways that are most rich and full. These are ways we fertilize our faith and bring nourishment into our lives.

But it also means we need to take action, to do something.

Nurturing our spiritual lives doesn’t just happen. It requires us to be active in seeking out ways to grow. So, even as I am a gardener, each one of you is ultimately responsible for how you respond to the opportunities offered to nurture your spiritual lives. Each one of us is responsible for our own spiritual life. And, each of us working together creates the environment for a healthy fruit to be produced.

We need to make the time to prune and fertilize our souls,

our spirits,

our lives,

in order that we can produce healthy fruit.

As a church congregation the healthy fruit we produce will manifest as an energy around vibrant and dynamic ministry, a focus for us, which will both nurture our faith and help the world around us. The church can offer us the soil in which to grow, the medium into which we can thrust our roots, the source of water and nutrients to nourish our spiritual lives.

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