A reflection the readings for Lent 3C: Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9
Waiting in the bus station one day Macrina witnessed a little girl attempt to help her brother get a drink at the water fountain. She tried to lift him to the proper height, but that turned out impossible. Macrina was just at the point of going to help when the little girl darted over to the shoe shine station and asked if she could borrow an unused footstool. The girl dragged the footstool to the fountain and gently lifted her thirsty brother up on it, where he garnered a satisfying drink of water. It all happened so fast and it was so simple, yet it turned out to be a moment of beauty that became a prayer…. (Macrina Wiederkehr in a “A Tree Full of Angels”).
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus is discussing the fate of a group of people from Galilee who perished in a conflict with Pilate, the cruel and violent leader of the nation. Jesus is assuring other people that these Galileans did not die because of their sins. They were just victims caught up in a conflict. Anyone of us, at any point in time, can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jesus contrasts this tragedy of the Galileans with the parable of the fig tree. The landowner believes that the tree is dead, useless, and wasting the soil. Imagine how useless something must be to waste the very soil it resides in?
The other day I drove past the Henry Ford sunflower field – the field that is ripe with yellow flowers in the fall, now stands with stalks of dried up flowers, just like these in our worship space. And yet even in their dried and barren state they present a captivating beauty, reminding us of the life that was and the life that will be again this summer.
Stanley Hauerwas, a well-known Quaker theologian and pacifist once wrote that, if most Americans were asked, in an unguarded moment, to name the purpose of life, we would answer, “The purpose of life is not to die.” None of us wants to be like these sunflower plants. None of us wants to be like the Galileans, in the wrong place at the wrong time and face peril.
But nonetheless it happens. Life is full of challenges, struggles, suffering and death. These realities of life are placed squarely in the midst of the Lenten journey. Life can be rocky and treacherous. Avoiding struggle, challenges, and suffering is impossible. Lent reminds us that even when we are in the wrong place and time, God is with us.
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection place him simultaneously in the right and the wrong place and time. Which is exactly how God works – through all those seemingly wrong times and places God acts and something good, whole, and right comes from it.
So, focusing our efforts on “Not dying” is focusing our selves in the wrong direction. Lent calls us to turn and return to God. This is what we mean by repenting – to let go of, perhaps allowing parts of life and ourselves to die, and then, as a result, able to refocus in a new direction - on God and the mission God calls us in. Like the gardener who argues for the life of the fig tree, our lives call us to tend to them, even the dying places require us to pay attention in a new way.
In our Vestry retreat this year and last year, Jim Gettel has focused our attention on a model that uses organic gardening as a means for naming the work we do at Christ Church. Our work is called “a mission field”. We are the gardeners of this mission field, called to recognize when to plant, when to water, when to harvest, and when to let something lie fallow for a time. Our mission field includes Chapel Day preschool, the many ways our building is used, Blessings in a Backpack, fitness classes in martial arts, dance, and stretching, and our partnership with Good Shepherd in Liberia. Gardening is intentional work, particularly when our garden pertains to people in the world around us. Our mission field is tending to people.
Today we are so very blessed to have with us Wilbert Clarke, the Senior Warden at Good Shepherd Church in Liberia, and his wife Margaret. We are blessed to have them present as our delegation to Liberia shares the story of their journey to Liberia and as we learn more about our emerging partnership with Good Shepherd to build a school. I encourage you to stay for coffee after church and hear the story and learn about this partnership. Perhaps you are being called to participate in this mission field?
This project is big, it’s daunting. It may feel as challenging as it would be to nourish life back into a dried up fig tree planted in dry soil. It may feel as big and impossible as a little girl trying to lift her brother up for a drink of water. But we are not to be daunted by the immensity of this. Richard Foster, a well-known author on Christian faith writes, “Each activity of daily life in which we stretch ourselves on behalf of others is prayer in action…” (Richard J. Foster “Prayer”) This mission will be prayer in action!
Michael Curry, Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, wrote this in response to the Gospel reading this morning and the challenge of tending to a mission field that looks to be impossible:
Facing the reality of mystery and the limits of what we can know is not an excuse to stand still and look sad, as were some of the disciples, paralyzed by the death of Jesus. Jesus is on a mission. Those who would be disciples of Jesus, who would follow in his way in the power of his Spirit, are on that mission. Much is unknown. Many questions will remain unanswered. In the end, the future is God’s, but we share in the mission of unfolding the future. (paraphrase of his reflection in Feasting on the Word Lent through Eastertide).
Both our reading today from Isaiah and the Gospel assure us that this unfolding future is one in which we will be nurtured and nourished in the abundance of God’s grace.
Therefore it is not our job to expect the future to unfold in a certain way, God will tend to that. It is our job to follow Jesus, to be disciples, to hold hands with our sisters and brothers at Good Shepherd, to follow the way of the Spirit, to be prayer in action - to be brave enough to step out into the seemingly barren terrain, where much is unknown, trusting God will quench our thirst when we feel parched and nourish the soil we are rooted in as we share in this mission. No doubt there will be trials and tribulations, and even some death, but more than that we are guaranteed, by the grace of God, in a covenant of love, to know new life and bear fruit in the most unexpected of ways.