This is the second Sunday in lent and I would like to invite you to think for a few minutes about what that means for you. What is lent about as you understand it? What are we to do during lent? We talk about it every lent – lent is a time of repentance – or, to put it in less “churchy” words, to look at our lives, to reflect, to try to make some changes, to turn from one direction and go in a new direction, to grow, to try to be more worthy and more whole and just plain more Godly.
And so, how do most people do this? What is the most common Lenten practice that we know of? Giving something up, of course. And what kinds of things do people give up? There can be something good and healthy about giving something up: if we are really looking at our lives and we find something that is getting in the way of our wholeness, of our serving God and others. Then we can decide to make a practice of limiting, for a set period of time, but perhaps with the idea that if we can do it for a short time, we might be able to do it for longer, whatever it is that is interfering in our growth, wholeness and service to God.
But I found myself thinking, as I do every year, about the falseness, so many times, of these deprivations or sacrifices. These sacrifices on many occasions are almost like a game we play – “let’s see if I can give this up,” or they are a way of feeling “righteous” or religious. We feel like we’re really doing something in the name of our faith. But they represent a choice that a privileged or wealthy person (and we are all wealthy here by the world’s standards) makes for a short and specific period of time: a choice that can be “cheated” and even changed at any moment.
What do these deprivations actually mean in the bigger scheme of our faith? What does it mean in terms of our dual call to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves? What does it mean to the people God really calls us to care for – the oppressed and the poor?
To put it in more concrete terms, what does it mean to those who can’t afford and therefore don’t own a television that you give up watching TV for a month? What can it possibly mean to the poor person who eats what they can find, often very unhealthy foods such as junk food, that you give up chocolate or coffee for a month? What does it mean to God that you “give up” something but aren’t giving to someone who might need it? The intent of these sacrifices is to focus on God. But often the Lenten practice of sacrifice gets warped and trivialized. And do we then use those deprivations to focus more on God, or do we end up focusing on something else – like on our own “religiousness” or even more, on that thing that we have given up? Are we taking the time that we would otherwise use watching TV or whatever else it is we have given up to volunteer with the poor, to meditate on the direction God wants for our lives or even very simply to pray?
Thinking about how this particular ritual sometimes ends up being false brought up for me the even bigger issue behind it. I went from wondering what the purpose of this particular ritual has become to the larger question of what is the purpose of our weekly church rituals? What is the purpose of our religion? What is our church about for us? What SHOULD it be about? How does our participation in church serve us? But more, how does it serve God and serve the world? Are our rituals, like the practice of giving up something for lent, and indeed involvement in church itself, instead a way to escape the realities of this world, and the call of God to action?
Most of you are probably familiar with the musical, the Sound of Music and in particular, the Julie Andrews’ movie version. At one point in the story, the Julie Andrews character, Maria, became confused about her feelings for the father of the house where she served as a governess. And so what did she do? She ran away back to the convent. She went to the convent to escape her feelings. She felt that she was turning to God: she felt that she was making the choice for God over the choice of being a wife or being a mother. But in reality, she was turning to God, turning to the church, for escape.
We find a similar image of the church as a place of escape in the movie, “Sister Act.” In Sister Act, the main character, Delores, literally hid in the convent as a “nun” while she waited to be a witness against her murdering boyfriend. In that convent she found that all the nuns there were really “hiding” out. The Mother Superior described the convent using the words, “These walls are the only protection they (the nuns) have. The streets are no longer safe for them. These robes no longer protect our sisters. The walls do.” The purpose of the convent in the Mother Superior’s eyes was to protect them: it was an escape for them, a place to stay safely away from the realities of the dangerous and scary world outside.
I would like to suggest that perhaps the same is true, many times, in our local churches. People enter the church with the idea of “leaving their burdens behind them” or “laying their burdens at the feet of Jesus”. And while it is right and good to ask God for the strength to carry our burdens, for the courage to face the trials, for the wisdom to navigate the torrential waters of our lives, many times the church becomes itself almost like a drug – a way to escape this life: a place to hide, a place to run away, an addiction even. We know churches like this. The music literally creates a “high” in people, the walls become a safe place, people hide in their theology of a future heaven where everything will be okay. And in the midst of this, the people of the church don’t do the work they are called to do. They forget the call to serve each other, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, comfort the sick, and do the work of being in this world.
I would like to offer another image of the church for us today. “The church as fertilizer.” This brings us back to today’s scripture reading. The verses for today are not “nice” passages: in the first half of today’s lesson, Jesus first says that bad things don’t happen to people because they sin, but then he goes on to say “I tell you unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” And then we get the story of the fig tree. The fig tree doesn’t produce fruit and so the owner wants to tear it out. The gardener persuades the owner to give the fig tree another year to produce, but even then, the owner still says that if it doesn’t produce good fruit in another year, it will be ripped out. Not a really reassuring story, is it?
But the good news in this story is that the fig tree is not left to its own devices. The gardener promises to dig around it and put manure on it: to amend the soil in which the tree is planted. It is a recognition, for example, that when things are bad with people in a place, that it often has much more to do with the place than with those individuals. We know that when an entire school of children are not doing well in school, we don’t throw the kids out. We work on changing the systems surrounding the children; adjusting the school system, the teaching methods and platforms in order to help the children learn more effectively; making sure the kids have proper nutrition and safer home lives, adjusting the availability of resources, supplies for the kids. When a society is not doing well, I would encourage you to look at the bigger systems for what needs to change. Why is our society rife with racism? Why is there a hugely growing discrepancy between the rich and the poor? Why is gun violence on the rise? Why do we have the highest percentage of any developed country of people in prison? Do we just “have bad people” here? Is it just that we have a huge number of racists, and violent people, and people with mental illness? No. This has to do with the soil we have planted, the systems we have in place, the institutionalized greed, prejudice, rage, revenge thinking, violent thinking. Our history, a history of slavery, of greed, of some having while others don’t, of sanctioned thievery, sanctioned destruction of families at the border, and an acceptance of political lies has determined who we currently are. And the only way we can address these huge issues is through different fertilizer, different manure that we use to enrich all of our lives and to help all of us grow more fully. This has to start with our places of gathering. From a faith perspective, this has to start with a fertilizer of our churches that encourages seeing deeply, being willing to change, being willing to learn and grow, looking for God, learning to love, remembering that we are all God’s children, brothers and sisters to one another.
As New Testament professor Mitzi Smith said it, “Jesus’ framing, use, and interpretation of the parable of the barren fig tree is harsh. He is calling Jerusalem to repent, but a people or a nation must admit and be conscious of its wrongdoing in order to change its commitments, policies, and practices. Just because Jerusalem (its leaders) has not experienced the state sanctioned violence to which Pilate subjected the Galileans does not mean the Galileans or those killed when the tower of Siloam fell are sinners. Revolutionaries are murdered. Innocent persons have been and continue to be crucified, murdered, or die because the state fails to maintain its infrastructure or slum lords make money. Many persons and leaders commit evil with impunity under unjust judicial systems and corrupt authorities; the avoidance of justice is not a sign of innocence, goodness, or divine approval.”
So, my image for the church then is of a place where you are dug around, where the hard places are pointed out, sometimes rooted out, but more often softened with some digging, some aeration, and a place where you are “manured” or fertilized. A place where you are nourished and fed, replenished, and given the best nutrition possible in order to grow so that you, too may produce fruit.
In both of the movies that I mentioned, the churches stopped being places of escape. In Sister Act, the nuns in the convent broke out of their imprisoning walls, with a little encouragement and nurturing, and began reaching out to the community, serving the people, serving the children, making a difference in the community rather than hiding from it. So, too in the Sound of Music. My favorite speech in the musical happens after Maria says to the Mother Superior upon her “escape” back to the Abbey, “I knew I had to come back here. That here I would be safe,” and Mother Superior sharply replies to Maria, “Maria, our Abbey is not meant to be used as an escape…you must find out how God wants you to use your love…You must go back….These walls were not meant to shut out problems. You have to face them and live the life you were born to live” And then she sings “Climb Every Mountain,” the poetry of which I really love –
Climb every mountain
Search high and low
Follow every by‑way
Every path you know
Climb every mountain
Ford every stream
Follow every rainbow
‘Till you find your dream
A dream that will need
All the love you can give
Everyday of your life
For as long as you live
God does indeed call us to be the people of love, finding, searching, seeking and serving with that love…not escaping.
Repentance means “turning around”. Often it is used to mean that we are called to turn around to go a different direction. But this week I heard it differently. Perhaps we are called to turn our vision around and look within ourselves and within our systems at the areas in our own hearts and our own lives, our own church and our own country that need to be changed, that need to be fertilized, that need to be aerated, dug around. We are called to look at those areas that need pruning, that need the loving hand of a caring gardener. This won’t be painless. And that means we do not come to this place for comfort, for ease, for a pat on the back. We come to learn, to see, to dig deeper. Every single person can benefit from growth. Not one of us has “made it”, not one of us is there yet. We need different things: the hurting need comfort and reassurance of God’s love for them. The comfortable need to look at the ways in which they contribute to the suffering of others and the ways in which they can overcome that. But we all have needs. I’m reminded of the story in Numbers 21:9; “So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.” All of us get bitten by temptations: greed, or anger, or hatred, or judgment; prejudice or pride, ego, or fear. We all have these parts of ourselves. And we have to face them: to look at the snakes within ourselves and within our society, naming them for what they are, in order to be healed.
God’s intention for us is to be fruitful, to bear the good fruits of love, compassion, grace, kindness, peace, hope and joy. But that takes work: tending, working, talking with one another, facing truth with one another. And like corn, we should be planted together. Apart we also cannot produce fruit. Also, we have to remember that even when soil is amended, it takes three years after planting a fruit tree for good fruit to grow. It’s not comfortable. And it takes time. But the whole point of a fruit tree is to produce fruit, so we are called to make that happen, to work the soil, to do the planting, the pruning, the fertilizing until it can produce fruit. God in the parable is the gardener, always asking for more time to work the soil, to tend to the plants.
I think back on my own life. There have been voices that have confronted me with truths about my own behaviors or own personality that I did not like. I don’t enjoy those times, and I sometimes react defensively. But even when I become defensive at first, I always have taken them away to ponder, to learn, to try to grow. Those have been opportunities to learn, to deepen both in my faith and in becoming the person I want to be.
I have hope. I actually take it as a good sign that we sometimes speak truth to each other in ways that can be a bit cranky – that is a sign that this is a real place, a place where people are not “escaping” into the high of non-reality. This is a place where people still are in the world, and still are seeking to do God’s work. It would be better still if we could talk about the things that bother us before they pop out in crankiness, but God is not finished with any of us yet. We still need some more aeration and a little more manure to become the whole, fruit-bearing people God calls us to be. Maybe this lent we can focus on how to be more present in this place, more real in our relationships, more open to bearing fruit, and more focused on God and God’s love for us all in the midst of whatever lenten disciplines we employ. Amen.