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Sermon, March 20, 2022 – Lent III

Be Patient – God’s Still at Work

              At the heart of this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable about a conversation between a landowner and his gardener and a certain fig tree that after three years in the orchard had not produced any figs.  The landowner expresses his displeasure with the situation and demands that the fig tree be cut down and turned into firewood.  The gardener makes a simple bargain with the landowner – give me a year to tend to the tree, and if it produces figs well and good, if not, the landowner gets some firewood.

              We live in a society driven by the need to see results. This may entail completing a difficult task or obtaining certain goals or objectives. In business, good results are indicated by steady and lasting profits — the bottom line. A farmer or gardener hopes for clear-cut results in the form of a fruitful harvest.

              The parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel involves a fig tree that does not produce the desired result of bearing figs. Even though the tree is barren, the gardener urges that it be tended for another year before it is cut down.

              We ourselves tend to delay the discipline necessary to become fruitful, to give God all of our lives. St. Augustine of Hippo was a world-class procrastinator, at least when it came to the spiritual life. He knew he should change his life, reject his immortal lifestyle, and embrace Christianity — but he kept putting it off. Through the prayers of his mother, St. Monica, Augustine finally did become a fervent Christian. But he would lament in his autobiography, the Confessions, that he had wasted much time: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!”

              Lent is a yearly reminder that repentance, turning to God, is the natural character of the Christian life. Conversion is not a one-time event: it is lifelong. Just as, when we rise each morning, it is a picture of rising from our old life through Baptism — so we model in Lent the process of our redemption through self-examination of our selfishness and sin, and renewal of our commitment to Christ.

              Left to ourselves, we, like the fig tree, would wither and die. Now, as our part of the world looks to the budding of new life in spring, we turn toward Christ our sun as the ultimate source of healing and forgiveness. We open ourselves to the peace that passes understanding in him — since we can never make sense of the tragedies of the world apart from his love.

              The reading from Exodus gives us the story of Moses and the burning bush.  Here, Moses has his first encounter with God – the first of many encounters that will shape and direct the rest of his life. 

              The bush flamed up — eye catching, mind puzzling, awesome. Why didn’t it burn? Like Moses, we’re drawn toward the mysterious. We’re captured by beauty, stilled by it — a blazing sunset, an artistic masterpiece, crashing waves on a rocky coast, the deep silence of a star-filled night. What is your “holy ground”? Where are you pulled into silence, called through your senses to hear God’s voice? God told Moses to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. Nothing should come between our human self and our “holy ground.” We may not have to take off our shoes. Maybe we just need to remove the self-imposed wrapping on our hearts to hear more clearly God’s call to us. So much of our connection with God is interior, but there is our exterior connection as well.  Here, we learn of God’s unpronounceable holy name – YHWH (best transliterated as Yahweh, or “I AM”).  I AM speaks to each of our hearts, calls us to come closer, to feel, to touch, to explore who I AM is. Take off your shoes, if you can, and stand on your own holy ground.

              The Good News as we near the mid-point of Lent is that God is still at work in us creating in us the image of himself.  Are we willing to accept the sometimes disruptive process that draws us from our tendency toward sin and accept the offer of new life in grace?  Like the fig tree, God continues to dig around us, and fertilize us, so that we might some day bear fruit.  God knows our potential better than we know ourselves.  To prove the point, the gardener knew something the landowner did not.  Fig trees do not produce fruit until they are four years old.  Amen.

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Sermon, March 13, 2022 – Lent II

Holding and Being Held

          Today is the second Sunday in Lent, and we continue our way to the Cross. It is true that the tone of Lent is introspective — that is, it encourages us to look within our history, consider our worship life, and examine our inner state: our sins and shortcomings, what we do and what we neglect to do. We also look toward the Cross as we seek forgiveness, and toward the coming Resurrection as our source of power for future service.

          In Lent we may be led to evaluate ourselves more than at any other time of the year. And so, it is helpful to set aside moments when we ask God to examine us, seeking clarity and honesty in light of the Cross and the Resurrection.

          As Christians we cannot afford to have illusions about ourselves or others in our lives. Our sense of history, our teachings about humanity, should lead us to be, above all, realistic. This means not expecting to achieve paradise or perfection tomorrow — or even at the end of a period of penitence and devout practice. But neither should we despair of our present situation, especially in light of the mighty acts of God that we have seen accomplished in the past.

          Lent ideally helps us to achieve a balance that is born of historical perspective and human honesty. Above all, we take these weeks seriously as a time to grow in self-understanding and prepare for a genuine response to God.

          John Keble, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in Great Britain, also said in a sermon entitled “The Disappointments of Our Lord”: “Now as Christ exhibits to us all other features of God’s character, so this among them, that he respects our freedom” — even to the extent of allowing himself to be rejected by those he came to save. “He says, ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’” — meaning: “Do you know how anxious I am, how much I care for your souls? How truly I wish to hold you and assure you?” Part of our honesty and openness toward our Lord in Lent can be seen as an answer to his generous offer to comfort and hold us through the coming storm. Will we accept this most tender aspect of Jesus’ care for us—now, here, today?

          David Vryhof, SSJE (the Cowley Fathers), wrote: “Give yourself wholeheartedly to the One who has given himself for you, holding nothing back. Love as you have been loved — freely, boundlessly, and unconditionally, with no expectation of reward. The great paradox is that by losing our lives in this way we gain them. This is the way to freedom, this is the way to joy, this is the way to life — eternal life, abundant life.”

Amen.