Sunday, March 10, 2013

Aisle 40--a sermon for the middle of Lent (text 3C)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Aisle 40
Isaiah 55.1-9, Luke 13.6-9
10 March 2013, Lent 4C (texts Lent 3C)

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! 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?’ He replied, ‘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.’”

In this parable of Jesus we have the image that is the inspiration for our Lent—a tree whose roots need care so that it can grow into its purpose: bearing fruit. We’ve spent the season nurturing our roots and exploring different ways of being rooted in God’s love. We’ve gotten ourselves rooted in God’s word and God’s promise, and we’ve practiced the rituals that help us draw closer to God. Last week our challenge was to pray the Lord’s Prayer at each meal—did anyone try that out? What was that experience like?

I confess that sometimes I found it awkward. It’s a much longer prayer than most of my meals see. And connecting “give us this day our daily bread” to whatever meal was about to eat was a constant reminder that not everyone has access even to bread or clean water, let alone to the delicious meal sitting in front of me. My daily bread is an abundance others can’t even imagine.

And yet Isaiah paints us a picture of a God who promises abundance beyond all our imagining—the richest of feasts, without paying for it. A lifetime and then some in God’s care, without earning a moment of it. A relationship with a God whose thoughts so outpace my own lofty goals that I can’t even fathom how God works. Which is obvious, because I can’t fathom a free feast like this lasting for long!

We live in a world of incredible abundance. We have stores packed to the gills with things we don’t need but still want, foods to tempt every palate, and homes designed for comfort and retreat. And yet…still we want and seek more. And maybe we wonder if this is the Abundant Life Jesus promised…or if the abundance we find in Aisle 40 might actually be masking our poverty of spirit. Are we the ones the prophet calls out for spending our money and labor for things that do not satisfy?

It’s a hard question to think about, but it needs to be asked. Do we spend ourselves and our resources for things that do not feed our relationships with God, for things that do not advance God’s kingdom? Do we put our attention everywhere except for the part of our lives that could help us bear fruit? Could it be that when God says “my thoughts are higher than your thoughts” God is referencing our tendency to accumulate stuff and satisfy our immediate desires rather than looking toward the bigger picture and what is really needful?

We all know that when we see an iceberg, we see only about 10% of it. 90% of the iceberg is below the surface. While the above-to-below ground ratio is a little different for a tree, the ratio still holds when it comes to nurturing the tree. You’ll notice that in Jesus’ parable the gardener doesn’t say “let me pet the branches and spray the leaves”—he needs to dig around the roots and put fertilizer on the ground. He needs to nurture the part of the tree we can’t see, because that’s where the tree gets its food and its strength. Nurturing those roots may mean exposing them a little bit. It may mean dealing with manure, which is smelly and difficult work, gross to think about, but is the best food in the long run. If the roots aren’t strong and healthy, and if they don’t have anything good to eat, they can’t pass the nutrients and water to the rest of the tree and the tree can’t become what it’s made to be: fruit bearing.

I’m reminded of a science experiment I did in fifth grade. I carefully painted two pots, filled them with soil, and planted bulbs. Just as the shoots began to appear, I started watering one of them with one of my favorite things as a kid: red kool-aid. The other one I watered normally. To my surprise, the kool-aid plant stopped growing and was just a withered shoot until the end of the experiment. Fed only with sugar and red number 40, it never grew into the flower it was meant to become. The other grew up and was a beautiful pot of flowers that brought color to our classroom for weeks.

We talked about this fig tree parable in the session meeting last week, and our most persistent question was some variation on “why hadn’t the gardener paid attention to the tree before now?” We had a lot of potential answers to that question, but the reality boils down to just one thing: he didn’t, and the owner noticed. The tree, designed to be part of God’s abundant promise, was maybe fed by the wrong thing, or left to do its own thing because it looked fine…but either way, it was neglected.

Which leads me straight to a hard question: what are we neglecting? Or what roots are being fed with empty calories rather than God’s good, but harder, way?

Has worry, or insistence on getting our way, or focus on one thing, blinded us to God’s abundance? Have our roots been fed by self-reliance rather than by God’s love and grace? What is it, in our own lives or in our church, that needs some TLC in order to bear fruit?

Because one thing we know for sure is that Love is who God is and what God does. Abundantly, beyond our imaginations! If something needs loving care, we know where to put our roots. Isaiah tells us that all we need to do is incline our ears—to seek God and listen. Put our roots out into God’s living water of grace and soak it up. Give our fig tree’s roots some attention and find not just leaves, but fruit that nourishes and sustains and brings hope.

This is hard to do in our over-filled world. We have so much that it can be difficult to look past our material privilege to recognize our gospel poverty. But the prophet’s question, and the vineyard owner’s question, ring in our ears: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread? Why does this tree not produce fruit?

So this week we have a hard challenge. Sometime during this week, make an honest inventory of the ways you spend your resources—your time, your energy, your money. It doesn’t sound fun, but in order to tend our roots we have to know what else is taking our attention. When you have a list, spend some time talking to God about it. Does the list of the ways you spend yourself reflect God’s promise and God’s call? Does the 10% of your life that we can see reflect roots in grace and love or in something else? How can you better nurture your roots in order to grow in faith?

I know this sounds presumptuous and awful and depressing and any number of other negative words. I also know that just as writing down the foods we eat can help us be healthier, looking honestly at how we spend our resources can help us see how to move toward who God calls us to be. If we don’t know where we are, we can’t move forward. If we never notice the lack of fruit, we can’t put our attention toward fertilizing the tree. If we insist on our thoughts and ways, we will always be blind to God’s thoughts and ways—which are so much grander, so much fuller, so much bigger, so much more hopeful and more beautiful and more loving…why would we not want that? Don’t settle for roots in shallow empty calorie soil when God has a dark rich nutritious feast just waiting for us to seek it out. Let’s put down roots in God’s abundance, in order to live out love.

May it be so. Amen.

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