Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, March 20, 2022

YEAR C 2022 lent 3

Lent 3, 2022
Exodus 3:1-15
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, here we are in the third week of Lent.  And as you know, Lent is a time when we all ask ourselves, “What the heck kind of readings were those” Paul tells us that bad things happen to bad people.  And Jesus tells us that bad things happen to good people.  So, essentially, if you’re a person, bad things will happen to you.  Any questions?

Of course, intuitively we know all this.  Bad things happen to all people all the time, whether those people are being good or being bad.  What’s weird to you and me is, we don’t expect the point of the readings to be:  Bad things are going to happen to everybody.  It feels a little threatening, to be honest.  But as always, there is good news to be had.  We just have to look for it.

Alright.  Let’s start with the first reading, from Exodus.  This is an amazing and powerful story, which you’ve heard many times in your life.  It’s the call of Moses, or sometimes known as the burning bush, or sometimes the naming of God.  It is dramatic, and mysterious, and is a hinge moment in the life of Moses and for the Israelites.  

And we need to ask ourselves, “How did Moses get here?  What brought him to this life-changing encounter with God?”  And here, you’re just asking for the plot of the Dreamworks movie, “The Prince of Egypt.”  So, let’s do a quick review:  Moses’ mother, Miriam, put her baby in a basket in the river to avoid his being killed by Pharaoh along with the other Israelite children.  Pharaoh’s wife found the baby and raised him as her own son.  Moses grew to hold a prominent place in Egypt until he killed an Egyptian guard and then fled into the wilderness.  While he’s out there on the run, he defends three girls from ruffians, and then falls in love with Tzipporah, whose father is a hight priest of Midian.  He marries her and falls into a regular life as a shepherd of her father’s flocks.

So why is all that important?  Because for Moses, his overall life has been a spectacular fall from grace.  He went from being a prince of Egypt to being rejected by the Egyptians.  And having broken one of the commandments by killing a man, he is rejected by his own people, the Israelites, plus he is married to the daughter of a pagan priest!  To all his own people—of both cultures—he is a nobody, an outcast, and a sinner to boot.  

He is living in the desert, figuratively and literally.  He is not looking for God.  He is not trying to get right with God.  Moses doesn’t even try to come to God.  But God comes to Moses.  Turns out, after a long fall from grace, Moses falls into grace.  Nothing to deserve it, nothing to warrant it.  All God, no Moses, no matter whether he was good or bad.

And then we move to that second reading, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  There are all sorts of problems about this reading, and we don’t have time to go into them all here.  Or any of them here.  My advice is, don’t necessarily take everything Paul says as gospel . . . because it’s not the gospel.  So then, let’s move on to the gospel.

You notice, this reading starts with the phrase, “At that very time.”  At what very time?  Well, if you back up to Luke chapter 12, you’ll see that Jesus is in the middle of a big long string of teachings and parables here.  There’s a large crowd, and he is switching back and forth between talking to the crowds and talking to the disciples.  And then, apropos of nothing, there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  A very strange segue, I think you’ll agree. 

But Jesus uses this jarring report to talk about repentance and—perhaps more importantly—to remind everyone that suffering is not a consequence of bad character or bad behavior.  We like to think that way, because our entire justice system is built on that idea.  But it’s more like Jesus is flipping this around.  He is saying something more like this:  The fact that you are suffering does not mean that God is displeased with you.  And that is important for us to remember, because I think that’s sort of our go-to approach to things.  “If I am in pain, that means God must be mad at me.”  And then we ask, “Why are you mad at me God?”  That’s not how God works.  That’s not how grace works.  Just as God came to Moses in his fall from grace, God comes to us in our suffering.

And then, Jesus gets to the parable of the fig tree.  As we heard, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard.”  Stop right there.  What kind of person plants a fig tree in a vineyard?  Is this man just weird?  Does this man not know how grapes work?  Is this man just extravagant?  We don’t know.  But we also don’t know whether or not Jesus means for us to view this man as representing God the Father, so let’s not jump to that conclusion.

Anyway, as we heard, the vineyard owner finds the gardener and tells him to cut down the tree because it has not borne fruit for three years and is wasting the soil.  The gardener begs him to leave it be for another year, that he will put manure around, and then if there’s still no fruit, “YOU can cut it down.”  Notice that subtle little twist there?  He is told to cut it down, and rather than do as he is told, he makes the case that there is still hope, but he STILL doesn’t agree to cut it down.  He throws it back on the vineyard owner to cut it down himself.

Now, many preachers will use this text as a scare tactic.  I’ve heard them do it--especially at youth gatherings.  If God sees that you are not bearing any good fruit, Jesus might step in for a season and try to help you, but after that if you fail to produce, you will be cut down.  If you don’t produce things, you will die.  But that’s not the gospel . . . that's capitalism.  This is not a story about how you need to be better, or how you need to be good, or how you need to produce some results for the crazy vineyard owner who planted a fig tree in his vineyard, where the grapes grow.

What’s going on here is that Jesus is up to his old tricks again.  Subverting the system in order to save people.  Undermining the authorities in order to rescue those who don’t measure up, because they are planted in the wrong place.  Is it the fig tree’s fault that it is not producing fruit?  Well, look at the solution the gardener offers.  It’s manure; it’s a soil amendment.  The problem isn’t the tree; the problem is the soil.  And the gardener knows that by fixing the soil, by fixing the system, by fixing the location, that little fig tree might bear fruit after all!

Aha, you might be thinking.  But the gardener only guarantees one extra year.  And the first answer to that is, it’s not next year yet.  The gardener only has to save the imperiled tree right now.  Who knows what next year will bring?  Instead of wondering what will happen if the manure doesn’t work, try thinking of what will happen if the manure does work.  What then?  What then indeed.

It’s interesting to me to consider St. Timothy’s Church as the fig tree in this parable, after what we’ve all been through these past two COVID-drenched years.  Like, some high-priced church consultant might come in and try to evaluate how much fruit we have produced lately.  How many new members?  How many people attend on Sunday mornings?  How many concerts have we hosted, or how many meals have we shared together?  And then imagine that consultant saying, 'See here! For three COVID 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?’

And now ask yourself, who produces the fruit at St. Timothy’s?  At first glance, it seems to be us, the people, right?  People’s elbow grease in the kitchen, people offering to read or pass plates, people caring for our altars and sacred vessels, people poring over spreadsheets and making budgets.  But you find the real answer when you ask why those people do those things.  People volunteer to do all that because they love God and they love their neighbors.  Love is from God.  All love.  The fruit that St. Timothy’s produces is the fruit of God.  It’s not us; it’s the soil.

And if we need manure poured around us, and to be given another year, then that is what God is going to do for us.  We can’t control a pandemic, and we can’t control how much fruit we produce; we can only rely on God, and trust that Jesus will always opt for mercy, always give us another year, and another year after that.

God came to Moses when Moses wasn’t even looking for God.  And God comes to us, whether or not we are looking.  This is the message of grace in these readings today.  God is always coming to meet us, wherever we may wander, and Jesus is always looking to amend our soil, wherever we may grow.  May God continue to bring forth fruit from this parish, as God has always done, one year at a time.


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