The Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019:

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings:Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

From this morning’s gospel, “(The gardener) replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

     One of my favorite quotes comes from a book that I know every one of you, or at least I hope every one of you, has a copy of in your home. Of course, I am speaking about that time-tested book, … “The Old Farmer’s Almanac!”  Now, I realize the Almanac may not be high on your list of “must read” books in this Season of Lent. Nevertheless, it is a book filled with wisdom especially for those who enjoy gardening and great outdoors.

Well, one of my favorite quotes from that book is this: “It is far better to put a $5 plant into a $20 hole than a $20 plant into a $5 hole.” The Almanac is saying that the healthy growth of plants depends upon the quality of the soil in which it is planted. Regardless of the price of the seedlings, or the beauty and quality of the plants available to us, if the soil isn’t fertile, they will not grow.

     I thought of that quote this week while saying my prayers and meditating on today’s scripture lessons. And that quote is timely given that we are now in the third week of our Lenten Journeys: journeys that urge us to examine our spiritual soil. The spiritual soil that abides in our hearts and minds: in our secret thoughts, our words and our deeds. This saying from the Almanac fits well with our Lenten themes and today’s lessons that urge us to consider how we have neglected nourishing the soil within hearts and minds, ignored God’s call to us to live in ways that uphold God’s values at all times, to repent, and make amends with God and our neighbor and choose, from now on, to live differently.  

     St. Paul, in this morning’s reading from I Corinthians, uses the Exodus story as a warning to what had become a complacent Church. The Church at Corinth was the place to be seen on Sunday mornings. From an attendance viewpoint, it was incredibly successful with endless programs and opportunities for fellowship. And the beauty and dignity of her worship services were the talk of the town. And yet, that parish was sick and in fact, it was dying. It was filled with strife and backbiting. The threat of schism was being bandied about by groups that weren’t getting their own way. Sexism, racism, ageism, and discrimination based upon the clothes one wore, or one’s economic status was rife within that Church. Paul, looking past their outward appearance of success, tells the congregation, “You are no different than the people of Israel. God led them out of Egypt into the Promised Land just like God led you here. They all drank the same spiritual food and drink just like you eat and drink today. They were religious just like you and me. But their actions and religion meant nothing to God because it meant nothing to them.” Paul says that the practice of religion must change lives – change hearts and minds – it has to mean something. Otherwise, it is empty and will not save us just as all the religiosity of the people of the Exodus failed to save them. Harsh words from St. Paul and they are hard to hear. But they are the truth. The church at Corinth for all her outward beauty and appearance of success was standing upon dead soil.

      What I enjoy about the story of Moses and the burning bush as told in our reading from Exodus is the reality that God’s mighty acts to deliver the people of Israel were dependent upon Moses’ choice to respond to God. See, Exodus suggests that God sees all things, hears all things, knows all things and yet, will not act until we pay attention. In verse 4 we read, “When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him …”. Scripture is filled with stories where God chose to do something extraordinary to get our attention but was content to wait for us to respond.  And once we responded, then and only then, did God choose to partner with God’s people. Exodus tells us that once Moses chose to really look at that burning bush, God spoke. Now, while I have never had a burning bush experience, there have been times when a glorious sunrise like yesterday morning caught my attention long enough so that I stopped what I was doing to take it in. And having stopped, I began to listen. And in listening I began to hear the quiet voice of God speak to my soul. See, there is no question that God is forever present, but God waits for us to respond. That is the basis of free will: how we respond to God is always our choice. As our Lord says in Luke chapter 9, “Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. Ask and you will receive.” The onus is always on us, to choose to respond, and then God will work within us and through us.

     Our reading from Luke opens with some stern words about our tendency to think ourselves as better than others, that when bad things happen to other people, they somehow deserved it. Citing two tragic events when a tower collapsed at Siloam and the slaughter of innocent Galileans, Jesus reminds his hearers of Job and the reality that rain falls on the just and the unjust: life happens. Life ends. Jesus says we are all sinners and we all must repent. No one is any better than any other human being. Each us must choose how we will live – and that choice must come from the heart. To not choose, Jesus says, is to perish. Tough words for us to hear as Episcopalians because we are not too keen on speaking about repentance or perishing at the Day of Judgment. Nevertheless, Jesus, just like Paul, says religious practice alone will not save us. It is our continuing response to God’s presence – our daily choosing to allow God into our hearts and minds - that matters.

   Jesus then goes on to tell the parable of the Gardener and the Fig Tree. The tree was beautiful – it was a $20 plant - but it had no fruit because it was planted in a $5 hole. The soil had no substance, so the tree lacked nourishment and was slowly dying. The owner tells the Gardener he has waited long enough for it to produce fruit and he has run out of patience. Cut it down. The Gardener asks for mercy. “Let me fertilize the soil … give it one more year … and let’s see what happens.” And there is another lesson to be grasped in this Lenten Season: We serve and know a God of second, third, fourth and ten-thousand second chances. God’s grace and mercy is always available, but it is up to us to respond, to accept it, to cultivate it, to let God’s grace and mercy grow within us so richly that it changes who we are and how we choose to live. But, that choice to nurture that soil within us, that choice to spend time with God in prayer, in scripture reading, in study and self- examination and then taking steps to make amends – is a choice that is ours alone.

   “It is better to put a $5 plant in a $20 hole.” As often as we talk about our growth as a parish, and we have grown in number just as we have grown in grace, today’s scripture lessons remind us that our role is to cultivate the ground – the soil of our hearts, to fertilize, to water, to sow the seed, to nurture our spiritual growth. It is God who does the actual growing. But it is up to us to ensure that the soil – our heart and our mind – is a fertile place for God to act within us.

    Our scriptures lessons on this third Sunday in Lent remind us that God desires for everyone to grow in grace, in mercy and love, in service and in witness, and in our relationships with God and one another by growing into the very image of Christ himself. But the choice to accept God’s desire for us is ours alone. It is up to us to ensure we are fertile soil. In the words of Jesus, only we can choose to change our ways: only we can choose to repent and then allow God’s grace and redemption to grow within us; and grow so fully that it nourishes the whole world.

     The Gardener said, “Sir let it alone for one more year.” In these remaining weeks of Lent may God show us ways to cultivate and fertilize our spiritual soil – our hearts and minds – as individuals and as a Church community, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit give us the courage to say yes to God’s on-going and “on-growing” life-changing work within us. Amen.