Asbury First United
This morning we take a third step up the Lenten trail. First, forgiveness. Second, salvation. Third, trust.
A Pasture View
A friend told me a story last winter.
He has friends who live on a farm in Michigan. The country landscape there is apparently similar to that in our region. This is a multi-generational family farm. If you were to visit this week, you would find three generations working together. The grandfather died a few years ago, but his sons, grandsons and great-grandsons still plow and harvest, milk and feed.
The matriarch of the family is now older and weaker. She was a typical farm wife of her generation, working alongside her children and husband. When plowing time came in the spring she would fix lunches for all hands, and deliver them into the fields. She delivered the meal, and while they ate, she would take over and plow. The same kinds of routines held for other seasons. The rhythms of seed and harvest, birth and decay set the beat for her life.
Now she is alone much of the time, in the old farm house. Her kids feed her breakfast in the morning and dinner at night. But every day, after breakfast, they settle her into a comfortable easy chair that rocks in front of an open bay window, from which she can look out onto the fields and forests and pastures of her home. Every day she watches, breakfast to dinner.
Now this is not an active scene. The barn and equipment are not in view. Most winter days there are no people to observe. A car on the road every half-hour is a lot of traffic. And snow lying on corn stubble looks about as exciting as it did one hundred years ago. Yet, she watches and looks. She seems to be deeply contented, as the late winter snow falls. She is eased and settled and comforted, looking out on a frosty field. There is something in that utterly ordinary scene that seizes her.
She has a sense, I think, of presence. Maybe she is weak and maybe she even has some mild dementia and maybe she doses every now and then, rocking in front of the window. But this ordinary winter story captivates me, because I think she is enthralled by something not quite visible to the naked eye, yet present. There is something there, something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension. She rocks and stays alert to presence. She has a hard won trust in Presence, a kind of trust for which life is meant and for which with all our hearts we do passionately long and hunger.
A Vineyard View
The lesson for today tells of another view, not a pasture view but a vineyard view, not from Michigan but from Palestine, not of wheat but of grapes, not in winter but in harvest. This is one of the parables of the fig tree.
Ah the fig tree. From the fig tree learn its lesson. You know what it means to be a fig tree in the New Testament. It is like being a turkey in late November, like the captured journalist chained to the Khmer Rouge in "The Killing Fields", or like being a helicopter pilot in a shooting war, or like being a green beer on St. Patrick's day. You know you are going down. It's like the American Airlines baggage attendant with whom we spoke after four days with no luggage and a wedding coming in the afternoon. "You will have to talk to my wife", I cautioned. "I understand", he empathized. "You do not understand", she retorted, "you do not. How would you like to go to a wedding dressed in your aunt's underwear?" (I actually was interested in how he might respond to this, but I couldn't hear). No, like the fig tree, you know you are going down.
People step aside when they hear that the story is about a fig tree. They step back ten feet, because they know what is coming.
Sure enough, at least at the outset, doom descends. In stomps the owner. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Fee fie foe fum. Yes, we know what is coming. I have seen this lousy, lazy, no good, flee bitten moth eaten, barren, fruitless, faithless, heartless, ruthless fig tree for three years, and nothing. Where is the fruit? Where is the beef? Show me the money! Yes, we have a sinking feeling about the old fig tree, having heard a sermon or three. Is there not fruit? And here it comes… Cut it down, throw it in the fire, off with their heads.
And in the other Gospels, that is that. One dead fig tree, and let it be a warning to us. I came not to bring peace but a sword. Not a jot or a tittle will pass away. Woe to you…
Which is, of course, what makes today's lesson so interesting. Guess what? It's not over, at least according to Jesus in Luke 13. No, it's not over, yet. This is the Gospel according to Yogi Berra. "It ain't over 'til it's over". With a little bit of Irish blarney, a little Woody Allen, a little cunning and creativity, a little psalmist and saint in him, this lowly vinedresser says, "Well, hang on a minute…" There is something there. He sees something. Something alive, something at work, just beyond our comprehension.
A Pasture View
Meanwhile, down on the Michigan farm…
It is this same trust that keeps the woman at the farm house window, keeps her there and alive and attentive.
Picture her, this week, if you need and want reassurance. She has seen life from both sides. Hail and blizzard. Silo accident and depression. Birth and death. Happiness in youth and tragedy in age. She has seen her husband grow up and grow old and die, as most wives do. She has cleaned out the barn, stretched a budget to fit over many children, and kept the sabbath in the process. And now she just watches. Today there is a light snow falling to dust the corn stubble, and the wind is strong.
I mean this. Whether or not she knows about heaven, she certainly knows about hell. She knows about regret and anxiety. John Paul Sartre said that hell is other people, a continental dyspepsia that I have never understood (except during the sessions of Jurisdictional Conference). Two shorter, better definitions of hell are regret and anxiety. Our rocking farm wife has known them, too. How could she not? Regret when the son leaves the farm for dental school. Anxiety over the crop planted but not harvested. Regret at trips to Florida never taken when grandpa was well. Anxiety over aging and care and dependence. Regret over misdeeds in youth and mistakes in speech. Anxiety about all that is yet to be, on earth as it is in heaven. Regret is hell in the past tense. Anxiety is hell in the future tense.
Nevertheless (a sermon in a single word), Nevertheless, she rocks and watches and is comforted by what she sees. To you and me, what she sees is Andrew Wyeth on a bad day. But she sees something else. There is something there. There is something alive, at work, just below the edge of our comprehension. Maybe it helps the vision to have a mild dementia. What heals regret and what tempers anxiety is what we are given--in trust.
A Vinyard View
Meanwhile, back in Palestine…
Trust is what the vinedresser in our parable displays. He has a certain confidence, perhaps a confidence born of obedience to a great and loving Lord, yet still a confidence that where there is a will there is a way, no matter what the immediate cornstubble evidence suggests.
I struggle to intuit why this altered fig tree parable was so important for Luke and Luke's struggling church. As we saw last week, all these chapters 10 to 20 Luke has added to Mark's asperity. They must have had singular meaning for Luke's church fifty years after Jesus' death and resurrection. Perhaps, perhaps, the parable is meant to give trusting patience to those who are waiting out what scholars call the "delay of the parousia", or the expected but not actualized return of Christ on the clouds of heaven (1 Thess. 4-5). "Give me just a little more time…" sings the gardener.
Let it be, he says. Let it be.
His is not a naïve view. No, he recognizes that there comes a time when it is too late in every venture. He recognizes that the power to kill and give life is not his own. He recognizes that human labor and human investment is required for any progress. He recognizes the messiness of manure and dailyness of water. He recognizes that trust for the future is trust, not in human wisdom, but in divine grace. He recognizes the rigid limits of nature and history. He is a realist.
But he trusts that there is something there, something alive, something not quite phenomenal, something just beyond our comprehension.
I could compare his sense, his trust to a March day when it is still winter. Yet, there is a sense, a feeling. There are geese flying past, v by v. There is a blueish tint in the evergreens. There is more light and better light. There is wind, but not with quite the bite. One can fairly taste the maple syrup brewing miles away. Spring is coming.
Give me just a little more time, he asks. Do you have the feeling that he will ask the same a year from now, if things are no different? I do. He harbors an inexplicable but crucial sense of trust that things will work out.
As a Methodist Christian, I want that trust in my heart as I see the left and right fight. Some of us talk from the left, and yet live from the right. Others talk from the right and live from the left. We talk a good social liberal game, but support all manner of segregation and injustice in where we live, how we live, as we live. Pounding nails for Habitat we will do, but don't ask us to live in that neighborhood or have our children in those schools. We talk a good moral conservative game, but support all manner of waywardness when our own rights are at stake. Great leaders, too many to count, preach about righteousness and justice and civil rights, and go right ahead fathering children out of wedlock. If I read Amos right, social justice and personal morality go together, and where you lack one over time you lack the other. It looks like snow on cornstalks, an ugly sameness. I want to shout: "Give me just a little more time! Another generation, some manure and water, that is a few good preachers and a basket of money, and you just watch the figs fall, too many to count!" I want that trust that there is something there, alive, incomprehensible, that may change the equation.
As an eagle scout, I want that trust in my heart as I see a tragedy looming for boy scouting. Just at the time when our culture most needs the kind of mentoring between fathers and sons at which scouting excels--I am its witness-- the scouts are racing headlong toward a tragic collision, a collision of social justice and personal morality. Where have we heard this before? Before the shooting begins, perhaps today's vinedresser can help us to find a way through, with a sense of trust. Give it a little time, manure and water. (Personally, I think the scouts need to look at some optional local decisions and empowerments, and to listen to their leaders under age 40). Yes, today it looks like another case of snow on cornstubble, ugly and unchangeable. I want that trust that there is something alive, incomprehensible, that may open up a different conversation, a new way that honestly respects both the plumb line of justice and the plumb line of righteousness, as well as the historical, organizational, relational and other peculiarities of the scouting program.
As an American, I want that trust in my heart as I see the tragedy of family life across this great land. A baby conceived today runs the gauntlets of abortion, addiction, poverty, single parenting, neglect and abuse. The statistics are grim. Our bishops were so right to focus in our time on children and poverty. Snow on stubble. I want that trust that there is something alive, incomprehensible, that may strangely bring fruit from a barren cultural fig tree.
As a pastor, I want to be able to offer a sense of trust to you. Right now. Realistically, yes, but personally and truly. In place of your heartfelt regret, carried like a millstone for months or years. In place of your frightful and human anxiety, carried like a millstone for months and years. The anxieties of youth and the regrets of age. May they be gone, or at least placed in a "lock box" (!), tempered and tamed and tethered by trust. I want that trust that there is something close to your heart, alive, maybe not quite comprehensible, that whispers…let it be…give it another year…maybe a little manure and water…let it be.
And as a middle aged white guy, stuck somewhere between regret and anxiety I want that trust, that simple trust like those who heard beside the Syrian sea, the gracious calling of the Lord, let us like them without a word rise up and follow thee.
A Pasture View
Meanwhile, down on the farm…
Think about her this week, alone and content, looking out onto a gray pasture.
What keeps her going? What helps her see? What makes her happy? What brings her comfort and peace?
Is it that trust, that human response to the faith of Jesus Christ, that loving trust that "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things"? (1 Corinthians 13)
One early follower of Jesus said, "One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus?" (Paul of Tarsus).
An Irish man, Patrick, a killer of snakes and a lover of souls pronounced the same blessing, of "Christ before me Christ beneath?" (St. Patrick's breastplate).
Listen to that medieval convent maiden's prayer, "and all will be well and all will be well?" (Julian of Norwich).
As they sing at Taize, "ubi caritas, deus ibi est"?
There is something there. Alive and untamed. Creating trust, trust, trust, deep in the heart.
Paul Lehmann taught us, "God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human."
Ralph Harper learned, "Presence suggests an alternate way of thinking about time and space".
In an early pastoral visit, I heard a homebound octogenarian, eyes gleaming, affirm: "I know whom I can trust."
David sang in the Psalms, "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?"
The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes
That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake
I will never, no never, no never forsake.