21 Mar Sermon: Lent 3 (Year C)
Since joining the Community here and getting involved in the Kitchen Garden, as well as seeing the growth and development of the wider estate, Jesus’ “green and growing” parables have had greater resonance for me, as I imagine they have for gardeners down the centuries.
In looking at today’s parable of the unproductive fig tree, one thing that interested me was the remedy attempted by the gardener: to dig around it, presumably to help with irrigation, and to apply manure. This treatment then is about the roots, not the branches or the leaves. The gardener knows what he’s doing, and he knows that when it comes to trees – or indeed most growing things – it’s the nutrition that the roots are able to draw on that will ensure the health of the whole organism. You certainly wouldn’t get far applying manure to the leaves, or the buds!
One way of understanding Lent is as a return to the roots: it can often be a time to assess our lives, to look at the balance of what we are taking in, and the fruit this is producing. We are called by the Rule to lay aside some things – perhaps some food, or some drink, or needless talk – in order that we might “wash away the negligence of other times”. We are also enjoined to “add to the usual measure of our service”, and it is partly this that I see reflected in today’s parable: just as a house built upon sand is unlikely to last long, so too an undernourished plant with poor soil is unlikely to flourish and reach its full potential.
In this sense, then, Lent is not about introducing complex and esoteric rules and practices to our lives, but rather about going back to the basics, giving our spiritual soil more attention, and applying some good, organic matter to our roots, things that will continue to sustain us as we grow in Christ.
In reflecting on this I was reminded of Ch. 28 of the Rule, ‘The Abbot’s Care for the Excluded’, where Benedict writes, “After he has applied dressings and the ointment of encouragement, he medicine of divine Scripture, and finally the cauterising iron of exclusion and the strokes of the rod, and if he sees that, even then, his earnest efforts are unavailing, let him apply an even better remedy – by this point you’re sort of wondering, what else is there? – namely, the prayers of himself and all the community, so that the Lord, who can do all things, may himself bring healing”. Of course. Before all else, and after all else, and underpinning all things, there is prayer. There is God, and our unique relationships with God, the divine Presence at the centre of our whole lives.
We see this call for a return to the grounding realities of our life in Christ in the passage we read from Isaiah this morning, too: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…seek the Lord while he may be found…return to the Lord, that he may have mercy”. That mention of mercy reminds of another important aspect of this return: the need for repentance – and we heard Jesus mention this in our Gospel passage too. Looking at the soil of our lives is almost certainly going to involve some weeding. Weeds are pretty much a constant feature of the garden experience, and some are much more stubborn than others. Getting them out thoroughly often involves giving them some decent attention, so you can get in under the roots and tease out as much as you can – if you just rip the tops off, they’ll be back!
One final thing I’d like to share, which is perhaps somehow related, is a phone call I had with a friend a couple of days ago, telling her all about our interesting week! She spoke about Lent being a time of the year that is different, that is marked out in certain ways, and then compared that to our current situation, pointing out that illness or really any kind of community ‘crisis’ is also a different time, a time that forces us to act and to think and perhaps to pray differently.
Covid might not be the Lenten experience any of us were hoping for – although thank goodness it’s now and not Holy Week – but it’s the Lent we’ve got, the Lent that we have to somehow turn into nourishment for our soil, proof if any were needed that as Isaiah says, God’s ways are not our ways, nor God’s thoughts our thoughts.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that “God is faithful and will not let you be tested beyond your strength”. I’m sure we’ve all had reason to doubt the truth of that statement at various points in our lives, but a few years ago I heard a different take on it, where an American preacher said that her husband glosses it as, “God won’t give you more than y’all can handle”. Christianity is a team sport, a coming together as one body, with one Lord, in which we all play our different parts. Whatever else may be going on in and around us, the invitation from God remains the same: simply to return to God, over and over and over again. We are always welcome, we are always loved, we always a place waiting for us in the shadow of God’s wing. Amen.