The Psalmist said, “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless God’s name; tell of God’s salvation from day to day. Declare God’s glory among the nations, God’s marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.”
Pray with me: God of heaven and earth, you are close – as close to us as the air we breathe – yet you also dwell in thick darkness. You love us and, in that love, you refuse to move at our beck and call to be contained and restrained. We know your name, but we do not always understand your ways. Give us another chance to move in your time. Bless now your servant as she speaks. Renew hearts, and minds, and spirits to receive anew this day from you, yourself, so that we may taste again of your goodness and marvel at your grace. This is your servant’s prayer in the name of Jesus the Christ and the whole people of God say Amen!
We know that Lent is a journey towards a certain end goal for Jesus. We read and hear of this journey and sometimes we even feel as though we are participants in the progression. We heard how Jesus was tempted and encouraged to renounce God and to do things that would break the covenant with God. We are encouraged to remember our past so as to not make that past our present and future. We are encouraged to turn away from sin, become transformed, and to renew or make stronger our relationship with God and the people of God.
Today, all the Lectionary texts speak of God’s love, grace, and mercy for God’s people and how the people are given time to accept the offer of being called back into relationship with God. The texts speak of how God has provided the opportunity and means to step away from our infidelity and return and be in covenant with God once again. We hear that God is faithful; even in our infidelity God is faithful. Today we are reminded that the Lenten call to repentance is not so much a command as a gift, a gift of time to repent and return, a time for another chance.
In Luke, Jesus tells the parable of a barren fig tree. The owner comes to check over all the trees there, in the vineyard, and to see the fruit that is being produced. Everything is going well until he comes to a particular fig tree. Barren! Again! Last year, barren! The year before, barren! No fruit! No figs! What is the problem. He turns to the gardener and demands an accounting. Have you been caring for this tree as you have with the others, he asks and without waiting for an answer I imagine he goes on to say, three years no fruit, nothing, nada, zip. Cut it down, get rid of it. The gardener pleaded with the owner and said, give it more time, I will dig around it, loosen up the soil to give room for growth. I will put some manure in the soil to fertilize it. I will make sure that it is watered just so; not too much and not too little. The tree will be all right. You have my word. Next year will be a productive year. We will bring it back so next year it will yield fruit. Give us a second chance with this tree.
Andrew Young, at his 90th year Worship Service Celebration said, “What I have seen after these 90 years is time and time again, we come to the edge of a cliff and an angel comes in our path and rises up and we rise up and find ourselves in a new power, in a new spirit. And that is where we are now.” Andy is talking about another opportunity, another chance to renew the covenant with God.
He goes on to say, “May the Holy Spirit bring us the peace that passes all understanding and that binds us together as one people under God – on a loving planet that somehow survives all the trials and tribulations and terrors of our time and of every time.” Here is another opportunity to renew the covenant with God and the people of God. Another opportunity to be at peace with the earth that God created and called good. Like the fig tree was spared destruction over not being able to produce fruit and was given another chance, so too are we.
Like the fig tree, our church is on its way to becoming barren. The trials and tribulations of the past two plus years has taken a bigger toll on us than the previous year’s hardships. We are weary, we are spent, and it is hard to see our way forward. It has become hard to hear a word from the Lord. We seem to be waiting for another to come and lead us forward, lead us into our future. We are mistaken in that line of thinking for as June Jordan said, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
As the gardener, Jesus, loosens the soil around us, fertilizers us, cares for us but there are some things that we have to do ourselves. We start off by looking into our past and learning from it. We are to recite the stories that keep us going, retell the history that gave us hope, rehearse the lessons learned, remember all the joys and celebrations, and then recount the victories. During your years together, Bethesda UCC, you have seen God fight your battles, still your storms, open doors for you, grow the ministries placed in you, expanded your outreach, restored relationships, met budgets, you have even seen God save, bless, and deliver. You have experienced God’s mercy, known God’s grace, and felt God’s love. Today we are standing at a critical intersection: Do we rest on our laurels and live right here? I believe the answer is no. I believe God has more work for us to do. We must grapple with the reality that much of what we have previously done is past. We, the fig tree, we say I appreciate yesterday, that was then, and this is now. We are being given another chance to live into our covenant with God and one another because times, they are a changing. We dare to dream something that does not yet exist. We dare to shake the cob webs loose in the ground that has been broken up around us. We dare to imagine a new thing for Bethesda UCC. For God is still speaking and there is yet more light to break forth. This is a good time to look beyond what we can see to that new thing God is calling and beckoning us to. It is about moving beyond the “we are old, we are few, we are tired, to realizing that we still dream dreams and we still see the new possibilities God has for us for we are still yet alive! We are being called to reimagine the Kingdom of God
Just because we have had a few barren years does not mean it is done. If we would attune our ears to hear from God a word that would ignite new passions within us, a word from God that speaks of hope and new life we would then realize that God has not left us. God is waiting for us to realize there is still time. How do I know this? I know this because of my brother.
My brother was born two years after me but somehow there were people who thought we were twins. We had a habit of getting into trouble together. There were, however, a few times when we found trouble on our own. I did not learn how to negotiate with my mother, my brother did. When we got in trouble together, I was held responsible because I was older and should have known better, but the singular time of our trouble brings back memories. When my brother would have to face Mama after an episode of things going wrong and being caught, he would begin to cry and talk. It went something like this” Please Mama please, don’t whip me. I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you don’t whip me. Mama would pull back her arm and my brother would say Mama please, please I’ll give you five hundred dollars if you don’t whip me. All of his sisters would be on the other side of the door listening as the drama unfolded and trying to keep still and not laugh so we wouldn’t get in trouble with Mama. Mama would again pull back her arm and he would get louder, and the words would come faster, please Mama I’ll give you a hundred dollars, Mama I’ll give five dollars, I’ll give you a dollar, I’ll give you a quarter, I’ll give you a nickel Mama. His sisters, me included, would have to run out the house and away from the house so we could laugh and giggle and mock him. Mama probably only gave him one, maybe two spanks to his bottom and then talked to him. The talking was much worse because you could hear the disappointment in her voice and see it in her posture and that hurt more than any spanking ever could. He had the art of negotiation down he just didn’t know, at that age, that he should have started low and gone high.
More than anything he and we, instinctively knew that we could start again with Mama with a clean slate. We would say I’m sorry Mama and she would hug us and say I know. I love you. She did that with him and he knew he was forgiven and had been given a second chance. Like God, Mama forgave, helped us learn from our mistakes, and helped us to move forward. She taught us that no matter what, she loved us, would be there for and with us, and would help us to move forward prepared for most things that would confront us. Even when we were barren and did not produce fruit Mama was there to let us know it was not over, we still had time to accomplish more. My Mother transitioned some 15 years ago, and I still feel her presence, I can still wrap myself in her love, and I still hear her words of wisdom. God is like that.
We can feel God’s presence, we can wrap ourselves in God’s love, and we can still hear God’s words of wisdom saying we need to run on to see what’s coming next. Who are we as God’s people right here right now? Right now, we are a people on the verge of a painful but essential self-discovery and possible rebirth. We are in a struggle, a deep, deep struggle and we are waiting to see what the end of the story is for us. I would venture to say the end of our story is much like the end of this parable. It is wide open with all kinds of possibilities.
Did the tree ever bear fruit? We do not know. How effective was the manure? We do not have an answer to that question. Jesus leaves the story open-ended. Did a miracle happen? Did the manure work? What happened? We just don’t know. What we do know is that for the time being the fig tree is still there. There is still time. A second chance to bear fruit. For you see church, I believe, we are the ending of this parable with a new beginning. Our barren years can be behind us. This parable is being opened up in our church in this blessed time. Our beginning is yet unknown. We are a work in progress, and it is not yet known what we will be. We must take the time to listen and observe. We must take the time to pray and talk together. It doesn’t matter how poor we think we are, how much our bodies are hurting, how old, or how weak we think we are, we are still able to be in dialogue with one another. We still have dreams for BUCC. When we talk with each other and pray, we can begin to effect change here and now and become the church Jesus is calling us to be. God is speaking to us through our hearts and through others. Aren’t you excited about the new chapter you are about to write? God says you have another chance to do another good thing. A second chance. Come, we must begin the journey. We have all we need to bear fruit. It is going to be a good fruit producing year. Amen. Amen.