by Lea F. Schweitz
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science, Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science
Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters.
This assembly may or may not know this about me, but I have a thing for coffee. Everyday, our household gets going to the sound of the coffee grinder. My husband and I have only half-jokingly worried that our young son may think that somehow the coffee grinder actually makes the sun rise. And, it’s been this way for a long time. When we were married, we received 6 espresso machines as wedding gifts. However, in recent weeks, our coffee grinder had fallen silent. The sudden change has on more than one occasion elicited the question – have you given up caffeine for Lent? Can I tempt you with a cup?
Now, I did not give up caffeine for Lent. Sadly, I caught a stomach flu and for the first time in nearly 2 decades, I just didn’t want it. But, it got me thinking about the question: “Can I tempt you?” And, let me say – when you start looking for temptation – it’s everywhere, especially it seems during Lent.
In fact, I’m tempted to say that we are tempted to see Lent as simply a time of temptation.
The last time we gathered here for a Monday Service of the Word Lent had just begun. The gospel reading was Luke 4. Jesus in the wilderness, 40 long days and temptation. At that service, Professor Westhelle reminded us that the dangerous temptation in the text is not so much Satan’s offering bread to the hungry Jesus, but in the way we hear how Jesus meets the temptation. Jesus answers: “We do not live by bread alone,” and the temptation is to hear Jesus’ answer as a concern about what is on the menu rather than who is around the table. The text reveals the temptation to eat bread alone, that is, not to share, to eat by oneself, to eat bread alone, without companionship.
Now, today, midway through Lent, our gospel text reveals temptations, too.
Our text ends with the gardener saying: “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” The temptation is to fast forward a year, to see a fig tree brimming with fruit and to conclude with relief that the fruit will save the tree. But, this is beyond our text. It’s an alternate ending, and it’s a temptation – the fruit will not save.
So, if it’s not about the fruit, perhaps this is a text lifting up patience. The gardener begins, “Sir, let it alone for one more year.” If the fruit won’t save, surely God will – so we wait, passively. But, this too is a temptation – the gardener isn’t just waiting – he is going to get his hands dirty – very dirty – digging around the tree and putting manure on it. Surely, God saves, but there is more to do than wait.
This assembly may not have known that I am a devoted coffee drinker, but we might think – of course, we know that the fruits don’t save and there’s more to do than wait. Our theological fig trees are not barren! Yet, we are met with the challenge: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinner than all other Galileans?” “Do you think those so-called “barren trees” – whoever they may be – are any worse than you?” And, precisely in the moment when some small part of our heart whispers – perhaps yes, yes they are worse than me, here we come face to face with the temptation of the righteous.
Here, the clarion call to repentance is loud and clear. Twice we are told: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” In my Bible, in case you miss the message the heading, in bold black letters reads: Repent or Perish. Repent, repent, repent – or perish. It echoes in our ears, and of course, it should. Surely we are no better and repentance no less necessary.
But, this isn’t even the worst of it. As I said, when you start looking for temptation – it finds you. There is the temptation to overlook the gardener and miss God at work.
In my systematic theology classes, students are asked to bring in theological sightings. Where do they notice God at work? Where do we notice God? In this text, it’s the gardener that catches us by surprise and gets our attention. In this text, God is the gardener. Jesus is the gardener. It is Jesus as the gardener who says to the owner, “Sir, wait a year. I will care for this tree.” It is the gardener who is patient and faithful. It is God who graciously meets the needs of the fig tree. And it is the gardener – it is God - who at the end of the day will have dirty hands. In this text, God is there getting God’s hands dirty. In season of Lent, God is here getting God’s hands dirty – very dirty.
Isn’t this the true power of Lent? Isn’t it about moving beyond the temptation to experience the season as solely about temptation and the need to repent - real as they both may be – and living into a place where we finally feel God as our gardener, where we meet God in the watering of baptism, in the enrichment of community and in the nourishment of bread and wine.
This parable invites us to share in God’s work of gardening; to join with the all the men, women, and children who tend the land, care for its fruits, plow its fields, scatter the seeds, and care for the fig trees. In this text, we experience God in the gardener nurturing us until we are ready to become gardeners ourselves. And, in this text we are assured that God will be there – even and especially when we are getting our hands dirty.
In the Lutheran magazine this month, there is an article that talks about keeping a good Lent by taking on a discipline of pilgrimage. The article says that one need not go far away, but being on pilgrimage is to be on a journey often into the unfamiliar and the foreboding. But, the aim of the journey is not discomfort.
For me, writing and delivering this sermon has been a kind of pilgrimage. For Lent, I have made a pilgrimage to the pulpit. This is my very first sermon. I am a lay member of the faculty. Yet, I am committed to there being a place in the church for laity to preach – not willy-nilly when the pastor needs a vacation. But as part of a mentoring partnership between pastors and congregations wherein the theological landscape is enriched for all. If I’m serious about this, then, even though it makes me uncomfortable, even though it is unfamiliar and foreboding, I will have to get my hands dirty, stand at the pulpit, and preach. And, in this, I have been blessed to feel God as my gardener, nurturing me through this journey. This is the power of Lent.
The temptation is to say, no thanks, not this time, I’m too busy, too tired, too grumpy – had a stomach flu – or whatever. But in so doing, we miss God the gardener who with dirty hands is there with us in the unfamiliar and the foreboding.
This Lenten text invites us to go to the places where we might say with the gardener, “Wait, okay, here’s a place where God has called me. Here’s a place where we might dig around, plow the field, scatter the seed.”
And then we go, we dig around, we carry manure, we get our hands dirty. All the while knowing that God is there.
Notice how far we have moved away from temptation and the bold headings to “repent or perish!” Keeping a good Lent – even when it is a journey into the unfamiliar and foreboding – allows us to say with the Psalmist:
I will bless you as long as I live
And lift up my hands in your name.
My spirit is content…
When I remember you upon my bed,
And meditate on you in the night watches.
For you have been my helper,
And under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.
My whole being clings to you;
Your right hand holds me fast.