A sermon preached at St. Stephen’s Church, Rochester Row, London, on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022. The Church of St. Stephen’s with St. John’s, since 2016, has been a link parish with The Church of the Holy Trinity. We have enjoyed visits back and forth among parishioners and clergy.
The lectionary readings are from the Church of England and include Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, and Luke 13:1-9.
Though I’ve been to England a number of times now, there’s still the American in me that kind of expects everyone to pause for tea in the afternoon and quote Shakespeare back and forth. While we probably have as many Shakespeare references in and around New York, I visited the Chelsea Physic Garden the other day, and was reminded of a wonderful quotation from Richard III.
The young Duke of York and Queen Elizabeth are talking about the notion that weeds of the world tend to grow quickly while pleasant things take time: “Sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste.” (Richard III, II,iv).
Too often, we see a world in which the weeds seem to be overtaking the good plants, the useful plants, the beautiful plants. The weeds get reported on, they take up all the room in the conversation, our worries, our prayers.
The scripture from Isaiah meets us at our point of thirst for justice, for fairness, for peace. Like plants during a drought, we long for refreshment, and can cry out with Isaiah:
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
We hear a similar question in the Gospel, as the people ask Jesus some hard questions.
There’s a report that Pilate has murdered some people from Galilee for offering sacrifices. People wonder about God showing partiality by allowing the massacre to happen, while protecting others. But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. He talks about repentance.
Other people are worried about a different tragedy in which people are killed—a tower has fallen and innocent people are dead. But again, Jesus says those who died were no worse or better than others. “Unless you repent,” Jesus says, “you will all likewise perish.”
We might add our own list of things that grab our attention: why is such violence raining down on the people of Ukraine? Why does a pandemic affect some and not others? Why can’t this person seem to get a break? Why can’t that person just have a year or a few months without physical challenges? Why can’t that person beat the addiction that bedevils them?
Just like the people who brought their questions to Jesus, so we might do a similar thing. We thirst with Isaiah.
Jesus is not discounting our questions and longings. He’s not saying for a minute that these are unimportant. He’s not saying we shouldn’t care. But to those he encounters in today’s Gospel, and perhaps to some of us, he’s saying, often, we need to tend to something else as well, perhaps we even need to tend to something else first.
Repent, he says. It’s like there’s a mis-communication almost. Returning to our gardening image, it’s like the people are asking Jesus, “Come summer, should we plant marigolds or zinnias?” And Jesus responds, “prune your roses. Cut back the pyracantha. Do your pruning. Get your plot in order and the rest will follow.”
The church often reminds us that the word “repent” comes loaded with meaning. Repentance has to do with turning around, with changing one’s mind. It’s like when the prodigal son “comes to himself” and changes his mind before he is able to change his behavior. It has to do with turning and re-turning, and carries with it the idea of being sorry for something and the desire to put things right.
As I’ve thought about the scriptures this week and admired the very early spring blooms all over London, it has occurred to me again that gardening and Christian faith have a lot in common. They BOTH involve getting dirty and washing up, over and over and over again.
Sometimes, and with the church’s encouragement, we can too easily imagine that the spiritual life is just the opposite. We imagine that it is all about cleanliness and purity. Susan Pitchford, an Episcopal laywoman in Seattle, writes about this using an image from her former nursing career. She talks about her love of sterility—that state in which something is absolutely clean and sterile, where no germs can grow. But–as she points out—NOTHING can grow in a sterile environment. If you really want to grow something, you not only need dirt, but maybe even a little manure. A person wanting to grow something gets into the dirt, stirs it up, turns it over, and gets it all mixed up. And then, as Pitchford writes, “It’s into the places that are broken open that they place the seed—the seed that will produce new life” (Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone, p. 44).
The Christian life is like a garden in that we grow only when we can be honest with our brokenness—honest about the broken relationships, the broken promises, the broken ways of being with others, the broken thoughts or behaviors… all that is less than whole in us. But every little place that is cracked or fractured is a place where God can plant a seed for new growth, for new possibility, for new life. Jesus talks about how God uses the broken places when he talks about basic gardening in John 15:1-2, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Pruning has to do with cutting away, opening up for air and sunlight, making room for the new growth. Pruning has a lot in common with repentance.
Repent, Jesus says. Stop judging other people, stop trying to figure where you are in the pecking order of God’s favor; stop living for yourselves alone. Jesus asks us to follow him and allow him to help us turn and re-turn to God and God’s intentions for us.
We are called to repent. But repentance can take many different forms.
For some, repentance may involve a very first turning to God. Maybe you didn’t grow up going to church. Maybe you’ve never gotten around to being baptized or confirmed. It may be that you’ve never really been bothered by the question of God before, but recently, something has shifted. Perhaps you’re getting older. Perhaps there are children in your life now. Perhaps you’re dealing with mortality for the first time. It may be a good time to turn to God. Maybe it’s time for a re-potting, or to try growing in the good, green place God provides.
Repentance might mean re-turning to God. Perhaps you’ve been away for a while. It may be that the church threw you out, or that you felt thrown out. But you’re back. Welcome. You have been missed and it is a good time to re-turn to God. It might be time to be re-potted or to grow next to something stronger for support, or to grow near something weaker to lend strength.
And sometimes we’re simply called to grow in place and get stronger with God’s care and help. And sometimes the way of growth for us is first to do our “home-work”—to return to some of those difficult places of family, origin, and places where we began. Sometimes spiritual growth comes only after we have dealt with some of our own personal history: being honest, speaking the truth, and laying it all on the altar of God to be transformed, to be hallowed, to be turned into an offering and a blessing. Pruning can be painful and risky. Too much, too soon and out of season can do great damage. But with the right help and guidance, new growth comes.
At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a fig tree that is not producing. It’s not changing, it’s not growing, it’s not doing much of anything. The owner suggests that it be cut down and thrown out. But then the gardener has another idea—why not wait a season, give it some time, nurture it, and see what happens. It may yet produce. Prune it a little. Cut out the dead. Let the light in. Give it some food.
There’s good news in this for us. As Shakespeare reminds us, “sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste” (Richard III, II,iv). But God has time.
God waits for us. There is grace in God’s waiting. But when we turn to God, when we re-turn to God, there is rejoicing in heaven, for we were lost, and are found, we were dead, but are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.