Today, in the lectionary, we move from a familiar desert story of the Bible to an unfamiliar parable of Jesus set in a garden.
Let’s begin at Moses. Here was Moses. He was a murderer, on the run. Did you remember that part? It wasn’t in today’s section, but in the preceding chapter of Exodus, Moses, adopted son of Pharaoh, grows up in the royal house. As an adult, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. He kills the Egyptian and hides the body. He tries to continue his privileged life when it becomes clear that the truth might come out. Moses flees to the desert, likely to what is now Eastern Saudi Arabia.
He is a migrant with no prospects, no job, no family. He helps some female workers whose father then invites him to their home. He ends up marrying one of the daughters and naming his first son Gorshem (stranger in a foreign land). This is Moses, the lawgiver. A homeless immigrant, guilty of murder, forging a new life, a new identity. So Moses, this murderer, of royal education and experience, takes the job available to him, as shepherd.
And he is keeping the flock, you know, traveling with the grazing animals. Living outside, Experiencing the opposite of palace life which must have seemed so long ago. And he sees the bush. It is engulfed in flame. He stares at it for . . . how long, do you think? He decides to investigate. The Hebrew gives a sense of turning and Drawing Near to the fire. And then, THEN, “when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, the Lord called out to him.”
Did you catch it? When God saw — When GOD saw — that Moses was intrigued, that his imagination and curiosity was piqued, that he drew near to the fire, then God called him. Moses! and Moses said Hineni (“Here I am” or, “Behold, Look, here I am”).
God was waiting for Moses. How long had that bush been burning? How long was Moses looking at it? How many people had kept on walking? How many bushes are on fire with God, waiting for us to tune our imagination to God’s frequency? waiting for us to imagine, to draw near to the flame?
Our imagination and God’s is at the center of the Gospel as well. The problem we are faced with in the Gospel, the problem we still face today . . . is a struggle to live into a holy imagination. We get stuck in these patterns of behavior and rhetoric that speak more to our cultural and societal habits than to our spiritual grounding in God’s imagination.
Like Moses, Jesus is walking as we join him. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. As these Gospel lessons continue through Lent, we are getting closer and closer to Jerusalem, not just in the Season, but in the sequence of the narrative, too. Jesus is walking the road that literally leads to Jerusalem. As he gets closer to the Holy City, someone brings up the Galileans. You know, it’s always something, some question about right and wrong, about who is in or out, and the Galileans (Jesus was from Galilee) were easy targets, they weren’t quite as Jewish as the Jews in Jerusalem, according to anyone in Jerusalem.
That happens to us, too, where there is a distinction that anyone from outside the region wouldn’t notice, but makes a huge difference to anyone in the towns involved. Just look at how anyone from the South is portrayed on a sitcom. Or compare the North Atlanta neighborhoods that want to secede from Fulton County. Or maybe we can follow football rivalries — what would Flowery Branch and Gainesville say about each other? or any place you can think of where someone might naively think that they’re pretty much the same, but someone here on the ground holds up a finger and says — whoa, hold on. . . . not exactly, let me tell you….
So we hear from some about how Pilate had some Galileans killed as they were bringing their sacrifices to the altar. Weren’t they just a little bit worse than the average Galilean?
Of course, It’s a Trap!
Jesus has to choose A or B — he can either condemn Pilate and get in trouble with the government, or he go along with the argument and uphold this cultural and economic caste system and distance himself from the people of his region? A or B. There is no good answer.Like he usually does, he flips it. He addresses not simply the question, but the logic behind it.
He says, “No one dies because they are any worse off than another, more sinful. So if you’re all the same, you are all in danger — better get your own house in order. Let’s not talk about Galileans, let’s talk about you. When the tower fell in your neighborhood, were those killed more sinful than you? No, I don’t think so, so you better get your own house in order.”
But it is hard for us. It really is. For us to get our own house in order if we don’t think our house is out of order, it we don’t believe there is anything wrong. If we think our good life is the result of our good deeds pleasing our good God. There is always someone worse off, there is always someone from Galilee.
So he has to explain it a bit more in a parable. This is not one of the famous parables, one of the Top 10. The prodigal son, The Samaritan, The Good Shepherd, The Kingdom of Heaven is like a Mustard Seed. Stories we know by heart or, at least carry with us in our heart.
But the fig tree that gets mulched? . . . I don’t know if that carries the same reputation.
An owner has a gardener plant a fig tree. When he comes later to pick its fruit, there is none to be found. It has been three years! Surely it is time to change, time to increase productivity. Cut it down! Rip it out, burn it, I don’t care. But it. is. gone.
But the gardener intervenes. Wait, he says. Let me give it my attention. Let me give it my love. I’ll aerate it. Weed around it. I’ll mulch it, feed it, Gift it with well-composted manure. Maybe we’ll get some fruit. That’s the best use of your garden, isn’t it, after all? To produce some fruit? Let’s see if we can give this, the poorest of all your fruit trees, the best of all your resources. Let’s see what happens then.
Sometimes I feel like that tree in the garden. Doing the best I can. Taking in water, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, mechanically going through the many exchanges of my life and my days. And in the end, what do I have to show for it? I am being the best tree I can be but if someone comes to look for fruit along with my green leaves, well . . . .
Sometimes I need help. How about you?
Many of us will testify — and I mean that in the most Baptist sense I can muster — testify to the fact of Grace in our lives. Some of us will tell you that we would not, should not, be in this room today were it not for some intervention. Some crook in our path along the way. A detour. A pruning in our life.
We can rattle off our blessings and our choices that sustain us every day and have shaped our long journey to this moment.
But the fact that grace follows us in our lives is actually a problem, a difficulty in this particular society that has so many resources. I know it is for me. The vocabulary of God’s goodness becomes stale, even ordinary. The miracles become so routine (having a job, a house, putting food on the table, getting an education), for better or worse, they are givens for some (even as they are unusual for others in our community). These things that many of us are used to are so much a part of our garden that we begin to think of them as ours. And God is responsible for the extra bits . . . recovery from illness, a debt forgiven, a tragedy averted.
One of my favorite scholars, Justo Gonzalez, reminded me that to get inside this parable of the garden, we have to see ourselves not as a tree needing to produce fruit, but as tree in the garden a year from now. A struggling tree that has had all the attention and imagination of the gardener, has been transplanted into abundance, has received all the resources available.
A life of abundance. Not because we are producing so much fruit, but the gardener wants us to even though we haven’t. The gardener has given us every opportunity not because we have earned it but because we have needed it.
Because “otherwise,” as Justo Gonzalez says, ”we would be such lousy fruit trees?”
If we truly are rooted in abundance and resource and do not send out fruit and seed and life, we may as well be cut down. It sounds like we have a choice, doesn’t it? But we have the gardener’s attention. We have given ourselves over to his imagination, his dream of our potential and possibility.
This (Grace Church) is a rich place, a thriving resource for each other and for this community.
We are deeply rooted in God’s abundant goodness, in a rich ecosystem of Grace. And if we allow ourselves to produce fruit it will be the fruit of God’s wildest dream for us and our community. It just might look a lot like fire.
And we will burn with God’s strange fire of love and call the world to draw near.
The Rev. Alan Cowart
February 28, 2016