February 28, 2016 – Lent 3 – Year C
One morning a man with a carpenter’s toolbox knocked on farmer John’s door. Was there any work he might do for a few days? “Yes, my brother just bulldozed a creek to separate our property. So I want to go him one better. I want you to build me a fence so high that I won’t have to see my brother’s farm anymore.” The carpenter said he understood the situation and promised that he would do a job that would please farmer John.
Farmer John headed off for this day of plowing the back forty on the other side of the farm. At sunset, he returned to see what the carpenter had done. The carpenter had just finished. Farmer John’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. For where he expected to see a fence, there was a bridge built across the creek. Even more, his brother Tom was striding across the bridge, his hand outstretched in reconciliation, amazed that brother John would build a bridge after all the bitterness and separation. Farmer John walked across the bridge to meet his brother, and they clasped hands for the first time in years.
The carpenter turned to go. “Wait!” the brothers said together. “Stay and work some more for us.” The carpenter replied, “I’d love to stay. But I have many more bridges to build.”
Throughout life there are so many bridges that one wishes were in place. Each time I fail to be as caring and supportive to another, I wish for a bridge. Each time I fail to help a person in need, I wish for a bridge. Each time I fail to recycle an item, I wish for a bridge. The scripture we heard speaks of repentance and second chances. It points us to the heart of our faith, when pain and suffering threatens to overwhelm. Up pops depression, indifference, despair, resignation and anguish. Yet, in the midst of all of that is God reaching out a hand and pulling us into a massive hug. We are loved!
The context for Luke’s Gospel account is yet another teaching moment for Jesus. Some tragedies are brought to Jesus’ attention and he uses them to explain about suffering. It has been speculated that the 18 were working on Pilates aqueduct when part of it fell on them. Pilate took money from the temple treasury to build his aqueduct, much to the horror of the Jews. And so, if some masonry had fallen on Jews who were paid to build the aqueduct, the countryside would conclude, that it was the judgment of God on those who compromised themselves with the enemy. So, in order to counter this interpretation, a parable is told.
In the story of the fig tree, God is portrayed as a gardener who is patient way beyond the patience of the landowner. God looks beyond the present moment to the potential within the fig tree. God will actively nurture and fertilize the tree so that it will yet bear fruit. How can we do any less than celebrate God’s patience and trust in our own potential. We too are to seek spiritual nurture during this season, that we may also bear good fruit.
As I have been outdoors playing in my garden and enjoying putting compost around the roots of the tender plants, the story of the fig tree is particularly relevant. Some of my plants are going to have to grow well this year, or else they will be pulled out. They have had second and third chances. Yet, they refuse to bloom. They will not bear fruit. It is as if they don’t want to be a part of my flower garden.
What does it mean to be cast off? Cut down? Or the opposite – to be in community? There are some powerful lessons we can learn from being in community. When we are facing ill health, life struggles, financial stress, family difficulties and the list goes on – we need help and support from others. When I was at university completing my undergraduate degree, a group of 7 of us gathered every Tuesday and Thursday noon hour to support and care for each other. We were all mature women, most raising young families, all facing crises. At that time, I was going through the incredible pain of a marriage break-up along with the anguish of my mother’s death. All of that on top of my final year of university and working at a church as their minister. It was just about too much. But thanks to that group of women I was loved into wholeness and supported into the fullness of who I could be. God worked through those friends and brought me to wholeness.
When tragedy strikes, people ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” Perhaps Jesus’ audience posed the wrong question. They asked “why did this horrible thing happen?” A better question might be, “When I encounter suffering, how shall I interpret it? How shall I handle it? Will it make me more a child of God or less of one?
God’s response to these questions and concerns leads to the route of repentance. Repentance is a path that leads to blessing. It is a way of life brought about by a constant awareness of our human frailty and fallibility.
Repentance is an act – a seeking, a forsaking, a returning – a responding to God who is near and “may be found.” God is merciful and forgiving – abundantly pardoning – beyond anything that human beings can imagine or enact.
The Russian film “Repentance” has a scene with people lined up at the prison gate to get letters from relatives, and often on many of these letters are scribbled the words, “Left No Forwarding Address.” The theatre-goers would look knowingly at each other. For they all knew what that meant, and they wept.
In another scene, the women are shown in a muddy timber yard, desperately picking up logs one by one and examining the ends of them. One woman finds her husbands name carved in the log, and she weeps as she caresses it – almost as if she’s caressing her husband’s face.
The reviewer said that he commented to a Russian friend, “I suppose this was some kind of surrealistic statement. But the friend replied, “no, it isn’t. It isn’t a statement. It isn’t a dream. It was a reality, for (during the Stalinist era) it was common for people to search for names on the end of logs, because the prisoners who worked in the forests would carve their names and the last date as a sign that until at least that date, they were still alive.”
So in a film, a woman’s unrelenting search for her husband in a muddy timber yard, is a powerful parable of a Russian’s search for God in a muddy society. In the middle of a devastating and unrelenting horror, torture, and death they continue to look for God – and found God – even though their search was officially forbidden.
At the heart of Christianity is the reality of human suffering. Jesus is at his most human, at one with us most fully, when he experiences suffering. In the Easter story God suffers with us and promises that suffering is not the final word. This is the cost of love. My friends, we are all loved – fully – completely – and in a way that transforms us. Receive this Good News and live lives of abundance. Amen.