By Jenifer Gamber
This sermon is part of a seven-week preaching series on the Way of Love during Lent, Year C and focuses on the gospel lesson for Lent 3. This week’s practice is LEARN.
Psalm 63 1 Corinthians 10:1-17 Luke 13:1-9
In Godly Play, a program for children to explore faith through story, children begin by quieting their bodies and centering their attention in a sacred space. They are preparing to listen to God’s word so that they can wonder what God might be saying to us today. When leading Godly Play, I take particular joy in telling parables, like the one we heard in the gospel lesson today. Godly Play parables are precious stories. Gifts. In Godly Play, they are stored gold boxes. Parables are unlike other gifts. Every time we open a parable, even if we’ve heard it before, the gift is new. Parables are like that. Rather than telling us a single lesson, parables open a world of possibilities. They invite us to learn about the kingdom of God and what it means to live in that kingdom.
At the core of Godly Play is the practice of learning, gaining new insights for the sake of being transformed by God’s love. Learn is one of the seven practices of the Way of Love, a way of life centered on Jesus commended to us by the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Learn is the call to read and reflect on Scripture daily, especially the life and teachings of Jesus, so that we might we draw near to God and God’s word might dwells in us.
Learning is deep in my bones, in my DNA. Perhaps it is because both my parents were teachers. Life was a series teachable moments. Walking upstairs, we counted 0, 1, 2, 3…. Walking to the basement was an opportunity to learn negative numbers. As we placed each foot down a step we counted, 0, -1, -2, -3…My stuffed animals were literally triangles, squares, and circles with arms and legs. My brother and I were required to write essays on TV shows we watched. Far from turning me off from learning, these practices oriented my life toward being open to new ideas and insights.
Learn. When Presiding Bishop Michael Curry commends us to a life of learning, it is not just any learning, but learning from the greatest of all teachers—Jesus. And what better text to preach about learning than a parable! So, today we will explore the parable we heard Godly Play style with a twist. Together we will wonder through a process of transformation proposed by Bernard Lonergan, a set of five transcendental imperatives that friend and mentor Bill Lewellis introduced me to ten years ago: Be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible, be in Love. Lonergan’s imperatives are suitable for reading any text—whether it is the Bible or your life.
Be attentive. Pay attention to your experience, suggests Lonergan, to your senses, feelings, intuition, and imagination. Upon this evidence, you will form ideas, hunches that may be right or wrong. Later, what you think you understand will depend on what you have sensed or imagined, what you have paid attention to, or not.
Be attentive. Open yourself to God’s transforming love and listen with all your senses. What word does Jesus have for you today? What do you see, hear, feel or smell? What catches your imagination? Listen again.
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for the fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
I see a young, fruitless fig tree in a vineyard and the rough and dirty hands of a gardener. I hear footsteps of the owner walking in the garden. I hear the loving words of the gardener, “let it alone for one more year.” I feel hope.
Be intelligent. This second imperative asks you to inquire into the meaning of your experience. What does what you have noticed mean? Experiencing something is different from understanding its meaning and implications for living. Be intelligent as you interpret what you have seen, heard, or sensed. Challenge yourself to see with new eyes.
I wonder if I am that fig tree, fruitless but filled with possibility. I wonder, who is this gardener? Hands already rough and dirty from the hard work of loosening the soil and prepared to pile manure on the roots of the plants in the vineyard. Does the gardener dream of figs too plentiful too harvest when he implores, “Sir, let it alone for one more year.” This parable invites me to look at where my life is barren, yet filled with possibility.
Lonergan’s third imperative is, “be reasonable.” Insights can occur spontaneously as well as after considered reflection on one’s experience, but are they correct? Parables are meant to upend our understanding. There may be several ways, some even contradictory ways, to understand events of life, particularly parables. Determining which meaning rings most true requires reasonable judgment. When hearing the words of Jesus in Scripture it’s often helpful, reasonable, to widen the lens and look at the passages before and after.
This parable comes on the heels of a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples who are concerned about some people who have suffered great violence. ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?’ ‘Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?’ “Twice, Jesus answers, “No. But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” This parable follows two calls by Jesus to repent. What might that mean? How might the parable of the fig tree fit into a call to repent? Indeed, the gardener tells the vineyard owner, “If after a year, the fig tree does not bear fruit, you can cut it down.”
Yet, on this day, the gardener begs the owner, “Sir, let it alone for one more year.” The Greek word for “let it alone” is aphes, which is elsewhere translated as “forgive.” This was the word used when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins...” Aphes our sins.
Forgive this fig tree for not being fruitful. The tender, imploring words of this gardener tells us of God’s unfathomable mercy. God yearns for all life to bear fruit and works tirelessly, getting down into the muck and manure as God did walking around the first garden, getting hands muddy to shape humanity out of dirt. God is still willing to get into the muck of our lives —our brokenness, hopelessness and the mess to loosen the soil of our souls, and enrich our lives. Forgive this fruitless fig tree. Forgive us our sins. And God has.
Now, these are the meanings to which I am drawn on this day. What words and meanings capture your imagination? Live with them for a while. Do they make sense in light of other experiences you have had? Remain open to new possibilities.
The fourth imperative is Be responsible. Having judged what you consider to be true, based on your experience and reflection on your experience, you now face the question, “What am I going to do about it?” What commitments will you make, what risks will you take, to act responsibly?
Jesus rarely explains the meaning of the parables. Instead, following many parables, Jesus shows his disciples the kingdom of God by enacting it. After the Sermon on the Mount in which he tells several parables he cleanses a leper and heals the centurion’s daughter. After the parable of the new and old wine skins, Jesus cures a man with a withered hand. And after this parable, Jesus heals a woman bent over and unable to stand straight. Parables are a call to be responsible, to join God in bringing the kingdom of God to fruition in loving acts that liberate one another from our hopelessness, our brokenness, and all that keeps us from life abundant. “Let it alone, for one more year.”
What might that mean for you this day? This week? This year? Lonergan’s final imperative is to Be in Love transformed. Be in God. Be in the relationship God offers you as revealed in your experience, in what you have discerned to be true and in what you have decided to do. Being in Love means being open to transformation in God.
Today’s parable invites us into a practice of loosening our roots and orienting our life to receive God’s love and forgiveness. Reading Scripture, particularly about the one who got into the muck to bring us life, is fertilizer for the soul and the kingdom of God. Commit yourself, therefore, to the practice of learning by setting aside time to welcome the life-giving love of God in the words of Scripture each day. Be attentive. Be intelligent. Be reasonable, Be responsible, and in all things, Be in love transformed.