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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Throughout the season of Lent, I have been presenting a series of meditations based on the spiritual treasures offered in the sacraments. In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, we are taught that the sacrament of holy baptism “brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation.” For this reason, on Ash Wednesday and on the Sundays in Lent we have begun our worship with the brief order of confession. It is not simply because it is a helpful reminder that repentance is an historical discipline of Lent, but we confess our sins, because in the waters of baptism we have been given the assurance that God is washing the marks of sin from our lives. Two weeks ago as we read the story of the devil testing Jesus in the wilderness, and were reminded that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from God’s love. In baptism, we are joined together our Christ. Therefore we can boldly remember our baptism and trust that God is watching over us. This morning we turn to the third promise of baptism –eternal life.
Everyone has their good and bad days… even pastors. As a pastor, you know it’s going to be a bad day when…At the wedding, you call the groom by the bride’s former boyfriend’s name. Frankly, it’s going to be a bad night as well. You know it’s going to be a bad day when you enter into the pulpit to preach and you notice that your sermon notes are from last week’s sermon. And it’s a really bad day when you preach that same sermon and nobody notices.
Yes, we all have our bad days, but what does it mean when the bad days add up into year? Or worse yet, what does it mean when tragedy strikes and when these days and years make you question your own self-worth and purpose? Now before you rush to make sense of your bad days and the world’s tragedies, let me share with you two convictions drawn from morning’s gospel. First, do not allow easy answers to explain why tragedy visits you and not someone else. Let the mystery of God remain a mystery. And second, when your life has been shaken by tragedy, may you live with the certainty that Jesus will allow you to walk in the newness of life again.
Men and women often try to make sense of tragedies and search for reasons even when there are none. They often attribute these acts to the will of God. St. Luke describes two terrible tragedies that had happened in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, one in the temple, the other near the pool of Siloam. In the first instance, the Roman governor Pilate had killed some Galileans who were making sacrifices at the temple and then he mixed their blood with the sacrifices. No doubt this was a warning to other Jews to remember that Rome was in charge. In the other incident, a tower fell on bystanders near the pool of Siloam killing 18 people who simply happened to be there. How could such tragic events take place in the Holy City of Jerusalem? How could evil have its way? Surely, there must be a meaning. As Jesus was speaking to his disciples, he asked the question that must have been on people’s minds. Were the Galileans worse sinners than other Galileans? Were the people killed by the tower worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? Of course people offered easy answers.
It’s true today as well. Simply turn on the television or pick up a newspaper and you will find a report of some tragedy somewhere. Only the locations change. Mass shootings, war, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes–all of them wreaking havoc and altering lives. And then, there are the less reported events. The car crashes, the building accidents, disease, the bad things that happen on a personal level which seldom make it onto the front page of the morning newspaper. To all of these tragedies, Jesus answers, that he does not accept the biblical teaching of that human suffering is a sign of God’s divine retribution and punishment. No, Jesus doesn’t say, “It was God’s will.” And surely, Jesus knows the heart and will of God better than you or me. Worldly suffering is not a punishment for sin, though it is no unrelated.
So, when bad things happen to good people, do not let critical voices assert that God is passing judgment on you or someone that you love. God does not abandon his beloved children. When the first responder arrives at the scene of an accident, God is the first to weep. The loving heart of God is broken when the young child is shot and killed in a random drive by killing. God’s own tears are mingled with yours when your son has lost his way. Bad things happen in this world. That is the nature of the creation God has established. I remember my older brother comforting me when he was diagnosed with leukemia that would in six months take his life, “It is, what it is.” It was his own way of saying let the mysteries of God be a mystery.
Jesus then instructs his followers to turn their attention toward their own lives and then tells the Parable of the Fig Tree. As harsh as the word may seem, the good news of the parable is that God is in the business of opening doors and not closing them. He is the business of life and producing fruit. The past is not the final word. The parable, however, also challenges you and me to remember that we are to make something of our lives. You and I are called to be fruitful. And the waters of baptism have been poured over our lives to make them grow more abundantly.
Let us turn now to my second conviction, when your life has been shaken by tragedy or your own errors, you can live with the certainty that Jesus is still working to bring joy and fullness to your life. The Parable of the Fig Tree teaches us that God has both the patience and the essential plans to make your life valuable again and so that you may walk in the newness of life..
My friends, Jesus understands your fatigue and emptiness and he knows that there are times when you cannot take the first step. And so he comes to you. The gardener, you see, had a plan for making the fig tree fruitful. “Let it alone, dig around it, and put on manure.” He understood that setting long-term goals and planning small steps, changing and improving day by day, is a more realistic path to success than an overnight fix. Like the gardener, you too must begin with a patient plan. If the past year has been filled with pain and sorrow, you should not expect a bountiful harvest. Let it alone. Your energy has been spent. You need to step back and examine the forces that have been a part of your life- those who have lifted you up and those who have let you down. You may have discovered that others were a great source of strength and hope. Or perhaps, you discovered an unknown strength within yourself. As Eleanor Roosevelt once quipped, “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”
The second step to bearing fruit is to dig around. When you tell yourself that you are going to reach your goal, you need to start digging in and mapping out the way it will work for you. This kind of committed planning requires energy and effort, which may be difficult to drum up as you’re trying to recover from a tragic loss. Today may not be the time to begin a clean slate. Be patient. Dig around in your life in little ways. Try to make room for more sleep, healthier eating, and walking. Give time to spirituality and meditation. After a horrible year the timing may be better for these smaller lifestyle changes than making a full-blown resolution that cannot be kept.
Mind you, that often comes as a surprise to many in our society. They would ask, why not make a dramatic change- here and now. They accept the notion that everything happens for a reason. Others choose to dig around and find new friends, new hobbies, or they suddenly recognize the loyalty of old ones. But one thing I have discovered, in my own years of loss- Things can be repaired, replaced and even upgraded, but you simply never get over the death of a loved one. You learn to live, step-by-step, and day by day, with a permanent gap in your emotional landscape. It is a beautiful and fitting metaphor. But a tree that has fallen in the storm continues to cast a shadow. That is why the promise of eternal life offered to the ones we once loved in the waters of baptism becomes such an important gift in life. It is that promise that allows you and me to walk in the newness of life now trusting at that we will be united again in God’s eternal kingdom.
Finally, the gardener suggests putting manure on the fig tree to make it fruitful. I am not a gardener nor a farmer, but I know that for a plant to grow well, it must be planted in fertile soil. And this, I rather suspect, has something to do with humus. Do you know what humus is? Some of you may have a compost pile in your yard. The compost pile is made up of humus. Humus is partially decayed plant or animal material. The reason you keep this compost pile is because it makes excellent fertilizer. It causes growth and gives robust health to plants.
Interestingly, the Latin word humus is the root word for the English word humility. It’s tied to repentance. And humility is the spiritual fertilizer necessary for your heart if change is to occur in your life. Humility is produced when you realize that you don’t need to understand all God’s mysteries, or give meaning to life’s tragedies, and that you have no power or right to judge others. For you, yourself, you need God’s forgiveness and strength and mercy. It is his grace and mercy alone that allows you to walk in the newness of life. If there is no humility, then there is no need for this water of life to refresh your arid and parched heart. That is why you are invited again to touch the waters and remember your baptism.
My friends, our Savior Jesus longs for you to be fruitful and joyful again this year- in spite of the tragedies and sorrows you have known. He longs for you to walk in newness of life. So let his baptismal promise, his love and his forgiveness give you a new life this day – so that you may be fruitful. That is the promise of baptism. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.