Friday, March 8, 2013

Burning Bush, Dormant Tree

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 3:1-15; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

This is one of those Sundays when I’m not feeling so grateful that we’re assigned our readings from the Bible. Some of the bits and bobs of today’s readings send me running for the nearest exit.

But we’ve got a burning bush, and a dormant tree. These are images a preacher can work with. By coincidence, Martin Smith in his Lenten book “A Season for the Spirit” offers a related comment in his entry for this past Thursday: “Jesus tried to get people to find within themselves that patch of good soil in which he could plant the little seed of Yes to God that could grow into a great tree.”

You could say that is what God was up to with Moses and the burning bush. Once he had attracted Moses’ attention by this intriguing sight of fire in a bush that the fire does not consume—completely contrary to expectation—God uses the encounter to commission Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of their bondage in Egypt. That God should need audio-visual aids to capture Moses’ undivided attention suggests that Moses was a hard customer to persuade, even for God, and the rest of their exchange demonstrates how guarded Moses was in protecting that patch of good soil in which might be planted the little seed of Yes.

“The bush is Israel,” say the rabbis about this story. With that in mind, we might say that God is planting in Moses the promise that whatever fiery trials lie ahead, if Moses accepts God’s call to serve his people, God will crown his efforts with success. By this startling vision of the bush burning but not consumed, God plants a promise in Moses, one that will sustain Moses as he gets his people, who were accustomed to slavery, to find within themselves that patch of good soil in which he could plant the little seed of Yes to God. Yes, we will dare imagine ourselves as free men and women. Yes, we will dare commit ourselves to becoming a nation that will bless all nations.

The burning, the light, the warmth, the color serve in this story as signs of God.

I’ve been drawn to notice some burning moments in my experience of this parish, in recent days, moments when I recognized the promise in what I was seeing, occasions when it felt as if we as a community were finding patches of good soil for planting little seeds of Yes to God.

One of these is our Friday evening journeys into Narnia, a fantasy world created by the imagination of C. S. Lewis, yet a world so real in its battle between slavery and freedom, a world in the grip of a dark magic even while timeless values such as loyalty, courage, and sacrificial love break in upon that dark cold world.

While the film is a masterpiece, the burning moments for me have come as I realized what fun we’re having, across the generations, as we go deeper into the story of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Joyce Lincourt has poured her heart and soul into this adventure, commissioning people to enjoy their freedom—like James and John and Judy, turning that room into Narnia; Celia and Robin, Alison and Chris and others who become the characters and draw us into the story; and the children, tapping their talent as story-tellers. I felt like pixie dust was in the air on a recent Friday, the story’s charm working its way with us, the fun of playful learning putting us all on a level playing field, and the discovery of what an asset that lower room is to us now. It was easy to feel as if we had found among ourselves a patch of good ground for the planting of little seeds of Yes to God.

I found another burning bush in our upper room, the next morning, when I attended the Saturday breakfast. Phil McKnight gave an eye-opening talk about the Keystone XL Pipeline and the issues that swirl around it. Where I saw light wasn’t just the burning issues, but the bright interest that gathered a good roomful of people and made me realize, “Look at how our faith gathers a fellowship that wants to pay attention to 21st-century dynamics of slavery and freedom. Good ground for the planting of little seeds of Yes.

I can go on… the impact of a stunning choir anthem sending sparks into our liturgy… the commitment of parish leaders to go a second mile beyond maintaining the status quo and on to strategic dreaming about this church’s mission to the world around us… the appetite of Foundations group members and Confirmation candidates and Bible study participants, eager to encounter the God who knows how to attract our fascination and inspire our response.

Response is what’s at issue with the dormant fig tree in our Gospel today. As the burning bush is all about God’s commissioning of Moses to lead his people, so the dormant tree has a purpose: it is expected to bear fruit.

Parables sometimes behave in such a way that we can figure out who is who. Here, does the man who owns the vineyard represent God? Then who is the patient and hopeful gardener? Is he Jesus? Is this tiny little story a glimpse inside a conversation within the Holy and undivided Trinity, the unnamed third party, the Spirit, being the justice/mercy/wisdom that is being debated between the owner and the gardener?

These questions provide the flame that burns in this puzzling parable. Clear and simple is the impression that the vineyard is owned by someone who is running a business, not a charity ward for ailing plants. That latter, by the way, is more the kind of gardener I am, giving everything its fighting chance to keep its place in the garden. Which is why my garden isn’t quite ready for the Garden Club tour.

It’s a well-disciplined landowner we meet here, expecting his agent to execute a careful land management plan. Patches of good soil are hard to come by. Why waste precious resources (water, labor, manure) on a bush that won’t burn with all the chemistry that causes bloom and fruit?

Now that’s a question that’s trying to hit home, in an apostolic church. What justifies pouring resources into a church? What warrants the hope and commitment and patience that people invest in their church? Whose needs are being assessed, and how does a church community care and share and witness beyond its four walls?

Churches are infamous for doing things the way they always have. We mistake the message when we sing “As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be,” and think those words prohibit change, rather than expressing the changeless covenant loyalty of God.

Don’t the words of the gardener suggest that for the patch of soil to remain good it must be disturbed from time to time, and fed? And what, in the life of the church, corresponds to manure? Maybe that’s a sermon of its own, some day.

For sure, the parable puts us on notice that by the terms of creation we are all expected to keep not just living but growing, yielding, producing. But remember also that a parable is expected to produce one clear point, one apple, not a bushel; one take-away message. I think we’ve heard it: We are called to keep opening ourselves to growth, the gift we cannot make happen, the gift that happens when we find within and among ourselves that patch of good soil in which the little seed of Yes to God will take root and rise.