At this particular time of the year we continue to hear how much God loves us and forgives us, no matter what. During this season of Lent, we remember our Baptism, the time when we were marked and sealed as Christ's own forever. We also realize that we are to support each child, each person in their life in Christ. The paschal light and the refreshing Baptismal waters beckon us and strengthen us in our relationship to God and to each other. On this third Sunday in Lent we hear a parable told by Jesus to strengthen others to come closer to God and to each other.
One time Jesus told a story to people who were around him. They were wondering about who was more guilty of their sins. They wondered, could it be that those Galileans who died as victims of Pilate's anger were the most guilty? Could it be those eighteen people who were crushed by the tower of Siloam are really the most guilty? They also wondered if they were guilty. Jesus responded to them by telling a parable, a story that is filled with mystery. I would like to hear the story Jesus told to the people with you. We can listen together to these words of Jesus and think about what he was trying to say to them and to us.
Jesus said that at one particular time a man planted a fig tree right in the vineyard. It was a very special place for a fig tree. The sun shone on it, the rain watered it, it was regularly tended to. When the time came for the tree to bear fruit, the man who planted the tree came looking for the wonderful delicious figs. As the man walked closer to the tree, he found the tree was empty, there was no fruit, there was nothing. He decided to wait another year to see if the tree would produce fruit. He waited and waited through the change in seasons but when he returned to the tree it was still empty; there was no fruit. The man, being a reasonable man waited one more year, but in that year when he walked to the tree he found the same thing: there was no fruit. He became angry, he told the vineyard keeper to cut down the tree, it was useless to him. The vineyard keeper however said that he would take special care of the tree, for one more year. He loosened the soil and dug around the tree so the rain could reach deeper into the roots. He fertilized the tree it to give it nutrients it needed. We wonder what happened the next year. Was there any fruit when the man came back to the tree the next year? How would we answer the question as to who is more guilty?
If we look into our Gospel lesson for today according to St. Luke. When the people heard Jesus tell them that all were guilty, not just those killed by Pilate or those killed by the falling tower. Jesus said that everyone was in need of redemption, all needed to turn to God and come closer to God. The people must have wondered how much does God care for us, love us, if we are guilty? The parable revealed to them that God gave them time to grow and to become fruitful.
Now, 20 centuries later, we hear the same story, even though we live in a very different world. Our world has daily, random death and violence. The statistics of drug abuse, teenage suicide, and childhood violence are higher than the number of children who attend church school every Sunday across the United States. And we wonder who is responsible, who is the one who is more guilty. To hear this parable we are reminded that we are all guilty and that our turning to God to come closer to God takes intentional care, nurturing, and work. We are given time to grow; we are all growing in our baptism. The fruit that we bear if keeping the promises of our Baptism. The promises of the Baptismal Covenant are the fruit of our baptism. The promise to continue in the Apostles' teaching, in breaking bread, and in the prayers; the promise to repent and turn to the Lord; the promise to proclaim the Gospel, to seek and serve Christ by striving for justice and peace among all people, are not just made during worship or to be kept only when there is a Baptism. These promises are made in our daily life. Think of the promises as the fig tree. We know they need special care, protection, and that they need time to grow in order to bear fruit in our daily life. The question is how do we keep these promises in post- modern world where we all have a "MacDonald's attitude," instant satisfaction, instant food ready to go, where TV and the music industry give us the idea that promises do not matter and our children and youth often choose sports over spirituality?
I would like to share with you four words that I learned from contemporary theologian and youth leader Amanda Hughes. Think of these words as the hope you felt every time the man went to the tree to look for figs.
The first word is to "speak gently as the Lord spoke gently." Speak words of peace, words of hope, words of love. Think of the collect for purity, how we pray that God cleanse the thoughts of our hearts so that we are able to perfectly love. How many times do we speak the gentle words, Lord have mercy, and peace be with you.
The second word is "tell the truth of the Gospel no matter how tough it is." Think about how Jesus always brought the disciples to the truth of the matter. They wanted to know where do we find the Kingdom of God? Who is the greatest? Who has the most guilt? Jesus did not hedge, he told them the truth and that is what people want and need to hear. They want to hear from us that they are loved and forgiven by God.
The third word is, "get brave." The Gospel requires change. Every Sunday when we celebrate the Eucharist we ask to be given strength and courage to be sent forth into the world, into the culture, to bring reconciliation and peace.
The fourth and last word is, "Yield to Joy." Give laughter, look beyond the moment and find humor. Jesus often told the disciples that he came so that their joy be complete. This is the message of our Gospel lesson this morning. When the people were asking who was guilty, Jesus spoke gently, yet he told the truth, he was brave, he told them that they needed to turn to the Lord, and then he told them to get brave and yield to joy by revealing the parable of the fig tree.
We continue to grow in our Baptism this Lent. As we look toward the Easter Vigil, the paschal candle and the baptismal waters that await us, we remember the promises we have made to God and to each other, and we continue to seek ways to take these promises into our daily life.
There is a story that is told about a youth group that went to Ireland on a pilgrimage with their youth leader, a guide, and other adults. This story is told to reveal how important it is to keep the promise and bear the fruit of the Baptismal Covenant in our daily life. A youth group traveled through the mountains of Ireland with the direction of a guide who lead them through the beautiful hills and valleys. At one point some of the youth began to walk far ahead of the other youth. Soon they were no longer visible to the group or the guide and they placed themselves in danger. Two adults went searching for the straying youth, hoping to get to them as soon as possible. They searched for several hours until they were found. Amanda Hughes, one of the adult leaders, approached the youth gently; she discovered that the youth had left the group because of disagreements and anger. They argued and decided not to stay together. Amanda took the time to speak gently with the youth; she was brave and told the truth of the Gospel. She told them that they really messed up not only because they separated themselves from the rest of the youth group and jeopardized themselves, but because they failed to live in the Gospel promise. They failed to love one another; they did not respect the dignity of the others or seek Christ in their relationships. As they spoke, suddenly some of the youth began to cry. When Amanda asked why they were crying they told her it was because they realized they did not love one another. When the youth returned to their group they stayed up all night until six o'clock the next morning working through their arguments. This story yielded to joy because they all continued to walk together. The promises of the Baptismal Covenant were taken right into daily life.
Let us remember the story of the fig tree, the hope of it bearing fruit after being given care and nurture and special attention, as we go forth taking the promise of the Baptismal Covenant into our world by speaking gently, telling the truth of the Gospel, getting brave, and yielding to joy. For as we near the twenty-first century in this rapidly changing culture, it is the best time to be a Christian. Amen.