The Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 3:1-15
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8

We begin this morning with a parable about this fig tree. And as I’ve mentioned to you,
sometimes we think it’s all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, Christianity says
gardening is in fact where all the high drama of your life can come right into view. Many,
many a parable about seeds, and growing, and today’s no exception.
A man owns a vineyard which has a fig tree in it. And after three years it’s produced no
fruit. And the owner says, “Cut it down.” And we might think has a rather faithful
stewardship does this owner of the vineyard because he says waste of soil, isn’t it? Waste
of good soil, this tree, drawing on all those nutrients, not producing any fruit. All those
nutrients could be better spent elsewhere.
And the gardener, both in the content of his response and in the manner in which he
provides that answer, he offers what becomes a turning key for the rest of our scriptures
this morning. The gardener says to the owner, “Sir, let it alone for one more year. And if in
a year it produces fruit, well and good. And if not, then you can cut it down.”
And what is so striking both about what the gardener says and how he says it is that it’s all
about patience. Waiting for something to happen that has not happened yet. But also, being
patient with somebody else. The gardener does not say, “You idiot. You clearly know
nothing about gardening, or trees, or how they bear fruit, or how long it takes.” He says,
“Sir, why don’t you wait a little bit and see what happens in a year.”
So not just with situations, but likewise with people, it is so easy for us, it’s so easy for me,
to be short, to come to snap judgments and conclusions about what people and things are
capable of producing, and how quickly. And so very effortless it then becomes to simply
take things at face value, to take people at face value and rush past them, or rush through
them. And hope that with any luck God will bring them to a swift conclusion so we can
move on to other things.
And I thought something about this patience when I was driving down a few days ago to
Ann Arbor with George, my small son, to visit some family friends. The car in front of me
at one point, at a light, which had a sticker on it that said, “New driver, please be patient.”
And it was so funny to me because I thought, well, does that mean that when the driver is
no longer new you don’t have to be patient anymore, all bets are off? And I thought to
myself, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could have signs on our heads that said, “Human being,
please be patient. Child of God, please be patient.”
We’re not helped in our attempt to live more patiently with one another, with ourselves,
with the events that happen in front of us, by the sheer fact of the velocity at which we’re
accustomed to living. If the wifi is not instantaneous, it’s slow. If the shipping is not two-
day, and free, then frankly, you can get a better deal elsewhere. And I cannot help but think
that this insidious sort of expectation, and dare I say, entitlement for us to have what we
want when we want it, does in fact scuttle many of our best attempts to be patient with each
other, and ourselves, and perhaps also with God.
As it turns out, in the Season of Lent, and with these words from scripture this morning,
repentance always requires some degree of patience. And in my childhood, I came to think
of repentance mostly as being related to a sin, or sins. And in fact, I know this because as a
child, you’ll be shocked to know, I stole a Snickers bar from someone. It was the third
grade, and I felt absolutely awful about this. I think I ate it as well. Probably. I can’t see
how I wouldn’t have. I felt so bad. And I decided that I had to tell someone because the
guilt was just building up and I couldn't take it anymore. And as it turned out, I had done
this before and usually it was my mother I would tell. But then she had a way sometimes of
not responding in the most God-like manner.
So then I decided that I would tell my father. And so I told him. He said, “You know, I’m
sure God forgives you. Try not to steal anymore Snickers bars.” And so at dinner, liberated
from the prison of my sin, I dropped casually into the conversation with my mother present
that I had stolen the Snickers bar but I talked to dad about it and everything was fine. And
my mother was absolutely horrified.
And then from then on my father would never listen to me ever again. He would cover his
ears with his hands and go, “La, la, la, no, I can’t hear you. Don’t tell me any of the bad
things you’ve done because your mother will have me for it.” So as a child, and even as an
adult, it was very much, “Well, you did something wrong, and it was that bad and the guilt
was eating you up inside. Thus, you must repent. You must do something about it.”
But Moses, in Exodus this morning, shows a completely different picture of what this
repentance that we are offered by God over and over again, moment by moment in our
lives, is about. Which is that Moses, tending these sheep of his father-in-law, goes off into
the wilderness, beyond the wilderness, and stops. And slows down. And when he stopped
and he slowed down, he notices something.
And again, the high drama of what God can do with the majesty of God’s creation, it’s not
a fig tree that doesn’t have any fruit, it’s a bush that’s burning but isn’t consumed. And
because he slowed down, and stopped, and noticed, Moses says, “I must turn and see why
this bush isn’t burned up.”
Patience is in that fabric of turning to God over and over again in our life. As a community,
and as individuals, it is not – repentance is not a one-time-only offer or opportunity that we
take up as little as we possibly can because ideally, if we get it right the first time, we won’t
have to do it again. It is rather this constant turning back towards God. These little turns
over and over in our lives that you can’t even see.
Repentance is not glamorous. You cannot outsource it. You cannot pay someone else to do
an inventory of your brokenness and then tell you what to do about it. But the blessing is
that your life, and my life, exactly as it is now, is in itself a master class in patience and
repentance. And all we need do, moment by moment, to take the lessons that are being
offered to us, is to slow down and even stand still. And notice what God is doing right in
front of us. And then turn to where God is pointing and where God is guiding us.
And what Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, the first one – and even Jesus earlier in His
Gospel account – say to us is that you cannot, however mysterious repentance may be,
however mysterious this inner turning toward God, and where God is calling, in the little
moments, when you stand and listen to someone – even though you have a thousand things
to do, where you refrain from looking at your phone when something important is
happening in front of your eyes and you know that if you look down you’re going to miss
something of what God is doing right there – you cannot turn to God and throw someone
under the bus at the same time.
Paul says, “Everyone makes mistakes.” The Israelites made mistakes. And when you look
at them do not take the shallow gift of saying, “Well, I may have done some things in my
time but I’ve never behaved like that. I’ve never made a golden calf. I’ve never used huge
sums of money to get what I want from other people.”
And Jesus says, “Do you think because these two groups of people came to such bad ends,
do you think they were worse than us in anyway? Than you or I? Than anyone else?” Jesus
says, “No. No, I tell you. And unless you repent, you’re going to suffer some kind of
spiritual death, some kind of loss, even if you seem to be gaining the world. Rather the turn
towards God is always also a turn towards God in ourselves, and a turn towards God in one
So this true repentance, an amendment of life that we hope for when we confess our sins
together, and that we look to in this season of Lent, how you will find it is to see where you
turn towards someone else when all you want to do is turn away. When you move towards
them when all you want to do is avoid them, when you refrain from criticizing when all
you want to do is correct. There is a time and change that we are invited to not just in
church this morning, but over and over again, if we just slow down and notice, and make
that move.
Fortunately, God is very patient. I found a book – or I revisited a book that I had first read
about ten years ago – it shows you how patient God is with imparting God’s love and
knowledge. And in it, I had underlined, all those years ago, one line from this author – his
name’s Thomas Keating and he said, “To repent is to change the direction in which you are
looking for happiness.”
What might we find in changing direction? What might we notice when we do? How might
we find ourselves so utterly captivated by what we see that we find those words of Moses
coming out of our own lips? “I must turn.”