Many of you have probably noticed the paper chain that’s starting to spread across the back of our sanctuary. For those of you who haven’t made it to our Wednesday evening services yet, this chain is part of what we’ve been doing on Wednesday nights. Each link of the chain is a prayer, and every week the chain grows as we add more and more prayers. Every week, there are different interactive prayer stations around the sanctuary, as a different way of engaging with the text and with the practice of Lent. The prayer chain is meant to be a community practice of prayer that shows how our prayers connect us to each other – and how what we do together here leads out into the world.
This idea of interactive prayer stations for Lent was actually part of the project work I did at my internship congregation down in New Mexico. Each week at the midweek service, at least one of the stations we had set up would be some kind of activity to help people to dig into the text for that week in a more tangible, hands-on kind of way.
My favorite example of this was actually the week that we read the text from Isaiah 55 that we just read this morning:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
As a way to help really bring this text to life, my supervisor and I prepared a feast of rich foods: we laid a pretty white tablecloth out over the altar and we set out fine cheeses and olives and cuts of meat and fruit and fancy chocolates and caviar, and of course, wine and milk – basically all the fanciest, richest foods we could think of. And we simply invited people to come up and eat – without money and without price.
It was such a powerful, striking image to see all that delicious bounty practically pouring off of the altar table – and to see all these people gathered together around that table laughing and delighting in sharing this meal together.
Several of the people who participated commented to me later how shocked they were to see that feast spread out on the altar like that – and to be invited to eat all that rich, decadent food, right in the middle of Lent. I think it’s safe to say that that’s not how most of us think of the Lenten season. We tend to think of it instead as a season of scarcity, a season to give up stuff like that, stuff that we like – maybe even a season to suffer and sacrifice, because Christ suffered and sacrificed. But that’s really not what it’s about.
In contrast, Lent is a season to look around and recognize that we are surrounded by God’s abundance. It’s a time to stop and appreciate how richly God has provided for us and to notice how God continues to provide for us, even in the midst of trouble.
At the same time, Lent is a time to look into ourselves and to recognize that we are all spiritually malnourished. It’s a time to recognize that, deep inside every one of us, there is an emptiness; there is a hunger longing to be fed. Even – perhaps especially – in the midst of our material comfort, we are starving, and we don’t even know it.
We may recognize that we’re hungry. We might feel like there’s something missing in our lives. And our commercial, consumer-capitalist world is all too ready to jump in and sell us just the solution we need! Maybe we just need a new haircut, or if things are really serious, a new car! Maybe we need to try the latest fad diet and lose 15 pounds, or to buy a stronger anti-aging cream or to put in another 10 hours a week at work. We work work work and buy buy buy and do do do, constantly searching for a sense of satisfaction and validation that we never quite fully seem to find.
And when I say “we,” I really do mean “we” – this isn’t me just saying “y’all struggle with this” – this is something I really struggle with as well. I am so guilty of falling into thinking, “If I just buy this, it will make me feel so happy, or if I just had a significant other, or if I just put in a couple more hours at work today, and on and on.
We do more and more, we consume more and more, but it feeds us less and less. It doesn’t satisfy us. And in response to that emptiness we feel inside, we hear again the words that Isaiah wrote to his people: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread – for that which is not the good, nourishing, satisfying stuff you need? Why do you labor for that which does not satisfy, why do you work so hard for something that just leaves you hungrier than when you started?” Why run yourself ragged chasing these things when what you really need is freely given?
All this brings me to our gospel reading. In this text from Luke, Jesus tells a parable that requires a little unpacking. In the story, a man has a fig tree tended by his gardener, and they have been waiting for years for this fig tree to produce fruit. And after at least three years, the tree hasn’t produced a thing. I probably don’t need to tell you that this is not very sound agricultural practice. I mean, imagine that you decided to try planting a new variety of corn out in the fields this year, but when it grew up, it didn’t produce a single ear of corn! How likely do you think you would be to buy that variety again and try planting it next year? Not very likely, I bet! – let alone planting it three years in a row! Can you imagine? But even more astonishing still, when the man points out that this tree is wasting soil that could be used for a more productive plant, the gardener begs him to spare the tree and volunteers to put in the extra labor of digging around this tree’s roots and spreading manure on it.
The gardener recognizes that, for whatever reason, this tree isn’t taking in the nourishment it needs. But instead of giving up on the tree, he puts in the hard work of digging up its roots and surrounding it with the richest possible soil a tree could want. We are like that tree – we don’t always get the nourishment we need from the soil we’re planted in; we don’t always thrive like we should or produce the good fruits we’re capable of producing – fruits like justice and peace, like care for our neighbors around the globe, and care for creation. But God has mercy on us, time and again; day by day, year by year, God gives us new chances to grow more and more into being the people we were created to be. And Christ is like the gardener. He digs us out of our comfortable bed of dirt – he exposes our roots – and he covers us in sh… manure.
And, honestly, it stinks sometimes. For example, when St. Augustine wrote about this parable, he identified the manure that Jesus talks about with humility: humility is something that’s rich and good for us, but it’s something that we are usually pretty bad at practicing. Or, like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, this nutrient-rich manure could be the three great practices of Lent: prayer, fasting, and sacrificial giving. Or, to draw an example from my own life, I started off this year praying that God would help me become a more patient person, and immediately realized that that may have been a mistake – because, instead of being immediately granted with patience, like I wanted, I have been “manured” with many opportunities to be patient.
But these are the things that make us grow in God – the things that are most rewarding, that make our roots strong. This is the feast of rich food that Isaiah writes about, the feast that truly satisfies. And in this respect, the point of Lent is not to be a time of material scarcity, but instead to be a time of spiritual abundance, a time of feasting. And this is the purpose of the different practices that we have been engaging in on Wednesday evenings – as well as our Sunday worship and our own individual Lenten practices – they are meant to open our eyes, to open our hearts, to open our roots to the true abundance of life in God. They’re meant to help us open ourselves to receive the nourishment that God so abundantly provides.
So this week, I invite you to consider: what does the soil you’re rooted in look like? What feeds you? And where in your life might God be digging up roots to spread a little bit of holy… manure?