Digging for Life

March 3, 2013

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Sermon on Luke 13:1-9, given while serving as seminarian

Lent 3 – Year C (RCL) 

Exodus 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 & Luke 13:1-9

Some of you may remember the movie Julia. The film is based on a true story that traces the lifelong relationship between playwright Lillian Hellman, who is played by Jane Fonda, and her friend Julia, played by Vanessa Redgrave.

Although the film was released in the late 1970’s, I didn’t actually see it until many years later, when I was in my 20’s. What I especially connected with in the movie was the stark contrast between Lillie and Julia. Their personalities and world-perspectives were completely different from each other. Elements of those differences reminded me of the contrast between me and my best friend at the time.

Julia was a visionary and consummate risk-taker. When she reached college-age, she left the U.S., traveling to Vienna to study with the likes of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. While there, she was compelled to a live a life that confronted the injustices she saw in the world around her. I remember, that as I watched the movie, Julia’s strength and conviction reminded me of my best friend. Although she didn’t move overseas after college, she left our hometown of Houston, and forged a less conventional path. She was not constrained by what others thought, but instead blazed the trail her heart defined.

Lillie, on the other hand, was risk-averse; a young woman trying to establish herself as a writer; trying to live into this new found identity in spite of her inner insecurities. Her character reminded me of myself – appearing confident and in control on the outside, while hiding the scared and unsure Jody that was just below the surface.

But, over the course of the film, we see a shift in Lillie.

While studying in Vienna in the 1930’s, Julia becomes involved with a pre-WWII anti-Nazi organization. When she hears that Lillie would be traveling to Russia for a writer’s conference, Julia sends a messenger to Lillie to ask for her help. They need Lillie to go through Berlin on the way to Russia. They need her to smuggle money into Germany so it could be used to free Jews and political prisoners. This would be a dangerous task for anyone to undertake, but especially for a Lillie, being a Jew herself.

With only a few hours to consider the request, Lillie agrees to help her friend Julia, taking on this risky task. In this act, Lillie radically shifted her way of living in the world. And though this shift was not absent of anxiety, once it was made, there was no going back.

At the outset of the film, there is a foreshadowing of this change. The movie begins with a reflection made by a much-older Lillie looking back on her life. She uses the imagery of a painting-canvas that has been re-purposed, saying:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens, it is possible in some pictures to see the original lines. A tree will show through a woman’s dress. A child makes way for a dog. A boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento, because the painter repented; changed his mind.

This changing of mind is what repentance is all about.

Since Ash Wednesday a few weeks ago, this message of repentance is a familiar refrain. And, again, in today’s gospel reading, the Lenten call for repentance continues.

Picking up where Ceci left off last week, Jesus is with his followers and they are on the road – headed toward Jerusalem. They talk with Jesus about two separate incidents that have caused the death of some Galileans and some Jerusalemites.

We can tell by Jesus’ response that he knows what his followers are after. They want to know if the sinfulness of these particular people is what caused their tragic and sudden deaths. It was the kind of asking that includes a hope that these followers of Jesus didn’t need to fear this same judgment by God.

But Jesus, instead of giving words of assurance, says that those who died were no more sinful then all other Galileans or Jerusalemites. Then, he tells those with him that unless they repent, they will also perish just as these others had.

Now, I’m not a big fan of seeing God as a judge. Like most people, I prefer the nice, caring, loving God. But, whether we like it or not, God’s judgment is one of the consequences of belief. 

We have a God that loves us, yet also expects much of us. God has put us in this world for a purpose.

God has given us the ability to reason and to feel, and thereby, a responsibility to respond.

And, with these gifts, we are able to discern the purpose of our lives.

I believe that it is by living that purposeful life that we exhibit the generosity of love and worthiness that God implanted in each one of us.

So, although my tendency is to avoid this message of judgment… seeing as it’s the season of Lent… a time when we purposefully do things that make us a little uncomfortable… I want to take a minute to walk toward this message of judgment, like Lillie walked toward Julia’s cause.
I want to explore more fully this call to repentance.

The parable Jesus tells demonstrates what repentance looks like.

In the parable we see a man who had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He went to the tree looking for fruit. When he didn’t find any he saw the gardener nearby and said “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’

Wow – That’s hard to hear. If I am not fulfilling my purpose, am I a waste of soil?

Well, maybe not, let’s look a little more closely…

Looking at the man’s reaction, it sounds like one of exasperation. The man’s frustration comes from knowing that this tree is capable of bearing fruit. This parable goes on to demonstrate that the man cares about this tree. In spite of his harsh words, he has shown a commitment to the tree’s potential by continuing to come back year after year, looking for fruit; knowing it can bear fruit.

Not unlike the man in the parable, God keeps coming back to us, seeking us out.

I know from my own experience that God kept looking for me. God kept anticipating the fruit that I could bear. God continued to believe that I have a purpose beyond merely occupying a patch of dirt while I am in this world.

Even so, there were times when I had trouble moving beyond what was familiar and comfortable. I wanted things to stay as they were, even when I sensed I wasn’t producing the fruit I was capable of. But, in order to be transformed into a fruit-bearing tree, I had to repent – I had to change my mind – to turn toward God – to allow myself to be transformed.

The good news is that God gave me a gardener, Jesus Christ, to help.

In the parable, the gardener’s response to the man is, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Now, the gardener is invested in the success of this tree!

Even so, his words haven’t erased the element of responsibility incumbent on us to respond to God. But Jesus has come to help us move beyond our own insecurities. When we feel we aren’t able to do it on our own, Jesus is there.

Even so, this work involves some digging.

During this time of Lent, we make a conscious effort to do this kind of digging – this internal work. To expose our own roots and see what is life giving, and what is not. It is time to repent… to change our mind… and shift our focus and attention toward God and God’s purpose for our life.

The work, at times, may be painful. I know for me, when I look at things I’ve done that hurt someone I love; times when I held a grudge, or let a friendship disappear because I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable and tell them they hurt my feelings – I know that looking at those unresolved things in my life can be difficult – [which is one reason having a good therapist is helpful] – but it is vital work!

When I am willing to sort through the life-limiting aspects of my past, I can embark on the life-giving purpose that I was made for. And thankfully, I don’t have to do it alone. Jesus is beside me, on his knees, with his hands in the soil … and in the manure. The lessons he teaches us along this road to Jerusalem provide the nutrients necessary to help us bear fruit.
And, thankfully, we have time for this transformation. The gardener doesn’t tell the man to come back next week, as if fruit will miraculously appear.

Instead, he says, come back next year….

The transformation into a fruit-bearing tree is not an overnight event.

God is generous, and like the man, gives us time.

During that time, as we work, we are comforted by the assurance that:

  • God knows us and knows that we can bear fruit
  • God doesn’t give up on us, but instead, seeks us out; inviting us into a relationship of mutual fulfillment.
  • God gave us a gardener in Jesus, who demonstrates what it looks like to embrace our inherent nature as a beloved child of God; Not only that, but demonstrates what it is to live into God’s purpose, even when that means walking the long road to Jerusalem.

But, one final observation about the parable – understanding repentance as “changing one’s mind” – I will point out that it’s actually the man in the parable who repents. It is the man who decided not to have the tree cut down, thereby showing mercy over judgment.

Always remember that this is the God who is generous.

By contrast, the parable doesn’t reveal if the fig tree repents…
What do you think?

4 Responses to “Digging for Life”

  1. ghl1 said

    Jody, a great explanation of the gospel reading, relevant for all of us, and well delivered.

  2. Diane Lynch said

    Your sermon was lovely today, Jody! Just yesterday, I mentioned the movie ‘Julia’ to my Heather. We had just yesterday read the Vanessa Redgrave feature in this month’s Vogue, and her many works became the topic of conversation. ‘Playing For Time’ (1980) is another movie of Ms. Redgrave that is truly magnificent. Have you seen that film? Talking about Ms. Redgrave yesterday with Heather and listening to your sermon had nudged me to order BOTH movies from Movie Stop. They were, and still are quite, moving to me, and two that I feel that Heather is old enough to watch. Thank you for your inspiration and thought provoking message today at church! Go Pink 😉

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