Many of you know that I was born and raised in a town on the Virginia/Tennessee border right where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the great Smokey Mountains. Among my favorite aspects of the region I come from, besides its stunning beauty, are the smells. Because it is a rural setting, agriculture plays a prominent role in the region’s economy. The mountain air, especially in the springtime, is clean and scented with the aroma of freshly cut Tennessee sweet-grass which is oftenmixed with the pungent smell of cow manure being turned into the soil for fertilization. It may seem odd to wax nostalgic about the smell of grass and manure, but since it’s an odor that you experience in Appalachia with regularity, you lose the notion of its peculiarity and begin to experience it as a sign of joys of the approaching summertime: Such as the delicious food that will soon accompany Sunday dinners and weekend cookouts;-+ Homemade green bean casserole, summer squash gratin, hamburgers garnished with homegrown tomatoes and paired with grilled corn on the cob that tastes as sweet as sugar. Are you hungry yet?
Curiously, these are the memories that kept occurring to me when meditating on our scripture lessons this morning. The parable that Jesus relays to his audience in our gospel lesson from Luke is iconic.You may know that an icon is an image used in prayer, usually of a spiritual figure or a story from scripture that points to something deeper and richer in meaning. In an icon, every small detail is important, from the gaze of the eyes to the position of the hands; the color of the vestments to an item a figure is holding. The stained glass windows in this chapel are perfect examples of icons. When I say that this parable is iconic, I mean that Jesus is not necessarily giving his followers a lesson in agricultural sustainability. Since many of Jesus’ followers were farmers, they understood the principle of growing food: of the strategic planting of crops and careful fertilization of soil as to ensure growth. Rather he is using principals that they would understand to relay a deeper spiritual truth.
At face value, they might for instance, identify with the owner of the vineyard. Fertile soil for producing food in that region was sparse. Allowing the tree to continue growing without producing figs would be a waste of resources. Cutting down the tree is actually a very wise business move on the part of the owner. What Jesus’ audience most likely would find surprising is the reaction of the gardener. This is the person who has been tending to the tree the past three years; it is his toil and labor that gone into caring for it. Why wouldn’t he agree with the owner of the vineyard and assent to the removal of the tree? Yet contrary to what seems like common sense, the gardener argues for its reprieve. ‘Give me one more year to care for it; to give it fertilizer and water. If it doesn’t produce in the next season, then you can cut it down.” I can almost see Jesus’ followers scratching their heads, looking at each other and smiling waiting for the conclusion of the parable to see if the gardener knows something the owner doesn’t. But that is as far as Jesus goes, leaving them with a spiritual cliffhanger. In a sense he leaves them, and therefore us, gazing at this icon, ruminating about its deeper implications.What does Jesus want us to notice?
First, let’s concentrate a moment on the behavior of this tree. You cannot expect an abundant crop if you’re not proactive in fertilizing the soil. I said earlier that pungent springtime aromas in the mountains of Appalachia were due to farmers tilling sweet-grass and manure into the soil as a prelude to the planting season. The potassium and nitrogen as well as nutrients in the manure fertilize the soil and enrich it in order that the land can be productive and help the seeds to grow. If the essential nutrients that the land needs to grow food are not replaced with each cycle, future crops will fail. This is as true spiritually as it is practically. God has called all of us into being, each of us with gifts and talents and a job to fulfill according to His divine purpose. In other words, we have fruit of the spirit that we’re expected to produce. The time we have on this earth is to be used for maturing and growing into our full stature as children of God. In order for that to happen we have to be aware of the true self God has created in us and take care to do the things necessary to foster its development. Like springtime, Lent is the perfect time to fertilize our spiritual gardens. In his Lenten addresses about Self-Discipline, Fr. Arthur Hall, SSJE highlights two crucial things to keep in mind when tending our gardens. First: Our Lenten disciplines should always have a goal: The sacrifice of the lower for the sake of the higher self. We are not called to a pointless starving of the body, to the aimless denial of natural desires, or whimsical withdrawal from social interaction.There must be a purpose. Second: The purpose of Lenten discipline is for training, not for destruction. The grace of God is for the restoration and perfection of the true self, the true you as God in His infinite wisdom has created you.[i]
Many of you have been following our Lenten program “Growing a Rule of Life.” The development of your own personal Rule can be invaluable in helping you stay focused on what you need to flourish in the life God has called you to: such as adequate prayer and quiet, a good balance of work, study, and recreation; andrecognizing the importance of rest and Sabbath. If you are taking out of life more than you’re putting in, chances are your growth will be stunted and your spiritual crops will fail. You have to replenish the necessary nutrients in order for growth to be sustainable. A Rule of Life will help you discern what is helpful and what is not.[ii]
Second, let’s consider the gardener. I think it is important to remember that we cannot grow on our own. We need help. Our Collect for this morning begins with the humble recognition of our powerlessness: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” In Jesus’ parable the gardener advocates for further care of the tree. Clearly he notices some potential that is not evident to the owner of the vineyard. I think this is exactly what Jesus’ sees in us. Jesus is the master gardener, the one who shares the nature of both God and humanity. He understands what it is that can stunt our growth and keep us from reaching our full stature as children of God.
When you read the announcements on the back of your service bulletin you’ll note that there is an Emery House pruning weekend approaching in March. We brothers need help pruning and cutting back in order to promote the health of the trees and plants that make the land at Emery House so beautiful. And this is resonant with our own spiritual lives also. Jesus is ready to prune that which will hinder our growth, but we have to be willing to allow that process to happen. Pruning can seem so unpleasant, especially when we have disordered attachments that need to be severed. But in the long run, this pruning will help us grow and flourish. The gospel of John says: He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.[iii]
Perhaps you might like to join us at Emery House and experience the pruning weekend as an act of prayer, offering to Jesus that which is keeping you from the abundant life God wills as you prune trees and clear unnecessary brush from the gardens. If that isn’t possible, perhaps youcould use the same exercise in your own garden or yard, all the while praying for God’s help to discern what in your life needs pruning and what needs extra encouragement and TLC.
It could be that you’ve come here this morning carrying something that has been burdening your heart and stunting your spiritual growth which you cannot carry around any longer. If that is so, take courage. The First Letter of John assures us that we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.[iv]In a few moments whenwe all come forward to receive the sacrament of the altar,lift up your hands and offer to Jesus that which burdens you and allow him to take it in exchange for the nourishment of His body and blood and then let Jesus, the master gardener continue to water, prune, and nourish so that you may experience the Easter abundance that God wills for you.
Jesus is our advocate and His grace is but a foretaste of the Heavenly banquet that God is calling us to enjoy. Are you hungry yet?
[i]Hall, Arthur, SSJE. Self Discipline: Six Addresses. New York: James Pott, 1890. Print.
[iii] John 15:5, 8
[iv] 1 John 2:1-2
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