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Sunday, February 28, 2016

For Life: Come, Seek, Return

Trees bear fruit for the sake of others; so we repent, return to God, that we might bear fruit for the sake of all and be a part of God’s extravagant satisfaction for all the world.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Third Sunday in Lent, year C
   texts: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Why do you spend your money and labor for that which does not satisfy?

It’s a fair question. Are we getting value for our investment of time, energy, wealth? Are we satisfied with life?

Can we evaluate this? We can live unaware of how we spend our time and wealth and whether it brings us blessing or satisfies. We hear many messages promising satisfaction, from advertisers, from politicians, from entertainers, offering fulfilled lives if we only buy what they’re selling.

What if Isaiah’s right? What if we’re running through life following this whim and that trend, living without any attention to how our time spent and our lives lived really fill us? Can we say with confidence that the things we spend the most time or money or thought on are the things that can satisfy us?

If we aren’t sure we could ask our psalmist: when we wake in the midnight watches, do we find a content spirit, filled with God’s goodness as if with the richest of foods? Or when we wake in the night is our spirit filled with worry, discontent?

Maybe a sign of our dissatisfaction is that we’re here this morning. We’ve come away from our everyday life, looking for God, seeking answers, hoping for something that will address our deepest needs.

So, what are we missing that would truly satisfy us?

Jesus compares us to a tree today, so let’s consider plants.

Plants need certain things to flourish and grow, and produce the fruit or leaves or flowers they are meant to. Some people are really good at knowing what plants need. They can take a plant out of the ground, put it in a pot, care for it, and it will grow and bring delight. My Uncle Ray once grew an apricot tree out of an apricot pit, and it won a prize at the county fair.

I’m not one of these. I don’t know what it means when told, “don’t water it too much.” Is that once a week? Every day? Only when it’s wilting and near death?

Maybe we’re the same when it comes to the tree we each are. Some instinctively know the ways to life and growth in God. Some are clueless, until we get to a point in our lives where we’re wilted or dried up or starving and aren’t sure how we got there.

Isaiah has wisdom for all of us, however we are: God knows what we need. If we’re seeking to be a fruitful tree, a flourishing plant, turn to God.

Or, as Jesus would say, “repent.” Turn around, and come back to the One who gives life.

But we’ve got a problem: Trees don’t bear fruit for themselves.

We look at Jesus’ parable today and think we want to be a tree bearing fruit. Why wouldn’t we?

But do we want it only because we don’t want to be cut down? When John or Jesus talk of fruitful trees and vines, lurking behind is always the idea of the dried up, unfruitful branch that feeds the fire. We may only want to be fruitful to avoid destruction.

Because there’s little self-interest found in bearing fruit. A tree doesn’t bear fruit for itself. Even if an apple falls uneaten, rots, and the seeds within begin to grow, that’s another tree reaping the benefit.

Do we avoid repentance because there’s no self-incentive for bearing fruit? Do we run after all sorts of things seeking satisfaction for ourselves rather than turning to God because God will only create gifts in us that will help others?

We make repentance a personal thing, a spiritual exercise God needs us to do because we’re sinful people. It’s all about us and our private, personal salvation.

But that doesn’t seem to be what our Lord means.

The turning around of repentance Jesus invites is for the sake of all, because it is meant to bear fruit.

This tree in the parable is meant to give to others, be a blessing. The problem of the owner of the tree is he isn’t getting any blessing from it.

John the Baptist invited his hearers to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” But what was that fruit? If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one. If you have more food than you need, share it. If you’re cheating someone, stop it. Don’t extort from others, and be satisfied with what you have. Fruit of repentance is for others.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways,” God says. Maybe we’re not satisfied deep within our spirits because we’ve been mistaken all along thinking our faith was all for our sake. That we needed to repent because otherwise we’d be punished. Instead, we repent so we can be a blessing to others. That’s God’s way.

What if God’s way is really better for us?

Isaiah begs us to see where our life is truly found.

Four times he invites: come to God. God’s arms are open wide with blessing and grace that can truly satisfy us and give us life.

If we’re afraid of being cut down as unfruitful, Isaiah says, “don’t be.” Return to the Lord, who will abundantly pardon; return to God, that God might have mercy. Whatever the result of our repentance, we have the promise of welcome and forgiveness when we turn.

And in that turning, we find life, because we become the fruitful tree we are meant to be. We find what satisfies, because we are living as we were made to live. The One who truly knows what makes us grow and flourish is the one who made us. And in Jesus’ parable, that One has grace prepared for us.

Whoever the owner is in this parable, it’s clear it is the Triune God who is the gardener: the Father created the tree and loves it enough to give it time, the Son cares for and prunes the tree, and the Spirit nurtures and feeds the tree, and in the patience of God the tree is given time to grow, deepen, and finally bear fruit.

And in that fruit, given away to others, we find true satisfaction.

This is the mystery of God’s way: all are satisfied when each bears fruit for another’s well-being.

This happens when we don’t look for God’s mercy and healing to benefit ourselves, or understand repentance as a path to personal salvation, and rather see the grace of a God who would have all people bear fruit for the sake of others, and will take all the time necessary to see it happen. Will dig around us, fertilize us, bless us, so we become what we’re meant to be.

This is how there’s wine and milk and bread and satisfaction and joy enough for all: when all are bearing fruit for others, there is more than enough to satisfy the whole world.

When we find the joy of this repentance we can wake in the midnight watches and, with the psalmist, say, “my spirit is content as with the richest of foods.”

No longer motivated to help ourselves, we turn to God so we are fruitful for others, and strangely enough, we are satisfied. In the middle of the night or the bright sunshine, we are satisfied.

There is grace today in God’s generous patience and willingness to help us turn and bear fruit. There is even more grace in the fruit we bear for the world.

Come, let us return to the Lord, who has mercy and abundant pardon, enough to satisfy all.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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