Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
March 20, 2022

Third Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Luke 13:1-9

When I was in my first call, a young man in his senior year of college decided he wanted to go to seminary.  At about the same time, his girlfriend got pregnant. He failed one of his classes, delaying graduation. His ideas about service in the church were naive.  To be honest, I didn’t think he should be a pastor. I worried about the first church he would serve. I was shocked that the candidacy committee approved his entrance.  I then started to worry about the hurt he would experience when the church finally told him no.

You probably know the end of the story. By the time he finished seminary, he had grown up, matured, and has served his whole career as a very fine pastor in the ELCA. As I look back, I was the immature one, not enough experience in ministry or life to see how people can change and grow, even grow into a harvest that you never would have imagined.  I was willing to lay the ax at the root of his call, cutting down his hopes, in my own self-righteous zeal to “protect the church” from his fruitless sense of call.

This passage in Luke’s gospel comes right after Jesus had instructed his disciples to watch for the signs of the end.  And now they start trying to do it.  “Right, there was that terrible massacre by Pilate. He even mixed their blood with the sacrifices.  That must be a sign that they were worse sinners than most.”  Jesus responds, “You’re probably also going to mention those eighteen that were crushed under the tower when it fell.  You probably think there’s some divine logic there, too, like they must have been equally bad.  Got what they deserved, right?  Well, to all of you, I say, focus on your own problem or you’ll get what you deserve. But for now, let me show you the sign that you need to see if you want to know the whole divine story.

And he tells the parable about the patient gardener, who reaches out his hand to stop the ax in mid-swing, reaches for the bag of compost, and says, let’s just wait to see what happens.  The gardener is so understanding that he gives a deadline because he knows open-ended timelines make everyone nervous.  Likely, he knows full well that it can take much longer than a year for this kind of fig to bear fruit.  He decides to wait a year to break that to them just how patient the gardener really is.[1]

Of course, Jesus knows all along that he may well be the one that gets buried in the earth as it’s cosmic fertilizer.  That transformation won’t take a year, either.  Just about three days.

But they won’t understand that yet, either.

Perhaps this middle Sunday in Lent is the time to pause and breathe. To enter God’s time. Let me be careful here.  I’m not saying that we give up on the work of peace and justice and forgiveness and let some divine being take care of everything.  I think Jesus is inviting us to consider the ground of that work, the nutrients of our motivation, the kind of energy that comes up through our roots.

I listened to Angela Davis interview two math educators on her MPR show this week.  Math performance has declined in recent years.  A lot of adults think they are bad at math.  Apparently, we’ve created a dynamic that says that you’re either good at math or you’re bad at math.  One student talked about being the kid who took a little longer to solve the equation.  He said, “I never had a teacher that was patient enough, so I just decided it wasn’t for me.”  The most interesting dynamic they discussed was the role of fear in creating our sense of identity.  For many of us, when faced with a math problem or our children’s need for help with their math homework, we immediately get anxious. Children feel that anxiety and connect it to math.  “When you’re anxious or afraid, your brain stem decides to flee, so you shut down and run away.”

Someone asked Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Buddhist spiritual leader: “Aren’t you worried about the state of the world?” He allowed himself to breathe and then said: “What is most important is not to allow your anxiety about what happens in the world to fill your heart. If your heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.”[2]

Most of us spend so much time reading the world through our fear.  We view our relationships through our anxiety.  We interpret another’s words or actions through our own templates of failure or insecurity.  We focus on the empty branches, the way-too-long trajectory of healing or justice, the hard unyielding soil of everyday life.

Jesus is inviting us in these Lenten days to take a pause and find out what kind of manure—or bread–we really need.  To trust that God is at work even though every sign around us suggests that only bad things are happening.  To believe that life comes as inexorably as the spring rain.  To stretch our branches into these lengthening days.  Not waiting one more second to come alive again.





[1] I’m indebted to Tom Long for the inspiration to tell the parable in this way.