“Rediscovering Who We Are: A Vulnerable Patience”
Luke 13: 1-9 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ March 24, 2019
I would like to open with a confession. I am not qualified to offer this morning’s reflection about nurturing a vulnerable patience. So…I thought long and hard about who should lead. I contacted a retired friend: “Hi…Northwood is focusing this Sunday on nurturing a vulnerable patience in our faith. To be honest that’s an area that I need to grow as much as the rest of us. I wondered if I might draw on your expertise and ask you to come and lead the service?” “Hmm…a focus on nurturing a vulnerable patience in our faith…I’m not qualified either, but hey…send me the notes…I’d love to hear what you come up with”. So, I contacted another colleague: “Hi….we are focusing on nurturing a vulnerable patience in faith this Sunday, I wondered if you might come and share your wisdom”. “Hmm…wow…tough subject…good luck…but let’s do lunch soon”. And then I realized where the wisdom is. It is in our people and our collective faith. So, I asked people as they arrived this morning for worship if they might consider coming up to the front and offering some testimonials…the way patience is a part of their lived faith experience…and I came to realize that we ALL feel inadequate; we ALL feel unqualified. Yet we ALL know that this is a critical component in our spiritual lives. I may not be as patient as I would like, but one virtue I possess is determination. So, I decided upon one last person to ask…you likely will guess… I asked Jesus. And as we discover in this text, instead of teaching us directly, he tells the parable of the unfruitful fig tree. Even Jesus does not teach on it directly, instead inviting each and everyone of us to find our path, our truth, our way…to find a vulnerable patience in our quest for the deepening of our faith.
I suspect that patience is difficult for us due to our human desire to seek control; our desire to take responsibility; our desire to exercise power over some of the aspects in our lives. If we think about it, our world rewards professionals with increasingly higher levels of control and responsibility. We applaud parents and guardians who take responsibility for their family’s life and care. And certainly, this is a good thing in much of life. But when it comes to the spiritual dimensions of life, there are some even greater considerations at hand. The question becomes if and when God is allowed to enter this dynamic of responsibility, control and power being exercised. Are we trusting enough? Are we vulnerable enough to let God in? This morning, we have a deep conversation about whether we are patient enough to allow God to enter into this dynamic of our lives.
As we begin this spiritual exploration of patience, I am going to ask you to consider the dynamic we have of cause and effect. It’s something we take for granted as gravity, so it is worthy of examination. Following the rise of the modernist era, science has instilled in us a belief that effects generally occur as a result of the cause that has been applied. For example, you push a chair and it moves across the room. However, we are increasingly are aware that outcomes are due to a myriad of factors. It is not just because of cause “A” that effect “B” is realized. And so, as we consider adopting a vulnerable patience in our faith, we begin to explore some of the platitudes that we have such as: ‘we are in control’ or ‘we get what we deserve’ or ‘we are in charge’. With that in mind, we turn to this morning’s text which follows a number of Jesus’ ominous warnings about the urgency of the times. These apocalyptic texts are all about the coming of God’s judgement in the end of days. In the last chapter, Jesus has called into question people’s misplaced loyalty to religious traditions; he has challenged people’s reliance upon a corrupt economic system; he has called to account their exclusive devotion to family at the cost of the rest of the community.
Following these challenges to the ways people have excluded God’s guiding light in their lives, we find ourselves encountering this morning’s text. It opens with two references that concern the question of cause and effect. The first occurs is the reference to the faithful Galileans who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, faithfully gathered in the temple and were killed. Jesus asks of those who were murdered: “were they worse sinners than any of the other Galileans?”. It is a cause and effect question: did they get what they had coming? The second reference is to the collapse of the tower of Siloam located near the city gate of Jerusalem. The tower collapses tragically killing eighteen people. Jesus asks: “were they any worse sinners than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Another cause and effect question: did they get what they had coming? Jesus asks his listeners about their belief in cause and effect because at the time, there was a strong connection between the one’s sin and their subsequent suffering. Sin was the cause and suffering was the effect. Jesus, after a chapter long session of apocalyptic warnings that will befall the people, after these two specific examples of the Temple massacre and the tower tragedy, offers another way to understand cause and effect…another way to view sin and suffering…Jesus gives a new faith perspective.
The larger perspective that we begin to take in goes far beyond the simple understanding of cause and effect. This new viewpoint is a powerful Greek term called ‘metanoia’ which is that of changing one's way of life. It is a change of heart. It is a form of penitence or spiritual conversion that creates the patient space for God to enter, for God to act, and ultimately leaves the judgement up to… God. Jesus calls for “repentance” or metanoia as we patiently open our spiritual path to include God in what might be the outcome. So…how might that look in our lives? This is the purpose, I believe, that Jesus told the parable of the fig tree. Three years it had been unproductive. Cut it down and replace it with one that produces, the landlord judges The gardener begs for just one more year where she can till and feed the soil and give it one more chance. This parable gives us a larger view of cause and effect and invites us to open up a space for God to enter into the equation. It invites us to shift from a mindset of controlling the outcome to one of opening space for God to enter and act. It is about opening up a vulnerable patience for God’s grace to enter.
As I was reflecting on this parable, three considerations came to mind. The first was to note about this parable is one where we do not know the outcome. Unlike the resolved parable of the lost son who comes home or that of the good Samaritan who offers care, this is a parable that has an unresolved ending. It causes us to relinquish control, as if we ever really had any, and realize that something larger is in charge…larger than just us. Will the fig tree be cut down and burned? Will it be given one more year? The gardener is begging the landlord for one more chance…one more year… grace and understanding. But we don’t hear the end of the story. The future is undecided, unwritten, yet to be. This may be frustrating…yes! For the person who believes they control the outcome, frustrating indeed. Yet…this is hope-filled… for the person who adopts a vulnerable patience that invites God’s grace to enter into the equation trusting a future outcome that will be as it should.
The second facet of this parable is that of the gardener’s work. The great church father, St. Augustine of Hippo, preached a sermon on this parable 1600 years ago noting the importance of the manure. Working with the manure was a sign of humility that the gardener showed. Humility was the very essence of Jesus’ ministry: washing feet, healing lepers, gathering with the last and the least, offering his life. Working with manure is not exactly elegant work. It is about working through the muck of life and allowing for new life to flourish when we work through the excrement of the past. Gardening, as we all know, is hard, back-breaking work. It fatigues the muscles, places calluses on the hand and dirt under finger nails. The gardener begs the landlord for a chance at this humble work that new life might come of it. A vulnerable patience is one which is humbling, which is honouring of others’ needs and pain. In the cause and effect cycle, the work of the gardener reminds us that we do have a role to play in the future outcome. Our efforts are significant, yet they are not ones that entirely determine the result.
Finally, the third consideration in the parable comes in realizing that the gardener is not the sole actor in the drama. As we began this reflection questioning our mindset of the direct chain of cause and effect, the parable allows us to think this through further. This is the vulnerable conversation of gaining the perspective of who controls the future. It is summed up by Theologian Dr. Benjamin Mays pithy quote: “faith is taking your best step, and leaving the rest to God”. Certainly, the future is God’s, but as the gardener plays a role in the parable, we too share in the mission of the unfolding of the future. A vulnerable patience is that of transforming our perspective to know that working out God’s Kin-dom is not entirely ours to figure out. Yet we play a part. Our task is to labour in the vineyard, work the soil with the tools we are given, get our hands dirty working the manure into the soil, beg for grace and understanding, all the while acknowledging the deep mystery of it all. Nothing is ever finished, and a vulnerable patience allows comfort in that fact. We can only set goals and objectives, we only offer a pastoral prayer, a church program and we hand it over. Sometimes we plant seeds, other times we water seeds previously planted, all the while having the patient faith to know that all will be in God’s good time. A vulnerable patience in our faith is incredibly liberating for us. For it assures us that we are not the master builders, reminding us that we are the workers. It calls us to be ministers of God’s will, not the Messiahs sent to save the world. It calls us to prophets offering God’s hope, peace and love. A vulnerable patience is lifted up in the words of the Lord’s prayer. When we pray for the coming of the Kingdom. We do not pray for ‘our’ Kingdom come or ‘my’ Kingdom come. We pray ‘Thy’ Kingdom come, ‘Thy’ will be done. It is that vulnerable patience that allows us to trust in God’s grace as we step into God’s time.