February 28, 2016
+ I know this is hard to believe, but we are rapidly—very rapidly—approaching the middle point of the season of Lent. For some of us, that might be a reason to rejoice. For those for whom this season gets a bit heavy, that is why we have our Lataere Sunday next Sunday, with our rose vestments. We get a little half-way break for Lent.
For me, I actually don’t mind this season. It gives me the opportunity to slow down a bit, to ponder, to make a concentrated effort to do some very specific spiritual reading. And I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Rohr this Lent.
For those of you who might not know him, Father Richard Rohr is a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest and author. He has written some truly incredible books on the spiritual life.
Recently, I was reading some articles he wrote about so-called 12-Step Spirituality. 12 Step Spirituality is pretty much what it sounds like. It is begins with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, I’m not an alcoholic, but I’ve always found those 12 steps very interesting. They’re really brilliant. They are interesting because, as practical as they are, they are also very spiritual—very God-oriented.
Most of you might know what the 12 steps. They begin with admitting that a person is powerless over alcohol. They go on to say that we believe in a Power greater than ourselves will restore them to sanity. We make a decision to turn our will and our life to God. We make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We admit to God, to ourselves and to others our wrongs. We make ourselves ready to have God remove all these defects of character. We humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings. On and on, essentially trying to make right the wrongs we have done to others and then sharing the message to others.
These 12 Steps have helped countless alcoholics free their lives. The Lutheran writer and pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, herself a recovering alcoholic, wrote about the spiritual aspects of recovery and the 12 step program on the 20th anniversary of her last drink. She writes:
as much as I love theology, most everything I’ve learned about God and how God works in the world and in my life I didn’t learn in seminary. I learned it from sober drunks. Most of them don’t go to church but I’ve never met a group of people who talk more about God. Not ideas about God. And not feelings about God, but God as a real and solid part of life, not in lofty terms, but in a “if I don’t turn my life and my will over to the care of God, I’m screwed” type of way. It’s amazing what kind of faith comes out of desperation. These folks aren’t choosing God as some kind of self-improvement guru. They know that God can do for them what they cannot do for themselves and it’s rely on God or drink.
I love that kind of experiential relationship with God. Yes, I love systematic theology and all the thinking that goes with it. But ultimately it is this experiential relationship with God that we find in things like the 12 Steps that I really find amazing and wonderful. Certainly, during this season of Lent, we see that those 12 steps of A.A. speak very loudly and clearly to us. If we look at the things in our lives that we are attached to, that cause us unhappiness, that make us miserable and affect our relationships with God and others, than that becomes the point from which the 12 steps are leading.
The 12 Steps essentially do what we are called to do during Lent. They cause us to recognize that we are powerless over negative things in our lives as times. We then realize we have to turn away from it, ask God to help us to change, work to make right the wrongs we have done and then resolve not to do it again. That sure does sound like all that repentance talk we get during Lent. And I think Father Rohr and Pastor Nadia really hit that nail on the head in such a way when they show us the Twelve Steps as a way to move forward.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say some very stern words to us that kind of sounds like a summary of the 12 Steps.:
“…unless you repent, you will all.”
Not pleasant talk. It’s uncomfortable to hear that! Especially when we hear words like “repent” we definitely find ourselves heading into an uncomfortable area. We may find ourselves exploring the territory of self-abasement. We may find some people lamenting and beating their breasts or throwing ashes in the air over all of this repentance talk. We have been taught for a large extent that what we are dealing with in all of this talk of repentance is that somehow God is going to punish us for all the wrongs we did and that is why we must repent—repent, of course, meaning turn around.
And at first glance in our Gospel reading that’s exactly what we might be thinking. God is angry and we must repent—we must turn away from what is making God so angry.
But if we look a bit closer and if we really let this reading settle in, we find that we might be able to use this idea of repentance in a more constructive and positive way. In our Gospel reading, we find Jesus essentially saying to us that we are not going to bear fruit if we have cemented ourselves into our stubborn way of seeing and believing. The Kingdom that Jesus is constantly preaching about only comes into our midst, as we have heard again and again, when we can love God, love others and love ourselves. When we do—when we love—we bear fruit. When we don’t love—and it is hard to love when we are stuck in all that negative stuff like being angry or stubborn or resentful—then we are essentially the fig tree that bears no fruit. And it’s important to see that this love needs to be spread equally. It is love for God, love for our neighbor and love for ourselves.
We are not bearing full fruit when we are only doing two of the three. The love becomes lopsided. If we love only God and ourselves, but not our neighbors, then we are in danger of becoming fanatical. If we love God and love our neighbors only and not ourselves, we become self-abasing. But if we strive to do all three—if we strive to love fully and completely—then we find ourselves being freed by that love.
And it is freeing. When we talk of our stubbornness, when talking of closing ourselves off in anger and frustration, we imagine that cementing feeling—that confinement. But when we speak of love, we imagine that cementing being feeling broken. We find ourselves freed from our confinement. We allow ourselves to grow and flourish.
That’s the point Jesus is making to us in our Gospel reading today. And that is why repentance is so essential for our spiritual growth, for the health of our Christian community and for the furthering of the Kingdom in our midst. Repentance in this sense means turning away from our self-destructive behavior, just like the 12 Steps tell us to do.
The Kingdom will not come into our midst when we refuse to love. The Kingdom cannot be furthered by us or by anyone when we feel no love for God, when we feel no love for others and when we feel no love for ourselves.
Repentance in this sense means to turn around—to turn away from our self-destructive behavior. Repentance in this sense means that we must turn around and start to love, freely and openly. Repentance in this sense means that by repenting—by turning around—we truly are furthering the Kingdom in our midst.
There’s also another aspect to the analogy Jesus uses in today’s Gospel reading. If you notice, for three years the tree didn’t bear fruit and so the man who planted the tree thought it was a lost cause. But the gardener protests. He promises to give the tree a bit of tender loving care and, we assume, the tree begins flourishing. What I love about that is the fact that it says to us that none of us are lost causes.
We all go through times in our lives when we feel as though we are bearing no fruit at all. We feel as though we are truly “wasting the soil” in which we live. We feel as though we are helpless and useless and that sometimes it feels as though the pains and frustrations of our lives have won. We have been cemented into our negative feelings and emotions. The pains and frustrations of this life have stifled in us any sense of new life and growth.
But that little dose of TLC was able to bring that seemingly barren tree to new life. A little bit of love and care can do wonders. It can change things. It can give life where it was thought there was no possibility of life before. It can renew and it can revitalize.
At this time of year, we are probably made most aware of this. Certainly when we look around at our seemingly dead and barren landscape, we might think that nothing beautiful and or wonderful can come from all this mud. And in this season of Lent, when we are faced with all this language of seeking mercy, on recalling our failings and shortcomings and sins, in this stripped-bare church season, it is hard to imagine that Easter is just a few weeks away.
But, in a sense, that is what repentance feelings like. Repentance is that time of renewal and revitalization that comes from the barren moments in our lives. Repenting truly does help us to not only bear fruit, but to flourish. Repenting and realizing how essential and important love of God, love of our neighbors, love of self are in our lives truly does allow us to blossom in the way that God wants us to flourish.
So, as we journey together through this season of Lent, toward the Cross, and beyond it to the Resurrection, let us do so with our hearts truly freed. Let us do so with a true, freeing and healthy love in our hearts, having turned away from those things that are ultimately self-destructive And let the love we feel be the guide for our actions. Through all of this, let us bring about the Kingdom of God into our midst slowly, but surely. Let the Kingdom come forth in our lives as blossoming fruit. And when it does, it is then that will flourish.