Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Demand for Genuine Change (Guest Blog!)



A sermon preached by the Rev. Bill Dunlop at St. Francis House on February 28. These were the readings appointed for the day. Deacon Bill Dunlop serves both the community of St. Francis House and St. Paul's in Watertown, WI. 

O God; open our hearts to your word - a word that passes swiftly and faithfully from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the life. Amen.

In the Common English Bible, the title of today’s passage from Luke is Demand for Genuine Change.

Demand for Genuine Change.

I live with a gardener. Today’s gospel is something that I can relate to. I brought a plant along as an example of a part of our Lenten Journey and what Jesus is talking about, this geranium. Two weeks ago it was a flourishing, flowering part of the collection of plants from the garden that come indoors during the Wisconsin winter. Our children call the area “Fern Gully” after the early 90’s movie about the last rainforest.

Then the ‘gardener’, like the gardener in the parable not only fertilizes it and loosens the soil but trims away many of the branches, leaves and flowers. In our house we refer to this process as turning a $20 plant into a $2 plant. If we place the value of the plant on its size, the number of flowers and how it looks. this plant has seemingly decreased in value over the past couple of weeks. But has it?

This plant is a couple of years old. It, like many of the other plants in Fern Gully have been around for a number of years. There are other geraniums and a poinsettia that is nine year old. 

Each year their ‘value’ to the layman decreases only to return again, sometimes increased many times over.

In the parable, the Owner is faced with a tree that is not producing and wants it removed. The gardener asks for a second chance for this tree to change. The gardener understands the tree and knows it can bear fruit, but something needs to change. That change is the heart of our Lenten journey.

A good gardener not only fertilizes and loosens the soil, but the gardener trims away what seem to be good branches, flowers and leaves to the casual observer. The gardener changes the plant to prepare it for its next season, so that it is ready.

In most cases the plants that undergo the transformation from $20 plants to $2 ones look like they are thriving and healthy. They are a part of Fern Gully and all looks good. But the gardener understands that a change is needed for the plant to bear fruit. Not only does it need to be fed, but somethings need to be stripped away. The parable is short but those who know gardeners, know that more change will occur over the next year than just fertilizer and tilling for that fig tree.

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For a while it may be a $2 tree, but if it responds to the care, it will bear fruit.

As we continue through Lent, with the help of our gardener and others, our thoughts and actions are oriented towards those changes, those things that are hindering our relationship with our God. For some it might be removing the flowers, the pretty things that adorn us but are not truly keeping us in relationship. Those things that others enjoy and we think give us value, but are not at the heart of who Jesus wants us to be.

Others things trimmed might be leaves, a part of us that help us to function and survive, but the way we are doing or using those parts are not really helping our relationship with others and ultimately our God. Habits and our own ways, that work for us but may not be truly helpful.

Do we really need to check email during dinner? or the sermon? Just saying. 

Those things that are a part of our lives and that we need to survive, but we could do differently.

But what about the branches, those integral parts of us that feed everything we do and are. Those parts of us that are more than just possessions or habits. Removing a branch takes a lot of faith in the gardener and the gardener in the plant. It will change our shape and being. This is the repentance Jesus is talking about, the change in who we are.

The past couple of weeks I have had the pleasure working with and being in retreat with the you and others from schools in the upper Midwest. We have broken bread, sung, worshiped and discussed concerns of yours, together.

One of the branches that the we are trying to trim is race and disparity. With what we see in the news and on the political stage, it was comforting to be a part of an auditorium full who wanted to hear discussions on race and equity; and then eat and have discussions together; then to reassemble and to worship together the following day on Ash Wednesday. A part of the events was being made aware that UW enrollment of students of color has dropped over the past 10 years and hearing from students, faculty and community leaders about their experiences here.

Those discussions continued last week as we gathered with the Province V schools gathered in Chicago with students from campus ministries from a variety of schools and backgrounds. We came together in song, worship, prayer and discussion and worked on
trimming that branch. Those discussions not only talked about repentance, change but also the need for forgiveness. So that all could walk away from the discussions without anger.

A simple example of how I might change was a student pointing out how I walked into a group. The way I walked and approached the group gave him the impression I wanted to be considered in charge. I was an Army officer and continue to be in positions where I am called to lead and the way I walk is probably a part of me. When I enter a group I can project a difference in status or role. In order for the two of us to have real discussion, he would have to forgive me for something I don’t even realize I do.

Those times together reinforced that the Lenten experience is a time of repentance and genuine change. It also reinforces that forgiveness of those who are repentant by all us, is a vital as part of all of our repentance, as a part of the trimming process to preparing us.
Today’s parable is both comforting and discomforting. We have our Savior, a gardener, who has asked for that extra year for us to bear fruit. We understand the sacrifice he made so that we might have that opportunity.

We also understand that if the tree does not bear fruit, it will be cut down. As John the Baptist warned earlier in the gospel of Luke, “the ax is already at the root of the tree”.
Those of us close to gardeners, know that in order to change a tree to bear fruit it takes more than a little fertilizer and tilling, it takes trimming and removing what is standing in the way of it bearing fruit. It takes genuine change with the help of the gardener, turning a $20 plant that is flowering into a $2 plant so it is prepared for its next season.

Amen.