How are you doing with Lent? Are you making any headway with spiritual growth? As we move into the heart of Lent, we may feel discouraged because we find we cannot make the changes we so nobly proposed at the start. Or maybe we did not propose anything challenging because we have already given up on ourselves. Or maybe the weight of the evil in the world is too much to bear. Do not despair! This Sunday’s readings encourage us with the mercy of God. We do not do this alone. We have a hero, the source of all life. We have a gardener who patiently tends us until we can do better.
Jesus tells us of a fig tree that is not producing fruit. Its owner is tired of waiting. He does not seem to know that fig trees take four to five years to produce fruit, or that some varieties of fig trees do not ever produce fruit. “For three years, I have come in search of fruit… but have found none. So, cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?” However, the gardener understands fig trees. He is willing to wait for maturity and has plans to cultivate the ground and fertilize the tree. How like the owner we are! We do not understand how goodness grows within the human heart: we want change today; nor are we interested in putting in the work.
How like the gardener God is! God understands the human heart and takes the time with each one of us, sending us love and courage, preparing us to bear fruit.
I am reminded of my daughter, Laura, who was a difficult teenager. I went crazy with the many bad choices she made over the years. At the same time, we were caring for my mother, who had dementia. Because Laura was very good with Grammie, my husband steered Laura into a job as an aid on a dementia unit. When Laura was 19, we were having dinner one Saturday and Laura, who came home from college every weekend to work, was telling us about a patient she particularly loved. Mary had had a really bad day and Laura helped her through it. I said, “Well, that’s nice but what about the other 59 people on the unit?” Laura replied, “Mom, I try to spend time with every single patient each shift. I try to talk to every person and give them a hug or kiss.” I was stunned! “Laura, that is what Jesus would do.” God had cultivated the soil, fertilized this fig tree and given her the time she needed to bear fruit. I had been impatient. God had not.
Exodus reveals God’s mercy on a grand scale. The unjust enslavement of Israel by Egypt had been institutionalized over hundreds of years. The injustice continually worsened with state-mandated infanticide and harsher work conditions. How could change ever happen? Enter the one who can indeed create change. God appears as a burning bush whose fire does not destroy. God has the positive characteristics of fire — passion, love, power — without its destructiveness. God declares, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cries of complaint… so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them.” God is paying attention and cares; God does something about systemic injustice. When asked for a name — a bold request for intimacy that God agrees to — God gives two names, “I am who I am” and “the Lord, the God of your ancestors.” “I am who I am” is better translated as “the one who causes to be what comes into existence,” which means that God is the source of all, but not in a once-and-done way. Rather, God is the ongoing flow of all life. In the face of such creativity, injustice must fall. “The Lord, the God of your ancestors” reminds us of the history God has with us. God will never let us down. Note also that this history is a partnership with God. God calls Moses to be the messenger of God’s mercy… and God calls us.
I visited the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta last weekend and was in awe of the many people who worked to end discrimination in America. The institutionalization of racism was incomprehensibly cruel. The effort to change it exposed people to violence and death. The movement of God in those who worked for change was clear. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from Birmingham Jail, someone had to have enough religion to say the violence ends now. God clearly cultivated and fertilized the soil around those brave souls and they bore fruit in due season. But racial discrimination has not ended in this country, and, as the final gallery of the museum attests, there are many other forms of discrimination active in our world. We must cry out to God for mercy. We must open ourselves to bear the fruit of mercy into situations of suffering and injustice.
- When have you been surprised by mercy welling up in someone else’s kind deed or in your own? How did God the Gardener prepare the other person or you to do this kindness?
- Bring an injustice before God in prayer and cry out for God’s intervention. Discuss with God what you can do together to change it.