3-20-22 Reflection by Barbara Metcalf

Barbara Metcalf
Lent 3 March 20, 2022
Isaiah 55: 1-9, alternate to Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63: 1-8
1 Corinthians 10: 1-13
Luke 13 1-9
There was an alternate Old Testament reading appointed for today, which I read
by mistake. Like our psalm, that reading, from Isaiah, gives us images of food and
drink. The beautiful Isaiah passage offers us wine and milk without money, and
invites us to “delight [ourselves] in rich food.” The Psalmist imagines the
desperation for water “in a dry and weary land where there is no water,” water so
needed that that when it is found is nothing less than “a rich feast.” Add to these
the epistle and gospel, and we have food on all sides: rich food, the joy of water
for the thirsty, a rich feast, the miraculous food of manna from heaven, the food
of sacrifice, and hopes for ripe figs from a tree.

All this reminds us of the gospel stories we know so well. Jesus and the
overflowing caskets of wine at Cana produced from water. Jesus and the feeding
of thousands, with leftovers, when there initially appeared to be only scraps.
Jesus and the overflowing nets of fish after a night of failure.

We recognize food for what it is in these stories: a material, recognizable symbol
of nothing less than a sustaining, abundant relationship to the Divine, a
relationship the Psalmist celebrates when he finds that longed-for water: “in the
shadow of your wings I sing for joy.”

The New Testament readings, like Isaiah, remind us — a lesson apt for Lent — that
we must change. Change to be able to sing with the Psalmist. Or what?? (Here’s a
spoiler alert for episodes that follow today’s Old Testament lesson when Moses
has answered God’s call.) Paul uses the exodus to tell a harsh story of God’s
judgment. The Israelites were fed but ungrateful.

They turn from God to idols.
They “eat and drink” and simply rise up “to play.”
And then
God strikes them down in the wilderness.
Serpents destroy them.

They are “destroyed by the destroyer.”
They fail their test.

Do we conclude that the Israelites and other afflicted people simply get what they

We know that can’t be the right conclusion. As the book title says, bad things
happen to good people. People make mistakes but that doesn’t make them
“bad.” We know that “normal” people suffer. We only have to look at Ukraine
today – or Afghanistan and Iraq, or the unhoused on our streets, or loved ones
afflicted with illness – to know that is true. A grotesque example of the opposite
vision of God was that people got H.I.V. because they deserved it. And some have
the idea that God deliberately sends suffering to test us. As an amateur homilist,
I’ve got no theology on that one and just say I don’t like that idea either.
Jesus, in Luke’s account, tells us clearly that suffering is not God’s judgment.
Pilate apparently, in an obscure episode, killed some Galileans in the course of
their sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem. We are not told what his presumably
political motive was. But Jesus is clear that the Galileans were no worse sinners
than others. Similarly, when the temple of Siloam (suh · low · uhm) fell and killed
people during Jesus’ lifetime, those killed were “no worse offenders than all the
others living in Jerusalem” at that time.

So why then does Jesus call the disciples, call us, to repentance with the warning
that otherwise “you will all perish just as they, the Galileans and the people in
Siloam, did.” How can this not be a contradiction?

The key, I think, is not to be misled by the warning that one will literally perish, be
physically dead, as the unlucky Gallieans and Siloam (suh · low · uhm) people
were. Instead sin, without repentance, means distance from God. That distance
brings its own punishment, its death of the spirit. To repent, to live in right
relationship to the Divine, to know and seek God’s love, is to bring life in itself, to
enjoy the wine and milk and water in the desert and the rich feast.
Think of yourself as a fig tree. We may have — we have for sure — failed to
produce the fruits of the spirit. But in this parable, there is mercy. The fig tree in
our story has failed to produce fruit for three years. But the owner of the tree is
persuaded to give it another chance. It is not killed on the spot like that other fig

tree that Jesus causes to wither in Jerusalem. That other fig tree was faking its
abundance, just putting out leaves, like the people in the temple Jesus has just
stormed who claim holiness but in fact exploit.
In this case, the fig tree just needs help.

The gardener says just give me a year, “[I’ll] dig around it and put fertilizer on it.”
The fig tree gets its gardener.
We too need a gardener.
We need Jesus, our gardener, to help us change, to repent as Jesus and Isaiah
alike call us to, to see what we need to do. The gardener in the story will dig
around the tree and feed it.
We turn to Jesus to help us dig up what is buried in us, and to be fed, fertilized,
with his guidance and his presence.
There are other gardeners in our life. Think about who have been, or are, your
gardeners. Some gardeners we only know indirectly like the holy women and men
appointed for the day (or adjacent days) we read about every Thursday during
Morning Prayer.

Or there may be people in our own times who, similarly, we know only by stories
and reputation. One such is Paul Farmer, a founder of the NGO, Partners in
Health, who died recently and unexpectedly, and whom I’ve thought about a lot
this past week.* Paul Farmer did remarkable work rooted in deeply thoughtful
liberation theology. A colleague who knew him posted a profoundly moving
tribute a few days ago invoking his own tradition that made Paul Farmer one of
the 36 righteous people that Jewish thought imagines inhabiting the Divine at any
time. People remembering Paul Farmer said they themselves became better
people by being in his presence.

But beside such gardeners from the past, or from today, known indirectly, we
have, all of us, gardeners in our own everyday lives. They are the people who, by
their own example, help us know ourselves, even without saying anything. They
are the people who model ways of being we can hold before ourselves and aspire
to. Sothink about your own gardeners.

Think about Mary Magdalene in the garden who thinks she sees a gardener but
instead sees Jesus, the great gardener, the cultivator of new life.
*To watch the memorial, go to pih.org and click the link. It was held at Trinity
Church, Boston, the most beautiful church I’ve ever visited. And, to be a bit
parochial, it is a reminder in some of the words that are spoken of the gift that is
the Book of Common Prayer.