This is the sermon that I preached on March 3, the Third Sunday of Lent in Year C at Saint Paul and the Redeemer. The lectionary is on the Burning Bush and a parable that Jesus tells about repentance and a tree that does not bear fruit. It was a very difficult set of passages to integrate–and integration was necessary, because one story was so beautiful, and the other so difficult to swallow. When I get stuff like this, I like to use the beautiful one to make the difficult one make some sense. I hope that’s what I accomplished here. Enjoy!
When I was a kid, I used to run around in the forest preserve behind my house completely barefoot.
I hated wearing shoes, but more importantly—for my games—I had invented an elaborate sub-culture for the imaginary people who populated the forest. In this world, it was a religious obligation to take off one’s shoes—so that the soul of the earth could seep up through the arches of one’s feet.
Taking off my shoes made it possible for me to feel the soggy, decomposing pine needles—feel mud between my toes, learn where the ground was uncertain, and where there were large, flat rocks to steadily stand on. I was open to a whole new kind of knowledge about the ground that I walked on, but I was also, much, much more vulnerable.
There were sharp pebbles and deer droppings and even, on occasion, broken glass. Without shoes, I was in danger of really damaging my feet, and a couple of times, I actually did.
Now, I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction as a child, but I think it was this story from Exodus that was the inspiration for this game.
Moses is asked to approach God without any separation between his feet and holy ground, fully present, fully in contact, as if God could seep up through the arches of his feet.
I really enjoy the season of Lent because it is an invitation for us to remove our shoes. We are invited to walk barefoot on the Holy Ground of our faith.
During lent, we change our church, our liturgy, and our mindset. We think more than ever about who we are, how we are, and what that means to the God who dies and rises again. This can be very life-giving. We become more fully aware of our church, our practices, the words we hear and say.
It can also be very disconcerting. We face each other, rather than our table. There is a gigantic cross spinning above our heads, and our lessons are hard: Paul talks to us about evil, and Jesus says, “repent—or perish”.
The language of repentance, sin, and punishment, I think, are particularly vulnerable places for us. The gospel lesson for today is scary. It might be easier for us to leave our shoes on, because parables like this can and have been used to make our religion about an angry, judgmental God that breeds angry, judgmental people: an abusive faith that labels humankind as nothing but a barren tree.
But that is not what the story of Moses tells us to do. That is not what Lent is for. Because, here is the gardener, tilling the soil, tending the tree, caring for it deeply and sincerely.
There is a lot here that can cut us deep. But there is also much more than that.
You know, when we tell parables in Godly Play, we have a special way of introducing them, so that we can teach the children what a parable is, and how it works.
Each parable in the Godly Play classroom is contained in a wooden box, painted gold, of the same size and almost the same texture. When we bring the parable to the circle of children, we talk about the lid that sits on the box.
Right now, the lid is closed, just like the parable itself: we have to get ready in order to open it and go inside.
When we open the box, we take out the pieces, and we play with them, so that they can make meaning for us.
Every time, the storyteller says the same thing—tells the same parable—but beforehand we play with the materials with the children.
We change the characters around. We re-imagine what each piece of the setting may be.
Sometimes the lake of water is a mirror—the piece of the sheep’s pen is a road, for a little while. The black pieces of felt, the dangerous pieces of our parable can become licorice jelly beans, maybe, just for a moment.
I think this is a brilliant way to introduce the complexity of parables. It invites the children to remove their shoes and walk on holy ground with the parable, knowing it through the bare soles of their feet—and it’s not just for the children. It’s for us, too. The children tell us all sorts of things that we would never have imagined: sometimes they take our shoes and yank them right off our feet without any warning at all.
And so, when I think about this parable, I want to play with it.
First of all, Jesus tells this parable to respond to something. There’s two pieces of this lesson. A group of people approach him to ask about the gruesome death of some Galileans.
“Look what awful things happened to these people!” They say, “Surely they must have committed some awful sin in order to receive such a punishment from God.”
But Jesus says no. An awful sin does not equal an awful punishment: this is not a check-and-balances system in which you must repent before God finds out a fun new way to smite you.
Then, he tells this parable to counteract that notion. Repentance is for everyone, and it is not something you do simply to absolve yourself of sin, so that you don’t have a tower dropped on you:
Repentance, he says, is like a man who plants a tree and waits expectantly for it to bear fruit. When it does not, he becomes frustrated and angry—threatening to cut down the tree so that it no longer wastes soil and energy.
Then, the gardener arrives and talks the man down: “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” The gardener advocates for the tree and cares for it, reconciling its purpose to the man.
The gardener asks the man to repent: to take care of the tree, to dig around its roots, to give it time.
When Jesus tells us to repent, he is asking us to allow for care and nurturing in our efforts. He warns against the attitude of the man, who is prepared to cut down his tree, to make nothing of all his efforts, just because its not conforming to his schedule.
Jesus tells us that repentance is to turn away from harsh judgment and to turn toward care and love. It is a call to be like the gardener, to get in the dirt and care for our lives.
And I think repentance, in this way, is a lot like removing our shoes and walking barefoot on holy ground. When we really care and nurture the things that we plant, we are fully present to them, fully in contact, available to both the dangerous and the amazing–the decomposing pine needles, and the deer droppings, the disconcerting changes in our church, and the new meanings that it makes, the hard scriptures and the ones we know, and love, and rely on.
We must repent, Jesus tells us, so that we may live a life of love and care, a life walked barefoot on Holy Ground.
[You can also find this posted on the SPR website here.]