Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.

Third Sunday in Lent | Rev. Vicki Kemper

Isaiah 55:1-9, from the Common English Bible
Luke 13:1-9, Common English Bible

You don’t need me to tell you what a mess the world is in—from climate change to income inequality, racism to gun violence to perpetual war and floods of refugees, and a presidential campaign that has become both surreal and scary.

You don’t need me to tell you that sometimes it’s hard to make sense of it all: how to be faithful, how to be true to your desire to make the world a better place while also getting and keeping a job, pouring everything you’ve got into your kids, contributing to church and community, managing various medical conditions, answering emails, getting dinner on the table, paying the bills, and wondering if this is all there is.

You don’t need me to tell you how challenging it is to live in the moment: how often we dwell in the past or wear ourselves joyless with worries about the future.

It’s no wonder we sometimes succumb to the simplistic appeal of easy-answer, us-them, divide-and-conquer, blame-game thinking. Still, God knows none of us needs hate speech and empty campaign promises. It’s enough to leave many of us feeling like exiles and refugees in our own strange land.

Which is why we work at remembering who and whose we are. Which is why it’s so important to stay grounded as we follow Jesus to the apparent defeat of the cross and then out of the tomb and into new life. Grounded in the God who is love, grounded in our mutual belonging, grounded in promise.

Which is why I offer you three stories this morning—three stories and three sets of promises and practices:

Some of you have heard this story before—or you may think it’s the same old story. But this one has a different—and much better—ending.

Last Sunday Ivy Tillman noticed that our anti-racism banner—the large blue one that says “People of faith working to dismantle racism” was not hanging from the front porch. By Monday morning it was determined that no one in the church had taken it down, which suggested that someone had stolen it. The same thing had happened in September with the original banner: it disappeared and, because we were concerned about possible racist motives, we reported the crime to police. The theft was covered in the local newspaper and on TV news stations, but we never found out what happened to the banner.

So we had another banner made, even better than the original, and we hung it in the same place. It was there for about a month, until last weekend. Disheartened, we reported the theft to the police. We posted the news on Facebook. We commiserated.

And then early Tuesday morning our sexton, Dennis Szuhay, texted me that the banner had been returned. It had been left on the porch, neatly rolled up, with this note attached: “Lost a drunken bet. Sorry for the inconv[en]ience!!! My bad!!!”

And there was much rejoicing!

The thief, you see, had confessed and repented, turning from drunkenness to sobriety, from the ways of crime and peer pressure to acceptable behavior, and, I hope, from guilt to forgiveness, from shame to a fresh start and a clean slate.

This is the promise of repentance and return: that God will show mercy, that God will be generous with forgiveness, that when we return to God we will receive what we could never earn, that in returning we open ourselves to the fullness of God’s grace, that in turning away from what doesn’t satisfy and turning toward real life, we allow God to make us whole.

Are you spending yourself on things that don’t satisfy—bad habits, toxic relationships, and unhealthy obsessions? Are you things trying to find your self-worth and social acceptance in drunken bets and bad behavior? Are you exhausting yourself on things that cannot love you back?

Oh, you poor thing, coos the prophet. I see your struggle. I understand your despair. But this is not working for you. This way of living will never work. Whatever it was that you did or did not do, confess it. Whatever guilt weighs you down, let it go. Whatever shame keeps you bound, refuse to give it any power over you. Whatever brokenness keeps you looking for love in all the wrong places, let God heal it. Listen for God’s love. Remember God’s promise. Return to the One who delights in you.

Beloved, let us ground ourselves in the practice of repentance and return, that we might claim God’s promises of mercy, forgiveness, healing and new life.

And there is still more good news.

You see, I have this tree in my front yard. It was there when I moved into my house, and so it remained: a scrawny, unremarkable thing. It was in the way, and kind of a nuisance. For seven long years I watched it fail to grow. Despite being a hard-core tree hugger, I actually considered cutting it down.

And then.

The next spring it shot up toward the sky like Jack’s beanstalk. And that wasn’t all: The tree’s bark began to change texture and color. Starting at the ground and moving up the trunk, the bark morphed from a dull reddish-brown to an eye-catching delicate white.

Which, as it turns out, is exactly what a paper birch tree does. After 10 years or so, the plain-Jane sapling “grows up” to reveal who it truly is: a thing of exquisite beauty.

And that is how I learned about the promise of reprieve. You might call it the promise of time and patience, or the promise of second chances—and seventeenth and two-thousandth chances. Whatever we call it, it is the promissory note that the gardener in Jesus’ parable took to the bank.

You see, the owner of the fig tree was tired of waiting for some fruit. He judged the tree according to its past failures and its present problems. He was done with it; he wanted it gone.

But where the owner saw only what the tree could do for him, the gardener realized he could give the tree extra time and attention. Where the owner saw a problem, the gardener saw  potential. Where the owner said, “Cut it down! Get it out of here,” the gardener said, “Give it some time. Give it some love.”

Where once I looked out my front window and saw a tree so stunted that it might have been dying, now the sight of a very tall, elegant birch tree takes my breath away.

This is the promise—not a guarantee, mind you, but the potential—of reprieve. That if we give some person, some situation, or even ourselves another chance, just as God gives us countless chances; that if we invest more love and attention, as God lavishes love upon us; that if we just sit back and wait, as God waits for us, we might witness or experience amazing transformation. We might discover untold beauty and strength; we might reap a harvest greater than we could have imagined. The person we had all but given up on might yet surprise us. We might surprise ourselves.

Beloved, let us ground ourselves in the practice of reprieve, that we might love ourselves and one another into new life, that we might claim the promises of healing, growth, and life transformed.

There is one more story of promise I want to share with you, although this promise may be hard to see and even harder to embrace.

It is the story of Suzanne, a 50-something woman I knew briefly many years ago and have reconnected with on Facebook. For many months now, Suzanne has been fighting cancer; a few weeks ago she learned that, barring a miracle, the cancer is going to win. Suzanne is a woman of deep faith, and even in this heartbreaking time she is encouraging everyone who knows her.

Last week Suzanne wrote on her blog about meeting with a funeral director to begin planning her funeral and burial. She joked about sainthood and whether her body would be incorruptible. She joked about becoming a joke to employees of the funeral home. She recalled a mystical experience she had a couple of years ago that now, in retrospect, feels almost like a premonition.

Through it all I sensed that Suzanne is beginning to accept what is happening, not because she doesn’t desperately want to live but because she trusts the God of life. She wants to trust that there is more to all this than she can know, that her thoughts are not God’s thoughts, that God’s way of seeing and working through all things is so much greater than hers, that God loves her life even more than she does.

This is the promise of rest and peace. We don’t have to be dying to live into it, but we probably will have to die to certain ways of thinking and living and being. We will have to let go of all that we can’t control. We will have to let go of our desire for control. When all is not well, we will need to trust that all shall be well. Let us ground ourselves in the practice of trust and letting go, that we might claim the promise of rest and peace.

Beloveds, you don’t need to tell me how hard it is to stay grounded. Any number of things can and do knock me off my game any day of the week, and most days it takes precious little. Ungrounded, I am tempted to give in to unhealthy thoughts and patterns, to give up on all hope for a different future, to settle for a life that is less than fulfilling and a faith that is more comforting than transformational. When I am not grounded it is all I can do to not make a mess of things.

So let us continue on the Lenten journey together, grounding ourselves in the goodness of God and the gift of community. Let us ground ourselves in God’s promises of repentance, reprieve and rest.  Let us ground ourselves not in what is but in the certainty of God’s lovingkindness and the potential for what is yet unseen. Let us together follow Jesus to the ground no power can shake. Let us stand together in God’s extravagant love for us all. Let us share in the richness of bread and wine and mercy no money can buy.

Come to the feast!