By Rev. Joan Kessler
Isaiah 55: 1-3, 10-11b Luke 13:6-9
Today is the first day of Spring. It is the equinox that sees the near perfect balance of sunshine and darkness. I can’t remember the last time the Spring equinox was on a Sunday, but what a joyful occasion to celebrate together as community after the winter of our discontent. Sap is beginning to run in the trees, bears are beginning to stir, crocuses and other early spring bulbs are poking through the ground and preparing to bloom. Chief Sitting Bull once said that springtime sees the Earth gladly receive the embraces of the Sun, and soon we shall see the results of their love. The dormancy and darkness of winter begins to subside and let go a period of rest in exchange for new beginnings and rejuvenation.
Maybe you are making plans for your garden and preparing to put seeds into soil once again. Maybe you are purging closets and ridding yourself of items that no longer serve you and in doing so, you are making space for new, life-giving things. Spring just seems to usher in a season of finding balance and living with intention.
I was introduced to a book of meditations this week entitled “Good Enough”, written by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie. I was immediately drawn to its title, “Good Enough”. COVID has changed the way I look at productivity and time spent and how I find balance between work and leisure in this beautiful vocation I have the privilege of exercising. And in the very first reflection Bowler speaks of something called Regula… Regula refers to a “rule of life” … a set of routines and habits that feed our spiritual hunger and longing. But we need to dedicate time and intention to nurture our spiritual beings; it doesn’t happen passively. And we do not undertake this in isolation. We need encouragement from one another. We need community. We also need a “hot minute alone” as Bowler puts it. And I don’t think this idea needs to wait until retirement… its cultivating is needed in the lives of our children, millennials, middle agers, and seniors. I read this week that our teenagers today are as anxious as psychiatric patients of the 1950s. Our children are constantly wired and plugged in and bombarded with messages that raise anxiety and offer a dim view of the future. What a gift teaching our children and youth the practices that will ground them and care for them as they go through life.
The Rule of Life dates back to St. Benedict some 1500 years ago! He intended to prescribe a way of living… nothing too burdensome or harsh. For this monk, experiencing God was not to be complicated or met through unrealistic practices. Rather all that was needed was to be open and notice the presence of God in everyday life and its activities. Benedict didn’t want his charges so consumed by work or spend so much time in prayer that other duties were neglected. All things should be undertaken in moderation: work, prayer, eating, sleeping… there should be something of everything and not too much of anything.
The prophet Isaiah preceded Benedict by several centuries but is calling to those who would hear… the Israelites who have returned home from decades in exile are consumed by many things related to rebuilding their community. They are failing to take care of their spiritual needs. Isaiah offers rest, nourishment, sustenance… come you who are thirsty and drink… and if you don’t have any money, don’t worry about it… just come and eat until you are full. But then the prophet asks about their spiritual wellbeing… why, he asks, do your pour your energies and spend hard-earned money on things that leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled? He asks them to notice their habits, their practices and consider them critically.
This first day of Spring in the other season we know as Lent, we are called to a self-examen… we are encouraged to turn away from things that can never love us back. And Isaiah is insistent in his plea… come right now, drop what you are doing. There is an urgency to his invitation from a God who never speaks casually.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us a brief parable about a barren fig tree in a vineyard. There is a difference of opinions going on in this story. The landowner is fed up with this tree that year after year has produced no fruit. Tired of wasting the resources of good soil, the landowner tells the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener disagrees with his owner’s assessment. He brokers a deal. He asks for one more year to do some intentional work around the tree… fertilizer, water, tender care… and then, if there is no fruit in a year’s time, you can cut it down.
Time is of the essence. I find myself this week pushing back on the barren fig tree story that seems to stand in the middle of the room. What does it represent at this moment in time? I have always heard this parable as a guarantee of sorts… that if we just work harder and more intentionally, we will bear fruit. We know this is not always the case. We pour ourselves into our work, we work harder and longer and devote more resources to projects. Some times, things come to an end and resources are diverted. This story also has no conclusion… we are not told the outcome of a year’s extra work. Was the gardener successful? Did the vineyard owner concede to keeping the fig tree?
These ponderings again beg the question why we give the best of ourselves to those things that can never love us back. Why do we consistently make choices that leave us overwhelmed and over-extended and most certainly exhausted? Do we live a life devoid of new fruit?
We all want to believe we have time to cultivate our spiritual growing edges. We will eventually get around to a Regula. We will soon start eating better and getting a better night’s sleep and will exercise more this spring as soon as the weather gets nicer. We will find time for solitude, for prayer and for meditation. On this first day of spring, a time to honor balance in our created order in both our personal and corporate lives, we are invited to try… to notice our practices and patterns of living. Success is not to be measured in the number of figs, the dollars in the bank account, the number of people who walk through our church doors. Success is measured by intention and the effort of trying.
But don’t wait… don’t rest on your laurels. Start now to make changes that will enrich the soil and bear fruit. Let’s not let another year pass us by. What tending do we need to undertake, what enrichment must we add to our life together? What is our barren fig tree story? What things are we excited to pour some elbow grease and attention into these coming months? Our relationship to our property perhaps? What do we envision for it as a community of welcome that sits beside the Rail Trail? Non-profit housing? An oasis stopping place for weary travellers?
I don’t think the parable of the barren fig tree saw the gardener taking sole responsibility for the work… for this one more chance (and by the way, Jesus believed in an infinite number of chances). Nothing was ever written off. We just must try. Not all projects will succeed. Some trees will be cut down, that’s just life. But we will try and we will ponder and turn over our spiritual questions… like putting a shovel into the rich soil we ground ourselves in.
I want to leave you with a blessing I found in the book “Good Enough” which I referenced earlier.
Blessings to you this first day of spring
and new beginnings that await you,
that await us as this community of faith:
Blessed are we who are trying a new thing
Though we cannot quite see the whole of it.
That’s the beauty of the life of faith.
We start in the middle,
the heart-centre of an unspoken desire
to live into the glimpse we’ve had
of You and of Your goodness.
Blessed are we who ask You to be the guide
as we begin to build from here
and create a stronger, more flexible, rule of life.
Trusting that You are trying to foster life within us.
Blessed are we who remember that we will fall short.
We will fail. But that doesn’t mean we are ruined.
We simply pick up and begin again.
Blessed are we, willing to be beginners all over again.