Watering the Tree: Sermon offered on Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2010

Watering the Tree

Sermon offered on Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2010

First Presbyterian Church of St. Anselmo

Mark Braverman

Exodus 3:1-15
Luke 13:1-9

It’s a joy to be in your midst and I want to thank Rev. Whitt for the honor of preaching from her pulpit.  You know, as a Jew who grew up in the synagogue, preaching from a prescribed set of scripture reading is very familiar territory.  Every Sabbath we read a section from the Five Books of Moses – it’s a one-year cycle, we divided it into 52 portions – and a selection from prophets that is textually or thematically linked to the Pentateuch reading.  But when I discovered the lectionary I was so delighted – what an embarrassment of riches for the preacher!  There is the Old Testament — with a psalm as a bonus, and Gospels, and Epistles. And for me, especially – this you need to understand  — growing up I was not supposed to read the New Testament, indeed even entering a church was out of the question – it was actually considered a dangerous place – such was the legacy of Europe. And so to bring the scriptures together into a whole is a miraculous coming together for me, a reestablishment of wholeness, a wholeness and coming together in faith, I submit, that is a matter of the utmost urgency to us today. And so I am grateful for the scriptural texts that we read today, texts that, as the lectionary unfailingly does, raises the questions and then, in directing us to answer them, brings the scriptures together for us.

We have arrived at the third Sunday in Lent.  I have been following the  lectionary readings since that first Sunday, and I have been particularly struck by the dynamic tension, in all three weeks of lent so far, between the Old Testament and New Testament readings.

I week 1 of Lent we read from Deuteronomy about the offering of the First Fruits at the Temple in Jerusalem. The land and its bounty are the signs of the covenant between God and his people, and the physical offering is the mode of devotion. Upon making the offering, the people were to say: “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” (Deuteronomy 26:3) But what is the meaning of this land and this offering?

Then in the reading from the Gospel we enter the world of Romans 10 – in a real sense, Paul’s last will and testament.  We read:

For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10-13)

What is going on here?  Instead of inheritance and possession, and in the place of a physical offering, we have words, we have belief.  And in contrast to the powerful affirmation of the exclusive bond between God and the children of Israel, we have this message of universalism, this sense of inclusion that Paul is trying to hammer out of the conflict and ferment of the first century.

The next week, Lent 2, we are again in the Pentateuch, in Genesis, chapter 15, God’s promise to Abram.  First, God promises progeny – count the stars, he says to Abram!  And then:

To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” (Genesis 15:18)

And alongside this, we have this account in Luke, chapter13.  Jesus is on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem:

Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. (Luke 13:31-32)

Again, there is this tension:  The Genesis reading is about promise: I give you this land, this legacy of prosperity, security, and place — a place to build families, communities, a society based on my code of justice, compassion, and fairness.  God comes to man and says:  I am he, this is my name, and this is what we will create together.

When we arrive in Luke, we have fast forwarded to first century Judea, and we have what has happened in history:  Occupation.  Oppression. The project of empire to destroy family, community,  and compassion for our fellow human beings. And we have a prophet – in Christian belief, God’s gift of his only son — again, God coming to man, indeed in the form of man, and he is involved in history, sending a message to the temporal ruler, Rome’s client king:  tell that fox that I have work to do.  Casting out demons is metaphor for confronting the ills that had afflicted the people of Judea. I am casting out the evil of empire, I am healing the sicknesses brought by poverty and oppression. I am repairing what has been damaged.

The covenant is in conversation with history. For what is theology if not our attempt to understand our purpose in being here, and our very human effort to spell out what it is we must do in relationship with our fellow human beings and with the earth that has been given over to our stewardship? It is an effort that must be renewed in every generation, every historical period.  Such is the nature of repentance. In Genesis God comes to man, and thus begins the covenant. Be in covenant with me, God says to Abram, and I will give you progeny, sustenance, land.  In Genesis we have the vision, the metaphor for which is the good and broad land, a land which nurtures its people.  The fierce poetry of the Old Testament prophets tells the story of what happens when that vision meets history.  And in Luke we have the continuation of that tension between the vision and the reality: Kings. Client governments. The attempt to stamp out and silence resistance.

In this tension between Genesis and Luke, the space between the promise and the reality, the vision of wholeness and the work required to bring us closer to it — in this space is my personal journey.

But first, today’s reading:

Today we are in Exodus.  God has come again to man, to Moses, and the powerful narrative of the history of the Jewish people and relationship to God continues.

Moses came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. (Exodus 3:1-2)

What we have before us here is a powerful historical narrative of a people.  And again, as in the Old Testament readings from Lent 1 and 2, the land is the centerpiece. The encounter takes place on Mt. Horeb – Sinai — the mountain of God, and God goes on to tell Moses, “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” The burning bush is the emblem of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Judaism in which I was raised, it is carved in stone over the entrance to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.  It is enshrined there as a symbol survival and of restoration: a people coming back from near extinction, from annihilation, and there is conveyed the sense of promise and covenant. But how can we understand the heart of this metaphor today? What is essential here, what can be taken and carried forward to provide us with guidance and positive meaning today? And what does it have to do with repentance?  I submit that what beckons Moses on that mountaintop transcends physical location or place.  It is, rather, the image of the some essential power and meaning shining out. Something miraculous, unexpected, new.

So what happens when, again, today we enter the world of Luke?

Again – it is the tension between the vision and the reality of history:

There were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-3)

Here, Jesus is teaching that an essential, perhaps necessary component of repentance is simply this:  don’t think you’re special.  And surely, this story is about repentance, in a very important, profound way.  Because repentance is often mistaken for its pale, easy substitute – a guilt offering, for example, or a facile apology or empty resolution to do better next time or sin no more. But true repentance is about self-knowledge, intense self examination.  And – and here we truly are in the preparation and build-up for Easter — it’s about hope, and it is about finding a new thing, and about knowing where to find it.  And so on to the parable that follows, which at first seems almost a non-sequitor:

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:6-8)

The parable in fact is the key to unlock the lesson.  Jesus is explaining that to find this new thing, to achieve true repentance, you have to know where to look. You have to discern what of your work is bearing fruit, and what you have to leave behind and move along to what is new and what is fruitful.

My own story unfolds in the space within the tension between Genesis and Luke.

I was born in the United States in 1948 – the year of the declaration of the State of Israel. As such, I was raised in a potent combination of Rabbinic Judaism and political Zionism.  The two could not be separated.  I was taught that a miracle – born of heroism and bravery – had blessed my generation. The State of Israel was not a mere historical event – it was redemption.

I grew up in this tradition. I grew up accepting and embracing the Jewish-Zionist narrative of the birth and meaning of the new Jewish homeland. The legacy of Europe was a sense of specialness, of separateness, and a kind of brittle sense of superiority and entitlement.  And the Zionist ideology and romance partakes of this legacy and this identity.  I embraced it.

Until I saw the occupation.

I travelled to the occupied West Bank in 2006. When I visited the West Bank and saw the dispossession and oppression being perpetrated in my name, it broke my heart and what is more important it challenged my assumptions and beliefs. I saw the wall, the land grab, the impact on the souls of my cousins manning those checkpoints.  I learned the other narrative, the Nakba, and understood that this too was an essential part of my own story as a Jew today.  I met the Palestinian people, recognized them as my brothers and sisters. And, after considerable soul searching, I realized that my Jewishness required me to work for justice in Palestine.

I realized that if my own people were going to survive, we had to transcend our sense of specialness, a sense incubated for 2000 years and that had now taken the form of political Zionism, an attachment to the land as our particular inheritance and right, a sense that had to be understood, not in the literal sense of the Old Testament promise but in the wider context of our belonging to all humankind.  I realized that the meaning of the Holocaust was not that we had to retreat behind walls of protection, but that it must bring us to a recognition of the universality of human suffering and our obligation to relieve it.  The meaning of the Biblical promise had to be in conversation with history.

When I returned I also learned that there were lessons for the church as well.

Christian Bible scholars and theologians are now beginning to understand the gospels as the record of a movement of social transformation and of nonviolent resistance to the evil of empire. I find myself saying to Christians who seek a devotional pilgrimage to the Holy Land:  Yes!  Go!  Walk where Jesus walked!  For, if you do go and indeed see what is to be seen, you will not only walk where he walked but you will see what he saw.

You will see the attempt to destroy community and family through the taking of farms and the destruction of village life.

But you will also see nonviolent resistance, in the refusal of famers to abandon their land in the face of walls, fences and harassment.  In the gathering of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children to the conflict who declare We Refuse to be Enemies. In the declarations of Palestinian religious leaders who, in the spirit of Jesus’ exhortation to love your enemies, reach out to their Israeli occupiers and demand justice.

And then, you will return to your Bibles and understand the origin of Christianity as a movement of nonviolent resistance to the forces that would remove women and men from the source of their strength and from knowledge of God’s love.

So the church is right at home here.  This is the social justice agenda that permeates the American church – it’s not a hard call!  Except for the interfaith issue.  That makes it difficult.  I know.  I know what charges you open yourselves to when you dare to question the actions of the State of Israel. But I say to you: do not let yourselves be held captive to our struggle. Do what your faith directs you to do, even if many of your Jewish brothers and sisters refuse, for the time being, to accompany you on that ministry.  Have compassion for us, honor the painful process that we must go through as we begin to look in the mirror and consider what we must do now to be OK with God as we confront the awful consequences of our nationalist project, but do not wait for us.

The 65 years since the Nazi Holocaust have seen Christians engaged in a faithful project to reconcile with the Jewish people for millennia of anti-Semitism.  But the struggle for justice for the people of the Holy Land is not an interfaith project. This is not about Christian-Jewish reconciliation, it is not about repairing the past. It is about the urgent, urgent need to look forward.  In the current historical context, this old tree of interfaith reconciliation is indeed barren, there is no fruit here. There can be no joining together of our faith communities, no wholeness, without the commitment to justice.  This project to atone for and to correct for the sins and agony of the past by lifting up the Jewish people and its political homeland project will not undo the horrors of the Christian past.  And for Jews, the return to a mythical state of nationalist unity and political power will not redeem the suffering of millennia, or bring back the murdered children.  This is a tree that bears no fruit.

These are prophetic times. As Walter Brueggemann tells us, the prophetic calls on us to acknowledge what has been broken, mourn for what has been lost, and yield ourselves up to the new thing that is being brought forth.

And that new thing is all humankind united in the fight for justice.  The image of the fig tree – the promise of the burning bush – is of that unexpected unity.  It is of a new thing shining forth, new growth growing out of what was barren.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Says John the Baptist in the account recorded in Matthew chapter 3 – do you presume you are special because you can claim lineage from Abraham? For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

This is the fruit we must nurture. These are the living stones we must honor:

Nonviolent protest of all kinds growing in Palestine; churches in the U.S. at local and national levels proposing phased divestment from companies profiting from the occupation; devotional pilgrimages visiting the living stones of Israelis joining protests against the wall and settler violence, and Palestinians working to keep culture and hope alive in the refugee camps;  the Kairos Palestine document, declaring the divine imperative to nonviolent resistance and the offer of love to the Israelis occupier.

This is the prophetic that must unite us — Christian, Jew or Muslim is not important. It’s whether you are for triumphalism or community, for exploiting the poor or freeing them from poverty, for despoiling the earth or honoring and preserving it.

The churches in the U.S. are poised to fulfill this historic calling, as it has done before in recent history.

The words of Martin Luther King, writing from the Birmingham jail speak to us with an uncanny resonance today:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

As do the words of that Jewish teacher and prophet of long ago, entering a Jerusalem that bears an uncanny resemblance to the troubled city of today:

As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!”  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:37-40)

I find how Jesus expresses himself at that moment so powerful – whether praise or protest, you cannot suppress the cry of strong feeling.  And what was the praise about, after all?  It was the spontaneous response of an oppressed, occupied people – a cry of love, adoration, and sheer joy for the miracle of Jesus’ ministry – his power to heal, to inspire, to lead.  It’s a wonderful moment, and so captures Jesus in his idiom, his unstoppable response to the stifling, spirit-killing, life-denying voice of established authority.  “You can’t stop this!” he is saying.  “Nature itself, even these seeming inert stones, resonate with the joy and life force emanating from these people.”

It is time for us to do this shouting.  God loves this shouting.  This is the spirit that waters the tree of true repentance.  This is the life force, the patient, unstoppable spirit that strengthens our communities, our places of worship and our families, that nourishes our very souls.

May we have the wisdom to discern it, the patience to find it, the courage to water that tree.