Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Bearing Lenten Fruit"

"Bearing Lenten Fruit"
A sermon by Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)
Redwoods Presbyterian Church, Larkspur (CA)
February 28, 2016
3rd Sunday of Lent

Reading: Luke 13: 1-9

I want to begin this morning with a news item. The last of the “Angola 3,” former Black Panther Albert Woodfox was released last week after 43 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison.  His original murder trial has been overturned, and whether he is guilty, it is necessary that no one spend 43 years in solitary confinement.  Thanks be to God for this glimmer of humanity in our prisons.  May there be more such glimmers until the sun shines through all our dungeons to transform our punitive society into something more rehabilitative and loving.

In this morning’s New Testament scripture reading, from the Gospel of Luke chapter 13, Jesus speaks of a fig tree that takes up space in a man’s garden and does not bear fruit.  The man is angry and about to pull up the fig tree when his gardener prevails upon him to fertilize one more year and look for one last harvest of figs next year.  This is a parable, so the people who hear Jesus struggle to understand about whom or what he is speaking.  Jesus tells this parable in the context of the death of Galileans and Judeans in Jerusalem who have failed to repent.  In this context, we can discern that the fig tree is the people or nation of Israel, and the fruit follows a repentance.

Thinking of oneself and one’s productive growth as an arboreal fruit—a fig—may be a lost metaphor in today’s technological age.  As fewer of us live off of nature and are consumers of produce at the grocery store, it seems easier to identify ourselves with metaphors of technology.  Of Robotics or cybernetics.  Some robots look anthropic to us, feeding our identification.  More and more we read that technology is replacing body parts, including silicon chips to enhance memory or aid in visual recognition in our future.

Technological metaphors increasing replace agricultural metaphors in our age.  Jesus speaks variously of being a vinedresser and a planter as he speaks to his followers.  We are meant to understand that Jesus through God the Holy Spirit prunes and dresses, and that parts of our personality may be painfully removed to promote further growth.

Yet nowadays, the pain that we feel as our personality undergoes alteration might feel like we are “ghosts in a machine,” a technological metaphor.  We may feel sensory deprived, like a robot, when we are numbed by failure or grief.  Jesus in his parables would keep ourselves rooted in biological metaphors as opposed to inert, nihilistic technological metaphors. 

Jesus speaks of
 [Luke 13.6] “A man [who] had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”

So anthropologically, Jesus sees people not as static or unmodifiable by robotic inserts, but as plants which are fertilized by nature and bear fruit in season.
Or don’t, which is serious. 

I invite you to think about this metaphor during this season of Lent, when we may go through the static rituals of giving something up, as in giving up a vice for Lent.  In our arboreal metaphor, that’s a self-pruning, a negative act.  An act of repentance.  But there is more involved in Jesus’ parable than just going without a favorite pleasure.  A new crop of fruit is expected.  It’s not only what we give up for Lent, but by what we replace it.  By what new virtue you replace that vice that brings us closer to God, that takes hold of the space in our lives previously given over to something that takes us far away from God.

As I say, bearing Lenten fruit is the flourishing of new virtues, the habits of mind and body that bring us closer to God.  Romano Guardini writes of the classical virtues in which both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant tradition used to speak in volumes.[1]  Truthfulness.  Do our words speak authentically?  Acceptance and the associated virtue of patience.  Do we wait on God and accept things that come from Him?  Reverence.  Have we cultivated a sense of awe at the miracles in nature and in life, rather than have a cynical attitude borne of too much time in front of the internet?  I confess, that’s my Lenten project this year.

The virtue of Loyalty.  Do we have friends to whom you are loyal, or is all our society expedient and careerist?  The virtue of disinterestedness asks one to develop a counterbalanced virtue to loyalty, so that we may be a fair judge, but with loyalty and truthfulness as associated virtues we are there to explain to our friends how you came to judge with fairness and disinterest.  Asceticism is a virtue, the one we often think about in Lent when we give up a pleasure, but it means more that we develop a habit and make of virtue of moving slowly toward pleasures that we share with our neighbors, so they may take their fill first.  

Gratitude is another virtue I’ve been working on, and I can tell you when I get depressed about the state of our world and society, stepping back and counting my blessings in gratitude works to give me hope, and to see God’s work within the messiness.  The virtue of unselfishness is like the virtue of asceticism, but involves a more sustained habit of heart. Asceticism we feel located in the body, in our members, while the virtue of unselfishness is an attitude and fruit of the heart. 

Guardini speaks of four other virtues: silence, the ability and habit that recognizes that our own small perspective may be unnecessary or conflicts with a holy moment.  The virtue of recollection, whereby God’s actions in our lives is recalled in a spirit of silence and gratitude, blending two other virtues.

There are two final virtues that I believe are more communitarian and social: the virtues of understanding and of justice.  For if we really understood what other’s go through, our hearts should be moved to act justly.  I think of people at the lowest income scale of our economy.  They are often maligned as “unskilled,” yet there are few if any jobs anymore that don’t require some technological interface: the wearing of back vacuum that requires troubleshooting when it jams, or the entry and troubleshooting of modern cash registers. And yet the minimum wage pays $7.25/ hour.  The studies I’ve seen now report that a living wage for a single parent with two children is between $20 and $22/hour, and yet the chances of a welfare recipient moving into such a living wage is on the order of 1 chance in 97.[2]

Our understanding of these facts I believe should move us to seek wage justice for all in society, seeking to change the debate from one of “deserving” and “skilled.”  Every employed worker demonstrates virtues deemed essential to job readiness: punctuality, cleanliness, cheerfulness, and obedience.  If we believe in the virtues for ourselves we should reward them in others, even if they are economic virtues. If our understanding is that work is a virtue, the virtue of justice we cultivate would have us reward it with a living wage.

A second arena where justice and understanding might go together in our search for Christian virtues is where we started off this morning’s sermon.  In our prisons.

There are nearly 1.6 million Americans in state or federal prison, their absence is not accounted for in the figures that politicians and policymakers use to make decisions. As a result, we operate under a distorted picture of the nation's economic health. For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That's because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized. “Imprisonment makes the disadvantaged literally invisible,” writes Harvard sociologist Bruce Western in his book, "Punishment and Inequality in America."[3]  These black men are not “recollected.”  They are outside our memory and our loyalty.

Society needs a virtue of justice to rectify these skewed statistics, and to allow for the imprisoned to develop their own communitarian virtues.  Prisoners need economic rehabilitation to reenter the workplace upon release, quicker release and easier parole for non-violent offenders, and the ability to exercise political virtues and political rights of voting upon release.[4]  Work and voting are political virtues, and if we understand the barriers put up to convicted criminals to reassert these rights and virtues, I believe justice would have us act to restore these political virtues so that the paroled and released can take up responsible roles in society. The virtues of understanding aligned with justice, I assert, asks this of society.  We need to recollect, restore, and assist people like Albert Woodfox whose development of political virtues have been stunted by prolonged imprisonment.  Stunted like a fig tree without fertilizer or water.

We are the figs.  At Lent, we repent—we self-prune—by giving something up that takes from God--and replace it with an attitude, a habit, or a virtue which brings us closer.  The classical Christian virtues are not only self-reflective, but exhibit understanding at the injustice and sufferings of others.  In my own life, I’ve identified patience, gratitude, and understanding as virtues needing immediate attention. You may find other virtues of justice, recollection, reverence, unselfishness, asceticism, loyalty, indifference, silence, or recollection are necessary fruits of Lenten repentance. But what I can be sure of is that need for all of the virtues cycle through my life at different stages, and that is why God has given us Lent to cycle through our church years.  So that we can take stock of what brings us closer and what takes us farther from God’s Holy Spirit of active love—for God and for others.  May it be that we prune our habits at Lent by replacing them with the virtues that act, restore, and recollect the integrity of others. May it be so for you and me.  AMEN.

[1] Guardini, Romano. Learning the Virtues that Lead You to God.  Sophia Institute Press, 1987.

[2] The Economic Policy Institute [in 2000] reviewed dozens of studies of what constitutes a “living wage” and came up with an average figure of $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children, which amounts to a wage of $14 an hour. --Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Metropolitan, 2001 (2011).p. 234; 241, n. 1.

Per adjusting for inflation =$19.91/hour (2016). The Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage” were about 97 to 1. –Ehrenreich (2001).

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