I had several robust conversations last week with the members of Executive Council, and with members of the churchwide staff, about Ashes to Go. Episcopalians from all across this Church talked about their experiences on Ash Wednesday of going out into the streets – to the train station or subway, on a bus to the airport (and on a cross-country flight), bearing ashes and offering to share that sign of mortality with all comers. Several said how wonderful it was to experience those encounters, and to see others hungry for a reminder of what is most important. More than one person observed that this kind of evangelism makes sense to many Episcopalians and, more importantly, to the “spiritual but not religious” folks all around us. I count my most memorable Ash Wednesday as one a couple of years ago in the Dominican Republic, kneeling down to anoint the parish’s preschoolers with ashes.
Lent is about remembering what’s most centrally important: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those three year olds in the DR were amazingly solemn as they heard “Recuerda que eres polvo, y al polvo volverás.”
The season of Lent developed as an act of solidarity with those who were preparing to be baptized at the great Easter Vigil, and it became an opportunity for all the faithful to practice returning to the center, and being re-grounded in what is most essential.
We receive ashes to remind us that we are made for abundant life – and that death is part of the journey toward greater life. Everything we heard this morning is grounded in that fundamental truth.
Jesus’ tale of a fruitless fig tree comes in response to big questions about why people die, seemingly at random, from earthquakes and collapsing buildings, or the violence of occupying military forces. He basically says that it wasn’t the particular fault of the ones who died – they weren’t worse sinners than anybody else. The implication is that God didn’t sneak up and zap them for what they’d been up to. But then Jesus goes on to say, “if you don’t repent, you’re going to die, too.” Many Christians (and non-Christians) still hear this as a great threat of retribution. It’s not. It IS the same reminder that the ashes bear – we’re all terminal, we all come into this world with a more or less fixed span of life, and yes, some of us do depart this life earlier than expected. What Jesus is saying underneath that pregnant riposte is that life abundant or eternal life is to be found in turning back to what is most central. Know that you will die, and live as though this moment is eternally significant. Love God with all you are and all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. Or as an early theologian (Augustine) put it, “love God and do as you please.” Put love of God and neighbor back in the center of your life.
But back to the fig tree. The owner wants to cut it down – it’s useless. But the gardener counsels treatment and patience. The diagnosis of fruitlessness is going to be treated by digging and fertilizing. Digging around the tree will prune the roots, and stress the tree. That stress is a good thing because it creates something of a crisis. Usually it will reorient the energies of the tree toward bearing fruit rather than just growing more branches and leaves. Fruit trees and grapevines that aren’t ever pruned don’t produce much fruit or very good quality fruit – they simply turn “weedy.” Digging around the tree will get rid of weeds competing for nutrients, and it will open up the soil structure so that water and nutrients can get to those roots. Using the right kind of fertilizer will ensure that the tree gets the nutrients it needs to produce fruit and not just more leaves.
So what might that mean for us? Getting back to the main thing means letting go of the unimportant or less than urgent. What might your roots be growing into? Are they seeking living water – or emptiness? Fruitfulness looks like fleshy, incarnate evidence of loving God and neighbor, not just lots of words to hide behind, like those fig leaves in the garden of Eden. Different plants need different kinds of fertilizer, but this fig tree needs manure. Not ashes or fishmeal or bonemeal, but good old barnyard manure. It’s a reminder that the stuff we try hard to avoid, the messiness of incarnation, is absolutely essential to real life. We will not bear fruit or find life abundant unless we’re willing to encounter the smelly and the dirty and the lowly around us.
There’s another word for digging, root pruning, and manuring – repenting. They mean the same thing – letting go of what doesn’t produce fruit, drawing back from what isn’t life-giving, putting our energy into what is life-giving, and turning toward what is fruitful – in direct encounter with the presence of God all around us, and deep within us.
That’s what Moses does, when he turns aside from his path to pay attention to a very strange bush. His willingness to let go of his intent focus on where HE wants to go bears abundant fruit, beginning with his encounter with I AM WHO I AM. He, too, has to take off his shoes and step in it to discover God at work in his own life.
Paul doesn’t use the same images, but he’s telling the same story when he says that all those folks wandering in the wilderness ate and drank together but most of them died, because they were idolaters. They weren’t fruitful because they put ineffective things at the center of their lives. That’s what idolatry is, hiding behind fig leaves, rather than producing rich and abundant fruit. Paul names three kinds of idolatry: sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and complaining. In most biblical contexts, the prohibitions about various kinds of sexual activity are about putting that at the center of one’s existence, particularly when it’s part of a worship ritual – like temple prostitution, which was the big objection to Canaanite worship and to the Roman and Greek cults. The second kind of idolatry, about putting Christ to the test, is a repeat of Jesus’ temptation to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple. It’s challenging God to give you what you insist you have to have, right now! Obviously, it’s the limited and extraneous thing that you’ve erroneously put your trust in – the latest thrill or fad or keeping up with the Joneses. The third prohibition about whining is idolatrous because it puts my petty needs and wants at the center of my attention rather than loving God thoroughly enough to know that as Julian puts it, “all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” because God loves us beyond our imagining.
The challenge in all of this is to see beyond the surface meaning of living and dying. Our mortal bodies will die – no doubt about it. We believe that even in this life we can know something of a far more abundant life, but it involves death – like root-pruning – the painful turning away from whatever does not lead to that more abundant life for which Jesus came among us, lived, taught, and yes, died. And we also know, deep within this body of Christ, that God is doing a new thing in the face of that death – the resurrection we affirm and await and expect, even in the midst of dying and root-pruning. When we keep the main thing the main thing, and don’t wander away to hide behind fig leaves or whine about the present moment, we are far more likely to discover that resurrected life.
It can be found in the joy a person finds in being reminded she’s going to die, and in the encounter with someone who loves deeply enough to carry ashes to the train station. Live like that – and find life abundant!