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Sunday, March 24, 2019

How to make a fig tree bear fruit

 A Sermon for Lent III - March 24, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

A headline from RNS (Religious News Service) came in my email inbox the other day and caught my eye: “Nones Now as Big as Evangelicals (and) Catholics in US.” 

No, this was not a story about Roman Catholic NUNS but “Nones”. These are Americans claiming “no religion” — sometimes referred to as “nones” because of how they answer the question “what is your religious tradition?”
Under a picture of empty pews in a church in the midst of the Bible Belt, the story      revealed that “According to newly released General Social Survey data analyzed by Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University,— Americans claiming “no religion” …. now represent about 23.1 percent of the population, up from 21.6 percent in 2016. People claiming evangelicalism, by contrast, now represent 22.5 percent of Americans, a slight dip from 23.9 percent in 2016.
That makes the two groups statistically tied with Catholics (23 percent) as the largest religious — or nonreligious — groupings in the country.”
I suppose we should have seen this coming. After I read the article, a memory resurfaced of my work in Newark, New Jersey about 15 years ago. 

I used to visit patients at UMDNJ. At that time, there were always two large binders at the Security Desk where clergy were to sign in which contained the computer printouts of the daily census, listing patient names and room numbers as well as “Religious Affiliation,” all separated into tabbed sections.  More than ½ the book listed as Roman Catholics. 

The second largest section was for “Non Denominational”. The third largest section was designated Baptist. Then came Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalians, Jews, and ‘undeclared’ each taking lesser and lesser degrees of space.

However, more than ¾ of the second binder was under the tab “DND”. One day, as I was signing in, I asked the Security Guard what DND stood for. He seemed genuinely embarrassed as he cleared his throat and said, just above a whisper, “Pastor, that means ‘Do Not Disturb’.”

Do not disturb? I practically yelled. What does that mean? He looked at me sympathetically and said, softly, “It means, Pastor, that they do not want a visit from a pastor.” And then, he held my gaze for a few moments, letting the unthinkable – well, at least to this pastor – sink in.

I watched that book over the next two years. The DND tab was clearly the fastest growing segment of the binder. It made me sad but somewhere deep in my heart, I understood. Sometimes, religious people are the worst people to represent what it means to be religious.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. A gardener intervenes with a landowner on behalf of a seemingly unproductive fig tree, asking for one more year of nurture. But the deal the gardener makes includes a dire prospect: if the tree does not flourish in a year, then yes, pull it from the ground, roots and all.

Okay, so I’ll say it: YIKES! What’s worse, there is no tidy ending to this parable. We do not know if manure and a gardener’s touch ends up making any difference whatsoever. Does the gardener just delay the inevitable? Does the gardener hold off for one year the fig tree’s destiny of serving as compost for another, more productive tree? 
The answer is we don’t know. As it is with many of the parables of Jesus, we are left to ponder the dire prospect as a warning to snap out of it and snap to it.

Why is it that people identify as “spiritual but not religious”? Does it have something to do with “DND” – Do Not Disturb? Is it that, like the parable of the fig tree, we don’t tell the end of the story and assure people of God’s grace vs. God’s judgment? 

Do today’s Christians want more than the threat that if we don’t ‘flourish’ within a time certain, we’ll be pulled up from the ground, roots and all, and thrown into a compost pile?

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve considered my own spiritual journey. I’ve thought about all of the components of my faith and the various expressions it has taken over the years – including the obligatory lapse which occurs immediately after confirmation through young adulthood and then marriage and then the “wait till you have your own children, then you’ll see” phase of religious development kicks in and suddenly, church doesn’t seem as bad as it once did.

Here’s what I discovered about my own faith journey – the reason I came back and the reason I stay. You’ve heard me preach enough now to probably guess at my answer. Yes, you’re right. It’s this: Story.

I think stories are the glue that hold our lives together. It’s one of the first things we learn. Want to get a child’s attention? Haul out a book, sit down, open it up and say these three magic words, “Once upon a time.” 

And, just like that, we’re in. We’re quiet. We’re curious. Our minds are alert. Our hearts are open. We travel to a different time in different lands without leaving the room. We laugh. We cry. We wonder. It’s magical.

I think my faith is what it is today because my grandmother used to tell us the stories in the bible. I remember her telling the story about Abraham which we heard last Sunday, when God took him out and showed him the stars in the sky and told him to count the stars, if he could, and “so shall your descendants be” more than all the stars in the sky. 

And then, she would bring out a platter of sugar cookies in the shape of stars and she would tell us that even if we tried, we couldn’t eat as many star cookies as there were descendants of Abraham.

I have a vivid memory of the story of Moses and the burning bush – not only because it’s a great story but because she would always tell us that story when she made the Portuguese version of Flan. She would sprinkle the sugar on top and then, with my grandfather’s butane pipe lighter, set it ablaze until the sugar was brown and caramelized and crisp.

But it was her Bolos do Riso that was, I think, her best story and my favorite of her baking skills.  Well, she called it Bolos do Riso – Portuguese for Laughter Cake – but it’s traditionally known as Simnel Cake – a wonderful concoction of spice cake and sweet butter frosting which is a special, traditional treat for the middle of Lent.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent is known as “Refreshment Sunday”. It’s also known as “Laetare Sunday” (for the first word of the Introit for the day “Rejoice, Jerusalem!”) and “Rose or Mothering Sunday,” probably because in the 16th century, people went to the nearest Cathedral or their "home” – or “mother” – church (which was most likely the Cathedral) for worship. This is why, in some churches, the vestments for this particular Sunday are rose or pink in color.

It was also a time when women employed as domestics were given time off and one of the few times during the year that the entire family could be reunited to share a meal together.

My Portuguese grandmother made Simnel Cakes faithfully. Every year. And, of course, she always told us the story that went with it.

We made the cakes on the Saturday before Lent IV. My grandmother and I would put the raiss to soak in the brandy - homemade by my grandfather - before going to bed Friday night. I was the oldest granddaughter and we lived right upstairs, so I was allowed and nobody else was. 

We would gather in her kitchen sometime on Saturday afternoon, after all the other Saturday chores had been done, including polishing our shoes and laundering our white gloves.

We would line up all the ingredients on the kitchen table - the older kids measuring the liquid ingredients, the younger ones allowed to measure the dry ingredients. One of us was assigned to greasing the pans, another to chopping the walnuts (which we first had to crack - usually with a hammer - and get the meaty walnut out before chopping).

And I, only I, was allowed to sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves into the batter. Ha! And my grandmother, only my grandmother, was allowed to pour in the hot applesauce. We all stood back when she did that, in a respectful silence which was tinged with a bit of awe reserved only for sorcerers and magicians.

And, indeed, she did cook up laughter there in her kitchen. In the midst of the doldrums of Lent, she was making Bolos do Riso - "Laughter Cakes". Oh, but here's the special ingredient - the secret of "Laughter Cakes".

After every ingredient had been added and stirred, and before she poured the batter into the muffin tins or cake pans, she would gather us round the Very Large Mixing Bowl. And then, she would tell us not to worry. That Lent was a very sad time, but that soon, it would be Easter. Jesus would play a wonderful trick on Satan, and death would not kill him.

And, because death could no longer kill Jesus, death could no longer kill us. Because of Jesus, we would know eternal life in heaven where we would all someday be, once again. She would tell us this and then say, "So, laugh, children. Laugh into the bowl. Laugh into the cake. Laugh at the Devil. He can't win. He can't ever win! Only Jesus can win. Only Jesus! Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!"

And, we would. Laugh. Loud. Right into the bowl. I swear people ten blocks away could hear us laugh. It was the best part of making - and eating - that cake.

After the cake was baked and cooled and after she slathered a huge vat of butter icing all over the cake, we would put eleven balls of marzipan all around the top of the cake – one for each of the apostles, but none for Judas because, well, you know, he betrayed Jesus. And then, one Very Large ball of marzipan would go into the very middle of the cake, and that was for Jesus.

Before we could eat the Simnel Cake, we had to be able to name all of the apostles, and say a prayer for all the souls in purgatory where she was quite certain Judas was sent to languish for eternity, and then say a loud ‘thank you’ to Jesus for giving us Eternal Life.

When I read stories about the growing number of “nones” I want to gather them round in my kitchen and make one of my grandmother’s Simnel Cakes. I want to tell them the story of Jesus and have them laugh in the batter. 

And then, as we eat the cake, I want to tell more stories about Jesus, starting with Abraham and Sarah and Aunt Hagar, Moses and Miriam, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and all of the many of their descendants as there are stars in the sky.

It’s just my hunch, but I think that if more people knew more about the stories in the Bible and could see parts of themselves in some of the characters, maybe they’d know that Jesus didn’t have to tell the ending of the parable of the fig tree. Maybe they’d know that God’s grace is always amazing and abundant and that, no matter what we do or how far we roam, nothing can separate us from the love of God – not even ourselves.

If we told more stories of our faith, I’m guessing there’d be fewer people who would hang a DND /“Do Not Disturb” sign outside their doors and welcome us in to hear the magic words, “Once upon a time.” And, just like that, they’d be all in, quite, curious, minds alert and hearts open, ready to travel to a different land and a different time without leaving the room. And, we’d laugh and we’d cry and we’d wonder and it would be magical.

A great scientist once said that the universe is made of stories, not atoms. I don’t know this for a fact but I have it on the good authority of my grandmother that at the very center of the universe is not molten lava or hard stone, not layers of dirt and muddy water or slime or sludge – no!

What lies at the very center of the universe is laughter. It is the sound of the joy with which God created the world. It is the sound of the love that defeated evil and the love that triumphs good.

So, laugh, children. Laugh at the Devil. He can’t win.  Only Jesus.

And, if we told that story more often – if we told the stories of our lives of faith more often – I’m thinking there would no doubt be fewer nones, a whole lot less DNDs and lots more fig trees bearing much fruit.  

*Bolos do Riso (Simnel Cake)

1 ½ c. raisins
4 tbsp. (or so) Brandy
1 c. shortening
2 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 c. very fine flour (all purpose will do if you sift)
2 tsp. Baking soda
2 ½ tsp. Cinnamon
1 ½ tsp ground Cloves
2 tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. Salt
1 ½ c. chopped walnuts
zest of one lemon (optional)
2 c. hot applesauce

Soak raisins in brandy overnight.

Mix together in a large bowl - shortening, sugar and eggs. Into that sift flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Add chopped walnuts and raisins with the brandy. Add 2 cups of applesauce while it is VERY HOT. Blend thoroughly. Add optional lemon zest. Pour batter into 8 ½ x 12" pan (greased and floured.) Bake at 350̊ For about 30 minutes (or until done).

When done, cool cake in pan 5 minutes - then remove to finish cooling on a cake rack. Frost generously with Butter frosting.

Butter Frosting
1/4 lb. (one stick) Butter
1 lb Confectioners Sugar (10-X)
about 3 tbsp heavy cream (or milk)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

Blend together the butter and sugar. Add in the cream (or milk) and vanilla until smooth. Makes enough frosting for the cake above.

“Laughter Cake” Traditionally made for “Refreshment (or Mothering or Laetare or Rose) Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Don’t forget to laugh into the batter after you’ve added the hot applesauce, and remember that Jesus has won for us Life Eternal.

A Simnel Cake is traditionally decorated with 11 small marzipan balls (one for each apostle, minus Judas) and one large marzipan ball (for Jesus), but more modern adaptions include ‘peep’ chicks or bunnies, or small Easter eggs, or roses, or your favorite festive way to ‘laetare’ (rejoice) as the Introit for the 4th Sunday in Lent calls us to do.

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