The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Listen — A Sermon on Water and Trees

[I preached this sermon for the good people of Calvary Lutheran Church in Rio Linda, filling in for my seminary classmate Kirsten Moore.]

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

I spent Monday through Thursday of this week on retreat with the Lutheran Campus Ministers from Regions 1 and 2everybody West of Colorado. We were at a lovely Jesuit retreat center in Los Altos, high in the hills over the San Francisco Bay.

The retreat leader was Lisa Dahill, an environmental ethics professor at California Lutheran University. She invited us to consider our place in the whole of creation, not just the human community.

Have you you heard of or engaged in the Bible study process of lectio divina? It means “divine reading.” You read a passage several times, noting words and phrases that stand out, praying and contemplating what meaning it might bring. It is often a communal process, and those participating can share their insights with one another.

Professor Dahill suggested we try out a variation on this theme, lectio creatura, “creation reading,” one might call it. You may have guessed that she wanted us to listen not to the word but to the world. She asked us to listen, pray, and contemplate. We listened to the natural world around us--birds, bugs, the creek, the wind...traffic on the 101.

One morning of our retreat, I sat on a bench in a little grove of trees, listening to the world, reading the scripture for this week in the crisp sunshine. I noticed how full of our theme the sentences managed to be. Funny how the Spirit moves, sometimes.

The Isaiah text jumped right off the page into those birdsongs: 

“Incline your ear and come to me; listen so that you may live.”

All right, apparently today is going to be about listening.

In this passage from the prophet we are reminded that being people of the covenant is not a one-and-done thing. The covenant is everlasting, yes, but that’s because God is everlasting. Not because our commitments are. It is so easy to “forsake our way.” It is so easy for us to walk away from God, from the living water, deciding that some other source will quench our thirst. We know, though, that our community of the baptized is not just for show. We are united with Christ and with one another in this ritual of death and life.

At the end of her time with us on our retreat, Professor Dahill gathered us around in the creeksandal-wearers ankle deep in the cool currentto affirm our baptism. We talked about being washed in local waterslike when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan Riverinstead of indoors in bowls. Admittedly, I was baptized indoors with a bowl. But she invited us to consider how we might identify with the whole of our communitypeople, animals, land, plants, water, all ecologically boundif we were baptized, instead, in the creek nearest our house. Or in the ocean. The Sacramento River, perhaps.

This strikes me. There’s a story in the Acts of the Apostles about an Ethiopian eunuch, who, after having the gospel explained to him in a carriage by the apostle Philip, gestures wildly toward the nearest body of water and exclaims, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized!?” It’s that simple. The elements are all here. All around us.

Except when they aren’t.

What happens when we are in a decades-long drought? What happens when there is no water to point to? No water to drink? No water to sustain crops? As Californians, we are intimately acquainted with the human/water relationship. This morning, we likely showered, made coffee, washed our breakfast dishes, all at the simple turn of a faucet. But our dear neighbors in the Central Valley are not so fortunate. Their farms are parched. They are thirsty.

And what happens when the nearest water to us is polluted? What happens, when the water that comes out of our faucets is poisoned with lead? The people of Flint, MI and other communities around this country have been preyed upon by the environmental racism and neglect of their political leaders. How can the clergy in Flint bless vessels of water for baptisms when it burns the skin of their children?

“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” the prophet Isaiah says. “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water,” the psalmist cries. Where is this water?

How can we ensure that our thirsty neighbors have enough to drink, while also worrying about our own faucets? We can do nothing.

How easily we decide that the comfort, security, power, and wealth offered to us by the world is much better than the work for justice and freedom we are called to by the gospel. It’s work, for sure. Just look at the parable Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel this morning. I saw this parable, about the fig tree, and thought, “gosh, this is not the ‘harmony with nature’ storyline I was running with, before.” Jesus can be surprising like that. He uses stories about simple, familiar thingsplants, farms, neighbors, tell hard truths.

In this kind of confusing story, the people are clamoring for Jesus’ comment about an incident involving violent death at the hands of Pontius Pilate and other government officials. They want to hear, once and for all, that all of those folks are bad, and that they are good. Victory!

Alas. Jesus takes this opportunity not to come out and denounce those powerful people once and for all, but rather to remind his listeners that they, too, are sinners. They, too, have been swept away. They, too, must repent. Fortunately for them and for us, this is the season of Lent. As Sojourners contributor Michaela Bruzzese reminds us, “Lent offers us a unique opportunity to discard these false idols….we are free to cling to our idols, of course, but Jesus is quick to warn us that such a choice will surely lead to death.” [1]

As we sit here in this third week of Lenthalfway between Ash Wednesday and Easterwhat are we hearing? What are we learning? How are we growing?

The fig tree is, at the moment, not showing great signs of life. Not blooming. Not bearing fruit. Not looking good. But the gardener promises to take better care of it. To provide it the optimal conditions for growth and for beauty and for productivity.

If, today, you resonate with that barren treeI have good news for you! What you perceive as fruitlessness is not a permanent state. You get another “chance from God, another year of fertilization and care in the joyful hope that next year, perhaps, [you] may gift the world with real fruit.” [2] Imagine, if you took advantage of this opportunity to love yourself and your neighbor. Imagine the fruits we could share. Imagine the community we could cultivate.

And don’t worry. No matter how fruity you may or may not be today, you’re always part of God’s garden. And to just mix our metaphors a little further, we can hearken back to the Isaiah passage, in which, as Nyasha Junior has written, “God offers an open invitation to return. Isaiah describes this invitation as a free feast that is open to everyone….God welcomes all to the banquet table!” [3]
And for that, thanks be to God.
[3] Nyasha Junior, "Third Sunday in Lent" in Preaching God's Transformative Justice, Year C, (2012).


Repent! -- A Sermon in the Wilderness