Lent 1B Sermon (2000)

1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Mark 1:9-15;
Gen. 9:8-17; 1 Pt 3:18-22


Basically, I’d like to share a song and a story with you this morning. First, the song. It’s one a first heard last year at a worship conference when we shared an Easter Vigil service together, which is one of the oldest liturgies of the church, going back to the 1st century. In fact, that’s where Lent came from, too. Originally, the night before Easter, at the Easter Vigil service was the most important time to baptize new converts to the Christian faith. Lent was the 40 day time period before Easter to prepare those baptizees for baptism. So it is quite appropriate that we begin Lent this morning with a baptism and with the baptism theme.

This might not be fair to do to it, but when I first heard this hymn it reminded me of “Borning Cry” [With One Voice #770]. Both hymns take us through our entire lifespans with God’s baptismal promises to be with us our whole lives through. “O Blessed Spring,” the song I’d like to teach you this morning, uses a different image, that of life’s seasons, and of being joined to God’s Tree of Life in Jesus Christ through all the seasons of life. Please listen. [With One Voice #695: Sing “O Blessed Spring.” (1)] Little Alexander, in the springtime of his life, is being joined to that living tree tomorrow, and it will nurture him through the summer, autumn, and wintertime of his life, too.

“Borning Cry” conveys that wonderful image of living one’s entire life in God’s presence, but there’s something even more substantial than that here for me. Being joined to God’s Tree of Life, which makes God’s presence in my life feel more down-to-earth and real. We still might ask: how are we connected to God’s Tree of Life? How is God present with us our whole life through, nurturing us? Is there any answer to that question other than the Church? Yes, reaching down through the ages, since Christ the true Vine and his followers became the first important branches on God’s Tree of Life, that tree has been growing and branching out for centuries now. You and I are but the newest branches on that tree. And we are called to help nurture the even newer branches that come along, like little Alexander. They become connected to us, as we are connected to those who have gone before us all the back to Christ, who connects us to God’s Tree of Life. It is a vast, gracious, glorious, life-giving tree! Can you think of anything more important for our children in this age of individualism to have that sense of being connected, of belonging?

That’s where the story comes in. The seventh grade confirmation retreat is still fresh for me. On that retreat we talk about baptism, and the thing we say the most about baptism is that it joins us to God’s gang, keeping in mind the kind of gangs they can be invited to join at school. In God’s Gang, we are joined to one another like the branches are joined to the vine and to the whole tree. What is the life-blood, the vital juices, that nurtures this gang, this vast Tree of Life? We watch a video together on that confirmation retreat which I think really helps us to understand. The video is called The Buttercream Gang, and this is the story [extemporizing around the following highlights]:

  • It opens with four friends: Scott, Eldon, Lanny, and Pete in the rural town of Elk Ridge. They are members of the “Buttercream Gang.” We find out how they got their name from the local grocery store owner: many generations ago, most of the town’s men-folk were off to war, and the widows in town were having trouble churning their butter. A gang of young boys were founded to help them. Yes, a gang whose charter was to help people.
  • But in this opening scene, one of these four modern representatives is leaving. Pete is an orphan, has been living with grandparents in Elk Ridge; now is going to live with his Aunt Maria in Chicago.
  • Pete starts out fine in Chicago; straight A’s on first report card. But he begins hanging with the wrong gang. Later describes it as making a wrong turn on your bike. You try to go back and find where you made the wrong turn, but you just keep making wrong turns, getting more and more lost.
  • Ends up back in Elk Ridge. Tries to fit back into Buttercream Gang but doesn’t feel right, and ends up with wrong crowd there, too.
  • Pete and Scott almost fight. Pete harasses Scott at a ballgame. Scott’s coach, his pastor, talks to Scott about peacemaking, Gandhi, and unconditional love. Scott sits down with his Dad ready to give up. Dad talks to him about loving unconditionally. “If you love Pete only to make him change, then you really don’t love him.” Tells story of where he got his name from, Private Scott Paulson in Viet Nam, a Christian soldier who gave up his life saving a fellow soldier who hated him because he was so openly Christian.
  • Scotts first attempts at loving Pete don’t go well. Pete, deep-down, is still having a hard time loving himself. But these attempts plant a seed which eventually grows.

Unconditional love. That’s the life-blood, the vital juices, that flow through this gang, the Tree of Life, we call the Church. It begins with our Lord himself, who showed us God to be a heavenly Father who has unconditional love for us, the love that he then showed us on the Cross. It is that love which began to course through the branches of this Tree of Life two thousand years ago, the same love which is extended to Alexander this morning, through all of us. It is the same love we are called to continue to extend to others as this awesome and glorious tree continues to spread its branches. As in the Buttercream Gang, it may not guarantee an immediate happy ending. Unconditional love does not work that way. It does not force itself. But it is the only life-blood that does give life. It is the only hope for this world. And we are called to share it with others, to help them become connected to Christ the True Vine whose life-blood it is that nurtures us all in God’s Tree of Life. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 11-12, 2000

1. Text by Susan Palo Cherwien. The first verse is:

O Blessed Spring, where Word and sign embrace us into Christ the Vine:
Here Christ enjoins each one to be a branch of this life-giving Tree.

Verses follow using summer, autumn and winter as themes, concluding with this verse:

Christ, holy Vine, Christ, living Tree, be praised for this blest mystery:
That Word and water thus revive and join us to your Tree of Life.

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