The Very Rev. Tom Callard – March 24, 2019
This morning I want to share with you a story I heard recently from a woman named Dora. Dora is married to Lucio. And Lucio is currently living in sanctuary in a church in Amherst. He’s been in the church in Amherst for about 16 months, and he cannot leave, because if he leaves he will be arrested and deported. So he has a very powerful story. But this morning I want to share the story of his wife Dora, and her faith. For it has a great message for Lent.
I met Dora a couple weeks ago at the Cathedral, and I asked if I could share her story, and she said yes. Dora was born in Guatemala. Her father was a big drinker. And one day Dora and her mother woke up with people at her house saying, “We are the new owners.” Her father had actually left in the middle of the night and in a drunken rage sold their house and their land.
So Dora and her mother went to live with other family members. And one morning, early, Dora’s mother woke her up and got her dressed and said: wait here. And she walked out. And she never came back. It turns out that her mother moved to Mexico to look for work, something Dora didn’t find out until years later.
So Dora was abandoned to live with her mother’s family, whom she didn’t know. Her father gone, her mother gone. There was an aunt who took a liking to Dora, thank God because the rest of the family just seemed to resent her. And they would say things like: you’re not one of us, you’re just another mouth to feed, someone threw you out- things like that which are horrible for a child.
And the Aunt who was watching Dora knew this was happening. And so one day the aunt said, all right Dora, let’s go. And she packed their things. And the aunt said: we’re going to my land. The land I own. We’re going to get out of here and we’ll start a new life. And they left. And Dora and her aunt walked for days to get to this place which was the land that her aunt owned.
But when they got there, there was no house, there was only land. And the aunt said: Don’t worry I’ll get us a house. I’ll make us a house. They slept on the ground for a few nights. But eventually the aunt, who was an old woman, died. Just like that. And Dora was left again, alone, having to go back to this family which resented her and their constant abuse.
This was Dora’s life – all of this in the first ten years. Imagine growing up with this, what you would be like. How it would affect you and your outlook. And so it continued until, one day, a neighbor invited Dora to go to church. She was 11 or 12. And she struggled because her family didn’t want to let her go. But eventually she went to church. And just like that, Dora’s life changed.
Now I know many Christians acknowledge the change that happens as we come to faith, as we participate in the life of church, as we begin to believe, perhaps for the first time, in something greater than ourselves. For many people there is a before and an after in their spiritual life. And I bring up Dora’s example this morning because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of such a dramatic example as this. Because when Dora came to church she found a completely different life and way of being that she had no clue about before.
She found shelter. She found loving people who cared for her in this community. She found a God of love, a message of love, and a higher power who, for the first time in her life, offered her more than struggle and abandonment and abuse and pain. She began to realize that there was more to life than she had possibly known. And her life changed through this simple thing of being invited to church and saying yes.
Eventually Dora met a boy from the church, Lucio, and they started dating. And they married when they were really young. And they went to live with Lucio’s parents. And they grew and their lives progressed. And one day Lucio came to live here in the United States, and Dora followed. And then the rest is history. Except now he’s living in sanctuary in Amherst, wondering what will happen, working on his case, and Dora lives with her children here in Springfield. And they’re all unsure about the future.
But at least Dora knows something she did not know before when she was young. She knows God. She knows God does not abandon her or let her down in any way. Dora’s story, from her early experiences, has grown to include God.
I wonder: how many of our stories include God? How many of our personal stories which we tell the world out there or which we tell ourselves in our hearts, talk of the acts of God and how we have been blessed and cared for, or how God in Jesus has been with us in times of struggle and pain, or how, through God, we have been victorious in some way, or been better than ourselves, and able to do great things and show mercy and practice goodness.
How many of our stories are of times when, like Moses, we have been aware that we are in the presence of the divine up there on Mount Horeb. Or like Paul says in the very first sentence of the epistle today, we have been aware. How many of us are aware of our purpose in God.
The parable Jesus tells today of the fig tree and the gardener ends up at the end of the story with the hope that the fig tree will bear fruit. That it will not just sit there and take up space, but that something good will come of it. Because if you’ve got a fig tree the one thing you want are figs. It’s not a decoration or a place-holder in your garden. Its meaning and purpose is found when it lives true to who it is and it bears figs.
My parents when we were younger had this intricate thing in our living room which was about four feet high, and it was used to hold plants. It usually had a big fern in it. I thought all my life it was a beautiful plant holder at all. But then one day they took the fern out and my sister and I discovered that it was not a plant holder, but it was actually this fancy cream separator. And they poured the milk, right from the cow into the top where the plant sat and it magically separated the milk and the cream with the turn of a crank. And the cream was delicious. But I just hope they washed it first.
But the cream-separator was not a plant holder. There was a purpose under that fern, and I imagine it rejoiced and God gave praise when it finally got to be what it was. And the fig tree is not a bunch of sticks there in the ground, but it has a purpose, and I imagine it rejoices and God gives thanks when it finally shows its purpose in the bearing of fruit.
And a human being is not a thing or a commodity, or a burden, or another mouth to feed, or something to be used and discarded and passed around. But a human being has a purpose. And what a delight it is when, like Dora, the purpose is disclosed in being able to glorify and grow into God.
There is a listlessness to so many of our lives, to many people who are just going through time, and moving from one encounter to the next, sometimes like Dora in experiences of difficulty and pain, or sometimes just in a superficial way. Like watching the Instagram feed of people who have a million followers who tell us about the latest thing they’ve bought and how happy they are with the new fad they’ve discovered or the amazing places they go.
And you get these Instagram stories, or Facebook stories, these public presentations of success, and you watch them for one second, and pause to see what they’re excited about, and then you move on. And then the next thing, and then you move on.
And I can’t help but wonder where it all goes if none of it leads closer to truth, or to goodness, or to meaning. I can’t help but wonder if we are like plants growing in the cream-separator of life, getting bigger and bigger on the surface without ever really discovering what’s holding us below.
Or I wonder if we are like fig trees which show themselves to all the world that they’re great and doing well, but the owner and gardener can see different. Because they know we’re dead. Not physically dead, but spiritually struggling and content to live empty lives conforming to the expectations of the world but not finding our true purpose in the bearing of good fruit.
Dora, at a profound moment in her life, came to find something meaningful and different from what she had known. She was like Moses in the first lesson, who stumbles across something on Mount Horeb that is so different and so powerful that he has to take of his shoes and can not even look. Dora had to take off her shoes.
If it’s about anything, Lent is about getting to what’s real, and discovering somewhere in our lives, somewhere in the midst of our days, a time or a place or an activity that will get us to take off our shoes. Take off our armor. Take off our stories of growth and success that we tell the world, and the brave face we put on for the sake of looking good.
Because for all the world, we appear to be a successful businessman, business woman, or a great husband or wife or partner. We appear to have it all together. We appear to be happy and content and wise. And we may not be bad, and we may not be failing, and our lives might still be pretty good.
But Lent, out of God’s mercy, says, this is not the fruit you need to bear. I love you, but I don’t care about your Instagram success or your facebook achievements, or the things you show the world that you’ve done. I care that you come to me and that your life is changed, like Dora’s, into love, into faith, into my likeness. And that your shoes are removed and you are blown over by me. I want you to change, God says.
What does success look like to the God who created us and gave us life and knit together our molecules, who begs us for justice, who asks us for goodness, who sent his son to show us how to live? What does success look like? It looks like you, and me, at our best, in our compassion, in our care, with confidence, living in hope.
It looks like Dora, who talks about God now, who prays with faith and confidence, and who knows that no matter what happens to her husband and her family that she will be well, for she has found the love of God. True success is living by the love of God. And anything short of that we can just let go.