Friday, March 29, 2013

Maundy Thursday Meditation

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I have a memory of doing youth ministry in my Evangelical Christian days. Decades ago, we wanted to teach the kids about atonement – how Jesus paid the price for our sins by willingly dying on the cross – how God loves us so much and hates sin so much that God put Jesus to the cross so we wouldn’t have to be punished – how it should have been us on the cross instead of Jesus. To teach them these deep and complicated concepts, we made a video of the youth group kids. We got footage of their hands and feet. We dubbed over the video with a song – Sandi Patty singing:
It should've been my hands where the nails were
It should've been
It should've been my feet where the nails were
It should've been
It should've been my side that was opened
My heart that was broken
It should've been my hands
It should've been my feet where the nails were
When we showed them the video, we felt touched and blessed, condemned and anguished over our sins, and full of gratitude to God, because we knew that Jesus died to save us from our sinfulness. Like so many who have gone before us and like so many who will gather on Holy Week, we believed God sent Jesus take our place and pay the price for our sin. Like the words of the old hymn, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe. Sin has left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.” We accepted this as God’s grace. We believed the theology that God would sacrifice God’s only Son to satisfy the debt we owed on account of our sinfulness.

I wish I could do it over again, because I don’t believe that stuff anymore. Jesus was not crucified because God needed someone to pay. The crucifixion didn’t cleanse us of our sin. It wasn’t what God needed to do to forgive us. The crucifixion is what happens when we become separated or alienated from God’s aims for the world. Crucifixions happen when we forget that we are with God and one with each other. Crucifixion happens when we are lost in our incompleteness, our brokenness, our alienation, lost from the truth that we are one. Crucifixion happens when some people are given more worth than others. It happens when a small group of powerful people are given social control over others. It happens when we turn our backs on the inherent worth and dignity of all living beings, when we by ignore justice, equality and compassion and try to live off the energy generated by anger, fear and hostility.

Tonight begins a few days of weeping. We weep not just for Jesus, but for ourselves. Each of us have experienced deep losses. There are times when we are cut off, isolated and desperate. We know the desperation that comes when we feel that there is no way out. We have cried out to God claiming that we have been abandoned, wondering as Jesus did, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We weep not just for Jesus, but for all the unjust, unnecessary, and untimely deaths that still go on in this world. We weep for the thousands of children in who will die this very week of starvation, and for the infants who are born into poverty or abuse. We weep for the children who grow up in war torn lands, collecting mortar shells like some kids collect baseball cards, and for those children of our own cities who have been victims of random violence. We weep for young people in this community who will never be safe in their own homes and for those who do not have a home to go to. We weep for the young woman who would rather die than suffer any more abuse, and we weep for the young gay man who takes his own life when those he loved the most couldn’t accept him for who he is. We weep for those we love who have died and for those who we have lost because of anger or misunderstanding. We weep knowing that the crucifixion did not happen once and for all, way back when. Crucifixions happen all around us every day.

I have to admit something to you. I’m not proud of what I’m about to say, but honesty is the first step to healing. When I see crucifixions, my first impulse is not to run and help, but to turn away. I am not naturally drawn to relieve those in need. I will go, but it takes a lot of effort. Touching the agony of the world is uncomfortable to me. I weep over my own sin –  the sin of neglect, my own culpability in the sick systems that separate and crucify others, my own willingness to turn away when my community needs me the most. How do I repent? How do any of us? How do right?

We do not weep without hope. Sometimes it is in our brokenness and loss, or tears of remorse, that we can come closer to the sacred. Sometimes in our suffering we can see larger truths that have eluded us. Jesus showed us that life without fear frees us from the powers of darkness that dominate the world. Life without fear is the first step toward justice. And justice is the way to peace. The powers of darkness will have their day. But the cries of the crucified will not go unheard. Christ will come again and again, embodied in all those who work for peace through justice, grace and love.

If I could, I would film a new video with those youth group kids. They are not kids anymore, actually. They are all about 30 years old, now, most with jobs and families of their own. I would get them all together and make a new movie and show them what God’s love and sacrifice means to me these days. This time, there would be no swooning and crooning Sandy Patty, no debt to be paid, no substitutionary sacrifice that to be performed, no manipulative guilt trips. I would ask them to take off their shoes, and I would kneel down, and take out a damp cloth and wash their feet. Then I would capture their expressions. They would be mystified, because they all know how I think feet are disgusting and I don’t like touching those things. Maybe some of
them would laugh at the thought of me washing their feet. Maybe some would wonder what it was all about. Maybe some would refuse. Maybe a few of them would go and wash someone else’s feet in return. You know what I’d really like to capture on video? After a good foot washing, I’d film those men and women who used to be our youth group members arise and let their newly-washed feet carry them to the crucified ones: the grieving, hurting, needy, lonely, and friendless, to the prisoners, to the poor and oppressed – to anyone and everyone who needs to know that God’s grace and our faith can make a difference. And I’d sing my own soundtrack. I’d sing along with the prophet Isaiah, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” I’d pray that their feet would carry them, and that those young men and women would carry me along with them.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sermon for March 24, 2013 / Palm Sunday

Even Stones Cry Out

Jesus went on toward Jerusalem, walking ahead of his disciples. As he came to the towns of Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he sent two disciples ahead. “Go into that village over there,” he told them. “As you enter it, you will see a young donkey tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, ‘Why are you untying that colt?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So they went and found the colt, just as Jesus had said. And sure enough, as they were untying it, the owners asked them, “Why are you untying that colt?” And the disciples simply replied, “The Lord needs it.” So they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments over it for him to ride on. As he rode along, the crowds spread out their garments on the road ahead of him. When he reached the place where the road started down the Mount of Olives, all of his followers began to shout and sing as they walked along, praising God for all the wonderful miracles they had seen. “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!” But some of the Pharisees among the crowd said, “Teacher, rebuke your followers for saying things like that!” He replied, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!” Luke 19:28-40

(Holding a stone, reverently) =Do you hear it saying anything? I haven’t heard any over-the-top-joyful, ear-drum piercing, contagious shouts for joy this morning -- yet. I hoped that this stone would begin to sing or shout, maybe something like: “Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!" or, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Didn’t we just hear Jesus say that if his followers were silent, the stones would burst into cheers? When was the last time you joyfully praised God with such a loud voice that someone had to tell you to sit down and be quiet? Let’s listen carefully to the stone again.

Jerusalem has stones everywhere. We hear a lot about the holiness of the rocks in Jerusalem, especially when it comes to the adoration of ancient stones. Jews pray at a stone foundation called the Western Wall -- all that’s left of their holy temple. Muslims pray at the Dome of the Rock -- the third holiest site of Islam that sits atop the old Jewish Temple. Listen carefully to these stones. Are they singing the praises of God? The stones of Jerusalem have witnessed bloodshed, cruelty and atrocity. It’s part of the ancient city’s history. Jerusalem today still hangs on the edge of destruction. As the stones are thrown by Palestinians at Israelis and by Israelis at Palestinians, those stones may be whispering echoes of Jesus’ words when he visits Jerusalem, Jesus looks at the rocks of the old city and says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Lk. 13:33).

It’s as true right here in our lives as it is in the Holy City. That’s what we do, sometimes. We throw stones. You know it. You’ve thrown some stones in your life. I’ve done it, too. Stones of inadequacy – stones that say, “Go away. I’m not worth your time or love.” Stones of arrogance – stones that say, “My way is better.” Stones of isolation – stones that say, “I can do this all by myself. I don’t need you.” Stones of fear – stones that build walls instead of a home in which all are welcome. Stones of immaturity – stones that say, “I don’t want to grow. I don’t want to take responsibility. Just let me play by myself.” Stones of prejudice – stones that say, “You’re different from me. You’re not wanted or needed around here.” Stones of defensiveness – stones that say, “Don’t change or challenge me. Let me stay in my narrow little world.” Stones of violence that deny another’s dignity and humanity.

Listen to these stones. Are they singing praise?

This stone in my hand is not from Jerusalem. It’s not a holy stone from a shrine. It’s an ordinary hunk of Maryland quartz. It’s job is to get in my way when I’m trying to mow the yard. I move it around from place to place. Sometimes I hold it and listen. But it hasn’t said anything to me yet.

Poet Annie Dillard writes about a neighbor who lives alone with a stone. He is trying to teach the stone to talk. He spends time each day at their lesson. She writes: “He keeps it on a shelf. Usually the stone lies protected by a square of untanned leather, like a canary asleep under its cloth. Larry removes the cover for the stone’s lessons, or more accurately, I should say, for the ritual or rituals which they perform together several times a day.” Some, of course, laugh. They laughed at Jesus, too. God only knows which parts of creation are filled with messages for us. I suspect the problem is that we do not have the ears to hear. Or maybe it’s not an ear problem. Maybe it’s a heart problem.

When the Bible talks about the heart, it’s often used as a symbol. The heart refers to our emotions, thought or will. The biblical writers saw the heart as the seat of moral responsibility. The problem is that from the beginning of human existence, the place that controls our desire and will to follow God has been diseased. The Bible talks repeatedly about the various spiritual heart diseases:

There’s the condition of an unclean heart. Hear the words of King David after he sleeps with another man’s wife and has her husband killed. He cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God . . . “ (Psalm 51:1).

There’s the condition of a deceptive heart. These days the popular assumption is that the heart is basically good. The prophet Jeremiah thought differently. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Then there’s the disease of a stony heart. A stone is dead. It has no feelings. Talk to it; it will shed no tears of pity, even when you tell it your saddest tales. No smiles will gladden it, even when you tell it the happiest story. It has no consciousness. Prick it and it will not bleed. Stab it and it cannot die. You can’t make it wince or show any emotional response. Tears are lost on it. You can try to threaten it, but you might as well be whistling into the wind. All these efforts fall hopelessly to the ground because a stone is dead, and hard, and cold.

As we approach holy week, we remember a Sunday that began with the waving palms and cries of celebration turned into stony silence by Friday. Jesus rides to the cross. Friday’s stone-cold darkness will swallow up all the joyful shouting that rang in the streets on Sunday. No palms waving. No disciples shouting. The open mouth of the stone tomb is sealed with a stone. And we wait for the stone to speak.

You know how today’s story ends: Once, long ago, on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women found the stone rolled away from the empty tomb. They were frightened. I get it. When there’s a Palm-Sunday-type parade or a party, we might be willing to shout and sing. But when God mixes that celebration up with suffering and death, we become awkwardly silent. Our hearts grow fearful and cold. Even when we know the end of the story is good news of life, joy and peace, it can be hard to wave our branches and cheer. How can we shout our joyful praises of God in the midst of a world that seems so stony, so cold, so unresponsive to love and so far from the peace of Christ? How can we wave our palms when we realize that we have let our hearts become hard as rocks?

(Addressing the stone) I’m waiting for you to cheer. I’m waiting for you to tell me the hidden things that make for peace and joy. Listen! Can you hear this stone’s cries? Listen, and listen, and listen.

I may never teach my stone to speak. But it may teach me to listen. The stones we stumble over, the stones we throw, the stones that others may throw at us, the stones rolled away from the tombs of our lives . . . they all have a message. We may discover that we do indeed have ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us. This time we might hear and recognize the time of God’s visit.

This time God’s peace may not come in the tears of a rabbi entering Jerusalem on a young colt. It may not come with fanfare and waving palms. This time God’s peace may arrive in your neighbor – the crazy one teaching a stone to talk, the caring one who bakes you cookies, the lonely one waiting for an invitation to anything, or the angry one taking you to court. Learn from the stone. Listen to it. Don’t let God’s visit pass you by Listen. Listen to these stones speak. Listen and recognize God’s presence in them. You may just find yourself shouting joyful praises.

• “The Stony Heart Removed”, A Sermon Delivered on Sunday Evening, May 25th, 1862, by C. H. SPURGEON, At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington,

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sermon for March 10, 2013 / Lent IV

Where is God When I Am In Need?
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Click here for an audio version of the worship service.

I want to talk honestly this morning about something we don’t like to admit happens. While some of us can relate to the lost son who came home to a loving parent, I believe that many of us see ourselves in the child who felt left out. How do we handle it when we expect God to act a certain way, and lets us down? What are we supposed to do when God doesn’t meet our expectations, or even worse, when we feel that we have not been fully appreciated ?

Many of us are familiar with this parable: the young son takes his share of the family inheritance and goes to the big city to squander his money in the fast lane. Yet, all this time, a responsible older son works at home. He obeys his father. He stays at the ranch, caring for the family farm and waiting patiently for what’s due him. He is respectable. People depend on him in tough times. Then one day, without a word of notice, the little brother comes back home. He’s dirt poor and looks like one of his father’s workers. I can imagine the older brother thinking, “Finally -- now this squanderer will learn some responsibility. Maybe he’s hit rock bottom and he’s ready to learn his lesson.” But the most irresponsible member of the family gets treated more like royalty than a wayward son. Dad throws a feast in his honor. Everyone joins the party -- except for one person, the older son. As a responsible, first-born son type, I’d be angry too. The older brother works day in and day out, honestly and devotedly. Suddenly, this rebellious waste of a brother comes home and they throw him the party. Is this how you thank hard work and devotion? I would feel as if I had just been slapped in the face and sucker-punched. I would be disappointed and angry with my father.

The older son says as much. “Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you. I’ve never given you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me or my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up, and you go all out with a fattened calf.” He sounds resentful, and hurt that his father has not fully appreciated who he is or the sacrifice he has made for the family. Have you ever felt like this older child? Forgotten? Abandoned? Taken for granted Unappreciated? Confused?

Imagine a window in your heart through which you can see God. Once upon time that window was clear. Your view of God was crisp. The glass was clear. You thought you knew how God worked. No surprises. You saw God’s will for you, and you followed it. Then the window cracked unexpectedly. A stone of suffering broke your vision. Perhaps the stone struck when you were a child and a parent left home forever. Maybe the rock hit in adolescence when your heart was broken. Perhaps it was a midnight phone call that woke you up with shivers up your spine. Maybe it was a letter on the kitchen table that said, “It’s over, I just don’t love you anymore.” The rock of pain could have been a diagnosis from the doctor who said, “I’m afraid our news is not good.” Maybe it was the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a reputation. Whatever the stone’s form, the result was the same -- a shattered perspective. The view that had been so crisp had changed. Suddenly God was not easy to see. You turned to find some hope in the usual places, but the usual places were not helpful anymore. It was hard to see anything good through the fragments of suffering. You were puzzled. Perhaps you wondered, “If God is really in control, why would these bad things happen? Why didn’t God heal him? Why didn’t God let her live? Why does it seem like bad people prosper while the good die young? Why do others get to live happy, perfect lives, and I don’t? Where is Go when I’m in need?

Most of us have a way of completing this sentence: “If God is God, then...” Each of us has unspoken yet definite expectations about what God should do. “If God is God, then . . . "
    • There will be no financial collapse in my family.
    • My children will never be buried before me.
    • People will treat me fairly.
    • My prayer will be answered.
These statements define our expectations of God. When pain comes into our world and splinters the window of our hearts, our expectations go unmet and doubts may begin to surface. Fragmented glass hinders our vision, and we’re not quite sure what we see anymore.

I don’t think these feelings are bad. The struggle is real. The question is: how do we deal with them? The older son in Jesus’ parable took it too far. He became critical and unsatisfied with his father. Disappointment does that. It can make us bitter and isolated. We begin to lack joy and love as we focus on our abandonment. It can make us critical of a God who chooses to make others happy while you wallow in pain. It can cause you to be angry with a God who would throw a party for “sinners” rather than rewarding the efforts the “righteous.”

A medieval theologian named John of the Cross had a phrase for this feeling. He called it, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Writing in the seventeenth century, John of the Cross had just escaped from a Spanish prison. He was locked up because he had a fiery, passionate love for God, unconfined by the doctrines of the church. He was a lover who had to go through exile in a land with no reference points before he could return home. He had a spiritual homesickness, living as a wanderer in a place where he did not belong. Everything he thought he believed was turned upside down. He wanted union with God, but it was elusive. In the dark night of the soul, one's own voice feels unsupported by God and unheard in the wilderness of the world. Nothing makes sense anymore. There’s no purpose to anything. We have another word for this feeling: despair.

Despair is very difficult to deal with in our culture because there is no permission for it.  We don’t deal well with this kind of pain. That why the Christian world drew a collective breath of shock when, in 2007, we discovered through a posthumously published book that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had undergone a severe, intense dark night that persisted through almost her entire ministry. It didn't seem to make sense. Why on earth would such a saintly person suffer such painful darkness? She wrote of "this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart." The place in her soul where, as a young nun, she had experienced God's intimate presence was now just a blank. "I just long and long for God—and then . . .  I feel—[God] does not want me—[God] is not there." In the pain, she found integration. Teresa finally used her dark night as a way to identify more deeply with "the hungry, the naked, the homeless . . .  all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." This is part of the rhythm of the spiritual life: desolation invites us to participate in God’s justice.

Theologian James Cone talks about the Dark Night but with different language. He calls it the “dialectic of despair and hope.” Theologians love to kick the word “dialectic” around. The word has to do with questions and answers.  In other words, despair asks the questions, “Why this? Why me? Why now?” Hope has the answer – an invitation to reunion. Cone talks about being black in the South during the lynching era. Blacks knew that violent self-defense was equivalent to suicide. Self-defense and protest were out of the question. How did southern rural blacks survive the terrors of this era? For many, it was the blues. On the one hand, African Americans spoke of how they cried and moaned, about
“feel[ing] like nothin’, somethin’ th’owed away.”
Yet, in the next line they balanced despair with hope:
“Then I get my guitar and play the blues all day.”
Cone says, as long as African Americans could sing and play the blues, they had some hope that one day their humanity would be acknowledged. Sorrow turns to joy, despair to hope. Violence to justice. Those who are last will someday become the first.

Jesus gives a parable for the forasken. The one who was lost has been found and can return home to be reunited with the beloved. The one who feels secure, self-satisfied and superior becomes the one who is lost and needs to rediscover the meaning of love. It’s an invitation through the dark night.

Let me tell you about a woman with a vision. She lived in England in a time when war terrorizes and Black Death equally terrorizes the people. She was only 30 years old. A widow. Homeless. Sick. Dying. Forsaken. In tired desperation, she sat in a lean-to attached to a church in Norwich and in her feverish condition she saw Christ. In her darkest night of the soul, she felt the embrace of the Divine and heard these words: “All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well" She lived to write it all down, giving us the first book in the English language written by a woman. We don’t even know her name. We simply remember her as Julian of Norwich.

Where is God when we are in need? Where is God when we feel abandoned? Where is God when we’ve been running from home and are ready to come back? Where is God when we feel like nothing?

God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

When we’ve been dumped and left with the rubbish, God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

When we get bad news, God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

When we feel abandoned, God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

When we grieve . . . when we feel alone . . . when God doesn’t meet our expectations . . . even when we feel forsaken by God, God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

A Prayer of Julian of Norwich
God, before you made us you loved us you love us; your love was never abated, and never will be. And in your love you have done all your works, and in your love you have made all things profitable to us, and in your love our life is everlasting. In our creation we had our beginning, but the love in which you created us was in you from without beginning. In your love we have our beginning, and all this shall we see in you, God.

James Cone, The Cross & the Lynching Tree.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sermon for March 3, 2013 / Lent III

Where is God When I’m Parched?

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” -- Luke 13:1-9

I have the worst luck with planting tomatoes. I used to have visions of growing my own food, feeding my family and sustaining the earth with my simple organic home agriculture. When I lived in Connecticut, I bought reputable heirloom seeds called Silvery Fir. Silvery Fir is an heirloom from Siberia, bred to grow in cold climates with a short growing year. I figured, if they can grow in Siberia, than I can grow them in Connecticut. I tended them, watered them, and transplanted them. I even sang to them (they liked Russian opera). I rejoiced when they popped out of the soil. And they grew and grew -- into small, leggy, spindly, and wispy, fruitless plants.

Sure there were bigger, sexier, tomatoes on the market that made mine look puny -- like the Burpee Best Boy. Best Boy was born to be a star in the garden. Best Boy’s maturity produces large, firm fruits on compact plants, with excellent uniform coloring disease resistance. I had a landlord who used to buy these beautiful hybrid plants. We lived in a two-family house near Boston, Chris and I lived above our landlord’s family. The landlord and I shared a garden patch in his yard. Every Memorial Weekend, I would plant my tender seedlings. He would come home from a garden center with a two-foot tall hybrid tomato, small green fruit already forming on thick vines. He was competitive like that – a vegetable bully. I bet he didn’t even like tomatoes. He just had to have the biggest and best tomatoes in the garden.

Jesus has some stories about spindly plants, too. In today’s reading, it’s a fig tree. The owner of the tree wants to see some fruit from this thing, but it won’t produce. “Chop it down, the vineyard owner says.”  He’s like my old vegetable bully landlord. In his economy, if something is not a fruitful member of the garden, or if someone is not being a successful member of society, get rid of it. Put the resources somewhere else – something bigger and more alluring. But there’s this gardener. And the gardener says, “Give it another year, boss. I’ll give it extra nurture. I’ll take care of it. Something wonderful will happen. You’ll see!”

The gardener understands. Thirsty, withered times call for more resources, not less. Parched souls need to be filled, not shrunk. And we live in some parched times, don’t we?

The standard interpretation of the parable of the withered fig tree goes something like this: The three entities in the story all have clear symbolic significance. The vineyard owner represents God, the one who rightly expects to see fruit on the tree and who justly decides to destroy it when there is none. The gardener who waters and fertilizes the tree represents Jesus, who feeds his people and gives them living water. The tree itself has two symbolic meanings: the nation of Israel and the individual. The lesson: Get your act together, and let Jesus change your life because if you don’t, God is going to chop you down.

Today, I want to propose a different interpretation – a reading of this text for parched souls and a thirsty world. Luke 13 opens with the story of 18 Galileans who worshipped in the old Temple in Jerusalem near the Tower of Siloam. The tower fell on them and in the disaster their blood was mingled with the sacrifices on the altar. Some said it was an act of God. Conspiracy theorists claimed Pilate engineered the collapse of that Tower onto those worshipping Galileans who were resistant to the new and improved temple. Because the Galileans chose to worship at the old Temple built by King Solomon in the Old City instead of the new Temple being constructed by Herod in Romanized Jerusalem, because of their stiff-necked refusal to embrace Herod’s building projects, they were killed as a warning and a threat to the Jewish people. They got the warning loud and clear. And they were angry. Ancient, holy values had been violated: the altar in the old temple; the ritual practices held there; the sacred place reserved for priestly anointed hands; the animals, made holy by prayers, and making them holy in their offered lives; the murdered Galileans who had been standing at that altar.  In a single stroke Pilate humiliated the nation and its culture, and the very presence of God and a spinal shiver went through Jerusalem.

I know that spinal shiver. Sikhs at worship, near Milwaukee, WI. The Old Order Amish school children in their classroom in Lancaster County, PA.  Newtown. Aurora. Columbine.  Rwanda. Syria. We can only begin to name the desecrations that have happened in the past 15-20 years. And then there are the natural disasters.  Sandy.  Katrina. The Japanese tsunami.  Or human-made disasters like the BP oil spill. The catalogue seems as if it does not end. Madness looms larger than life itself. Life is desecrated. Where is God?  Are these altars devoid of the powers they praise?

So Jesus tells a story. About a fig tree and a landowner and a gardener. It’s about repentance and nurture to those who are burned out, dried up, and fruitless. I don’t think the landowner is God. I think Jesus has someone else in mind. Luke is writing to a congregation of marginalized, persecuted Christians – perhaps a congregation of Gentiles who have converted to Christianity. In Luke’s time, landowners and vineyard owners were members of the urban elite. They owned large estates which produced great harvests. Most of Luke’s readers would not be the landowners. They would be exploited by the landowners. They would be like the fig tree, devoid of economic resources, feeling parched and fruitless, threatened to be cut down, thirsting for justice. The landowner supported an economy in which laborers worked long hard hours for pay. The economic principle here is people who are rich and successful are the ones who have succeeded. They have reached the top through hard work and sacrifice. The ones who aren’t at the top didn’t try hard enough. It’s an economy that says that those who need special care are less human. They are the people to whom Luke is writing. In the parable, the landowner is the villain. And when Luke needs a villain, he turns to the Herod. Herod is the owner of the vineyard who wants to cut down the fruitless tree. Herod is the iconic bully who represents lust for power, economic exploitation, and hunger for power on the backs of the working poor.  Do you remember our scripture from last week? It comes right after this parable. Luke sets Jesus and Herod against each other. Herod is the consumer who devours resources for his building projects like the new Temple. Herod is the sly fox who destroys for his own desires. Jesus is the nurturer – the mother hen. And in this parable, Jesus is the gardener who tends to the needs of the tree instead of the landowner. Jesus, the gardener, represents a different economy. In Jesus’s garden, those who are successful are those who have been compassionate.

Where is God when we feel like parched trees or wilting tomato plants? Where is God when we see despair and violence in a world thirsting for justice? Where is God when we see nations slake their thirst in the blood of war while children literally die of thirst? What is the point of the church, if the church insists only on serving itself? What is the point of our worship, if things do not change? What is the value of the nation, if the flag is wrapped around corruption?  Where is the justice in a system that cannot set us free of these terrors? 

Jesus says repent. The word literally means. “to turn.”  The temptation is to disbelieve in the powers of truth, in justice or wisdom, or the hand of God at work or the love of God in this world. Jesus knows this temptation is at work in us, and he presses for turning, for nourishing, for growth, for second chances. Turn  toward the warm altar of hope. No, life is not always fair, but you can be fair. No, life is not always beautiful, but you can be beautiful in your living.  No, life is not faithful, but you can be faithful. Humanity may be powerful in hate. And you can be powerful in love, which will step your feet into the kingdom of heaven, here and now.

Christ also feels this temptation, this despair. Christ argues about that feeling with those who see life only one way. We are all the gardeners with Christ, working to sustain a withering world and water it with compassionate justice.  God is the gardener, and the tree, the fruit and the bare waiting branches, the one with empty hands and the one who owns it all.  And God is always arguing for a little extra time, for our sakes.

And here we are, not cut down. We have a little more time. Fruitfulness is ours to choose, an act of faith, an act of beauty, a work of justice, extending time into another season.  And this is our choice, not how it makes us feel, but the meaning we choose to give it.  It requires repentance -- a turning, of the soil and a turning of the soul.


Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...