What Are You Waiting For?

(sermon 3/24/19)

make that change

Luke 13:1-9

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.’”

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It seems to happen time and time again. There will be some kind of tragedy – a flood, an earthquake, a hurricane, a wildfire – and within hours some know-it-all TV preacher or blogger will be claiming that the disaster was a sign of God’s wrath; it’s God’s judgment against the people who are suffering. According to these self-proclaimed experts, God was punishing these people because of something or someone they’d voted for, or voted against, or how they worshiped God, or how they didn’t worship God at all, or how they parted their hair, or some other equally ridiculous reason. It’s always seemed odd to me that these experts could discern that when these kinds of things happened to places like New Orleans, or Miami, or somewhere else they considered sinful, the disaster was God’s punishment, but wen a string of tornadoes cuts a swath somewhere through the Bible Belt, it’s just some terrible, inexplicable tragedy that doesn’t indicate God’s judgment at all.

These supposed divine mind readers are really only channeling a misguided way of understanding God and life that’s been around for a long time. Pretty much throughout human history, and across pretty much all cultures and religions, some people have believed that the disasters, large and small, that we experience in life are signs of God’s displeasure with us. The different authors of our own scriptures offer a kind of split opinion on the idea, so proof-texting one passage or another without reading them through the lens of the totality of scripture can offer support for those mind readers.

But it’s here, in today’s gospel text, that might give us the most important insight into how to think about that issue.

In this text, we’re stepping into the middle of an ongoing conversation that Jesus was having with his disciples as he’s headed toward Jerusalem and his own execution. You can imagine that the very short length of time he has left himself is weighing heavily on him, and that it’s the point of origin of his conversation with these disciples.

It came up in conversation about a group of Galileans that Pontius Pilate had killed, apparently for political reasons and apparently while they were in the Temple, based on the way the disciples had described it, as mixing their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. They also discussed people who were killed when a tower, a part of the wall around Jerusalem, had collapsed and fallen on them. It must have come up in conversation that, as many people then might have believed, that maybe these victims were in some way greater sinners than others, and that was why these things had happened to them.

Jesus’ response to their comments was actually a beautiful thing. It’s one of the most simple, elegant, efficient theological statements in the gospels. When this idea comes up – just as it did 2,000 ears later when some televangelists claimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment of New Orleans for its sinful reputation – Jesus swats the whole idea away as if it’s nothing more than an annoying fly circling around his head. What? That’s silly; of course God doesn’t work that way; it isn’t even worth wasting any time at all considering that kind of nonsense.

And then, having dispensed with that ridiculousness, he takes the disciples’ comments and spins them in a different direction. What happened to all those people was a terrible tragedy. But learn something from that tragedy. Imagine each of those people. They woke up on those days just like any other and went on with their normal routine thinking they’d get up again the next morning, and the next morning, and many mornings after that. What things in their lives do you suppose they’d put off until some later time, always thinking there would be plenty of time, there would always be another day to do it, until suddenly, there wasn’t? All those things they’d wanted to do, all those changes they’d wanted to make in their lives, all the good they’d wanted to accomplish for others, all of them went to the grave along with them.

Fully aware that he didn’t have much time left himself, Jesus tried to wake up these disciples to the fact that the time they had left to break out of their own normal routines and make similar kinds of changes – to “repent,” to use the old English term – was, in relative terms, just as short. Don’t wait, he’s telling them. The right time to make those changes is now.

Several years ago, I was talking with someone – a very successful person in a respected profession, and a very nice person on top of that – who told me that they were running themselves ragged in their professional life. They’d actually grown to hate what they did for a living; it didn’t seem to have much redeeming or lasting social value. But it did pay very well, and they told me that that was why they kept going – because it was enabling them to save up a big nest egg, and that once they retired, they’d be able to use their savings to allow them to finally do something good and have lasting benefit for others, to finally accomplish something meaningful in their life.

I knew that they sincerely meant well, but I couldn’t help but think to myself what a terrible and tragic plan that was. Beyond the fact that hungry, homeless, hopeless people needed help now, and couldn’t wait a few decades for help, you don’t have to live too many years in this life to know that next year, or next month, or even tomorrow, is never guaranteed to us. In this passage, Jesus is waning us not to live our lives betting that they are, because at some point, sooner or later, we’re all going to lose that bet.

Lent is a perfect time to think about these things. What is it in your own life that you know, as a follower of Christ, you should be doing that you’ve been putting off until some uncertain future time? Why not use this season to finally make that change; to take that turn? Reach out to that estranged brother, sister, child, parent, friend. Reconcile with them, make peace, now, before it’s too late. Restructure your schedule, maybe even giving up something else, so you can have the time, now, to work at the food pantry. To teach kids how to read. To help build a house, or to mentor a struggling teenager. Plan that trip; reconnect with that faraway family member or friend you haven’t taken the time to see in years. Finally carve out the time to go on that mission trip you always wanted to. Work on building and strengthening relationships with others, because those human relationships are of God, and by strengthening and deepening them, you’ll also strengthen and deepen your relationship with God.

The time is now – there’s not time to wait. And by the same token, there’s no excuse in thinking it’s too late, either. Remember, even though it wasn’t a particularly spiritual pursuit, but Ed S_________ started taking piano lessons when he was 95 years old. Jesus is telling us that there’s no time like the present, because it’s the only time we’re guaranteed.

This season of Lent, let’s try to think about what’s holding us back from making those kinds of changes – those kinds of improvements, in the name of Christ – and to ask why we allow them to keep holding us back from hearing Jesus’ words of warning here, and to living the life he’s calling us to.

When you think about these things, remember that God understands where you are. Through Jesus, God has experienced all the same kinds of pushes and pulls and pressures that can work to keep us from turning toward the fuller, more eternal, more kingdom-oriented way of living that God has created us for and is calling us toward. And God knows that sometimes, making those kinds of changes can be hard. But we can always have assurance, and confidence, that the one who continued on that road, making the hard journey to Jerusalem and who endured all that played out there, will always be with us – loving us, guiding us, helping us as we try to follow where he’s leading. And it doesn’t take a mind reader to know that.

Thanks be to God.

*Terms and Conditions (Do Not) Apply

(sermon 3/17/19)

christchurch mosque

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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You can hear the sadness in Jesus’ voice in today’s gospel text. First, some Pharisees come to warn him – look, we know you’re a man of God, we agree with what you’re saying, but you’re ruffling Herod’s fathers. You’ve got to be more careful – there must be some way you could continue to spread your message without upsetting or discomforting people. If you aren’t more careful, there’s going to be a backlash, and you’re going to get squashed like a bug.

It must have been the same kind of feeling that Dr. Martin Luther King felt as he was sitting in the Birmingham jail, reading the letter from the handful of local clergy telling him they agreed with him in principle, but urging him to be more moderate, not to make waves, to take things more slowly and not upset the governmental or social powers that be.

It had to be frustrating to Jesus when people wanted him to moderate and modify his message to make it more palatable. To add an asterisk, fine print, terms and conditions to the good news that God had sent him to proclaim. As he said in this passage, he knew that it wasn’t anything new; people had done the same with the prophets who had come before him, and now it was the same with him.

As he’s considering that reality, he refers to his love, and God’s love, being like that of a mother hen, protecting all of her chicks under her protective wings, and leaving none of them unprotected. It’s beautiful imagery. It’s also one of the times that we see God being described in female terms, reminding us that we always need to try to use inclusive, non-gendered language when talking about God.

But when it comes right down to it, we’ve always had trouble accepting the fullness of that image. It’s easy for us to imagine God’s protective wings for us, but many times we’ve had difficulty understanding that those wings are meant for all of us.

This morning, we’re experiencing yet another in a long line of examples of just what that sinful way of thinking can lead to. Today, God’s heart must ache along with ours in the wake of the terrorist attack on the two mosques by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just as God’s heart ached when the local Hindu temple was broken into and vandalized. Just as it ached after the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Just as it aches in the wake of every church burning and bombing and killing. Just as it aches every time someone tries to mistreat or threaten violence against someone else because of a difference of religion, or any other distinction.

These kinds of tragedies can only happen when we think that some of us are less worthy of being loved by God; less worthy of being under those wings, than we are. They’re only possible when people accept  this vile, obscene argument that God, the Creator and Parent of us all, loves some of us more than others; or even worse, loves some of us but some others not at all.

Some more conservative Christians criticize more progressive Christians by claiming that the progressives portray a God who’s too warm and soft and fuzzy, and that denies that God would ever exhibit wrath. Well, I think it’s in precisely these kinds of times, when we want to put terms and conditions on an unconditional God; when we want to limit which of God’s chicks are worthy of being under God’s protective wings; when we refuse to hear and accept God’s saying “No! All of them; they’re all mine!!!” – That’s when I believe that God’s wrath is real, and at its greatest. I firmly believe that whenever we try to put terms and conditions on God’s unconditional love for all people, that’s when we really risk facing the wrath of God.

As we continue our Lenten journey this season – as we recommit ourselves to hear and follow Jesus, who accepted no terms and conditions on the gospel – let’s also offer prayers for all those affected by the New Zealand terrorist attack. Let’s pour out our compassion and our love for them in this time of their suffering. And just as importantly, let’s examine our social structures, our churches, organizations, governmental systems, and public figures – anyone or anything that would proclaim a false gospel of fear and ignorance and hatred against different groups of God’s people. Let’s examine anyone or anything that would directly or indirectly incite violence against other supposedly less desirable. Anyone or anything that would say that some of us are insiders worthy of God’s love and protection, and others are dangerous “invaders” who aren’t.  As part of our Lenten journey of moving closer to Jesus and closer to the cross, let’s examine all of those people and things that would put forward this obscene false gospel of tribalism and tribal supremacy, however they might want to define the tribe. And whoever t is, and wherever we find it, let’s recommit, in Christ’s name, to having the courage to stand up against it and to call it out as the literal evil that it is – even in cases where it might cause discomfort; even if it might ruffle feathers or make for difficult conversation at the dinner table; even if Herod doesn’t like it.

At the same time, let’s recognize that this false gospel doesn’t only show up out there, in others. In ways large and small, sometimes in ways we don’t even notice, we fall into that same false gospel that there are others outside our own tribe who God cares about less, too. It’s wired into us as part of our evolutionary development; it’s part of the survival instincts encoded into our most elementary, reflexive brain functions. I fall into it; you fall into it; we all do. But through Christ, God has called us new creatures, and has called us to seeing life as God sees it.

The reality of the no-strings attached way that Jesus describes God’s love is very good news for all of us, because no matter who we are, at some point when people are trying to define tribes, and who is, and isn’t, worthy of being under God’s protective wings, we’ll all be defined as outsiders, supplanters, invaders. So in these weeks of Lent – this time of self-examination, and meditation on our relationship with God and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, let’s try with God’s help to refocus on the reality that all people are God’s people. Let’s remember the good news from Genesis that God created all human beings and called us very good. Let’s remember the good news from the gospel according to John that God so loved the world, not just part of it. Let’s remember the good news that all of us are worthy of the same love, and protection, and justice, and mercy, and being under God’s wings. All of us. No asterisk. No fine print. No terms and conditions. Not now. Not ever.

Thanks be to God.

Stoichi Mujic

(sermon 3/1019)

bridge of spies

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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This past week, George and I watched the movie “Bridge of Spies.” If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s based on a true story, takes place in the early 1960s. Tom Hanks plays an attorney named James Donovan, who is appointed by the court to defend a Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel against espionage charges. Donovan also later goes on to act as the negotiator who secured the exchange of Abel in return for the downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, and an American grad student named Frederic Pryor, who was being held by the East Germans. Early in the movie, Donovan is confronted by a CIA agent who tells him that the CIA needs him to tell them everything that Abel tells him in confidence. Donovan pushes back, reminding the agent that to do that would be a violation of attorney-client privilege, at which point the agent tells him, “Don’t go Boy Scout on me now; there is no rule book here.” But Donovan pushes back, saying there really, there’s one thing, just one thing, that makes us all American – the “rule book,” better known as the Constitution, which establishes that we all have equal rights, equal freedoms, equal justice, and equal protection under the law, no matter who we are.

The scene prompted me to think about what it is, exactly, that you could point to, that identifies us as people of the Kingdom of God. I mean, we don’t really have a single “rule book;” the Kingdom of God doesn’t have a “Constitution.” We can’t say the Bible works that way, since we all interpret it in so many different ways. And the same is true about any of the ancient creeds and confessions, since when you, or I, or anyone else, recite them, we can be saying that we believe very different things even though we’re reciting the exact same words. Fundamentalists tried to identify a basic “rule book” a little more than a hundred years ago and failed miserably. And in one way or another, every tradition tries to do the same – in the past couple of weeks, we saw in the news the United Methodist Church going through the painful process of arguing about their own “rule book” regarding who’s in, and who’s out, with regard to their own tradition.

In the end, I think that no matter how noble the attempt to have one might be, the idea of a “rule book” of any kind that would define, and unite, and regulate us as people of the Kingdom of God is bound to fail – because ultimately, I think that what really identifies us, in any meaningful sense, as being part of the Kingdom of God is one thing,  just one thing:  that God has unilaterally chosen to instill within each of us the Holy Spirit. The very Spirit of God dwells within each of us, whoever we are – regardless of any of our own differences, beliefs, variations – young or old, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, shy or outgoing, any gender, any race – it doesn’t matter. God has chosen to bestow the Holy Spirit upon us, whether in spite of or because of, all our differences. This is at the very core of our baptism signifies – that God has chosen to receive us, accept us, dwell within us. To comfort us when we need comforting, to challenge us when we need challenging, to strengthen us when we need strengthening.

It’s his same indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but in Jesus, that’s at the beginning of today’s gospel text. Luke sets the stage by reminding us in the very first line of this story that Jesus is filed with the Holy Spirit as these temptations begin. As the story unfolds, Jesus is tempted with three things: bread – sustenance. Power and authority, and you can throw wealth into here as well. And safety and security. Truly, pretty much any temptation that Jesus, or we, could ever face is just a variation on one of those three themes. The preacher David Lose has written that what we can see in each of these types of temptation is an attempt to undercut Jesus’ confidence in his relationship with God; to undermine his true identity and to get him to accept an artificial, lesser one.

It’s the same with us, too. When we’re being tempted, it always distills down to a temptation to stray away from our relationship with God and our true identity as a child of God that’s defined by that relationship.

In each of these three instances with Jesus, Satan tries to instill doubt, to undermine Jesus’ confidence in God. Satan tries to get Jesus to feel that who he is, what he is, in his relationship with God is somehow insufficient. It’s lacking something. It isn’t enough as-is. And in each case, Jesus resists the temptation by using scripture to remind Satan, and undoubtedly himself, of his identity as a beloved child of God – and that in that identity, he has enough and is enough. But not only is he merely enough, he’s actually so much more than that – he is precious, and of infinite worth in the eyes of God. And that is everything.

And in the same way, because the same Spirit dwells within us, we share that same identity. Each and every one of us is also a precious child of God. And that is everything.

In countless ways, the world around us tries to make us forget that identity. To forget how precious we are. To think that we’d be better off following another path. The season of Lent is all about taking time, and allowing this one thing, the Holy Spirit within us, to remind us, to refocus us, on our true identity as precious children of God; and reinforcing this truth within us, that there is nothing in this world, nothing, no matter how tempting it may sound, that could possibly compare with what we already have, and already are.

There’s another scene in “Bridge of Spies” where Abel, the spy, has just lost his case. He and Donovan are in a private meeting, and Donovan is going through all their possible options, filing an appeal and so on. As they’re talking, Abel tells Donovan that he reminds him of a man he’d known when he was a child in Russia. He saw this man, along with his own parents, being beaten by a group of partisan border guards. They beat this man and knocked him to the ground, but when they did, he stood back up. This angered the men, so they beat him to the ground again, only this time beating him even harder. But still, the man got up again. This went on several times, beating the man  to the ground and the man getting back up each time. The men beating him couldn’t believe it, and in their disbelief, they called him “Stoichi Mujic” – Russian for “Standing Man,” and out of respect for his perseverance and determination, they finally left him alone.

In this gospel text, Jesus is most definitely a “stoichi mujic” – a standing man, standing again and again in the face of Satan’s multiple temptations. In a few weeks, we’ll hear the account of him being a stoichi mujic again – refusing to deny his identity and standing up against being interrogated by Caiaphas, and Herod, and Pontius Pilate. And finally, we’ll celebrate the morning where he was a stoichi mujic once more time – when he removed the cloth covering his face, and stood up against death itself as he rose to his feet in the darkness of his tomb on that first Easter Sunday.

This Lent, let’s remember the reality of this one thing that unites us – the Holy Spirit who dwells in Jesus and who dwells in us, too; and that with the help of that Holy Spirit, we can be “standing people” ourselves – standing up to temptation, and even more importantly, against whatever else the world might throw at us, holding on to our true identity as God’s own beloved.

Thanks be to God.