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After the Spirit

(a sermon for June 16, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Acts 2:42-47, 3:1-10)

“…and they lived happily ever after!”  And… Amen!

Now that’s how the story really ought to end, right (?); at least as it pertains to those first few verses of our text for this morning.  I mean, consider the “narrative arc,” if you will, of this part of the biblical story; think for a moment about everything that brought that group of twelve disciples from where they were – that is, as this rather motley assortment of fishermen, tax-collectors, and other assorted outsiders who’d left everything to follow Jesus – to what they are now, the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led Apostles in whom “many wonders and signs are being done,” and by whose proclamation of good news a new church is growing exponentially, to the point where once there were little more than a handful of believers and now – in a single day, no less (!), the day of Pentecost  – “about three thousand persons were added;” and as Luke goes on to tell us, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

And it’s at this point in this sweeping narrative that Luke began in his gospel and now continues his “Book of Acts” that we’re given this incredible description of Christian community as it was truly lived out in the life of this new church.  We’re told that the believers were all gathered together and that everyone was filled with awe about all the signs and wonders they were witnessing; and along with worship and prayers and “devot[ing] themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” they also gave to one another as any had need, and – I love this part – “ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”  It’s worship, it’s fellowship, it’s compassion: from the very beginning these were the marks of the Christian life and to this day remain our model and the ideal of what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be.  Or, to put it another way, if I might quote Laura Truman of the Forum for Theological Exploration, “Oh my goodness, it is beautiful.   They are doing theology, they are living together, they are eating together, they are praying together – this is the kind of community that most church leaders would give their left foot for… This story of the beginning of the Church,” she writes, “is just glorious.  This is the Church alive.  This is the Church on the move.”

And so, do you see what I mean when I say that this might well be the place to end the story; that now we’re at the part of the gospel in which we can gaze upon this amazing new church – formed by Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen, and gathered, led and empowered by his Holy Spirit – and know that from this point on, after everything those apostles had been through and more to the point, through what God had done in the person of the Christ (!) that they could indeed “live happily ever after.”  I mean, if I’m making a movie about this (I guess technically, given it’s about the apostles and their journey after the resurrection, it would be a sequel!), about the time the Spirit has come in all of its power and the believers are “praising God and having the goodwill of all the people,” it would be time to fade out and roll the credits; as I said before, that’s where the story ought to end, right?

Well, if we understand scripture, not to mention the mission of the church, the answer there would be… no.  In fact, it can well be said that “after the Spirit” is when the story begins anew; and in many ways, it’s the place where our story and truly, our mission as believers really comes into focus.

Actually, from a narrative point of view, it’s interesting to note that following this very grand and idealistic view of the beginnings of the Christian church, Luke in his telling of the story sort of pulls back a bit so to tell the story about how “one day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, about three o’clock.”  So, you see, already there’s a routine developing in the life of the church; and I don’t say that as a negative, nor am I in suggesting that the “wonders and signs” done by the apostles were in any way diminishing, because if you read on in the Book of Acts, you’ll know that this is not the case.  If anything, this “going up to the temple” every afternoon tells us that a discipline of prayer and worship was from the very beginning, as it continues to be, essential to the Christian life.

And so it is on this particular day, we have Peter and John on their way to the temple for afternoon prayer – for “prayer meeting,” The Message calls it – and as they pass through the gate of the temple known as the “Beautiful Gate” they encounter a man “crippled from birth,” [The Message] “asking for alms;” that is, begging passersby for any kind of handout they might we willing to offer him as one poor and needy.  Now, we don’t know much about this man: he’s not given a name nor is there much of a backstory about what’s brought him to this station of life; all we really can glean from the text is that being “lame from birth,” he’d been carried to this gate and placed there for the purpose of begging, and that apparently he’d been doing this for quite some time, because later on we find out that all the people who entered the temple by this so called “Beautiful Gate” had recognized this  man as one of “those people” who were always there on the fringes begging for whatever spare change anybody might give him.  And so likely what he was doing that afternoon was what he always did, which was with eyes to the ground and arms extended crying out… crying out again and again and again for alms… for money… for something, anything that might help.

But whereas most people going to temple that afternoon sought to ignore the beggar’s cries and probably did everything they could to avoid any encounter with him altogether, we’re told that Peter and John heard the man’s cries and stopped; but even more than merely stopping to hear the request, Luke tells us that “Peter looked intently at him, as did John,” and said to this beggar, “Look here…” “Look at us…”   which, as even you and I in these times, was a pretty radical response!   I remember years ago someone I went to school with describing to me of her experience one summer living and working in New York City.  Now, this girl was not only still pretty young, she was also from Maine; and her first instinct on the streets of Manhattan was to smile and say hello to everyone she passed on the street!  But, she explained, that exuberant spirit was short-lived, as very quickly her more streetwise co-worker informed her that the first rule of walking down along a New York City street was not to make eye contact; this, after all, is not Bangor, Maine!  And we understand that, don’t we; especially as it applies to those in this life and in this world that in all honesty we’d rather avoid: from that person across the aisle at the market who makes us feel uncomfortable to the one who’s standing there with the handwritten cardboard sign on the median of Fort Eddy Road; just keep your head down and keep moving, and there’s no problem.

Sadly, that’s too often our attitude, but not Peter and John; they look this beggar square in the eye and pretty much demand that he look back at them in just the same way; thus treating him and engaging him as a person… as the child of God that is rather than the nameless beggar that the world has always perceived him to be.  And then Peter says something very interesting: he says, in the very poetic language of the old King James Version of scripture, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” (Or, if you’d prefer a more contemporary translation, how about this from The Message: “I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have, I give you.”) Either way, Peter then reaches out to this man, this man crippled from birth, pulls him up (!) by his right hand, “and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.”  So strong, in fact, that the beggar immediately starts leaping and dancing for joy; praising God for all he’s worth and, might I add, totally disrupting any semblance of a serious prayer time that afternoon and astonishing everybody who’d witnessed what happened to this now former beggar there at the Beautiful Gate!

This story from Acts serves to tell us that “after the Spirit” came on the Day of Pentecost and filled them up with its power, the disciples’ story begins anew; with their being called to and given the gift of healing in the name of Jesus.  And moreover, writes Craig Barnes, it’s also a reminder that ultimately, in a multitude of ways – not just physical, mind you, or even financial; but also in the emotional, relational, even spiritual sense – “we’re all beggars, and it’s only in the name of Jesus that we’re going to get back up on our feet again” and we, as believers, have the ability, the call, the power to proclaim that name “that gets people back up on their feet.”  But even beyond all that, friends, what this story proclaims is that all of us – you and me and everyone in this sanctuary, all of us who count ourselves as believers – do have this ministry of healing and of life in Jesus’ name.

After the Spirit, you see, there’s the church of Jesus Christ… and we are the church.

In the end, you see, it’s not about the almsgiving, though in Christian love and creativity, we do do that, and we should; reaching out to those in need, however that may happen, is always to be at the very center of our mission as believers.  But it’s not just about that; likewise, it’s not only about the acts of healing, though I know that there are many of us in this very room, myself included, who can tell the stories of how healing prayers and words and gestures and creative, Spirit-led, actions led to the healing of mind, body and spirit.  It’s not even about the miracle, per se: because, you know what, miracles are not always what they at first seem to be, or not to be; sometimes the miracle with that overwhelming sense of the holy in our midst; in that peace Jesus spoke of that the world can neither give nor take away.  In the end, it’s about this Spirit that all of us have been given and this ministry we share; this calling to be witnesses to all we’ve seen and heard and received, sometimes by what we say, but always by what we do.

And the thing is, we never know exactly how that might unfold until it happens:  we’re having this random conversation with a friends or a co-worker, maybe someone we hardly know, but suddenly they’re pouring out their pain and grief in all its intensity and suddenly the “small talk” has become something much deeper and wholly cathartic.  You’re running an errand or taking care of a long-dreaded chore, and all of a sudden you get this idea that what you’re doing in that moment could be helpful for somebody else whose pride has long prevented them from asking for any kind of assistance.  You’ve been wrestling with some sort of big decision in your life, and trying to weigh how what you’ll do changes things for you; but then you wake up in the dawn of a new day and you’re seeing that choice from a different point of view: maybe that of your children or your family or even how it might affect a hurting world.  Or, could be you’re sitting in this sanctuary this morning, you’ve been singing the songs, you’ve prayed the prayers, you’re wondering if the minister’s ever going to wrap this thing up (!) so you can go to lunch… and in that moment you’re inspired… moved, somehow, to call somebody to go to lunch after worship with you, and maybe then invite them to come to church next Sunday….

…who knows? 

Give alms to the poor; feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit those in prison; love, cherish and nurture all of God’s children; be kind, for Jesus’ sake!  Just know, beloved, that however it takes shape and form this is our ministry, yours and mine together, and that God’s Spirit comes as we do what we do.  And it is in that ministry that beggars become leapers, and that miracles happen.

I hope and pray that now that Spirit has come, we will be bold to embrace its power to do God’s work in this place and time… always in the healing name of Jesus.

And in that holy name, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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“And They’ll Know We Are Christians…”

(a sermon for May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, based on John 13:31-35)

I first read about this a number of years ago, and apparently these days it’s a growing trend: several medical schools across the country are actually adding to its curriculum classes in something called “Medical Improv.”

What we’re talking about here are, in fact, acting classes in which medical students are taught theater arts and the skills necessary to improvise a scene; all this so that these new doctors might learn to  choose their words and gestures deliberately and have their interactions with patients become more empathetic, compassionate and thoughtful.  And furthermore, this according to an article in USA Today, “as accomplished actors, physicians who find themselves too swamped, stressed-out and suspicious to really feel any compassion for their patients can at least act like they care.”

Now, lest you think I’m simply picking on the medical profession, this article goes on to suggest that similar courses of study could easily be developed for all sorts of helping professions (I don’t know about you, but I can think of lot of occupations where this might apply!); jobs where the stress level is such that often the people in those occupations begin to distance themselves emotionally from the people they’re caring for, so often to the detriment of the care receiver.  In all seriousness, the hope is that by taking acting lessons these caregivers will be taught to respond as if they are emotionally connected to the people they’re helping; even if the best they can do at first is to simply to go through the motions.  Is it a case of, “Fake it till you make it?”  Maybe; but the idea is that perhaps, eventually, they’ll come to realize what they’ve been missing and genuinely feel the compassion and care that up till then they’ve only been acting out!

Actually, when you think about it, it’s not all that bad an idea; and I dare say it speaks to an issue far deeper than distracted physicians and grumpy tech support specialists!  The fact is, we are living in a world in which the predominant culture has become so busy, so fast-paced, so focused in the quest for achievement and yet so utterly impersonal in the effort that things like simple human compassion and care risks becoming displaced by the overwhelming nature of life and the drive to get things done!  Moreover, we often make decisions and set priorities – as persons and as a people – without any real concept of how our actions will affect others; we have let our differences of opinion not only divide us but weaponized us;  we have allowed the miracle of technology to become a poor substitute for true communication and as an excuse for not actually talking – or more to the point, listening – to one another; and we have sought to give our families the best of everything but in the process have neglected to teach them about the things in life that truly matter: honesty; integrity; respect for others, especially those who are different from us or with whom we disagree; and a clear sense of right and wrong.  In short, ours is a world where love is not always the operative choice; and make no mistake, what with all its own squabbles and divisions the church is not wholly immune to this, either.  Truly, what Jonathan Swift said back in 1711 sadly often still holds true today: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but no enough to make us love one another.”

Understand, friends, that I say all this not to sound overly morose on a Sunday morning, but to suggest to you this morning that this idea of learning how to be “acting out the love” might well be in order, in the fervent hope that such love will take root in the darkest places of our lives so that it might grow and become genuine.  Indeed, given all that it’s up against in these times, the chance of true love prevailing might well seem unlikely; but then, that’s always been the nature of love, isn’t it: something good and positive and life-changing bursting forth in the face of the unknown. As someone has aptly said, “Genuine love always leaps before it looks.”

And friends, I think that this is what Jesus was talking about when he said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It’s interesting to note that even though in the church we are very much still in the midst of our Eastertide celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, our text for this morning takes us back to that fateful night of betrayal and desertion, what we know as Maundy Thursday. So at this point in the passion story, Jesus has already spoken about the certainty of his death, he’s already foretold Judas’ betrayal and in an act of humble servitude he’s washed the disciples feet. The crucifixion is less than 24 hours away now, so in everything that Jesus says from here on out there’s this palpable sense of closure; particular in what he has to say to the ones who have been closest to him along the journey, his disciples.  And that’s understandable; after all, he’d been together with this group of twelve for nearly three years, and they would be the ones who would need to carry on after he was gone.  So not only were these essentially words of farewell, but as John relates the story it’s Jesus sharing just a few last words to them that could somehow communicate the wholeness of God’s plan. This goes on for a couple of chapters in John and is often referred to by Biblical scholars as the “Farewell Discourses,” but what’s interesting is that it begins with something very basic: that they should love one another!

Now, at least as they first heard it, this would have been a word very familiar to the disciples’ ears.  Even though Jesus referred to it as a “new” commandment, as faithful Jews the disciples already knew that the law came down to loving God and loving neighbor; as another teacher of Jesus’ time, Rabbi Hillel, had observed, “the rest was commentary.” So of course, Jesus; we should love one another.

But here’s the thing; Jesus wasn’t finished.  Jesus goes on to say, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  And that was something altogether different. By adding this, Jesus was putting his disciples on notice that words of love alone won’t do the job; neither will simply and mindlessly adhering to some loose guidelines of fair play.  No… you are to love one another as I have loved you.  You’re to love with your whole heart; you’re to love with a firm commitment that translates to the way life is actually lived; you’re to love with action that is self-giving and self-sacrificial; you’re to love in ways that demonstrate healing and forgiveness and the utter willingness to offer up your own life if by doing so love will be demonstrated.

You are to love and to live… just like Jesus did.

And, friends… it still applies.  In fact, I would say to you that these four little verses in John’s gospel, almost incidental in their placement amidst the larger story of that fateful night, pretty much says everything we need to know about who we are as Christians and as the church.

What we need to remember from this text is that Jesus did not offer up these words as a casual suggestion, nor even as a credo attached to church membership; this was and is a true commandment for those who would follow Jesus.  As his disciples, we are expected to love one another as Jesus has loved us; truly, we are known as Jesus’ disciples by our love.  It’s not that we won’t fail in the endeavor; indeed, we have failed and we will again (as a cartoonist by the name of Jim Wetzstein has opined, it’s a “good thing that Jesus didn’t say, ‘I’ll love you the way you love one another.’ Because, man, then we’d be in trouble!”), but Jesus is clear that we can’t give up on the effort! What you and I do out of love, whatever we seek to do out of love – even when it falls short of the mark – ends up speaking volumes to the world about the one who has loved us, about Jesus Christ; our love brings Jesus Christ to a disconnected world.  Because love does not happen in a vacuum; just as we understand that a child cannot learn to be kind without having experienced kindness, the love of Jesus Christ is something that needs to be passed on from person to person, life to life, heart to heart.

But by the same token, in order to show this love of Jesus it follows that we need to have received it as our own.  And that’s why it’s crucial, especially in this world and life that has become increasingly disconnected from the kind of genuine love that finds its expression in true faith, that you and I be about the business of actively seeking out the kind of life that puts Christ at the center of it!  Do you remember the old story about the man who over the course of several years, worked to carve an elephant out of a big boulder in his front yard?  The neighbors kept asking him not only how he could possibly create something like that out of something as immovable and unchangeable as a rock, but also how he could keep at it for so long; and his answer was, “Well, I just chipped away at everything in that boulder that didn’t look like an elephant; and once that was gone, there it was!”

Well, likewise in a world where we’re literally surrounded and bombarded by that which would seek to pull us away from love and keep us from Christ’s presence in our lives, we need to keep chipping away at anything that doesn’t look like Jesus.  We need to get rid of the anger, and the hatred, and the prejudice and the envy that’ll fester in our hearts given the slightest opportunity; we need to let go of the old hurts, the past regrets and the lingering guilt that holds us back and keeps us from moving ahead with life; and we need to do away with anything in our lives that doesn’t look or feel like love. Because it’s only in doing that we can truly receive the love that Jesus has to give us, and thus be able to share it with the world.

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  What an incredible thing it is to be known by our love; how wonderful to be recognized by all those around us as Christ’s true disciples because of our love.  And what a joy to belong to a community of faithful followers – the church itself – that is girded on such love. Love, you see, has the effect of transforming everything we do: in love, our children are instilled with a sense of well-being that they carry throughout the whole of their own lives and bring as a legacy to their own children and grandchildren; in love a spirit of true unity and acceptance grows where once there was division and exile; in love comes the awareness that every word, every deed, every decision made has the power to hurt or to heal, but that doesn’t matter because healing is the first and only priority.  In love, you and I are made true disciples of Jesus; can you imagine what could be done for Jesus’ sake? Can you envision what the world and our lives could be by God’s grace and by our love?

Well, I’m here to tell you this morning that it begins with… acting it out.  As I said before, it begins by loving and living… just like Jesus did.

What a shame that something as defining as faith we so often do by rote; how sad to find ourselves merely going through the motions.  The Christian life – our Christian life – is never meant to be anything less than our embracing of the whole power and wonder of life and living!  How horrible it would be to wake up in the morning and not say that “this is the day the Lord has made,” and not rejoice and be glad in it?  What a tragedy it would be for us not to seize that day for the sake of the Lord in loving one another as Jesus has loved us.

Friends, they will know we are Christians by our love.

Let us make sure that we show them who we are… by our love.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Church, Discipleship, Easter, Jesus, Love, Sermon

 

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Changing Your Mind

(a sermon for March 24, 2019, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, based on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

“Pastor, I would like to have a talk with you about your sermon.”

Friends, let me just say from personal experience that there’s hardly ever anything good that follows a statement like that!  And so it was on this particular morning when a parishioner from the church I was serving at the time came to confront me – in Christian love, of course (!) – as to her great displeasure with my message from the Sunday before. I do not think of myself as a Pharisee, she began; and I don’t appreciate your intimation that I am some sort of vain sinner!   Furthermore, she went on, I don’t come to church so you can tell me what I’m doing wrong in my life; I want to know that I’m doing everything right!  I want to leave worship on a Sunday feeling warm and fuzzy and as though in the midst of everything in this life I’ve done pretty well, and maybe even doing just a bit better than everybody else! I don’t want, nor do I really need you to tell me to repent!

Well… I thanked her for her feedback; told her how much I appreciated her honesty and that I was sorry she was upset; offered to give her a printed copy of the message so perhaps she could prayerfully reflect on it all a bit longer; and then I urged her to return next Sunday when perhaps the message would be, well… warmer, and fuzzier.

Honest; that’s what I actually said to her!  Of course, if I am being honest, how I really wanted to respond to that – gently and yes, with all Christian love – was to say, have you read the bible?   Do you even know Jesus?  I mean, talk about the need for having ears to hear the gospel; it ain’t all about “the warm and fuzzy,” you know!  There is more to our Christian faith, after all, than simply manger scenes and Easter eggs and sheep safely grazing in green pastures!  There’s also the matter of redemption, about the fallen nature of humanity and of sin; you can’t just ignore that!

Well, at least that’s what I wanted to say (and thank you for letting me get that out!), and yet… I also have to confess, all these years later, that I do kind of understand where she was coming from! A lot of it comes from the nature of the word itself: repent!  For a lot of us who’ve grown up in the church, this word repent immediately brings forth the image of some sharp-tongued preacher standing in a pulpit or from the television screen, shaking a judgmental finger and threatening that unless “unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!” (KJV) Never mind that this is not the tone by which we usually proclaim that portion of the gospel, at least not in our tradition of faith; but truth be told that’s the image of church and Christianity that a whole lot of folks carry with them!  And I’ll grant you, the words do sound harsh, it feels utterly judgmental and in all honesty, that parishioner was correct in pointing out that it’s not what we want to hear when we come to worship on a Sunday morning (at least not when we feel like it’s been directed at us!).

But here’s the problem:  biblically speaking and in terms of the meaning of our Christian faith, it’s not inaccurate.

Consider our gospel text for this morning, in which Jesus is asked about a recent event involving some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” which, though we don’t know the exact set of circumstances, appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Governor. Moreover, at about the same time, there had been a structural collapse – without warning and wholly accidental, apparently – and this “tower of Siloam” fell and killed eighteen people.  And so now, in the aftermath of all this and in the midst of their grief there’s people coming to Jesus and asking a perfectly legitimate question:  why?  Why would such a bad thing happen to good people; or rather, Jesus, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”  Did this happen, God forbid, because they… well, deserved it?

And Jesus answers them in a very interesting way:  “Do [I] think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all.” [The Message]  But, says Jesus, “unless you repent, you will all perish like they did.”  Oh, and those eighteen people who died in the tower accident?  They weren’t any better or worse than than your average Jerusalemite; but “I tell you… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

And there it is, not once but twice in five verses:  Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!

I love how Matthew Skinner at Lutheran Seminary reacts to these verses in Luke:  “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling?  Not here. This time it’s loudly and pointedly.”  Suddenly it’s not about why bad things happen, nor about how “the godless will be struck by an asteroid,” and definitely not about how the fact that we haven’t yet been struck down is evidence of a special blessing.  No, what Jesus is talking about here is the need for us to repent of our sins and to do it now… before it’s too late.

No wonder that woman was upset with me – or with Jesus, actually – because no matter how you hear it, there’s an admonition that cannot help but hit us right between the eyes. I mean, Jesus, is that really true?  Am I really all that bad of a person that I am quite literally one misdeed away from a major catastrophe?  What about forgiveness, Jesus?  What about the love you have for all the little children, of which I am one?  Surely, when you say that “unless you repent, you’ll die,” you’re not talking about… me?

Apparently, yes… and therein lies the challenge of this text, and indeed, of our very faith.  But let me suggest to you, friends, that it’s also our good news.

You see, as Jesus often does, he follows this call to repentance with a parable: the story of a man, his vineyard and an utterly barren fig tree.  In biblical times, and even to this day, fig trees were often planted in the midst of vineyard gardens for the sake of its always delicious and usually very abundant fruit.  However, as Jesus tells the story, this particular fig tree had yet to produce any kind of fruit for three years now, and it’s not seeming likely that this is going to change anytime soon. All this tree is really doing is taking up space in the soil and sucking up valuable water in the vineyard!  And so, as any wise gardener would suggest, the time had come to cut this barren fig down; to tear down its roots and perhaps start afresh with a new seedling, one that might actually grow to bear fruit.  This tree’s done nothing, so hack it down!

But no… as Jesus tells the story, the vinedresser says otherwise:  “’Sir,’” he says, “’let it alone for one more year, until I did around it and’” put…. [fertilizer!]… on it, and “’if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not you can cut it down.’”

A reprieve!  And, might I add, an opportunity.

Turns out that Jesus’ story isn’t as much about judgment and punishment as it is mercy! That useless, withered fig tree could have easily and legitimately been destroyed, and yet it isn’t; it’s given another chance to grow and to become fruitful.  Turns out that this is a story all about expectation, “the expectation,” writes James Lemler, an Episcopal priest and writer from Connecticut, “of a radical change and turning about of things.” Because make no mistake, it’s not simply that the barren fig tree is saved from destruction, it’s that now there’s an expectation that next year things will be different. “The tree must change.  It must produce fruit by this time next year – or else.”

Same with you, says Jesus.  You’ve got the opportunity here; you’ve been given that second, third, and fourth chance to grow and to finally bear the fruit of life and faith, but now what matters is what you do with that: and unless you repent, change, turn around and do what needs to be done to bear that fruit, just like any other barren, lifeless fig tree that’s taking up space in the garden, you’ll perish!

What’s interesting, you know, is that most often when we in the church talk about repentance, we’re kind of thinking apology!  You know, referring to the deep regret we feel over our transgressions, about moving from egregious sin to moral uprightness, about making that 180-degree turn from where we’ve been to where we’re headed; which, actually, in some places in scripture is an accurate definition: it’s the Greek word metanoia, which translates as turning around completely.  But here when Jesus talks about repentance, he’s not merely speaking of changing your direction but also, and primarily, changing your mind, and your heart, and your soul, and your life.  James Lemler again:  Jesus’ call to repentance was a plea “to turn to the God who loves and redeems his people.  He wanted them to change their minds and their lives to reflect the compassion and care that God had given to them.  And he wanted them to bear fruit: the fruits of repentance, of new life in God and God’s love – the fruits of grace, joy, hope, and peace.”

Friends, it’s about being on the journey of life and living, doing things the way you’ve always done them regardless of the consequence or even of its futility; but then, all at once, changing your mind and going another way that you know is going to be the better pathway.  Repentance is simply, and not so simply, changing your mind; or, as Frederick Beuchner has beautifully said, it is “to come to your senses.  It is not,” he writes, “so much something you do as something that happens.  True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”

Repent, says Jesus, or else you’ll perish. Change your mind, because if you don’t, very soon you’ll be headed in a direction you don’t want to go. Turn around, and take a different pathway, because right now you’re going nowhere fast. Come to your senses, otherwise you might well lose yourself, and you’ll miss everything that is to come and what, by God’s grace and infinite love, has been promised and is even now being set before you.

“Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!”

So… here’s Jesus, simply sitting there, quietly and patiently, waiting for us to respond to what’s he said to us.  That’s the thing about Jesus, you know – and by extension, that’s the thing about preaching his gospel – he’s waiting for us to give an answer to what he’s said.  Sometimes it’s not about the “warm and fuzzy,” with everything all tied up in a nice purple bow for Lent; sometimes  Jesus’ words just hang in the air before us and we end up leaving this place today wondering… how we’re supposed to respond and what happens next.

I wonder as we’re sitting here this morning about the ways our minds and hearts need to change; I wonder about the fruit that we haven’t borne.  Have we failed to acknowledge the reality of the living God even when we’ve known just how much we’ve yearned and hungered  for that presence and power in our lives?  Are there mistakes or transgressions – no, let’s call them exactly what they are – is there sin in our lives that has gone unconfessed?   And by the same token, is there forgiveness that we’ve refused to accept… or to give?  Is our behavior – our attitudes, our language, our treatment of others, our priorities, our practice of everyday life – is it less than it should be as one who has been named and claimed as a child of God? Has what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been living proven to unite those around us or is it divisive; does it make for peace or does it create injustice; is it about love or something else; but most importantly, does it honor God and model his son Jesus, and does it further the work of his kingdom?

If not, I would say that the time has come to consider changing our mind, and our hearts, and our lives;  because, hard as it may be for us to hear, the time for that kind of change won’t last forever.

And besides, why wouldn’t you want to? In the words of Isaiah: “Why do you send your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy… incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live… seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”

The time and the opportunity for repentance is now, beloved. May it be for each of us time well spent and…

…may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

 

 

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