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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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Pressing On

(a sermon for March 17, 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, based on Genesis 15:1-6 and Philippians 3:12-4:1)

It was Mark Twain who said it:  “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Now, I recognize that that’s an odd and somewhat counterproductive way to start a sermon (!), so allow me, please, to rephrase Twain’s words in a bit more of a theological fashion:  that it can be aptly stated that true faith and trust in God comes in understanding that God’s word is firm and secure, and that his promises are true, even when all appearances might suggest otherwise!

I mean, it’s one thing to believe in the providence of a loving, giving God when everything in your life is going well and the future looks bright with promise; quite another when the days are dark and grey and everything all around you just seems to be hurdling out of control. Difficult to find “good news” in the midst of bad situations; hard to find wholeness when there’s so much in this world that’s broken; seemingly impossible, at times, to hold on to a heavenly vision of peace and love when here on earth there are continually those who insist on acting out of hate, terror and pure evil: I ask you, how does anyone “keep the faith” in times such as these?

And yet, we do.

We’re here, after all; we’re gathered together in this sanctuary once again to lift up the holy name of God, to give God our thanks and praise, and to embrace his sure and certain promises of life and of unending hope.  We’ve come with our prayers and petitions, seeking wisdom and courage for the living of these days – indeed, for the facing of this very hour (!) – so that we might go forth from this place today after the manner of Paul in our text for this morning, “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  And then, a cup of coffee or two later, we’re right back out there: back to the world and all the messiness and utter uncertainties of daily life, “pressing on” with faith and trust, all because somewhere deep within ourselves we have reckoned that what God has said and what he has promised is so, and that God should be counted as righteous.

Granted, that might sound a bit audacious, shall we say – I mean, who are we to decide whether or not God Almighty, the Creator and Heaven and Earth and the God of the Ages is in fact a righteous God – but I’m here to tell you this morning that maybe this is how we keep believing in times like these.  After all, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Sara Koenig, who is professor of Biblical Studies at Seattle Pacific University, “Belief is hard enough when there’s a delay between God’s promises and their fulfillment.  It would be nigh impossible if the God in who we believe is not trustworthy, is not [by our reckoning] righteous.”

Now, lest you think that what I’m saying here is another example of our garden variety post-modern skepticism, we need to understand that there’s actually great biblical precedent for this kind of discernment.  Consider the response of Abram to God’s call in our reading from Genesis this morning: “’Do not be afraid, Abram,’” says God to Abram in a vision. “’I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”  But how does Abram respond?  “’O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  Understand, friends, this is no simple answer; this is the biblical equivalent of Abram rolling his eyes before the Lord and saying, “Really?  Seriously?”

For remember, this is not the first time that God has made such a promise unto Abram: the first time, back in chapter twelve, God had already called him to go from country and kindred and his father’s house to a place yet to be determined!  “’I will make of you a great nation,’” God assures Abram, and “’I will bless you, and make your name great.’”  And, of course, Abram went (with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot along with him); and at 75 years old, no less!  It was a difficult, if not altogether improbable journey; but they did go, by faith and bolstered in the assurance the promise made would soon be the promise fulfilled.

However, as we pick up the story today. a fair amount of time had passed by (about 10 years, in fact), and frankly, not much had progressed on that front – there’d been famine, a conflict with the Pharaoh of Egypt, a few inter-family struggles with his nephew Lot, and a whole lot of wandering around – but as of yet there was no sign of that “great nation” that God had promised.  And Abram… well, he’s starting to lose patience; after all, it’s not like either he or his wife Sarai were of child-bearing years to begin with when all this started, and now… well, it had gotten to the point where Abram’s thinking that the only chance he’s got for any heir at all is to adopt one of his servants for that purpose!  The truth is that right about now, Abram’s faith in God and in God’s promises was stretched to the limit; because, as we’ve said before, it’s hard to believe in what, but all outward appearances, just “ain’t so.”

Of course, the great part of this story is that God doubles-down on the promise! Immediately God takes Abram outside, points him to the sky, and challenges him to start counting stars “if you’re able to count them;” because Abram, my friend, that’s how many children you’re going to have!  Incredible; ten years out on this journey, not a single child yet, Abram and Sarai are getting older with every passing day, but still here’s God promising that “with the passing of generations the descendants of Abram and Sarai would number in the thousands or even the millions!”  Clearly, God was taking the long view here; but nonetheless, to quote Ralph Klein this time: “How like God,” he writes. “When the promise was hard to believe, God upped the ante.”

And the best part?  Abram believed!  He believed; and in fact, this account from Genesis makes a point of saying that not only that he “believed the LORD, [but] that [he] reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  And that’s where this story gets really interesting: you see, there’s always been some question on exactly how this verse ought to be translated.  On the one hand, it can be rightly assumed that because Abram believed the LORD, thus the LORD reckoned that belief of Abram as righteousness, in that he trusted God with everything in his life and because of faith was worthy of the promises made.  However, the original Hebrew in this verse really only translates this as to how Abram believed and how he reckoned it as righteousness, suggesting that it might well be that Abram was reckoning God as being righteous; in other words, because God was intent on making his promise unto Abram even greater than before, Abram knew that God was worthy of faith and trust, and thus could believe, and press on to where God was leading him.

Granted, there’s a fair amount of ambiguity in that admittedly very small piece of translation, but the point is very clear and unalloyed:  that God is righteous and that his promises, however delayed or unfulfilled they might seem to us at times, are sure and certain.  It was because of the certainty that God would make good on his promises that Abram could believe, and so it is for you and for me today; ours is the God who is worthy of our trust, and thus we press on… no matter what.

Though I can in no way relate to it personally (!), I’ve always been drawn to the rather athletic imagery that Paul uses in the reading we’ve shared this morning from Philippians; that idea of “press[ing] on toward the goal,” that is, the heavenly call of God, being something akin to a race; as The Message translates it, “I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”  It’s an apt comparison, to be sure; a life of faith, as in the running of a race, is marked by a sense of movement toward something more, and the urgency to get there; to reach the goal, to win the prize.  And yet, is it not also true that the race is not merely to the swift; it also matters how you run the race.  As Paul himself points out, it means “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead;” it requires a certain maturity of mind, body and spirit, as well as the ability to “stay on the right track,” as it were.  And perhaps above all, it takes staying wholly focused on where you’re headed; and yes, as the saying goes, it means keeping “your eyes on the prize!”

You don’t have to be a marathon runner to understand that! In fact, I remember as a young man spending time out in the Maine woods with my father, and how he used to tell that if I ever found myself “turned around” out there in the woods – which was the term we used for getting lost in the woods (!) – the key was never to panic and certainly never to just start wandering aimlessly; but rather to take out your compass, calmly figure out what direction you should be heading and then take a bead in that direction on some very nearby landmark: a rock or a fallen tree; any location that’s clear and attainable.  And then you walk over to that tree or rock, you stop and you take out your compass once again, and take another bead toward another nearby landmark; repeating this process again and again until eventually you find yourself back on the familiar pathway that leads homeward.  It might take you awhile; and for a time along that journey the way will almost certainly seem unfamiliar at best.  But if you stay true to the point of the compass, pressing on in the right direction as opposed to backtracking or going around in circles, you will eventually, if slowly, reach your true destination.

I’ll ask again:  how does one keep the faith in times such as these?  How are you and I to be pressing on toward the goal of living our lives with faith and integrity when it seems like everything around us and often within us would seek to tear us away from what we believe?  Well, it certainly begins with believing God and believing in his righteousness; understanding, in every good and lasting sense, that there is more to our lives than the here and now, and that the troubles of this world, of our lives and of this age are not the end of the story, and that God’s promises will come to pass in fullness in God’s good time.  Like “Father Abraham” before us, we need to remember that even if at times we have trouble believing a promise, God is ever and always at work making the promise even better.

But as much as we are to believe in God’s great providence in leading us to the promised land of our life and living; it is also crucial that we stay focused on the journey itself.  For life is indeed filled with all manner of “bad situations” that can easily get us “turned around” along the way and away from where God would have us go.  It might be the stuff of sin and guilt, of unresolved conflict and old hurts that have never healed.  It could be the kind of worldly ways and means that do weigh heavily in keeping us on track:  money troubles, health issues, broken relationships; and this is to say nothing of the constant barrage of anger and hatred that would daily challenge our belief in a perfect love that casts out all fear. There is so much in this world and in our lives that would seek to tear us away from God’s righteousness and our heavenly call in Christ Jesus; and that is why it is so crucial not only in these moments of prayer and worship, but even more so in all the moments yet to come, to stop… figure out where we are and then, slowly, deliberately and above all, prayerfully take a bead as where we go next; preparing ourselves to press on with love, and peace, and the otherworldly joy that comes from true righteousness; all the while standing firm in the Lord along every part of the journey.

The journey continues, beloved… may it truly be a blessing as we go; and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2019 in Epistles, Faith, Lent, Life, Old Testament, Paul, Sermon

 

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