Sunday, February 28, 2016

Seizing Grace -- Third Sunday of Lent

Luke 13:1-9
February 28, 2016

            Carpe Diem. “Seize the day.” I know I learned that phrase before I saw the movie, Dead Poet’s Society, but I don’t remember if I gave much thought to what it meant other than the literal translation. But the scene in the movie where this phrase was first used both inspired me and scared me. Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, was an unconventional, free thinking literature teacher who had returned to teach at his alma mater, an elite prep school for boys. It was 1959, and on his first day of class, Keating takes his young charges out to a main hallway lined with glass cases. The cases held trophies and class pictures; pictures that featured young men from many decades past. Mr. Keating had the boys lean in and look closely at those pictures.
            “Look at them,” he told them. “Their faces, their eyes are filled with hope and expectation, just like yours. They had their whole lives before them, just like you do. But all of them are now food for worms, lads.” While the boys leaned in even closer, Mr. Keating encouraged them to listen. Then he whispered, “Carpe diem. Make your lives extraordinary.”
            Carpe diem. We all know we’re going to die. So how will we seize the day while we’re alive?
            I do not think Jesus was giving a lesson on carpe diem to the people gathered around him in this passage. But I do think that he was pushing the people in his presence to approach their lives with a sense of urgency; their need to repent was now, not later.
            In the first verse, some of the people with him gave him an account of a gruesome act by Pilate. Pilate killed some Galileans, and then mingled their blood with their blood of their sacrifices. Although the people’s thoughts about this event are not stated explicitly, they are implied by the questions Jesus asks of them.
            “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
            Then Jesus refers to another tragedy. “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?”
            Jesus answers both of his questions with the same response. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
            Luke is our only source for these two tragedies, but we can assume from the text that these were current events for the folks in this passage. The first is a grim foreshadowing of Pilate’s cruelty, which will soon be wielded against Jesus. The second sounds like a natural disaster – a random event that killed people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although we do not have any more specifics than these, it isn’t too hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those gathered around Jesus. I suspect that they wanted to know why. Why did this happen to the Galileans? Why did this happen to the people at the Siloam tower? Was it a consequence of their sin? Did they bring it on themselves? Was it divine or cosmic retribution for terrible deeds they had committed? They wanted to know, they needed to know, because, like us, when terrible things happen we want to know why them and not us.
            Random tragedy is a hard thing for us to swallow, isn’t it? It must have been equally challenging to the people in this account. Surely, they did something to make this occur? It can’t be just happenstance. But Jesus would not answer their why. Jesus would not give the people reasons, nor would he give them false assurances. What he did tell them was the people who were killed in both circumstances were no worse than they were. The survivors were not survivors because of special blessings from God. It could have been any one of them. So what do they need to do? Repent.
            Jesus’ response is confusing, isn’t it? At first he says that the tragedies that took the lives of those people were random. They were not singled out because of sin. However he then adds, but if the others don’t repent, they will perish in the same way. If sin doesn’t bring tragedy, why repent? Is repentance just a way of keeping God’s general wrath at bay? Does repentance prevent God’s divine foot from stomping them into the ground like dust?
            The parable that Jesus told seemed to reinforce this understanding of repentance. Jesus told them about a man who owned a vineyard. In that vineyard there was a fig tree that was barren. It wouldn’t or couldn’t bear fruit. The man went looking for fruit from the fig tree, and when he found none he told his gardener to cut it down. In fact the man had been looking for fruit for three years, only to be disappointed every year. So chop it down! Get rid of it! It’s taking up space and wasting soil. But the gardener asked for more time.
            “Sir, let it alone for one 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.”
            Just one more year, pleaded the gardener. Luke doesn’t tell us what the vineyard owner’s response was, but I believe that the extra time was granted. The man gave that fig tree just one more year to bear fruit. In the gospels, repentance and bearing fruit walk hand-in-hand. Repent and bear the fruit of that repentance. This begs two questions. First, what is repentance really? And what kind of fruit are we talking about?
            I’ve been asking people what comes to their minds when they hear the word repentance. The answer I’ve received most often has been remorse. To repent means to feel remorseful and sorry about something that they have done.  This is not a bad or wrong answer. But in scripture, repentance is more than just feeling badly about something. Metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, means “to turn.” To repent is not only to turn 180° from one direction to its opposite. Repentance is a reorientation. To repent means to reorient and realign and reprioritize your entire life back to God. I think of orienteering. When we spent a summer at a camp, one of the other camp staff sent her kids out into the woods with a map. Now, find your way back to the main camp. Orienteering is about getting lost and learning how to find your way back to the path. When we repent, we acknowledge that we are lost. When we repent, we acknowledge that we have been found. We seek to reorient ourselves back to the path God has called us to follow.
            So what was Jesus trying to get across to the people who wanted to know why? What lesson was he trying to teach them about repentance? It seems to me that he was urging them to repent not because God would smack them down if they didn’t, but because life is fleeting. Was Jesus there just to instruct them on the wonderful life they would have after this one? Or did Jesus come not only to vanquish death but to also give life – now. So when he exhorted them, urged them to repent, I don’t believe that it was merely about avoiding divine wrath. I think it was to find life. Our physical bodies only live for so long. We have no idea when or how death may come. So please, repent. You’ve been lost, but know that you’re found. Live as people who are found.
            What about his parable? How often have I heard it interpreted allegorically? God is the man who owned the vineyard. Jesus is the gardener. We’re the fig trees who don’t bear good fruit. God wants to chop us down, but Jesus holds this vengeful God at bay. Just one more year.
            But what if God is the gardener? What if God is the one who seeks to care for us, to tend to us, to help us? Jesus makes it clear over and over again, that he came from God to give us life. He came from God to teach us love. He came from God to help us bear fruit. We who have been so lost have been found. Yet life is fleeting. God’s grace is abundant, but we only have so long to seize that grace. We only have so long to turn back toward God, and reorient our entire lives.
            So repent. Now! Seize grace while we can. Every moment is precious. Every moment is gone without return. So repent and bear the fruits of repentance: a life filled with love, compassion, mercy, kindness, service, tenderness, joyfulness. So repent. Seize grace. Seize it now in this precious moment, in this precious life. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Jerusalem -- Second Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:31-35
February 21, 2016

 She asked us to lament.
Lie down on the floor
weep, wail, wring our hands
learn suffering’s sound.

Unsure of this teacher
permitting us grief
we tentative students

persisted at blind happiness.
O! To reclaim that
blessed invitation.
Now my cry,

“my God, my God,
why have you forsaken us?”
would swallow the silence,

Subdue the void
left by that absence.
I would give heartbreak its voice,
sing agony’s crooked tune.

I would gnash my teeth
fashion sack cloth
drench my head in ashes.

If remorse could
stop Death from cradling
babies in his unrelenting arms,
if sorrow could melt

weapons like wax;
repentance dry the eyes
of every parent

of every child lost,
no sense, nor reason,
then I proclaim my remorse.
Shout apologies to the heavens.

I turn back, turn around,
change direction,
heed the prophet’s call.
Only Comforter, speak comfort. 

Cry hope. 
Soften stony hearts.
Reshape new from old, living from dying.
Teach us life, teach us love.

My God, my God, hear our lament.

            One of my favorite professors, Gwen Hawley, was the teacher in this poem. I was a student in her advanced group processing class, and the goal of advanced group processing was that we – the students – were to become a group. That sounds deceptively easy. Trust me, it is not. At one of our meetings each of us came to class upset, despairing, worried and anxious. Our emotions were based on different events in our lives, but we were all feeling just plain bad. Gwen took stock of the emotional climate in the room and declared that we needed to lament. We greeted her words with scared silence. “I’m serious,” she told us. “You need to lament.” She urged us to sit down on the floor and lament, wail, and gnash our teeth; whatever was necessary, whatever we needed. None of us could do it. No matter how much we may have needed to express our feelings, we were all too self-conscious and too uptight to vent them in such a dramatic and overt way. Gwen realized her suggestion was not going to take so she dropped it. But there have been many times since when I have wished to go back in time and take her up on her offer to publicly lament.
            Last fall, I desperately wanted to lament as Gwen suggested. I wrote this poem back in October. I wrote it after I’d seen pictures of a baby washed up on a beach. I wrote it after I’d seen yet another picture, this one of this baby’s father, his features distorted by agony; a father who had tried to save his two little boys and his wife only to lose them to the sea. I wrote this after I read story after story of other refugees. I wrote this after I heard another news report about another child being lost to gun violence, and another child being lost to neglect, and another child being lost to indifference. I wrote this poem back in October because I was utterly overwhelmed with the sorrow and pain and violence we see play out on the news every night; sorrow, pain and violence that is international, national and local. I wrote it because I needed to put my own heartbreak into words.
            I realize that it may seem self-serving to use one of my own poems to begin this sermon. I apologize for that. But this poem is about lament, and lament features prominently in our story from Luke.
            Although lament is the overall theme of this story, in the first two verses Jesus sounds more irritated than mournful. Some helpful Pharisees came to him and warned him away from entering Jerusalem. “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
            But Jesus refused to be scared off by their warning.
            “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.’”
            “Go and tell that fox for me.” Jesus swatted away their warning as you would an annoying fly. I’m sure his response would have surprised, if not shocked, the Pharisees and probably anyone else privy to that conversation. Herod was a dangerous man and a dangerous ruler. This was the same Herod who had innocent children massacred because he perceived the birth of one baby to be a threat to his power. In order to save face in front of his guests and to placate the desires of his wife and stepdaughter, he had John the Baptist – whom he liked – beheaded. He was not a tyrant whose bark was worse than his bite. His bite was pretty bad.
            Some scholars question the motives of the Pharisees who warned him. Perhaps they understood that Jesus going into Jerusalem would cause more trouble for them than they could handle. So if they could keep Jesus out of Jerusalem by warning him about Herod, then it would make life easier for them as well. But Jesus could not have cared less about their warning or Herod for that matter. He was not going to be bullied into staying away from Jerusalem. Jesus had kingdom work to do. He had a ministry and a mission and a purpose to fulfill. He would not be kept out of Jerusalem because Herod was breathing threats against him.
            His words, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” makes it clear that he knew the dangers the city held for him. He knew where his path would lead. He had been trying to make that clear to the disciples for some time. Ahead lay the cross and his death.    Herod’s threats meant nothing to Jesus. He had work to do, and he was going to do it.
            Yet as he pondered Jerusalem, Jesus’ irritation gave way to lament.
            “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!”
            Jesus’ poignant lament for Jerusalem tears at my heart every time I read these verses. The imagery Jesus used to describe himself paints a vivid picture of the people in that great city. Have you ever watched chicks? They move frantically but without purpose. They may see where they are but they are lost. They need the mother hen to pull them into the safety and shelter of her wings. They need her to orient them and guide them. But until they are gathered together, they are vulnerable and alone.
            So too were the people of Jerusalem. The further we move through this season, the more abundantly clear this will become. The people were lost. They killed their prophets, the people who came to bring them God’s word. They stoned those who came to lead them back to the right path. And they would kill the One who wanted only to gather them together like a hen gathers her chicks.
            Jesus lamented for Jerusalem. Jesus lamented for its people. Jesus lamented.
            We understand Jesus’ lament because we know what happened when Jesus reached the city. But do we ever wonder if Jesus’ lament continues? Do we ever wonder if he laments for the modern city of Jerusalem – the city that is called home by three religions? Do we consider the lament Jesus makes for the violence that happens there between people who should know better? Not only should they know better, they should recognize that regardless of whether they are Christian, Jew or Muslim, they are kin!
            But I don’t want to point the finger at Jerusalem. I can’t point my finger at them, because first I have to point it at me. I do wonder if Jesus laments over Jerusalem, but I wonder more if he laments over the Church that bears his name.
            What poignant cry does Jesus make when he considers the Church – our church and every church?
            “You who call yourself Christian; you kill one another in my name. You use my words as weapons. You spend considerable energy, time and resources working away at the specks in the eyes of others, while the logs in your own eyes blind you. You live more for yourself than you do for the least of these. You have forgotten why you began. You have forgotten that this thing you call ‘Church’ is not yours but God’s. You have forgotten that you are called to follow. Instead you wander about lost, blind and alone. I have tried and tried to gather you together like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you will not listen.”
            I wonder if Jesus laments over us the way he lamented over Jerusalem. I wonder this because my reasons for lament did not end last fall. Children continue to die needlessly. Extremists use terror – through violent acts and violent words – to keep others living in fear. People still live in desperate circumstances with no relief in sight. Just this morning, I read of another terrible mass shooting. This time it was in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A gunman wandered about the city shooting people at random. The need for lament is real and vivid.
            But I don’t want Jesus to have reason to lament over us. Nor do I want to get mired in lament. I want to act. I want to respond. I want to be the Church, to be the body of Christ in the world. I want to be the person God created me to be. I want to do the work God created me to do. I want that for all of us, for all of God’s children.
            Here’s the thing. No matter how me may feel like those lost little chicks, no matter how much the world causes us to lament, lament and mourning and weeping are not the end. We have hope that there is more. We have hope that this is not all there is. We have hope that the weeping will turn to laughter, the lamenting will transform into joy, and that our mourning will cease. We have hope because we believe that death did not win. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, and I suspect he laments over us. Jesus laments because he loves. Because of that love, we too can love and hope and rejoice. Lament is not the end. Love is. Love is the beginning.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”

Monday, February 15, 2016

No Superhero Savior -- First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016

            For Superman it was kryptonite. Superman was impervious to anything that might take out you or me. Bullets bounced off his chest. His strength was so great he could stop speeding trains. He could fly higher than planes. He only needed a telephone booth to make the quick change into his hero’s tights. He even made people believe that simply putting on glasses and ordinary clothes was an adequate disguise. Certainly there was no way anyone could place him as Superman when he was dressed as mild mannered Clark Kent. But one thing could take out Superman and one thing only – kryptonite. Even a small amount of the matter and minerals from his home planet could render him weak and powerless. His super hero, superhuman, super powers were unbeatable; he was indestructible unless a small piece of kryptonite got too close. Then he was as mortal and as weak as any of us. For Superman it was kryptonite. That was his vulnerability. Kryptonite made him human.
            For Jesus it was hunger. No matter what year we are following in the lectionary cycle, no matter what the gospel, we always begin the first Sunday of Lent with the telling of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. After all, Lent is patterned after that time. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting, praying, and being tempted by the devil. Luke’s gospel tells us that after those 40 days of no food, Jesus was hungry. Of course he was! Who wouldn’t be?! That’s a long time to go without food. He wasn’t just hungry, he was famished. Anyone would be. The devil, being the great opportunist that he was, saw Jesus’ hunger as his chance. Although we read that the devil tempted Jesus during the 40 days, we don’t know what those temptations were. But at the end of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when he was starving, Luke reveals three specific temptations.
            First the devil told Jesus that if he was really the Son of God, then he should command the stones to become bread. Jesus answered him with scripture. “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
            Second, the devil took Jesus up so that Jesus could see all the kingdoms of the world. The devil informed Jesus that he, the devil, had been given all authority over these kingdoms. He can give that authority and power to anyone he wishes. He would give it all to Jesus on one condition, “worship me.” Jesus didn’t buy it and again he responded with words of scripture. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’
            Lastly, the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem. He placed Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple. Then the devil dared 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.’”
            The devil knew scripture too, and he knew how to prooftext and manipulate it to say what he wanted it to say. But Jesus still didn’t give in. He responded to scripture with more scripture. “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the text.’”
            The devil knew he had lost this round, so he left Jesus; not for good but to wait for another opportune time. When the devil retreated, Jesus left as well. He left the wilderness and began his public ministry in Galilee.
            Jesus went into the wilderness “full of the Holy Spirit.” Although he ate nothing and was famished, he still did not give into temptation. The devil could not get the best of him. Whenever I read any of the temptation accounts, my first thought is, “Well of course, Jesus wasn’t tempted. He was Jesus. He was human just like us but he did not sin.” That is the accepted belief of our faith, isn’t it? Jesus was fully human just like all of us, but he did not sin. He was Jesus, God’s Son. Sinning was just not going to happen no matter how hungry he was. End of story.
            Usually when I read Luke’s account, I focus solely on the temptations themselves. I read the sentence, “he was famished,” but it’s just a blip in the story. But I wonder if those three words – he was famished – are actually the point. Jesus was famished. He went without food for 40 days and he was as hungry as anyone of us would have been. If he was as hungry as the rest of us, it is a good chance that hunger had the same effect on him it has on us. When I’m really hungry, really, really hungry, I get cranky. Sometimes my head hurts. I feel weak and lightheaded and agitated. If I don’t get to bite into some food soon, I might just bite your head off. Jesus was famished.
            But because he’s Jesus, I think we tend to diminish his hunger and how it might have affected him. He was hungry and he was fully human, but he was also fully divine. Well, what does that mean exactly? What does that look like? When it comes to his temptation, I think we see Jesus more like a superhero that has been exposed to the one thing that makes him vulnerable. He is like Clark Kent opening his shirt to reveal the large S underneath. Jesus is fully human, but when it comes to temptation there is a shirt with a large D for divine underneath his robe.
            As one commentator put it, Jesus’ divinity acted as a fail safe. If temptation went too far and he got too close to the edge of sin, then divinity jumped in to save him. But if that’s true, then what’s the point of his humanity? What’s the point of telling the story of his being tempted, because in the end they would not have been real temptations? It seems to me that temptation has to have the possibility of snaring you in order to actually be temptation. If Jesus wasn’t really tempted, if it were impossible for him to actually give in, then this story is no more than a morality play. We watch in order to get an example of how we should be, but we are actually human so we might fail. This is nice of Jesus to show us this, but if he couldn’t actually give into temptation, then he really isn’t like us.
            But Jesus was like us. That is the substance of the incarnation. Jesus was like us, fully human, vulnerable, tempted, famished. He was human, just like us.
            One of the most powerful depictions of Jesus’ humanity that I have ever seen was in a movie that was so controversial, people from all denominations worked to ban it from theaters. The move was The Last Temptation of Christ. I did not see it when it came to theaters. I watched it when I was in seminary. The main reason this movie was controversial was because it showed Jesus in a physical relationship with Mary Magdalene. People were up in arms at even the thought of that. But if you did not see the movie, let me give you the larger context. The story was about Jesus and his ministry and his walk to the cross. It was while he was on the cross that the last temptation occurred. Temptation came to him in the form of a little child, haloed in beautiful light. The child told him that he could get down from the cross. He didn’t have to stay there. So Jesus does. He gets down off the cross. He falls in love. He lives.
            No matter what the protesters said about this movie, the true temptation for Jesus was not lust, it was life. His last temptation was that he got to live just like us. He got to love just like us. He had the chance to have a family and a home and the ordinary everyday realities we take for granted – just like us. If we mean what we say, then Jesus was fully human, and being human is messy. It is filled with temptation. It is filled with wrong turns. As humans we have enormous capacity for love and we have an equally enormous capacity for evil. Jesus was fully human, so those temptations must have pulled at him as much as they would have us.
            But I think that what makes Jesus different, what makes him able to resist temptation was not some superhuman ability that we do not have. I think that what he had was full knowledge, full understanding, full comprehension of love; God’s love, sacrificial love, agape love. Jesus was fully human, as fully human as we are meant to be, as we are created and called to be. He knew and lived and breathed Love. Jesus was not a superhero savior. He didn’t have some secret ability that we don’t have access to. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, he was filled with God, he was filled with Love.
            The good news, the great and glorious news, is that we can be too. We were created out of Love, because of Love, for Love. Jesus was fully human just like us. He was tempted just like us. He was weak and vulnerable just like us. But Jesus knew completely how to love and lived and died trying to teach us to do the same. Sisters and brothers, during this season of Lent and always, let us love like Jesus did so that we can be fully human as well.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”