Thursday, March 24th, 2016 – A Maundy Thursday Sermon on John 13

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Every Maundy Thursday, the traditional gospel reading is the story you just heard. The story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. In fact, if you turn in most Bibles these days to John 13, you’re likely to find those exact words as a heading for this story – “Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.”

The problem is that I find myself not all that interested in the “washing” part of it. I mean, just imagine for a moment if Jesus were to stand up, wrap a towel around himself, kneel down at their feet, and then, without ever touching them, he grabs some Dial liquid body soap, squirts some on their toes and hose off their feet with one of those hand-held shower sprayers that we all love and hate at the same time.

He’s still washing their feet, but it paints an entirely different picture.

For this reason, I’m convinced that this story isn’t about washing at all. If I could change the title of this story, it wouldn’t be “Jesus washes the disciples feet.” It would be “Jesus touches the disciples’ feet.”

Because that’s the scandal, right? That Jesus kneels down and touches them.

The shocker, the wrench of this story isn’t that Jesus splashes some water on them. The point wasn’t to get them clean. Jesus makes that clear to Peter. No, there is more to what Jesus is doing here. And the crux, the nerve-center, the heart of it, I think, is that Jesus takes their feet into his hands. It’s the skin-to-skin time with Jesus. It’s the touching that matters.

In light of this, I did some research on the power of touch. And I learned some things along the way.

First off, I learned that touch is everyone’s first language. It is the first sense that we acquire. Which is why standard practice in birth centers these days is for a newborn to immediately have skin-to-skin time with his or her parents. The benefits are staggering. We come into this world needing touch.[1]

Then, I read a story about a man who brought his 90-year-old father to the doctor and never once during the appointment did the doctor touch the patient. With his body turned toward the computer screen, the doctor let the data say and do it all. “This reflects a troubling trend in contemporary medicine,” the author says. “In one corner of the room were the facts of the case, the data flashing on a computer screen. In the other corner of the room was the patient, the human being, shivering, perplexed and untouched.”[2] An article in AARP magazine talked about how as we age, our skin becomes less sensitive to touch, and thus we need it even more. And yet, cruelly, with children and grandchildren often far away, and spouses who have died, aging people get touched the least. We may come into this world needing touch, but we leave this world needing touch too.[3]

Part of the problem is our culture. One psychologist says that we live in a touch-phobic society. But another part of the problem just might be our religion too. Did you know that atheists and agnostics touch more than religious people do? Most likely because religions often teach that some kinds of touch are inappropriate or sinful.

Which is true. Some kinds of touch are inappropriate or sinful. Just saying all of this, I feel cautious because I know that such a word as “touch” can be equated with “hurt, pain, abuse” for some of us. The other way touch can feel inappropriate or sinful is that touching can also seem too intimate. All you have to do is recall a time when beneath the table you’re sitting at, you accidentally rested your foot against the foot of another who was not your spouse. The moment you realize that isn’t the table leg you’re toe is touching, your legs recoil like broken springs and blood rushes to your cheeks, as you embarrassingly apologize.

Our problem with touching is that it can feel too intimate. Even some statistics suggest that even within the majority of marriage relationships, we struggle to touch one another. Whether platonically or romantically, the truth is we aren’t very good at touching each another.

Overall, what I learned is that while the act of one person touching another can be a dangerous thing, the act of one person not touching another can even more dangerous. Touch: newborns need it to thrive, the elderly need to it die well. And those living in-between need it to feel whole again.

And so isn’t that remarkable, that we as religious people have a tendency to not touch each other, despite Jesus’ outright call to go and touch and wash each other’s feet? Loving one another as he has loved us.

Some people have called this foot washing with Jesus the “neglected sacrament”, wondering why this act of feet washing hasn’t been claimed as a sacred ritual of the church, practiced as much as baptism and communion.

Now, if you think I’m going to suggest that we start this, don’t worry.

But I do think it is a shame that we have become so touch-phobic. I once was part of a congregation that rarely passed the peace and they had little interest in doing so. Some complained about the spreading of germs, but I think it had more to do with the fact that it asks us to touch one another. Eventually, the pastor reinstated it as part of our regular liturgy. As we all got used to it, one woman said that now she comes to church for that moment of passing the peace, because it is the only time during the week when anyone touches her.

So, on this Holy night, as Jesus wraps a towel around himself and kneels at the feet of his disciples, I’m struck not by him humbling himself to a servant level, but rather by the intimate touching.

It is this profoundly beautiful act. But what does it all mean?

I’m not sure. What I do know is that Jesus doesn’t simply clean their feet in an act of humble service. He touches their feet in an act of loving relationship. And in that Jesus has set an example for us, and called us to do the same. What I do know is that on this night Jesus stands in the shadow of the cross and has asked us to follow him. Which means whatever he is asking of us, it won’t be easy. And it will likely change us.

That’s the power of touch. It changes us. With loving, caring, soothing touch in our life, we can thrive. But without it, we wither away.

A couple of years ago, at a previous congregation, we did a hand washing on Maundy Thursday. We all were a little nervous – this new and intimate and vulnerable thing that was about to happen. With warm water poured over their hands and into a basin, I held and washed hands of people I loved but that I had only touched previously in the form of a handshake. I could feel their callouses, that grown over years of hard work. Their swollen knuckles, that surely ached, though they would never say that. I felt their paper thin skin. Their youthful strength.

And it changed something. In all of us. We all had to put our guards down and expose a vulnerable side that is easier to keep hidden most days. If there were any hard feelings between me and a parishioner prior to that night, they seemed to rub away like dirt in the water.

To touch and to be touched in such as way as Jesus did – it changes us.

A couple of years ago, preacher Barbara Brown Taylor taught a class on Christian practice at a seminary. 40 people showed up for four days of talking about all the ways we learn and practice faith by what we do in our bodies. Not just the obvious – baptism, communion, laying on of hands, but also, singing hymns, visiting the sick, walking a labyrinth, lighting candles.

After the class had talked and talked for days and days, Barbara and her co-teacher decided to actually do something. To practice the Christian faith. They decided on a wordless foot washing service. No talking. Just washing.

With everyone using this first language of touch, Barbara got to watch as people spoke to each through this wordless skin-to-skin ritual. It was a sacred time to be sure, but the most powerful moment occurred between a married couple. The two “had been fighting off and on all week (quietly, they thought), but you could still tell from their body language that there was something going on with them that was taking more out of them than usual. The woman went first, removing her husbands shoes and socks as if he were one of their own children. Then she placed his right foot in the glass basin and poured warm water over it, took a bar of white soap in her hands and started working up a light lather. Then she took his foot in her hands with such tenderness, that he began weeping. Bending over her as far as he could without falling off his chair. As soon as she realized what was happening, she started crying too…When she was through, he put his arm under hers and he helped her to a chair. Then he knelt in front of her and he took all the rings off of her hand. The wedding ring took some doing. But he got it off. Then he anointed her hands, taking each of her small ones in his big ones, and kneading them, until they were soft. And then he lifted her hands to his wet face. Placing one of his on each side on top of one of her, so that it was his hands on her hands on his face. They stayed that way for a long time, just letting the water work. Then he fished around on the floor for her wedding ring and he put it back on her finger and there was rejoicing in heaven…It was a miracle. It was the kingdom of God. And what was required? Some people. Some bowls. Some water.” Some touching. [4]

Even though Jesus knew that they would betray him and deny him and abandon him, Jesus used his body to communicate to his disciples’ bodies about the divine love that has been poured out for them. And tomorrow evening, we will hear as Jesus will use his body to communicate to the entire human body about God’s unending grace. And that kind of wordless love changed the disciples and the world in ways we will never fully know. All we know is that what they received has been passed on to us through the bodies of others throughout history.

I don’t know if Jesus was inventing a ritual for us to do with regularity, but he was showing us an example of his love for us and for the world, and he has entrusted us to figure out how to do the same.

One of the great joys of being a pastor here is getting to watch you figure it out, as you use your bodies to pass on the love and the faith you have received. As you reach out your hand to your friend moving down the aisle. As you approach the grieving one whose spouse just died and wrap them up in your arms. As you stick out your hand in greeting to the stranger in your midst.

Those wordless rituals, that touching…it changes us. And I’m reminded once again that the worship in this place begins long before the organ starts playing or the pastor begins speaking.

This holy weekend, as we watch as Jesus’ body is given over in love, I invite you to pay attention to your own body, your own sense of touch and how it too has the capacity to communicate God’s love for this world. For that is the command Jesus has given to us – to love one another as he has loved us. With our bodies. Jesus invites us to an embodied discipleship that asks us to risk vulnerability and willingness to be changed by the love of others. Which can feel like death and new life all at the same time. Watch as people use their bodies to carry candles, tell stories, and sing in unison. Watch as people hold hands, or embrace, or pass peace. Watch as forgiveness is declared and water sprinkled. And may all of that bring close to your body the grace of God poured out for you in Jesus Christ. And may your body be a bearer of that grace as well. Amen

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201303/the-power-touch

[2] http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-09/healing-hands

[3] http://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2015/power-of-touch.html

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Bathing Deep”, https://www.thegreatlecturelibrary.com/index.php?select=speaker&data=282

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Sunday, March 20th, 2016 – A Palm Sunday Sermon on Luke 19 and Philippians 2

You can listen to this sermon here.

Luke 19:28-40
28 And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.29 When he drew near to Beth’phage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here. 31 If any one asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, ‘The Lord has need of it.'” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road. 37 As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

 Philippians 2:5-11
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If you were hoping for an escape from all the political posturing and chaos that we’ve been living through week after week, that lingers like a looming storm cloud ready to rain down on all of us, then I have bad news.

There is no rest for the politically weary. Not today. Not this week.

Most of us know this story of Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, with palms waving and shouts of “Hosanna!” (even though neither are present in Luke’s telling, if you notice). And what most of us have been taught is that this is “humble” Jesus coming into Jerusalem in a humble, meager way. Which we get – we understand the humble, meagerness of riding on a donkey. I mean, if you’re the right height, you can do the same thing at just about any petting zoo.

But if it is just about that, then we will miss the deeper meaning to this. A politlca meaning. A meaning that the people at the time would have immediately grabbed on to.

Listen to the words of Old Testament prophet Zechariah, written 500 years before Jesus: Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey (9.9). This was written 500 years earlier than Jesus and Jesus’ audience would’ve known this scripture. They could’ve quoted it by heart. They knew the image of a king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. And so Jesus uses this image to make his point. To ride in on a donkey would be to be declared as royalty. As the king.

Which is all fine and well until you realize that there is already a king in town. On the opposite side of town, in fact, riding in his own procession. The governor, Pontius Pilate.

You see, this was the week of Passover – the most sacred week of the Jewish year. It was a time when Jews traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from the empire of Egypt. Remember the story of when Moses says to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” They would celebrate that story – their freedom from slavery – in Jerusalem that week.

But what we often don’t hear is that during this festival of freedom from slavery, the government would always show up. On one of the side of the city, the governor, Pontius Pilate, would have a procession into town. It was the empire’s procession. Alongside Pilate would be soldiers and drums, weapons and armor. This was the Roman military marching into town. Their one goal was to intimidate. They were there to make sure nothing gets out of control, because when a community of people within your empire has a celebration about being freed from an earlier empire, you have to remind the people that you are still the one in charge.

When you know this, you realize that Jesus’ royal entry into Jerusalem was an alternate process. A risky, political demonstration mocking the Roman Empire. It was confrontation with the powerful. This is like the bottom-rung employee parking in the CEO’s parking space. This would be like one of you walking in with one of these funny clergy collars on and saying, “I’m the pastor here now.” This is walking into the Oval Office and sitting in the President’s chair. This is a Jesus for President campaign rally in the face of an already ruling Roman Empire.

And the question becomes, what kind of campaign will Jesus run? What kind of royal king is Jesus?

And then before we hear the story itself unfold, we got the Apostle Paul’s spoiler ending in Philippians. Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

 That is the kind of kings Jesus is. And it is that Jesus, Paul says, that God exalts and gives a name above every name. It is to that Jesus that every knee should bend. It is to that Jesus that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

 So often we hear that word “Lord”, “King”, and we think that it means powerful and controlling. And that “Lord” is the final word on Jesus’ identity. Implying that to say “Jesus is Lord” means the world is under Jesus’ control and at his disposal.[1] But Theologian David Frederickson says what if Lord isn’t the final word on Jesus, but rather that Jesus is the final word on what it means to be a lord. Or a king.

He says that even a mighty word like “Lord” is vulnerable to invasion by “Jesus Christ”. That the story of Jesus’ life and the story of Jesus’ death invades and infects this word “Lord” such that Jesus Christ becomes the very definition of it. That such a self-emptying, self-sacrificing way of service to the world could be the very image of divine lordship.

Jesus is the self-emptying, servant lord, or king. And then Paul has the audacity to say…”Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

In a few moments, the political posturing will continue. We will get to see Jesus’ story after that triumphal, royal, political entry unfold. And it will look scarcely like what we see in our politics. We will get to see Jesus invade, and infect, and enflesh what it means to be lord in the face of Empire.

Listen for the glimpses of it that Luke leaves in the story like a trail of breadcrumbs along the way. Listen as Jesus sits down at a table with those saints and sinners. Those doubters and deniers; those betrayers and abandoners he’s calls his disciples. Listen as he hands them bread and wine and says this is my body, my blood…for you. Listen as he heals the ear of the wounded slave and tells his disciples to put down their swords. Listen as Jesus, for the first time in Luke’s Gospel, forgives the people in power – the very people who put him to death. Listen, as he welcomes into paradise the criminal who was crucified beside him.

And then in our listening to and living out of this story, may the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] David Fredrickson, Eros and the Christ, pg. 11.

Sunday, March 13th, 2016 – A Letter to Judas

You can listen to this sermon here.

John 12:1-8
1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Dear Judas,

I can’t leave you alone. You haunt me and I can’t get you out of my mind.

When I hear of you, I’m haunted by heartache for you.

Which isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to want nothing to do with you. They say you were a thief. A traitor. Filled with the devil. I’m supposed to denounce you and turn my back on you like you did to Jesus.

But I just can’t. There is something about you and your story that hurts, in a familiar way. Because I wonder if you, like the rest of us, long to be known for more than your lowest moment in life.

I got to be you once. In a play.

At first, I portrayed you as angry and cruel. Because, what did I know? But after awhile, that changed as I played you softer and more tragic.

There is more to your story, I think, than we know. After all, Jesus did choose you to be one of the twelve.

The problem is we hear so little about you until that day at Lazarus’ house.
All of you gathered there after Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead. That had been the final straw for those threatened by Jesus and now there was a warrant out for Jesus’ death. Even the dead can’t stay dead around this guy. So Caiaphas, the high priest that year, decided it would be better for Jesus to die than for the city to be torn apart by his rule-breaking behavior. You all thought you’d be safe there from the lynch mob searching for Jesus.

You all shared a meal together. Martha was the cook, of course. Lazarus and Jesus sat near each other, just a couple of dead guys hanging out. One – formerly, the other – soon to be. Your days were numbered too, Judas, but no one there knew it.

And then it happened.

Mary wandered off without saying anything, bring a jar of perfume that was left over from Lazarus’ funeral. Silently, she knelt at Jesus’ feet and began to pour.

And pour. And pour. And pour.

The whole jar, on to Jesus’ feet and flooding the floor. It was a beautiful smell, but overwhelming too. The entire house was filled with it.

With her hands, Mary massaged the oil into Jesus’ feet. At one point she reached back and pulled the pin out of hair, letting everything fall to her shoulders, and using her hair as a towel on his feet.

It was too much for you. They weren’t even married!

All you could see was Mary’s rule-breaking behavior, and you missed the love being displayed between them.

Like many of us do when confronted or threatened by a vulnerable expression of love, you tried to take a moral high ground. You called the question. What a waste this was. Perfume worth a year’s wages poured out on the floor? Couldn’t it have been sold and given to the poor?

Sometimes I wish Jesus had said that. It sounds like something he’d say. Though, I don’t know if we would be any better at caring for the poor if he had.

Jesus responded to you with something that continues to puzzle us. Leave her alone…You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. Did he say that just for you? Or did he say that for us too?

I think it was just for you. Because he knew you.

I wonder if there was strange comfort in that. Being known in that moment. He knew that you weren’t really worried about the poor and for that reason, you, Judas, would always have the poor with you. You were worried about yourself. You hadn’t yet learned what Jesus wanted you to learn, and he wouldn’t be there much longer to teach you.

But you couldn’t see it.

I find myself wondering… with so much oil on the floor, did your feet get anointed too? Was there any way to avoid stepping in it? With some much perfume in the air, was your whole body steeped in this fragrance of love too?

Maybe that was the point that you couldn’t see. This prophet Mary was showing you all what Jesus had been showing all along – costly, messy, abundant love of God. Grace upon grace poured out for all. And for all to share. The uninhibited love Mary is showing is how God loves. Wildly, extravagantly. God’s love is a love that breaks free from all rules and manners that try to contain it and with such abundance that it seeps into the skin of everyone.

But you couldn’t see it. I think you, like most of us, just couldn’t see what was right in front of you. You were blinded by the light of vulnerable love and you ran from it. So many of us do that too.

Jesus tried a few more times to teach you.

A few days later, mimicking Mary, Jesus knelt down at your feet and washed them with brotherly love. And asked you to do the same with your life. Then at that last meal, he identified you as his betrayer by handing you a piece of bread.

Who confronts their betrayer by feeding them? Jesus, I guess.

He tried. But it didn’t change anything. You and I know how things ended.

I say all of this because there is something I need to tell you, Judas. I see because you couldn’t. I see Mary’s act of love more clearly because you couldn’t. Your presence there in that moment. You and your smug and safe (and yet fearful) comment didn’t over shadow Mary’s act. It brightened it.

Like the dark backdrop of the evening sky helps me to see the stars, you helped me to see more clearly Mary and her gracious and prophetic act of God’s abundant love and our call to be bearers of that love.

I write to say thank you. Because of you, I can see Jesus and that abundant love of God more clearly.

It would be easy to forget you. To put you in a box and label you bad. But I can’t. I can’t because I know myself too well to paint you with one brush. I fail to see the abundant love of God all the time.

We are just like you. Caught up in things we cannot see. Longing for the world to be different, but unable to see the abundance of God’s love that already is.

Because of you, I can see more clearly now and I’m grateful for that. In so many ways, your failure, your loss has been my gain. And that’s an odd thing to say. Knowing how I’m supposed to think of you. What do I do with that?

In the end, I don’t know if you ever got Jesus’ message. That the spine of the snake can only be broken by love. That humble service and compassion for your neighbor and enemy is what restores you. Revenge never can. But I guess that’s not the point I’m trying to make. The point isn’t about what message you did or didn’t get in the end; it’s about what you had all along.

That abundant love of God. It was for you too, Judas.

Some might see it as wasted love if it was poured out on you. But it’s a love wasted on all of us.

Maybe that’s why I can’t leave you alone. It would be against that extravagant and messy and abundant love of God to do so.

With hope and love for you and for us all,
Your brother in Christ

Sunday, February 28th, 2016 – Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

You can listen to this sermon here
Luke 13:1-9

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 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. 7 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?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ “

Invite people to open their bibles and follow along.

Our Gospel reading begins this morning with some newspaper headlines.

“Galileans murdered during sacrifice ceremony; Pontius Pilate has claimed responsibility.”

“Siloam Tower falls, crushing 18 people. Cause unknown.”

And I don’t know about you, but there was a naïve time in my life when those kind of Biblical stories would have shocked me – such horror and tragedy. But now they don’t. Because it is all over our newspapers as well.

“Manhattan Crane Collapses, injuring 3 and killing 1.”

 “Employee opens fire at Kansas lawn care equipment facility, killing 3 and injuring 14”

“Kalamazoo Uber Driver Opens Fire, killing six and injuring two.”

 One article called the Kalamazoo shooting the worst mass shooting since San Bernardino. Which broke my heart to read, since San Bernardino was on December 2nd. Any time I hear “worst such-and-such since…” I expect there to be years or decades in-between. But not any more, I guess. Now we’re surprised when it’s only been 3 months since a mass shooting.

So the gospel opens with tragedy upon tragedy. And they, like us, almost immediately begin to ask the question – why? My God, my God, why has this happened?

But there was common religious knowledge that told them why – those who experienced suffering are being punished for something they did.

In the ancient world, the common belief was that when bad things happened, they only happened to bad people. To those who deserved it. It was a worldview that meant if you got cancer, then you deserved it. You must have done something bad enough for God to punish you in this way. If a woman give birth to a child with a disability, then she or the father must have been done something to bring such suffering upon themselves. Now this may have been an ancient worldview, but it still lingers around today. We often wonder if what we get is what we deserve. A friend of mine got pregnant while in college and made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. Now, she’s come to learn that she can no longer get pregnant. “I’m being punished,” she says.

So, that’s what the people in this story are presuming. Bad things happen to bad people. Well, the Galileans must have done something to be slaughtered by Pilate. Those crushed by the tower falling must have deserved it.

 And Jesus jumps at the opportunity to respond. And for once, we get a clear and concise answer from Jesus. Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No.

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.

In that one word, Jesus dislocates tragedy from divine punishment. The two are not to be equated.

So, if you take nothing else away from this sermon, take this – tragedy is not divine punishment. Tragedy is not divine punishment. I urge you to memorize this story.

Seriously. Memorize like you have Psalm 23 or John 3:16. So that the next time tragedy arrives you can proclaim Jesus’ hopeful, “NO! That is not how God works.”

Now. Jesus does add something on to that “no.” It is still a “no”, but he does say, “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Now, that word repent has a negative connotation in most of our minds. Repent! Or else! But New Testament Scholar Matt Skinner says that repentance isn’t so much about feeling bad or righting your wrongs. But it is about discovery. Discovering who God is. Who you are. How you have fallen short in your life, either oppressing others or actively sinning. And repentance can even be about discovering how you have been sinned against. To realize your own suffering and pain.

So, Jesus says no, these tragedies are not God’s punishment. But unless you repent, unless you discover a new way of seeing God, of seeing yourself, of seeing the world, you will perish under that kind of thinking. Why? Because you’ll just continue to worry only about yourself. All the time. You’ll only want to make sure you never do something that might bring punishment on you. And then when something painful does come along in your life, you’ll spend the whole time worrying about what you’ve done to deserve it. Jesus came to cast out fear, and today he wants to cast out the fear that we always get what we deserve. No, he says. We have to repent, or discover, a new way of thinking because sometimes this world brings things – awful things – into our life that we do not deserve.

To illustrate this, Jesus gives them a parable.

There once was a man who owned a vineyard. And in that vineyard was a fig tree. And for three years, this tree has never produced any fruit. Tired of waiting, tired of wasting time, he tells the gardener to cut down the tree. But the gardener says, “Let’s wait one more year. I’ll dig a mote around it for water; I’ll give it some manure to fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year – great. If not, then we will cut it down.”

Now, this is a parable, which means it is sort of like riddle.  The answer isn’t meant to be obvious but it has to sit with you until you have that “ah-ha” moment.  Or as one preacher once put it, a parable is “not a once-and for-all story. It’s a story you can walk around in, a story that wants a response from you—hopes for a response from you—one that changes as you change, so that it is different the tenth time you hear it than it was at the first.”[1]

If repentance is about discovery, then the question becomes “What do we discover from this parable?”

Well, all I can tell you is what I discovered after walking around in this parable for awhile.

Between the vineyard owner, the gardener, and the fig tree, my first thought was to be angry at this arrogant, rich, power-filled vineyard owner. This rage-filled man with an axe in his hand ready to cut down this poor fig tree. A man who lacks compassion and who doesn’t believe in second chances. Doesn’t he know that it takes at least three years for a fig tree to produce fruit? Who does he think he is?

But the more I walked around in this parable, the more questions started cropping up:

Let’s take the gardener. What if the gardener hasn’t been doing his job? What if the gardener hasn’t been digging a mote around the tree and fertilizing it and now he is desperate to save his job? And suddenly my heart breaks for this neglected fig tree that does not deserve to be cut down.

Or what if the gardener has been doing his job. Caring for the fig tree and it has produced fruit for 10 years straight and now, suddenly, it’s stopped. It’s grown old and tired, and even though a good gardener or good business owner would replace it, the gardener is just devastated at the idea of cutting down this tree it has cared for so many years. And suddenly my heart breaks for this gardener who does not deserve to have his beloved tree cut down.

And then something happened. In the midst of all these questions, my heart was broken open. Not for the fig tree. Not for the gardener. But for the vineyard owner.

In fact, Luke doesn’t even call him a vineyard owner. Luke just calls him “a man.” Throughout the gospel, Luke almost always gives a qualifier about the people he is talking about. A rich man. A poor man. A man with authority. Even the chapter before, he talks about “the land of a rich man.”

But in this story…it is just a man. And I couldn’t help but wonder – what if this man doesn’t deserve this either? Maybe his vineyard didn’t do so well this year either and his livelihood, the food for his family, depended on this tree. And for three years, for three years, this fig tree has not born fruit. We can relate to that.

For three years my business hasn’t made a profit.

For three years, I’ve asked my spouse to go to counseling and they’ve never agreed.

For three years, we’ve tried to have a child and it hasn’t happened.

Maybe he, like a man of his time, is wondering why God has punished him with a fruitless tree. Maybe the man feels just like the fig tree – like a waste of space who can’t provide for his family. Who wouldn’t want to just throw in the towel. To cut it all down.

In the end, I found myself no longer wanting to figure out whom to blame in the parable, but just felt for each one of them. Because they’re all desperate and in need of care. In the end, all three are dependent upon each other. And the gardener’s act of mercy of waiting for one more year isn’t grace just for the fig tree. It’s grace for all three of them.

And maybe that’s the repentance to which Jesus calls us. Maybe that’s the discovery. That this parable is what life is like. And all of us are all three characters of the story. At first glance, we’re tempted to find fault. To point blame. And then to cut down and discard that which seems useless. But when you enter into the story, you find that no one person is at fault and no one person is hurting. But rather you find that we all belong to each other. And together we belong to God.

This morning, little baby Leo gets baptized. And he isn’t baptized into a safe and secure Christian life. He is baptized into a world filled with risk and tragedy. But he is also baptized into this community. A community of fig trees, and gardeners, and vineyard owners, who depend on each other. He’ll need us. And we will need him.

In the midst of tragedy and fear, we will perish if simply seek for who is blessed and who is damned. We will perish if we seek to point fingers and blame. But Jesus has called us to repent and discover a new way – where we don’t get what we deserve. Instead, what we get is the God revealed to us in Jesus – who will be cut down. But not destroyed. A God who is a patient and waiting God. Who waits, and who waits, with us. Constantly giving us one more year. May we discover and embrace that way of life for one another as well. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, http://www.chapel.duke.edu/documents/sermons/2008/081012.pdf