(rough draft of my sermon for this week, enjoy)
In 3rd grade we had a day when we were attempted to live the school day like a person with has a physical disability. Some kids had to wear ear phones all day that drowned out sound. Some lucky kids got to ride around in a wheel chair all day. Others had to have one of their hands tied behind their backs and others had to wear blindfolds that made them blind. I got to push around a walker all day. I was jealous of the wheel chair kids and I was relieved I didn’t have to be blind for the day. Although that experiment is long past I still remembering wondering what it would be like to be blind, but then again as I have grown up I have learned that in some respects I already am.
The man that Jesus and his disciples stumbled upon had been blind all his life. He knew no other life but one that was in darkness. For his entire life he had to be helped around his town to buy food, pull up the bucket to get water, and begging in the streets and at the gates. He was dependent on the world around him. He was pushed aside because of some sort of sin he or his parents had committed. He was simply sitting around when Jesus and the Disciples come walking by. When the disciples see him they ask Jesus a question, probably for clarification purposes. They asked whether he or his parents sinned to cause his blindness. They wanted to know the juicy details that make our mouths water and our hearts stop for a second. They wanted to know…….why?
We are fascinated with this question, why? If we know why then we can name it, own it, or fix it. If we know why our parents did something when we were children then we can name it as the source of our current struggles. If we know why we do the things we do then we can own them as who we are. If we know why a car is leaking oil, then we can go in and fix that problem. Knowing the answer to the question, why, gives us power and control over the situation and we love us some power and control.
The media is the quickest group of people to do this. Now instead of simply reporting the news they have to fill 24 hours a day with details. It does not take them long to go from what happened to why it happened. When covering a shooting like the one at Fort Hood or Virginia Tech people wanted to know what was happening but they also wanted to know why a person would do such a thing. Why would someone simply snap and shoot people. Now in Japan and in Libya we are asking the same thing. We want to know why we are helping out the UN or why we would help the rebels in Libya. Why do would we help those people and not those in the Sudan who have been suffering for years? We know that plates shift under the earth and cause earthquakes which cause Tsunamis but why wouldn’t the nuclear reactors be protected better?
If we know all the answers to the question, why, then we can sit back and feel comfortable about the situation. Then we are comfortable because we can wrap our heads around it. We can place it in a box and say that happened because of ______. Then we can close the box and move on. Now before you roll your eyes at me we do know people or maybe you are one of them that can never know the answer to the question, why. Because of this they are haunted by this event and it bothers them daily. Why did that car accident happen? Why did my wife get cancer? Why couldn’t my baby live outside my womb? Why can’t I forget what happened? Why didn’t I just say no? Why? Why? Why? We need the answer to this question because we need to place the blame somewhere.
The disciples asked Jesus to place the blame on someone, either the blind man or his parents. When we ask why we are asking who or what is to blame and man do we love the blame game. But just think about the blind man and his parents. For his whole life he has heard from everyone in his village that either he had to commit a horrible sin to go blind form birth or something his parents did caused it. I’m not sure what sin a baby could commit that would cause him to go blind so most of the fault had to lie on the parents. They had to carry this around for years that something they did caused him to be blind. But when asked the question Jesus tells them that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” God takes away our need to ask the question, why?
Why doesn’t really matter. What matters is that something happened and what is it that we are going to do about it. We can’t keep stuff in boxes. We can’t keep God in a box and we can’t keep the people we come in contact with in a box either. People change and God does stuff that shocks us every day. But that doesn’t satisfy us. We still think we need to know.
We can see that in the other people in this story. The community around the blind man doesn’t recognize him when he can see. After he has washed the dirt and spit out of his eyes he can see the world around him but still no one can see him. They only reason people knew of him in this village was that he was the blind man. But now he is just the man and they don’t recognize him.
They take him to the Pharisees to verify that this really happened. It was a Sabbath day so could it really have happened on a day of rest? They debated whether Jesus was a sinner or not. The argument continued and they eventually brought in the man’s parents and asked them if their son was blind but now sees and how it happened. They look at him and give verification that this man is their son who was born blind but they don’t have a clue how it happened, and nor do they want to even think about asking because they were scared of the repercussions. The Pharisees continue to argue and come back at him once again and ask him to tell the truth. He does but they are still not satisfied and they send him away.
A blind man can see. It is a miracle but no one cares. The pillars of his society that should celebrate this glorious event all let the man down. His neighbors don’t believe he is the same guy because they only saw his blindness. The church doesn’t believe him because stuff like this doesn’t happen. If it did it wouldn’t have happened on a Sabbath or by some guy from Nazareth. His parents come in and claim him as their son but then push then leave him to fight his own battle. They leave him to answer the Pharisee’s questions. The people who should be celebrating, his family, his church, his neighbors all fail him and he is left alone.
There in his loneliness Jesus finds him again and comes to him. He reveals to this once blind man that he is the Son of Man. He is the Lord and the blind man believes. We get no verse in this story that the man even asked to see again but Jesus spits in the dirt and rubs away the years of pain and suffering, freeing the man from his darkened prison. The man comes back from the Pool seeing the world for the first time and realizes how lonely it can truly be.
I made it a point to read all 41 verses to us today because what is interesting is that the miracle only takes two verses to explain and happen but the discussion and reaction takes 39. Jesus says, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” For those who see the world they are blind to the moments in which God is at work in it. For those who try and keep God in a box that only follows certain rules on certain days, they will be blind to the reality that God is at work once a need is noticed not after the question why is answered.
Too many times we are blind to the work of God because we are too consumed with getting the facts right first. We have a bad habit in the United Methodist Church. Because we are organized to beat the devil and extremely methodical we have to find away to measure everything. In January of every year we have to fill out Year End Reports which tells the denomination our progress for the previous year. We report on Sunday School class attendance, worship attendance, deaths, small groups, youth and children, money given for capital projects, and a ton of other numbers. But a lot happens in the church that cannot be written down and place a number by it. How do you explain with a number that a person as gotten closer to God this past year because of a Lenten Discipline she decided to continue. Or that a person is wrestling with tough questions and is seeking answers that will pull him closer to God. How do you put a number by the fact that our children are learning about God and the Bible and how to pray? When we caught up in the numbers, in the testing and verifying, in the questioning and arguments we miss out on the opportunities to see God at work.
I had a parishioner who loved the phrase, “I would rather ask for forgiveness than permission.” He used this phrase to give himself cart blanch to do whatever he wanted which made him really look like the rear end of a donkey. Yet we are reminded here in the 9th chapter of John that sometimes waiting for permission is waiting too long. If we wait until we have all the answers to the why questions and when we have all the money and all the resources we need we may be too late. We can feel defeated even before we begin when the rational side of our brain kicks in or when we listen to the media or our neighbors. But God did not call us to a lost cause.
We have to be willing to go into action when the need is seen not when the questions are answered. Jesus doesn’t even ask, he spits, mixes, rubs and commands and a blind man can see. He doesn’t think about the day of the week and if it would be better to do this healing on a Monday. He doesn’t think about the dynamics that will shift when the blind man is not begging at his usual spot. He sees a man in need. A man who has the weight of guilt on his shoulders and is holding his hands out to be fed. Jesus sees a need and fulfills it.
How many others simply walk by? How many times do we rationalize ourselves out of doing God’s work? How many times do we miss out on a miracle because it doesn’t make any rational sense to us? How many times do we ignore the people around us who were transformed by God’s love because if we are honest we have no idea what that even looks like? We think too much. We ask too many questions. We rationalize, intellectualize, and are too concerned with the material side of things to see. We go through the world blind to the work God is doing and the work God is asking us to do.
Today, our prayer is that God will stop in front of us, spit on the ground, and open our eyes to see the world has he does.
And all God’s people said…Amen.
(this is a rough draft of my sermon on Sunday)
This past August in Warsaw, Ohio there was an article about a battle between New Beginnings Ministries Church and the Foxhole Club, which is a club that provides adult entertainment using woman gifted in the art of “the dance.” It seems for four years the church has protested the club and had stood outside it with bullhorns, banners and cameras to take pictures of people’s license plates as they arrived at the club. The club owner got tired of this and he and the girls started to protest the church on Sunday mornings. They stood outside the church in bikinis and holding up their own signs with Bible quotes on them talking about ‘false prophets.’
This is one of the craziest things I had ever heard of, a club protesting a church. On some level there is truth in trying to deterring a business, like the adult club, from plaguing a community. Making money off of exploiting women, booze, and married men is not really biblical living. But is yelling at the women going to work and calling them home wreckers and probably worse, the best way to share the love of Christ with someone?
We are now at the third Sunday of Lent and we have less than a month to go before Easter. Last week we heard of the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. It was a story about the private conversation between a Pharisee and Jesus at midnight. Today the lectionary today hands us another personal encounter with Jesus. This time it is with a Samaritan woman at a well at noon. These two people Jesus talks to could not be more different than one another. First let me remind you about Nicodemus. He was an educated man who as a Pharisee was a pillar in the community. He was an insider, a somebody, a person who grew up in the faith and understood it. When he met Jesus in the night, in the darkness, it was a conversation between two men, two Jewish men. The woman Jesus meets at the well of Jacob was not education and was shunned from her community. She was an outsider and a nobody. She did not have a faith that she lived by and was embarrassed by her past. When she met Jesus at noon, in the bright light of day, it was a conversation between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman who was married five times.
The differences don’t stop there. Nicodemus seeks Jesus out but the woman at the well simply stumbles across Jesus. She wasn’t looking for him. She was just trying not to be seen while getting some water. With Nicodemus Jesus was short and direct at times even at one point making fun of him being a Pharisee and not understanding the scriptures better. With the woman at the well he is gentle and guides her. He still calls her out as living with a man who is not her husband and being married five times but doesn’t do it in a brash way. Jesus is happy to take his time with her and explain things in order for her to get it. While with Nicodemus he seems tired of those who are supposed to get it not getting it.
Although they are vastly different the grace Jesus offers up is still the same. In Nicodemus’ story we get the most quoted piece of scripture, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The woman at the well story is one of the most quoted and beloved stories in the gospel of John. Both of these conversations help us paint a picture of God’s grace and how it is different than the world. It demonstrates the levels God will go through to welcome into his flock those who are insiders and those who are outsiders. God’s love is for all.
The question today is; are we ready to accept the grace God offers to all? That is one of the great things about this story. Jesus is sitting at the well with no means to get something to drink. All the disciples are busy shopping at the grocery store getting supplies and Jesus has a seat that Jacob’s well. The Samaritan woman shows up and Jesus looks at her and asks if he can have a drink. “The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans). Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Jesus takes the everyday act of getting water, a basic necessity of life, and turns it into a chance to offer up the greatest necessity, Living Water.
The woman at the well is ready to drink this Living Water. Her heart desires to finally quench its thirst for good. I encourage you to go home and read the rest of the story because I only read the first part of it. But in the beginning of this story we do know that this woman was ashamed of her past. She comes to the well at noon. Noon is the start of the hottest part of the day. It is not the best time to do the hard work of pulling up buckets of water. That should be done in the coolness of the morning or evening. But here the woman comes at noon because then she will not meet the eyes of others in her neighborhood.
We all have people like this woman in our own neighborhoods. These are the people who cannot seem to get their lives together. Over and over again they make mistakes and gain reputations. You know the people I am talking about. It is that person whose name your mind just thought of. It is that person people point to in the grocery store or avoid eye contact with at a restaurant. It is the person we talk or text about and use the phrase, “can you believe she did that!” The woman at the well was embarrassed that at her age she had already gone through five husbands and is shacking up with a potential sixth. She is tired of the finger pointing and the murmurs so she comes to the well at noon when no else is around. The truth is if you had asked her she would have told you she was not worthy of forgiveness or love. She is a failure when it comes to life, why would she think she deserves the type of grace that could change all that?
How many of us think that too. We look at our past and what we have done and we feel unworthy. When we hear a preacher talk about grace we think to ourselves that is for other people; those creditable enough to gain such things. We look at ourselves in the mirror and we see the scars of the past, the pain that cuts into our hearts, and the sins we have committed that feel like an elephant chained to our ankle. We think we have to somehow getting it all together before we can come in front of Jesus. But the woman at the well didn’t have anything together yet Jesus meets her in her social shame and offers her the cup of living water. The truth is Jesus is standing right here, willing to give you living water, we simply have to be willing to take the cup.
If you are stranded on the ocean, bobbing up and down in a life raft for days, you will start to get thirsty. There you are without food or water for days surrounded by water. But the thing is you cannot drink the salt water of the ocean. It actually does the opposite of what fresh water does for our bodies. Humans can’t drink salt water because the kidneys can only make urine that is less salty than salt water. Therefore, to get rid of all the excess salt taken in by drinking salt water, you have to urinate more water than you drank, so you die of dehydration. It is a weird concept to think about but the more ocean water you drink the more dehydrated you get.
We are all thirsty in life. We have to have water to live but I’m talking about a different kind of thirsty. We are all thirsty for meaning in life. We all want something that makes us feel important, loved, and gives our lives meaning. The older we get I think the more we desire such a thing. This thirst is in all of us and whether we realize it or not we try to quench that thirst. We drown ourselves in things that give us the false sense of fulfillment only to put the cup down and realize we are still thirsty. We throw ourselves into our hobbies hoping that if we can only better our golf game, get that dream buck, capture the perfect moment of our next scrapbook, or take that perfect vacation. We give up our lives for the sake of our children hoping that if they get all the experiences we missed out on then they we can be fulfilled through their successes. We look to quench our thirst in the next relationship, the next job, the next big thing. We stand there gulping up what the world offers up hoping to stop our mouths from being dry. But each time we come away more thirsty than before.
Now back to the story about the church and the adult entertainment club in Ohio. After the story rolled out about the girls and club owners protesting the church some different evangelists showed up. JC’s Girls is a ministry from the Rock Church in San Diego, CA, that reaches out to the women in the adult entertainment industry. These girls use to be part of that industry and now reach out to these women to show them that they are loved by God. They flew out to Ohio and talked with the girls of the Foxhole Club. They shared their testimony and how their lives were changed by the love of God. Then they went to the church and did the same thing. As the church service was happening protests from the club were outside. Inside the people of the church were asked by the JC’s Girls if they were willing to “change the face of Christianity by standing with [them] and truly loving God’s Beautiful Girls just as Jesus would. The entire church stood with [them]…” They left the building and went out to meet the girls protesting. They prayed together, tears flowed, and lives were changed on both sides of the protest lines.
Living water was offered in this moment; water that can quench the truly thirsty. There is nothing like it and whether you feel worthy or not it is offered to you. The good news is Jesus knows your past, knows your faults, knows your sins and stands there ready to offer you Living Water anyway. He opens himself up to us to drink our fill of his grace. The question is, are we willing to receive?
The Men’s Ensemble will be singing our last hymn and I invite them to make their way up and get ready. This is the closing prayer of my sermon today and as we sing please listen to the words. They are truly powerful as Jesus stands here, in our midst this morning, offering us Living Water today.
There are millions in this world who are craving
The pleasures earthly things afford;
But none can match the wondrous treasure
That I find in Jesus Christ my Lord.
Fill my cup Lord, I lift it up, Lord!
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul;
Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more—
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole!
I stumbled upon this painting by Dali in Glasgow, Scotland when my wife and I trekked through there. We wandered into a gallery near the Cathedral in Glasgow to find a place to use the bathroom and there on the wall was this. In an instant I forgot the reason we entered the building and stood there in awe.
Today Christ died for me. Today Christ died my death. Today Christ died for you. Today Christ died your death. Today Christ died for ALL and today Christ died ALL OUR DEATH. Thanks be to God.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Around the Table
Tonight we start the last leg of the journey to Easter. Tonight we dive deep into the last days of Jesus’ life here on earth. Tonight we go through a time of celebration and a time of contemplation. Tonight starts the hard part of Lent. The three services that happen within these four days are linked together. They are called the Triduum. It is three days but only one act of worship. Tonight we start the Triduum with the celebration of Holy Thursday and then tomorrow, at Johnsontown we will celebrate a service of Tenebrae or a service of shadows. Tonight we will participate in the first service of Holy Thursday. Then on Sunday we will finish our service with an Easter celebration. All of these services are linked together. When we end this service, it is not truly the end but merely the intermission until the moment our God died.
Tonight starts our Lord’s last day here on earth. Jesus starts this last 24 hours by having a meal with his disciples. The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tell us that this was the Passover meal. The Holy Meal for Jews to commemorate being passed over by the angel of death during the 10th plague in Egypt. After this they were freed from their slavery and walked through the Red Sea and into freedom with God. This meal is a reminder that they are free in God and through all the symbolism this meal tells their story as a people.
Jesus and his disciples, being good Jews, would have understood all of this and as they went through the Seder meal, Jesus’ heart was probably heavy. He knew his people’s pain as they suffered in Egypt. He knew their struggles and cried alongside the Father as they watched their beloved nation suffer. Yet Jesus had to move past that moment because the reality that was facing him was even greater. God did not just set his people free in Egypt but he had planned to make atonement for all of humanity’s sins. God had decided to make right what went wrong in the start of creation. God decided that in order to bring his children home again he had to send his own child to die our death. That started at this meal.
Jeanne Doering wrote, “When a jeweler displays a fine diamond, he often puts it on black velvet. There, it catches fire from the lights of the room, its beauty multiplied, and its value becomes more apparent. The Lord’s Supper is like that diamond. Sometimes it needs to be pried from traditional settings and thrown against the black velvet of the blackest night in history: the night it was instituted–the night before Christ was crucified.”
In the text today Paul reminds how we are to remember this meal and we hear the familiar words that are said every time we come to this holy table. “On the night when he was betrayed he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Tonight as we come to the table we need to remind ourselves that Jesus gave us this meal as a tool to connect with God, to feel God’s love and grace in our lives, and to remember what he is about to do.
Some members of my congregation and I are reading through Adam Hamilton’s new book, The 24 Hours that Changed the World. In this book Hamilton walks through the last 24 hours of Christ’s life and brings out some nuances that we might have forgotten as we simply hit cruise control during this well known holiday of ours. It is a good thing to step back though and look at the little things because when we do that we can see the big thing differently.
One of the parts that stood out to me the most in this last meal Jesus had with his disciples was the fact that he knew what they were about to do. As they eat the Seder together Jesus is looking around the table at his friends and knows that these are the people that will pass along the message of what will happen tomorrow. These 12 men are the foundation the church will be built on and how the world will know that they are loved by God. Jesus scans the table and there is Peter, Andrew and John. They were his closest friends, the ones he counted on during the biggest moments of his ministry. It was these three that he took up to the mountain of transfiguration and will call upon them to pray with him in the garden later on this evening.
Then there were James, James, Matthew, Philip, Bartholomew, Simon, Thaddeous, Thomas and Judas. These men gave up their lives to follow Jesus and they had learned a lot from him. They had seen amazing things. They passed out the five loaves of bread and two fish that somehow fed thousands of people. They were there on the boat when they saw Jesus walk on water and calm the sea. They had front row seats when Jesus healed the blind, the cripple, the possessed, and the dead. They had heard the parables and the teachings. And now they gather at the table together. They were celebrating their journey, their friendship, their ministry with one another at this meal. There were laughs at inside jokes and arguments about policy and procedures. It was a time to relax and enjoy each other’s company, as a family of misfits who God had called to be disciples.
But like I said, Jesus knew what they were about to do as well. Jesus knew that by morning none of them would be at Jesus’ side. He tells them that one of them will betray him before this night was over. He tells Peter that he will deny him three times. The others will run and hide when things get bad. They will all desert him, abandon him, forsake him in the end. Jesus will die on the cross tomorrow alone, his most trusted friends gone because they were not ready for what it truly meant to follow him.
We do this often in our lives as well. We like to look at ourselves and think we are true followers of Christ but when things get tough we cast Jesus aside. As we live our lives there are times when we come in contact with God and we abandon him. We do not feed the hungry like we are commanded. We do not visit the imprisoned. When we are truly honest we really don’t care for the poor as long as we are not among them. Like the disciples, who sat at the table and started to argue about who was the greatest, we look at our own churches and compete for who is best, instead of being the connectional system we are designed to be. We betray Jesus when we think the bronze plague with our names on it is more important than the ministry our churches provide.
Lent is a journey into the depth of our darken soul. We venture into this place because we need to understand who we really are. We are no better than the disciples that will desert Christ in his hour of need. We are no better than Judas who betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. We all have fallen short of God’s glory and if we were there around that table all those years ago, we would run and hide later on tonight as well.
Jesus looks around the table and sees all this. He sees his friend who is about to betray him. He sees his loyal follower who is about to deny him and all the others who will desert him and leave him to die alone. He looks at use today and sees our sins as well; our arrogance, our pride, our egos, our selfishness, our lust, our rage, our anger, our silence, our greed. He saw all this and he still said, “This is my body. This is my blood.” The grace and love of our Savior constant looks past our errors and sins and continues to reach out in love and forgiveness in order to offer us salvation. In the darkest moment of Christ life here on earth, he offered grace to his disciples who were about to disown him. Today, as we approach the familiar table to remember these darkest hours, he offers us the same grace and love.
What I love about the United Methodist Church is our connectional system. I love the fact that no matter what United Methodist Church I am in, that is my church. Fair Grove UMC is as much my church as Trinity is, or Pine Woods, or First, or Johnsontown or any in our denomination. This reminds us that we are not individuals but are one body, just as we partake in one body. I also love that the United Methodist Church practices an open table. Everyone, I mean everyone is welcome to come to the table and receive the body and blood of Christ. John Wesley saw this as a means of grace; a place where we can feel the grace of God and come in contact with our risen savior.
This means that no matter who you are or who you think you are, you are welcomed to this table. If Jesus could break bread with his betrayer, Judas, his denier, Peter, and the other 10 deserters, than he can welcome us. Tonight, come to the table and receive grace, receive love, and receive the forgiveness God is offering. As the body and blood of our savior sinks deep into your belly, may the Holy Spirit transform you and may you understand the gift that is given on Easter morning.
And all God’s people said…Amen.
It is the 3rd Sunday of Lent, and so I will stand up here today and I will make a confession. A confession many pastors do not like to make to their congregation. It is a confession that makes some laity cringe and others smile. It demonstrates that the rumors from Carolina fans that I wasted good money at a bad school could possibly be true. I admit when I read the scripture for this week’s sermon, I had no clue what it meant.
During Lent I like to stay with the Gospel texts in the lectionary. Lent is a time to get ready for the gift of Easter and I feel to do that we need to stay close to the teachings and life of the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. Now after 12 years of preaching I may venture off into something else but for now I still I’ll stick with this. This is the first time I have had the chance to preach these pieces of scripture from Luke’s gospel. Many of these are new to me and I had read the parable of the fig tree before but I didn’t much understand it. I also didn’t get the first five verses either. But I am not one who backs down from a challenge and so I dived in and knew God would provide a word for us today. And God did.
Let me share some things I learned. In the first five verses of this 13th chapter there is some insider language going on. They are asking Jesus about some current events of their time and for us, the outsider; it can be a little confusing. They talk about Galileans whose blood was mingled with sacrifices by the hands of Pilate and then another group of people who had a tower fall on them. There is no other place where these two events are mentioned so all we know is what the writer of Luke’s gospel tells us.
Pilate is the Roman Governor of this area and who had his headquarters in Jerusalem. It seems that some people from the area of Galilee came to Jerusalem to give a sacrifice. Jerusalem was the only place to do this so it is natural to assume this is where the event was when it occurred. Pilate was known to be brutal and unjust as he reigned over this part of the world. The Romans were not known for their bedside manner. The best guess for what happened here is that these Galileans were probably causing some kind of trouble for Pilate. Maybe they were instigators in trying to start a rebellion or were revolting over the Roman taxes they had to pay. Whatever the reason it seems Pilate decides to make a point with these people. He has them killed in the same place where sacrifices to God are offered up. This is something unthinkable.
Fred Winters, 45, was preaching in the 8:15 a.m. service with about 150 people in attendance at the St. Louis-area First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., when the gunman, walked down the aisle, exchanged some words with the pastor and opened fire, shooting Winters four times in the chest. When the gunman’s .45-caliber semiautomatic weapon jammed, he drew a knife and slashed two church members as they wrestled him to the ground. You might remember this story which happened only a year ago. It is tragic because the sanctuary we come to worship in, the place where they made sacrifices to God, is a holy place and a place where we cannot conceive of evil things happening.
The tower falling was another event that happened that is only mentioned here. Siloam was an area that the city walls of Jerusalem did take a turn around. In John’s gospel the Pool of Siloam is mentioned and it is very conceivable that at this turn in the wall there was a tower placed there. It is also very conceivable that during the construction of this tower that it fell and, as the text tells us, eighteen people were killed. We know what it is like to watch towers fall and the pain that sticks with you after such an event.
Both of these events are tragic and both of them have an era of innocence attached to them. People are not supposed to be killed in the middle of worship. Towers just don’t fall on people every day; it is a horrible and tragic coincidence. But what is also happening is the idea of we are punished for our sins. If you remember Jesus is asked at one point why a man is blind, was it caused by his sins or the sins of his parents? Here the same thing is happening. The underlying question that Jesus can see them asking is, “what did these people do to deserve such an ending to their lives?” “What sins did they commit to deserve a death like being killed in church or having a random tower fall on them?” Jesus answers them, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
What Jesus draws from these two events is that life is delicate and fragile. Can I tell you with certainty that you will not be T-boned by a car pulling out of the parking lot today after church? No, it could happen but that doesn’t mean God has a certain punishment placed upon you because of something you did. We all have fallen short of the glory of God, and so just as Jesus points out, we all need to repent. Repentance is extremely important and it is what the season of Lent is all about. Even the stole I wear mentions this, “Repent”. When we place ashes on your head on Ash Wednesday we can choose two sayings, “Repent and believe in the gospel” or “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Both point to the fragile nature of our lives and the need to make our hearts right with God.
The second part of this scripture is also a little hard to hear. It doesn’t make sense to us. The owner of some land approaches a tree that hasn’t given off any fruit in the last three years. He tells his gardener to just cut it down and stop having it waste the soil. That makes sense. If you have a garden and a tree is producing, why keep that valuable soil space filled up with an unproductive tree? Remove it and then plant something that will produce some fruit. How many of would do that? It just makes logical sense to do it.
Yet that is not how God works. The gardener comes out and tells the owner; let me try one more thing before we cut it down. Let me dig around it and put manure on it and see if that will help it. The gardener doesn’t give up on that tree and is willing to try anything to make it bear fruit once again. God looks at us and sees our sins and offers us grace. Grace to dig around our soil and put manure on us to help us grow. Grace to do anything to save us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in during the rise of Nazi German. He was a very smart man and was a founding member of the Confessing Church of Germany and a participant in the resistance movement against the Nazis. When he participated in the planning of the assassination of Adolf Hitler, he was put in prison and right before the war ended he was executed. Not only is he a martyr he’s views on Christianity and the secular world are very good and have a lot we can glean from them today.
One of the things I like the best about his theology is the idea of Cheap Grace verses Costly Grace. The more I read this parable this week the more I realized that what Jesus was talking about was grace, costly grace. Not the cheap kind you can buy at Walmart or in bulk at Costco. My mind went to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship where he explains these two concepts.
Let’s start with cheap grace. Bonhoeffer says that “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.” (pp. 43-44)
Cheap grace is what we often do in our lives. It is the grace we give someone just to smooth things over and give the appearance that things are okay. Like I said it is Walmart Grace. Walmart is known to bring us the cheapest prices in town but we also know that it means it is cheap in quality too. Yes there are good things at Walmart but if you were going to purchase a nice watch, one with fine craftsmanship, great quality, and one that you can pass down to your grandchildren, you wouldn’t be buying it there. If you wanted sweat in and ruin as you exercise, that is the Walmart watch. If you are looking for a type of grace that is as deep as a puddle, cheap grace is what you are looking for.
Costly Grace is something far different. Bonhoeffer says, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son; “Ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Our Costly Grace sums up his parable by saying “If [the fig tree] bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” Within that year though the tree’s foundation will be turned up, fertilizer put down, watered and cared for, and shown love and forgiveness. That tree will understand that although the last three years have not been good ones, it doesn’t matter, it can still produce fruit.
Today as we approach the table of God, in this holiest of seasons, we need to be reminded of the grace that is before us. When we taste the elements we need to remember the cost of the grace we are receiving. We are merely trees. Some of us produce fruit year in and year out. Some of us feel God has already chopped us down. Some of us do not feel worthy of even trying to bear fruit because of what we have done in our lives. But God doesn’t care and God is ready to forgive. What God is looking for and what repentance is all about is our ability to name our sins, admit our failures and truly desire to be fruitful once again. If we simply think God’s grace will make up for what we have done in order to keep doing what we are doing, that is Cheap Grace and God doesn’t want anything to do with that.
Costly grace is sought after by the sinner and given freely by our God. If we are not willing to do the work, then off to shop at Walmart we go. If you are tired of wasting soil, than come to the table and receive true grace. It cost God everything, and it costs us everything as well.
And all God’s people said…Amen.
The Fox and the Hen
Sarah sat down in a familiar seat. There were only two foot panels on either side of her, which were created to give the illusion of privacy. A phone hung on one of them and the shatter proof glass smiled back at her once again. As she waited, a tear dripped from the corner of her right eye. The plastic chair didn’t give her any comfort as her guest sat down. From the other side of the glass she watched as the shell of what use to be her son sat down and picked up the phone on his side. Sarah couldn’t pick up the phone yet, she simply starred at her son. He had lost weight and sleep. The bags under his eyes were heavy with grief. He attempted to hide his pain but she was his mother, she could always see through the walls he attempted to put up. After her brain finally processed all the clues from her son’s appearance she picked up the phone and said hello.
When a child does something wrong something within the parent dies a little. Like a potter watch a vase fall and break into a thousand pieces, something shatters within a parent. All their hard work, their hours of teaching morals and what is right and wrong, seems to be gone. What Sarah saw as her life’s work came up short of her lowest expectation. Instead of the ideal life she had thought of and planned for, she received nothing but heartache, grief. After the conversation with her son, the officer lead him back through the barred doors and into the inner chambers of the prison. Sarah sat there, in the warm plastic chair, and her heart lamented.
“Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:22) He was teaching to the people the lessons of the Kingdom of God. He was telling them how things should be. He was giving them parables about mustard seeds, fig trees, and faith. He was healing crippled women and others who were in need. He was telling them that only a few will go through the narrow door and that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The last heard this message. They were the sinners, the outcasts, the poor, the hungry. The firsts were also listening to this message. They were the religious leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees. What happens when the firsts hear a message that they will become last? Well it can only lead to dark thoughts and plans to keep what they feel were rightfully theirs.
That is the thought of The Fox. Herod Antipas was the ruler of this area. After his father died, he received a quarter of Herod the Great’s kingdom. His quarter landed him in the heart of many New Testament stories. Herod was King of the Jews and when someone goes around and is being called the King of Kings, of course things will start to get a little muddy. The political conversations started to happen and allies were made, alliances forged, and plots where thickened.
The religious leaders of the day joined up with Herod. They held power over the people and were in places of influence and wealth. Then along came this guy named Jesus who was preaching good news to the poor and doing miracles that couldn’t be explained away. He was starting to have a large following. He was starting to stir the pot. He was starting to pull the power and authority away from those who had it. He was starting to become an annoyance. Something had to be done to get rid of him.
While Jesus was preaching and teaching a group of Pharisees came up to him and told him of a plot to kill him. They told him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” Now this threat was truly real. Herod was the one who put John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Literally. He had John beheaded and his head placed on a platter after telling a girl who danced for him he would give her anything she wanted. Look it up in Matthew’s gospel. Herod was not a man to be messed with but this threat that the Pharisees inform Jesus about was really just part of another plot.
Politics are in everything and they were all over this comment to Jesus and Jesus saw it. If you are a political junkie then you have been enjoying these last couple of days during the healthcare summit. If you hate politics, then you have been hating these last couple of days. But what we are experiencing in 2010 America is nothing new. Politics were being played right here within this. How we handle politics tells us a lot about a person. One person says that politicians are like diapers, they should be changed often and for the same reason. Another one says, The penalty that good men pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by men worse than themselves. (Plato) Another says, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” (Earnest Benn) Yet another says, Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’
Jesus understood what was going on. Herod and the Pharisees were trying to get rid of Jesus. If he took the bait and got out the area he would have been under someone else’s jurisdiction. What this means is Herod would no longer be in charge of what happened to him. Herod, King of the Jews, only could do some things to some people. Pilate, the Roman governor, was in charge if a Jew went out of Herod’s jurisdiction. To scare Jesus just a little away would make him Pilate’s problem. Pilate could do a lot of things, which included putting him to death. We know they will eventually succeed at this, but here Jesus’ is not afraid.
This would be the third time his life was threatened and not the last. When he was born Herod the Great killed off many of the infants in hopes of erasing Jesus from the map. Matthew’s gospel tells us he fled to Egypt until Herod died. Then after Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth people tried to throw him off a cliff. All Jesus did was read some scripture and say, the person the prophets are talking about is here, the scripture is being fulfilled. They laughed him off but then when he told them a prophet can never be heard in their hometown, they got angry and a mob grabbed him and attempted to throw him off a cliff but Jesus slipped through them and got away.
Now he hears that Herod might kill him. Oh no, what shall he do? The truth is Jesus understood when and where his death was to happen. It wasn’t outside Jerusalem, but inside that holy cities’ walls. Jesus does call Herod out as a fox but he had all the right to go postal on them in this moment but instead of lashing out he laments. Lamenting is the act of grieving audibly. It is to express mourning or anguish. Instead of anger, Jesus’ heart turns to grief.
As he was there when the world was created, Jesus understood what this city was to be. Jerusalem was to be a city that all other looked up to and admired. It was to be the example of God’s chosen people for the rest of the world to seek to imitate. But that wasn’t the case. After years of being run by Judges, Jerusalem wanted and begged for a king. God didn’t want it to happen but listen to his people and gave them a king. As they progressed through time and kings they got farther and farther away from the true meaning of their nation.
God sent prophets to come and tell them how they should live and the Kings, one by one, would listen for a while but then would get rid of them. Instead they knew of the power they held and the riches they had. That was too much to get rid of and instead they held tightly to it and got rid of the one making waves, the prophets. Isaiah came and preached to the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is located, but was martyred by being sawed in half. Jeremiah also preached to Judah but was killed by stoning. Ezekiel also preached to the same kingdom and he too was martyred. These were a couple of the major prophets but some minor ones found the same path. Micah and Amos’ lives were both ended like the others. Jesus knew Jerusalem’s history and when he hears the leaders of this area are now after him, he grieves, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”
As Sarah looked at her son through the glass of the meeting room, Jesus looked to Jerusalem, longing for it to live up to his Father’s expectations. Instead of killing everyone off, why not listen to them? Instead of thinking God will rid you of power and glory, why not focus on the work God can do through you instead? Jesus simply wanted to bring all of them under his wings and protect them, mostly from themselves.
We are only in the second week of Lent and we know the journey Jesus must take. It is hard for us to fathom that instead of anger he laments. Instead of wanting control he give them the free will to chose? He does this with us too. We all have the ability to either see God in our midst or to cast him out? If our eyes are only concentrated on what is in it for us, than we will miss him. We will miss him in the smile of the person on the street or the care of a loved one. Will we miss him?
Jesus longed to transform the heart of Jerusalem but the truth was, just as he says it, they were unwilling. Jesus looks at his children and he too wonders if our hearts are too hard as well. Are we unwilling to listen to the prophets around us who tell how to live Godly lives or will with stone them with our deaf ears and shame? Living in modern day Rome, will we be too consumed with our own desires as a nation and as individuals that we forget the awesome work God can do through us? When the time comes will we see Jesus and be able to say “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord?”
And all God’s people said…Amen.