Monday, March 7, 2016

Repentance so fruity...

[Sermon preached the 3rd Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2016]

The eye is a very tricky thing. It can often fail us at many different points in our lives, as many of us have learned. My eyesight gets worse every year for example. The fact that many of us, like my parents do, have to hold a menu out about 4 feet from their faces to read the dessert list. Or my oldest child whose eyes are worse than mine, and when she is at swim practice, and they are following the stopwatch on the wall to measure their rest between laps for their intervals, she has to wait for one of her teammates to go, trusting they are leaving at the right time. Imagine that, trusting someone or something else because you cannot see clearly.

Or our eyes can make us think we see something that we don’t actually see. Magicians bank their entire trade on this. Misdirection. Sleight of hand. Having you look one direction thinking that everything is happening over there…when it actually is happening over here. 

My dad’s a magician. We used to do shows together as part of the children’s ministry that he was pastor of at his church in California. Card tricks. Coin tricks. Cups and balls. All sorts of things. He would use them to explain faith and hope. Wondering what one believes when they cannot see clearly.

Without that sight, we live off of our perception. What we think happened. What we want to believe is true based on what we saw. The Galileans apparently come to Jesus with a perception. Having seen evil at its worst they want an explanation, but Jesus gives none. Maybe it was their emphasis. Their overly concerned minds for the sins of others. Or worried that God might be the divine accountant they have heard about, tallying their mistakes and placing them in his ledger for safe keeping. Or maybe they just want Christ to take political action. To strike down Pilate and the Roman hordes. To breakdown the nations and restore Israel once and for all. He’s supposed to be the Messiah and that is what the Messiah is perceived to do.

Instead they hear – Repent, or you will all likewise perish. That’s a little rough. Taking people who seem so hurt and fearful and preaching a message that seems to lack comfort. But maybe it is all these years of fire and brimstone preaching in American pulpits that forces us into this difficult interpretation. We hear “repent or perish” and we think intolerance, hate, anger.

But what if we reimagine things. Reimagine the words and their tone. This could become an addiction intervention of sorts. A time when Christ steps in with actual words of comfort to a dying world bent on killing itself. Please stop or you will not live. Repentance, that changing of mind, turning around, turning away, adjusting the vision. Casting off the sight one uses to see certain things, to want certain things, to expect certain things, to have our eyes focus on where they are supposed to be.

Repentance means to stop looking to the other sinners as somehow worse than you. Or to think that your stuff doesn’t stink as bad as others. All that does is create division, to make God and forgiveness to be pointless, to basically make Christ one who has died for nothing. It makes us grow our own pride and intolerance, categorizing the world into certain types of people. Christian or unchristian. Good or evil. Thereby denying to them the very grace and mercy offered to us. Otherwise we divert our eyes from a concern for ourselves, and from Jesus and His concern for us, and just look to the other to judge and damn them to make ourselves feel better.

Or from looking at others sins we turn our eyes to ourselves and see only what we may think of who we are, or what we think we deserve. “Well, God is punishing me.” Worried that we have done just one thing too far or too damning. Letting our eyes focus on what it is that we do instead of on what it was that was done for us. Here Christ calls for us to repent of our unworthiness. To repent of the level of merit we think we need. Repent of working to make ourselves bearable. 

Repentance means to stop using the sin of the world as a stump speech. To make our political cause based on some sin we think we have the cure for by some political rhetoric. Repenting of all our charging ahead into the world to make Jesus into some sort of guru who has the answer to fixing everything if we could just formulate the right policy. But then we turn to finding the answer outside of repentance and forgiveness and mercy, and we turn somewhere else. We become believers in certain people - Trump or Bernie, or Hillary, Ted, Marco, or whomever we find worthy of being our savior on Capitol Hill. Hoping that our anger or animosity or work for a better world will make things so good that there will never again be sin to repent of.

So Christ tells the story of the vineyard and the fig tree as a connection. A fig tree that seems so unfruitful. The owner wishes to cut it down and discard it. But the gardener comes and says, “No. I will dig around, give it some air, some water, put some dung over it, and give it some time. Be patient. It will work.” An odd story to attach to that word – Repent or perish.

But maybe it is not so odd. Removing the issues with evil or pain, pointing them towards repentance and changing where it is we look, Christ offers us this picture. A tree. Barren and dry and unfruitful. Do you see it? It is there in the vineyard needing some work. Do you see it? It’s you. You’re the tree. And the worry may seem to be the fruit, but it is actually the tree. It has to be the tree because that is why there is a gardener and there is fruit. You have need of a master gardener who steps in to add a little water some manure, compost, to feed you, to grow your fruit of repentance. 

That is the work of Christ on your behalf. That is the working of repentance, to divert your eyes from all the hopes of fruit in the future, or of how pretty you may look, or how bad you think you are and Jesus comes in his overalls and Crocs to do some weeding, some tilling of the soil, some spreading of…stuff…to bring about your faith and trust in him as the one who opens eyes and brings life in a world bent towards destruction.

All of this is important because this passage has actually nothing to do with the problem of evil. It does say that bad stuff happens and people get caught in the mess. But what one does or does not do is not painted as some deciding factor that you can see or judge by. It is the intensive proven work of Christ to dig and grow the fruit that makes or breaks you. That causes repentance and creates faith. The Word proclaimed. The receiving of the forgiveness and mercy in Christ through bread and wine. Things outside of you at work in you.

The importance of it all is that you do not see truthfully. You may observe things, you may perceive so many ideas about people, the world, God. But then God steps in as Jesus to blow all that out of the water. You will never be able to know the things hidden from your eyes. You don’t know the patience for which God is working in you to bolster your faith and grow your fruit. Until then, we wait. We pray. We trust. We seek help. We glory in the gifts we receive and weep for the losses we entail and hold firmly to the fact that Christ is still active in the world. The one who calls to repentance, but repentance for your sake, not his. Amen


A bloody seed...

[Sermon preached on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2016] 

At that time, certain Pharisees came forward saying to Jesus, “Get out and go from here, because Herod wishes to kill you.” 

And Jesus said to them, “Go and say to that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform healing today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach the goal.’ Nevertheless, it is necessary for me to go today, tomorrow, and the coming day, because it is not right for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her. How often I have wished to gather your children together as a bird gathers her young under her wings and you were not willing. Behold I leave to you your house (a desert), but I say to you, you shall not see me until it shall come when you say – ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” – Luke 13:31-35

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Have you heard that before? It used to be a popular phrase. We can thank Tertullian for that. A 2nd century theologian and mystic. He understood the nature of the persecution of a people based on belief. The church at his time was not the group that would get invited to a dinner party at the Emperor’s palace. At least not to eat. Death was a possibility for many. People would even flee cities, where the authorities had more power, and scratch out an existence in caves in the desert. 

But this phrase can work for basically any movement. For instance, the worry about the war on terror is the making of martyrs. The making of people that others idolize and wish to follow in their footsteps. And yet Tertullian had this idea in mind that, in some way, there must be something worth dying for.

Its makes you wonder – How about here in America? In Zumbrota? At United Redeemer Lutheran Church? Today? Now? What do we see as worth dying for? Do those things still exist? A goal, a future, an existence or life worth having that one is willing to lay down their life to see it accomplished? Could that be you? Me? 

It used to be that some would say freedom. Liberty. The principles we hold as American ideals. Are they worth dying for? How about a better life for your children, or your children’s children? How about a message? Some vision or idea. The Gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world?
All of this can be seen as rhetorical and a weird place to begin a sermon on the second Sunday of Lent. But it is somewhere that we need to try and discover of ourselves. Because in our country we are rather protectionist. We enjoy our life here, you more often than not like the status quo. And who can blame you? We have it good here. In comparison to many countries we have it perfect regardless of our status economically.

Extend out this protectionist life we have into our daily existence. We do everything we can apart from wrapping the world in bubble wrap (which would be kind of cool). Seat-belts in cars and helmets on bikes. Smart ways to keep ourselves from death. Regular exercise to prevent heart problems and other diseases, diets (new ones everyday) that seek to cure the smallest problem. Regular check-ups, insurance, vitamins as far as the eye can see, each one expected to extend our lives into eternity. Then we show our true colors - death scares us and we do all we can to keep it away.

Now in steps the text for today. The Pharisees were no different than us. They understood the human fear of death. The desire to protect ourselves at all costs. They come to Jesus and attempt to scare the death out of him. “Flee Jesus. Go from here. Don’t enter Jerusalem, Jesus, because Herod wishes to kill you.” Now maybe they assume that Jesus is like all of humanity and would see this as a warning and go away, far away and leave Palestine in peace. It could be that Herod, himself, passed on the message and was trying to scare Christ and get him to stop stirring up the people. Either way, did they expect this reaction of Jesus?

Go tell that fox, that tricky little devil, I have an appointment in Jerusalem that I can’t be put off. It involves the very thing you think to frighten me with, the very thing you wish to keep me from.

The world wishes to hold Jesus back. To use our own fears and project them upon the Christ to keep him from being this Jesus that he is meant to be – the one that dies for you. And he knows this and makes his proclamation against the king and the world that wishes him to be scared. And what does he say? “Bring it. I will do my work for now and on the first day and the second, but by the third, it will be finished because this is where I am to go. To my people, to Jerusalem. It is there that I will find my completion. The third day. The next day. The coming day.” At some point in the future is a day that death will die and life will come. In a Jesus who is not afraid to die and go against the Herod’s of the world, against the Pharisees of the world, against us, against our very fear of death. Stepping into that warning and showing us the true nature of the life of Christ, the life in Christ, to be one of death.

This is Lent. The walk to Jerusalem. The steps to Calvary. A walk that leads to something worth dying for, or maybe something worth putting to death. Lent is really a journey of crucifixion and resurrection. Of putting to death and making alive. It becomes the living, breathing physical and regular remembrance of baptism. We, as a people fear death, it is hard for us to have that thing worth dying for, but God is at work in that fear at this time using a Christ whose desire was for you, and was led to death in order to find that thing in you worth dying for and putting to death.

St Paul tells us - Don’t you know that all those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been buried with him in baptism, and raised to new life in Christ.

Buried. Raised. Death and life. Touching on all those parts of us that keep our eyes away from the goal we have before us in this season. To see that third day. To see the day where we may be relieved. Where habits and pride are led to their execution. Hatred of one another is to fall away. The moments we lie to ourselves when we think we are better than someone else are made moot when we discover that our life is lived solely in a Jesus who knows that in this world he wishes to gather together, that is so unwilling, we being unwilling, finds us worth dying for to gather us as that mother bird tenderly covers her chicks by her wings.

I don’t say this to be trite but how fairytaleish do we make this whole season of the year? It becomes that time of year where we think – fish frys, no chocolate, no alcohol, new diet, no caffeine. We pacify it like everything else. When it is not to be pacified. It can’t be pacified because the entire meaning of the season is about this Jesus who must make his way to Jerusalem because the thing he wants is worth dying for - and that is you. So many other religions have seasons and days that they deny themselves something. They turn everything of their lives on their heads to find a point in the year to be transformative even for a moment.

What if these next few weeks you were to see in those days a Christ who works to destroy death, and also to put to death something in you? To find even in you that thing that needs to die in order to bring you to life. Even your very self. Death of self, and life in Jesus. Death to the things that divide and life in the one who wishes to gather us in as a mother gathers her chicks and yet we aren’t willing. Putting to death that unwillingness to plant seeds of life to raise you up. Christ’s blood becoming the seed of your life. The seed that sows death to all those things that keep us away to bring us forth by his grace and mercy. Amen.