Tag: Lent

What Anticipation!

Matthew 21:1-11
Philippians 2:5-11

palmSunday.jpgRoughly translated today, we are cheering: “Praises for the Prince! Anyone who comes in the name of God is a blessing! Let there be praises in heaven!”

We are anticipating the new prince, the new rule. We are making a religious statement- God celebrates this person, this Jesus. We are making a social statement- anyone who proclaims God is a blessing to us. And, we are making a political statement – Jesus is our Lord, it is Jesus we follow – not any other politician.

Is it any wonder the whole city of Jerusalem is in an uproar asking ‘Who is this man?’

The whole world should be in a uproar when we make such bold statements! If only we could live up to this hope and anticipation and proclamations of faith!

But you and I both know – these very same crowds turn on Jesus in just a matter of days. And we, who praise here this morning, will face hours when we’re tempted to deny Christ like Peter, and betray our faith like Judas, and sleep while on watch like everyone else.

So, in this reprieve between the reflection of Lent and the beginning of our holiest of weeks, let’s slow down like the Gospels do and really look at our scripture. Let’s sing our hosannas and understand why we do so.

In each Gospel, Jesus enters Jerusalem a little differently, but always hosannas are shouted. Always praises to God, and asserting heaven is praising this person. Hosanna means two things – literally, it is “Save us, we pray!” But over the centuries in ancient Israel, it also took on the meaning of huzzah, or yeah – a cheer. So we and the people are cheering for Jesus… but we’re also praying: save us!

“Save us, prince. Those who come doing God’s will are blessings. Save us, God.”

And slow down and look at what people are carrying. What people carry is different in the different gospels to reflect what celebration parades looked like to the people the Gospel was addressing. So cloaks here, palm fronds there, tree branches in Matthew, but always cheers and loud praises of Hosanna everywhere. Maybe today, if we were to write about this, we would say the crowd waved flags and threw confetti as we yelled PRAISE GOD! SAVE US! One way or another, it’s in God’s name, it’s about a savior, and it’s a big celebration!

But the items used are also symbols. They tell us more about the story.

See, Jesus comes on a donkey – and not just any donkey, but a young one. This is the symbol of peace. A warrior king rides in on a stallion – a big huge war horse. But the king of peace comes on a young donkey – a little common creature, skittish and untrained. Humble. Just as the prophets foretold that the promised savior would do. Curiously, in Matthew, did you notice the colt is so young that Jesus rides the baby donkey’s mother instead of the colt, and the colt goes along with his mother? I like this image. This is an image of peace, prosperity, family, love. You’re surely not running into war with a mother donkey and her nursing foal. This is like the image coming up in our gospel of Jesus wishing to gather up, protect, and love Jerusalem like a mother hen gathers her chicks. Jesus enters not as a warrior with weapons and might – but as a member of a loving family.

He might be on a donkey, but they still welcomed Jesus as a king and the center of the impromptu celebration parade.

Just like we roll out the red carpet for stars, ancient peoples would lay down their jackets or cloaks to make a special path for a ruler to travel. Again, they’re saying he is their ruler and someone super special.

But even more symbolism is at play in this tiny scene!

To Greeks reading or seeing this occur, the palm frond is the symbol of victory. The goddess Nike carries palms in victory.

However, to the Egyptians hearing this story or seeing the procession, palms are a symbol of eternal life because they stay green for so long.

And so, we receive the fronds as a powerful symbol reminding us of Jesus’ victorious power over death, and we celebrate in the promise of eternal life.

Now, welcoming Jesus in this manner is how someone would welcome a returning victorious war general, or a king… and the songs being sung by the crowd are Davidic songs… songs related to the fallen kingdom. This isn’t just a religious welcoming. This is a political welcoming.

I like this scene as the play ‘Jesus Christ Super Star’ sets it. The people are singing “Hosanna!” to Jesus, and nearby the Jerusalem authorities are grumbling and warning each other that this is getting out of hand. It was cool when Jesus was a teacher, or Rabbi, with parlor tricks… but now the people are mentioning words like miracle, king, and messiah. In that play, the high priest sings, “They crowd crown him as king, which the Romans would ban. I see blood and destruction, Our elimination because of one man… The stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high! … For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.”

In other words – just as we read last week Babylon would tolerate no political uprising, so too, will Rome not tolerate such. If the people crown Jesus as their king – a Jewish king – Rome is going to sweep in and bring blood and destruction… just as Babylon did a few hundred years back. These officials don’t see a prince of peace coming on a donkey… they see the would-be-king bringing the end of their city, and people. They see a heretical cult leader.

In Luke, some of Jerusalem’s authorities in the crowd about Jesus tell him, “Rabbi, rebuke your disciples!” Shut them up! Get them to stop saying you are messiah, king, savior!

But Jesus answers, “I tell you, if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.”

Recall – John has said God could raise up descendants of Abraham from stones. Perhaps Jesus is alluded that even should the authorities silence every voice crying out Save Us! Praise God! that Jesus’ mission and word would continue. New stones would arise, and they would cry out too – prayers for salvation and praises of God.

Hope cannot be finally destroyed. Jesus’ whole mission is one of hope – of love – of joy – of forgiveness – and God’s love message to the world cannot be snuffed out. Even if lives are extinguished and voices made silent – the message continues on in new places, with new voices, in new lives.

The tension in this scene is incredible. There are the people – believing and hoping in their messiah. Some dreaming of a return to a beautiful earthly kingdom. Some dreaming of the golden age of God’s reign on earth. Some in the crowd already living in this golden age — people who have known and experienced Jesus’ miracles. And also in that same crowd are people dreaming of Rome coming and repeating what Babylon did, and leveling the city to nothing — scattering the people — and leaving a valley of dry bones. Some dreaming of God taking affront to this guy who is suggesting he is God, and God taking revenge.

The tension here at the beginning of Holy Week is just a faint echo – but what do you feel? When Jesus comes into town, how do you picture him? What do you anticipate?

Do you anticipate his miracles? His cures?

Do you anticipate his leaderships? His reign?

Do you anticipate war and the End Times?

When the Son of Man comes – what do you anticipate?

….

Paul encourages us to wait with our anticipation with the mind of Christ. A mind that does not take advantage of others, does not abuse privilege, and is obedient to God. A hymn asking that we not abuse the privilege we have of being alive, being made in the image of God, being able to greatly affect in and influence the world around us. A mind that is concerned with caring for others. A mind that takes all our hopes and anticipations and puts them to use – caring for, and loving, our hurting world.

Do you anticipate, and live into, God’s kin-dom, God’s reign and rule, now?

Amen.

Hope Against All Hope

Ezekiel 37:1-14sunrise-bali-1
John 11:1-45

Ezekiel’s prophecies don’t just spring to life without context. God gives them to Ezekiel to speak about the very real world Ezekiel knows.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of money, and power. He got an education, and worked as a priest advising the royalty of the Kingdom of Judah. Picture for a moment that Mexico and Canada get into a war… where are they going to fight? In the US. This happens to Judah, and the country begins to take sides with either Egypt or Babylon as the two nations both fight for land in the middle east. Babylon wins, and takes the nobles of Judah back to Babylon as captives. Sorta like if Canada wins this imaginary war, they take our president, his family, and our representatives and senators back to Canada. The idea is that without these leaders, we’re less likely to rise up and fight again.

Ezekiel is one of those people taken captive because he’s an important prophet. He and his wife begin to live with the other captives of Jerusalem in Babylon. There, he has prophecies that more woe is coming to the Kingdom of Judah. Sure enough, the old king’s uncle takes charge of the country, and rebels against Babylon with an alliance with Egypt. In our fake war, the president’s uncle goes to Mexico, gets support, and decides to lead a war against Canada.

Babylon’s had enough of these Judeans and Egyptians. King Nebuchadnezzar returns to the country. Clay tablets found in modern day Israel recount how the people in Jerusalem saw the signal fires of their neighboring towns disappearing one… by… one… as the Babylonian army destroyed everything and everyone in its path on the way to the king in Jerusalem. When they get there, they utterly destroys the Judean capital city. Archeological evidence shows that virtually the entire city was burned to rubble, including its walls. The Bible recounts how the king’s family was murdered before his eyes, and then the king was blinded before he was marched to Babylon. The Temple of Solomon – in all its glory and beauty – was ransacked. All the religious items, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred scripture – all of it taken, sold, burned, or destroyed. Everyone in the city was scattered – some ran into the country, many died, and the rest were taken forcibly back to Babylon. About 1 in 4 of all the nation’s people were forced into exile.

Today, that would be like 80 million Americans kidnapped and sent abroad. 80 million people sent to a place with a different language, different religion, and different way of living. 80 million prisoners.

The people left in Judah are largely the rural peasants, the uneducated, the foreigners, and they later become known as the Samaritans, for they don’t keep burned and destroyed Jerusalem as their capital.

Ezekiel has seen visions of all of this, and has tried again and again to warn his people. He’s in exile, not able to return home. He’s seen his country defeated, and all his family and friends murdered. He’s seen the Holy Temple of God ruined, and his sacred books and items desecrated. His wife dies, and he can’t even mourn.

This is the context his bones vision rests in. He has literally seen the bones of his countrymen. He has literally seen his city, and his country, defeated. Ezekiel sits in exile with his home, his land, his people utterly, utterly destroyed. When God gives Ezekiel this vision of valley of bones… Ezekiel and the Israelites are dry. Out of hope. Out of joy. Tired. Exhausted. The ones who are still walking are zombies, husks – there is no life left in them.

God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?

Ezekiel answers with exhaustion, “O Lord God – you know.”

You know – these bones are weary and dead. You know – these people are hopeless. You know – we don’t even have tears left to cry. We’re dry.

And God says: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: you shall live. I shall put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

And as Ezekiel tells the dry bones that God will put them back together, and gives them flesh, and muscle, and tendons, and skin – the bones wiggles and clatter and rattle and organize themselves back into people.

Then God tells Ezekiel to call to the four winds — call everywhere – and let God’s breath bring life. From all corners, God breathes, and the people stand up – healthy – no longer slain. No longer dry. No longer breathless.

God tells Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.’ But I say, I am going to open your graves and bring you up. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. You shall know that I have spoken and I will act.”

There, when all hope is lost, when the country is destroyed and the people scattered, when so many have died and even more are living hopelessly – with one foot in the grave and just waiting for death to claim them – when the breath, the Spirit of God, is snuffed… God says, I have spoken and I will act. I am speaking and I have acted. I give you hope. I give you life. I will bring you home.

The words of God are literal for Ezekiel – God literally helps the Israelites eventually return home, rebuild Jerusalem, and the Second Temple. But God’s words are also metaphorical – the hope and life given to the dead bones is the hope and life given to the people living in exile. Do not fear. I am God. Do not be hopeless. I am God. I am acting. I am giving new life. I bring hope against all hope.

Lazarus’ situation seems hopeless, too. Jesus was ran out of Bethany with the people there wanting to stone him to death. And now, back in Bethany, Lazarus is very, very ill. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has fallen asleep – and the disciples are relieved. Oh good! Then Lazarus will be fine. There’s no need for us to go back to Bethany, which is right in the shadow of Jerusalem, and get stoned to death. But Jesus tells them plainly – no, Lazarus is dead and we are going back to Bethany. You hear Thomas say, “Well, guys, let’s go to Bethany too – might as well all die together.” They don’t have any hope that this situation is going to turn out well. They’re going to join Lazarus in the grave.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. In ancient Jewish understanding, the soul finished leaving the body after three days. This makes sense medically – someone could enter a coma and appear dead, and wake up in a day or two… but if someone has appeared dead for three days… and rot has begun to set in… you know, they’re not in a coma. They’re not going to wake up. This person is very, very dead. Since it has been four days, Lazarus is beyond hope. Everyone knows – he is dead.

Martha goes out and meets Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of God.” Listen to that angry accusation! Jesus – I sent you word – you knew Lazarus needed you ahead of time – yet you didn’t come. Where were you when Lazarus needed you? Now he is dead. I know you could have asked God to cure Lazarus and God would have answered your prayer.

Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha’s heard this phrase over and over. Many Jews at this time believed there would be a final day when the dead would be resurrected and stand before God. I think Martha must sigh and say, “I know.” I know we’ll all meet again. I know there’s an afterlife – but Jesus – you could have done something now! I sent for you! I called for you! And you came too late!

Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Do you believe that a person’s body dies, but they live on? Do you believe that in Jesus, there is abundant life – even for those who are beyond hope? Even for bones that are weary, and dry, and souls that thirst, and are weighed with sin? Do you believe that we suffer death and deaths, but through it all, resurrection – new life – is always possible?

Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And she shares the news with her sister, Mary.

Mary comes to Jesus with the same accusation as Martha- but she comes in tears and falls at Jesus’ feet, “Lord – if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

I’ve said both of these prayers of the sisters. I’ve cried out in anger – God, I told you when the prognoses didn’t look good – I gave you heads up – why didn’t you act?! If you’d intervened, my loved one would still be here! I’ve also fallen to my knees in prayer and sobbed, God, where were you?

… Mary is crying. Lazarus’ family and friends are crying. And Jesus begins to cry too, and asks where Lazarus’ body lays.

Around Jesus, people mutter, “Look at him cry! Look at how much he loved Lazarus.” Others say, “He opened the eyes of that blind man, he can cure and heal people. If he’d come quicker, couldn’t he have saved Lazarus? He’s crying out of guilt.” Why do we think Jesus is crying? Maybe he knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus, and that deed – the seventh and final sign in the book of John – would lead to Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus is crying because he knows this sets into motion his return into Jerusalem, and his passion, and the scattering of the disciples. Maybe Jesus is crying because he loves Mary, and sees how much she is hurting. We’re told he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. But why? We don’t know.

In his agitated state, and full of tears, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb. Show me him.

Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He stinks. He’s beyond curing. He isn’t in a coma – there is no soul left in his body. Jesus… Lazarus is beyond hope. Do you really want your last memories of him to be his rotting body? The tomb is closed. The story is done. The hope is gone.

Jesus replies, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” And he begins to pray over the reopened tomb – and calls out to Lazarus – “LAZARUS – COME OUT!” “Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.” (Karoline Lewis)
The very dead man comes out of the grave still bound by the grave clothes. And these rags of death are unbound, and he is set free. Lazarus is alive!

Yet this very miracle, at the end of this chapter, is what leads in the book of John many to plan Jesus’ death. This final sign – that hope cannot be extinguished – is what leads to the cross.

And yet, we know, that even the cross cannot extinguish God’s ever renewing life and hope. Even should God Incarnate be crucified, nothing is ever so dead, so hopeless, to be beyond God’s saving grace – beyond God’s love.

Ezekiel stands in a landscape full of death – yet the hope for renewed life remains. Jesus stands at the tomb of his dear friend, in the shadow of the death – the shadow of the cross – Jesus knows the death and dryness of our own lives – literally stands with us in a garden of grief with gut wrenching tears – and yet, hope against all hope remains.

Amen.

Rest on Grace

John 3:1-17jesus_nicodemus_2
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul’s writings are thick, complex, and wrote in a style of rhetoric, argument, that we don’t use much anymore. So let’s break him down into little bits today. First, let’s replace Abraham in our scripture with George Washington. Think: What then are we to say was gained by George Washington, our ancestor according to the flesh? Or rather, why do some people brag George Washington is their great-great-grandpappy? Does that make them more American than those not related to George Washington? In other words, it’s great to have grandpappies who did great stuff… but God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… just like your American Citizen status doesn’t rely on being related to George Washington.

Next, Paul argues Abraham didn’t work for God, and God didn’t pay Abraham his due. This wasn’t an employee and store owner relationship. Instead, God -granted- -reckoned- -gifted- Abraham righteousness in return for Abraham’s trust. Paul even calls Abraham ungodly. God gifts grace to people who haven’t even turned their lives around towards living faithful lives. Faithful lives doesn’t win you God’s grace. God gives it freely. So, God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… and God doesn’t require living a sinless life to receive God’s love.

If we’re going to use our American analogy, it would be that your citizenship to America doesn’t depend on being related to George Washington… and, it doesn’t depend on you speaking English, dressing in jeans and a tshirt, and being Christian. You can be American and speak Spanish, or wear a hijab, or pray at a Synagoge.

Why is this important to Paul? Because he’s writing to ancient Jews who had always been taught that their literal ancestor – Abraham – is what made them Jewish, and made them God’s people. These new converts to The Way of Jesus (seen as form of Judaism at the time) are NOT biologically related to Abraham. How can they, too, be God’s children?

Sorta like… many say that to be an American citizen, you have to have been born here. Raised here. OR act, look, speak and pray like you were raised here. But what about people born abroad to American parents, but due to the military, are raised in a foreign country and speak a foreign language and hold dual citizenship? Are they Americans? People who immigrate here – are they Americans? What about the Amish – are they Americans? We’ve got a lot of people who don’t wear tshirts, jeans, and speak Midwestern English. So what is the criteria for being an American?

Paul’s churches are asking – what is the criteria for being Christian?

He argues if being a child of God means being a literal descendant of Abraham… we have no reason to follow God. None. Born Jewish? Bam! You hit the jackpot. Automatic inclusion. Born Greek? Chinese? Sorry. You’re not loved, and even if you convert, you still are excluded. This way of thinking doesn’t promote faith. It doesn’t even promote living a good life style. It just promotes keeping a strict genealogy record so you can prove you’re related to Abraham, and so got your golden genetic ticket to God.

Instead, Paul argues that Abraham existed before there was really a Jewish people or Jewish faith. There wasn’t even a Torah, a Bible, at the time. So… being Jewish or following the Torah doesn’t include or exclude people from God’s children. Abraham was loved before the Torah and before Judaism. Instead, God’s children, Abraham’s heirs, are all of those who follow his faith. All of those people who trust God. And all those people – regardless of their biological ancestor, or their depth of knowledge of religion, or how little or how often they sin — none of this makes or breaks your relationship with God. Instead – you’re a child of God – just as you are, who you are – because God loves you.

What do you call this? It’s called grace. Unmerited favor. God loves you because God loves you. There’s nothing you can do to gain more love or to lose that love. To be Christian is to accept that love as reality with faith. With the belief in things unseen, not wholly proven, but chosen to be accepted. Paul writes, “God gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Biologically, you’re likely not related to Abraham… but you are his descendant through things that don’t exist. Living faith flows from him to you. You are Abraham’s heir. You are God’s child, too.

In our American analogy, you’re likely not related to George Washington, but you are his political heir. The spirit of democracy, freedom to speak, freedom to worship in your own way, freedom to influence your government is known to you. You’re an American child too, regardless of where you were born or what language you speak or how you worship.

Spiritual heirs are what Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about.

Nicodemus is walking a faith like our own, and like many of those whom Paul wrote to. In John’s gospel, light and dark, day and night, mean a lot more than just how much illumination there is. It also means whether or not someone is understanding Jesus, or if they’re misunderstanding Jesus. So Nicodemus comes literally at night and figuratively in misunderstanding. He thinks he knows who Jesus is: a great rabbi from God. Jesus tells him, “Bingo… and more. But to see more, one has to be born again or born from above.” The word used here in scripture means both — both again and from above.

Nicodemus is in the dark. He misunderstands and takes the literal translation — born again. He gets caught up in the literal – and starts picturing himself trying to get into a womb to be born again. SO not possible.

For our American analogy, it would be like saying Americans are those who are born American. But what about all the immigrants? Even if they get their greencards and are full citizens, are they still not Americans? They can’t be literally born again here. People don’t have two births.

Jesus explains – spiritual birth. The Spirit of God moves here and there, people here and there are reborn with it.

In our analogy, some people are spiritually born as Americans and come here with that spirit, that love, of liberty from wherever they were biologically born.

You just can’t predict who is going to faithfully vote and faithfully attend church based on their birth certificates. There are people born in America who never vote and there are people born with Christian parents who never attend church. Just as there are people born in Middle Eastern countries who move here and never miss voting, and there are people who have atheist parents who never miss time to pray.

Biological birth is not the same as spiritual birth.

Nicodemus, like many of us, still can’t get his head around it. He wants a clear checklist of what it means to follow Jesus. Sorta like we want a clear checklist of what it means to be American. But Jesus won’t give it to him. Grace isn’t earned. Grace — God’s love — is just given. Faith isn’t something to testify and be good for all time. Faith is lived. It is a verb.

Nicodemus asks for more help. He’s a scholar, he knows his religion, he’s affluent and educated and clearly devoted to understanding and practiving his faith. Jesus replies look – you disbelieve me about these earthly things. You know I’m doing miracles, but you still question. I told you God’s love is for more than Abraham’s biological children, but you didn’t believe. How am I to explain heavenly things to you? God loves you. God is saving the world through God’s son. God is giving new life — full life — life to the depressed, the lonley, the outcast, the foresaken, the poor, the ignored, the hopeless. God is welcoming in the “huddled masses” and “wretches refuse” and “temptest tossed.” God isn’t condemning them, isn’t condemning the world, but opening the door of welcome wide to all.

Have you ever pictured yourself back in ancient Israel? Like, say you woke up one day and you’re back there — 2030 years ago — and you actually meet Jesus in the flesh. I’ve always thought I’d instantly recognize him. I’d not be like Nicodemus and be sneaking in the dark. I wouldn’t be the religious leaders and spit on Jesus. I would know my Lord and drop everything to follow him.

Professor Karoline Lewis posed these questions that made me pause: “Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than [Nicodemus?] this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?”

Nicodemus has more than two thousand years of Judism education under his belt. He’s literally speaking with Jesus in the flesh before him. He’s risking his reputation, his job, maybe even his life to speak with Jesus. Do we have more faith than that? And yet – here he is, misunderstanding because he is carrying so many expectations of who Jesus is and what God is doing.

… I might be carrying those too and stuck to my misconceptions more than God’s reality.

Jesus’ words are that whoever does good to the most wretched has done good to him. Whoever has spat on others has spat on him. Where did I see you Lord?

I don’t need to time travel back to ancient Israel to see Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is attempting to get his kids to school around Immigration Customs Enforcement agents. Jesus is sitting in a 103 tent watching her son slowly starve to death and praying the money comes through to get him help and out of this refugee camp. Jesus is the last survivor of a capsized boat in the Mediterranean.

In reality, I am Nicodemus. I get stuck in the literal. I get stuck thinking I’d recognize Jesus in the flesh 2000 years ago when I don’t even recognize him in the flesh today.

I try to follow Jesus. I try to understand, but I often look at the world with literal eyes and ignore the spiritual. Nicodemus shows up twice more in our gospel. He defends Jesus before his peers… and he helps bury Jesus. Nicodemus walks a faith life that goes into periods of darkness and light. Periods when he is attuned to the way God views the world, and Nicodemus does much good. And periods when he is confounded by God, and Nicodemus flounders, messes up.

That is why Paul’s argument and Jesus’ argument is so important to us during Lent: being a child of God, being loved by God, is God’s gift to us. We don’t earn it. We don’t lose it. We choose to respond to it.

We do wrongs individually, and collectively. We hurt others intentionally and unintentially. We miss seeing Jesus in others. We choose not to see Jesus in others. But God still loves us… even as we hurt God. Even as we take God’s child and shame him, torture him, murder him… God still loves us. Today, we still take God’s children of all backgrounds and shame them, torture them, murder them often by just ignoring them. But God still loves us.

And from that love, offers forgiveness. Offers us to begin again. Offers us a new life where we live more Christ-like and extend not condemnation, but salvation, to others. Out of God’s love for the whole world — not just Americans, not just Christians, not just Abrahamic faiths, but the WHOLE WORLD, Out of God’s love for the WHOLE WORLD, Jesus is given. Forgiveness is offered. We are given a new chance at peace, embracing each other, and living in harmony.

Amen.

Temptations

temptation-in-wildernessGenesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Matthew 4:1-11

We begin Lent with two temptation stories. In the first, temptation is given in to – and its consequences are bad. In the second, temptation is resisted – and the consequences are good. The kindergarten level of these stories is that simple: resist evil, do good. But minus just a few of us, we’re well past kindergarten. And minus just a few of us, life is a whole lot more complicated than “just say no.”

In fact, I’d say all of us – including our kindergarteners and those younger – find “just say no” to temptations as easy to do as sprouting wings and flying. We wouldn’t call them temptations unless they actually had power over us. Actually did tempt us.

In Lent, many of us give up something or take on something to help us reflect upon our relationship with God, and to seek reconciliation, to seek atonement, to seek being one with God. These sacrifices of food, time, money, sweets or television or what-have-you… they’re not a sacrifice unless we want them. Not a temptation unless we want them, and they have some control over us.

When we add something –prayer time, journaling, meditation – it can still be a sacrifice as well Because we’re forced to still ourselves, to hold up a mirror, to converse – talk AND listen — with God. It is much easier to just pretend all is fine, to talk at God without listening, and to bury those emotions we’re avoiding under layers and layers of busyness. An honest conversation with ourselves and our God is a huge sacrifice to many of us. It’s much more comfortable to have a quick “Hiya, amen.” And mark it off as a a quick check mark on our “to-do” list. Anything more might lead us into a wilderness. Doing more means a reflection of morality. Thinking of right and wrong.

Fasting, or giving up sweets, giving up meat, or giving up coffee or pop? These are hard because our bodies crave these things. We can live on less than what we eat, and no one needs coffee or pop to survive – but food and drink are good ways to avoid reflection, too. Caffeine, chocolate, sugar, and so forth are drugs to our minds full of feel-good chemicals. When we cut these out, or cut out certain foods or meals, our very bodies remind us, tempt us, back to the way we were. These cravings we feel are a way of reminding ourselves of God throughout the day. It is a way of walking into wilderness. It means reflecting on our mortality. Thinking of time and death.

Have you ever noticed the snake doesn’t do anything other than talk? Just words. And the snake asks them to reflect upon what God has said. But “how often we find ourselves drawn to the non-productive, slick-talking agents of nothingness! Worse: the agents of shame and fear.” (Kathryn Matthews) That is just what the tempting snake gives. Shame. Fear. Adam and Eve knew they had done wrong, they knew shame, they tried to cover themselves, cover their shame, literally with clothes and by hiding from God.

In fear and shame, we know Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden. So what is East of Eden? Maybe a desert, or a woods – some wilderness. It sure isn’t a garden. Surely a lonely place separated from feeling the immediate presence of God.

In such wildernesses, literally as they walked and spiritually as the Lent we walk, “you cannot help noticing how small and perishable you are. You remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. You wish you had someone to distract you from that fact, or at least someone to talk to about it. Anyone but the devil, that is”

These words of Barbara Brown Taylor reverberate in my soul. They mean much to me. In my wilderness, out of the comfortable garden, out with my shame and my fears — I cannot help but notice my mortality. Scientists say we are all stardust, all matter, on a cosmic scale we briefly live and quickly die in less than a blink of an eye to the universe. The Jewish word for dirt, soil, and the ground, is adamah, Adam . Like him and every living thing since I’m going to die some day. Everything I do will eventually turn to dust. Because I, myself, am just animated dust.

Out in the wilderness, you, like me, may begin to think “how vain I am to think I matter, or that anything I do matters.”

You, like me, may look for someone to talk with about this – someone to distract us – give me a reason and a purpose for living… but when we’re alone in our wildernesses, there seems to only be the devil to keep us company. Only the tempter. The accuser. And he wears our own face and uses our own voices and this devil on our backs echoes our own words back to us in the worst way possible.

So many of us are our own worst enemies, and are hardest on ourselves.

What terrible things are whispered to you when you enter into Lent? When you quiet yourself, still yourself, and reflect? What awful things does that devil whisper to you? Tempt you to think about yourself? Tempt you to hate about yourself.

Perhaps…  like me, you think: No one is going to remember me.

And then that accuser in our minds replies, You’re right about that. Do you remember your great-great-great grandma? Do you even know her name?

Another time, like me, you may hear that awful lie: No one truly loves me.

And that devil replies, You’re right about that one, too. Not even you love yourself. So how could someone else love you?

And on goes the accuser, that voice in our head being our own worst enemy – saying : I am worthless.

… After God finds Adam and Eve hiding, what does God do? I’m not talking about the consequences of them falling for their temptation. I’m talking about God personally making them clothes. God takes away their leaves, their symbols of shame and gives them symbols of God’s love.

After Jesus succeeds in his trials and temptations, angels come and collect him up to care for his weary body and exhausted soul. God sends help, sends God’s love in a physical way.

And us? After we have so goofed, and face that horrid devil in us that accuses us of every wrong and sin – those we have done and those we haven’t – those shortcomings we really have and those we imagine – when we are alone in our wildernesses, God seeks us out, takes away that sin, that shame, and gives us the symbol of God’s love – God’s own son.

Life is a wild place. A wilderness. A place full of temptations to do wrong. A place where morality and our own mortality barrage us every hour and every day. But God is seeking us wherever we are struggling, wherever we are hiding, and offering love.

Don’t listen to the devil tempting you to think you are anything more or less than God’s beloved child. Enter Lent to remember who and who’s you are.

And come to this table today, this symbol of God’s love, and be reassured you are known, you are welcome, and you are loved. Amen.

Like a Fragrance

Daniel F. Gerhartz annointing Jesus
Painting by Daniel F. Gerhartz

Isaiah 43:16-21
John 12:1-8

 

I have a friend who has her grandpa’s ball cap in a box in her room. She told me, “Whenever I’m feeling down, I go get that box and open it up. Immediately, it’s Papa’s smell – and I can feel his arms around me – and the whole day just is that much better.”

For another friend, it is the perfume Primo! – the knock off of Giorgio Beverly Hills. That is the smell of mom.

Baking cookies. A warm horse saddle. Rose water. A campfire. Laundry from the line.

Fast Orange.

That’s one of mine. It’s the pumice mechanic soap – that’s the smell of my grandpa. Whenever I use it, I remember the sounds of his auto shop and the feel of sitting on his lap eating lunch with oil-stained hands. I feel his love, over a decade after his passing, though the smell of this orange soap.

Fragrance, smells, take us places. Good and bad.

The last time Jesus was in Bethany, Martha begged Jesus to not go to his dead friend Lazarus, “He stinks, my Lord!” Lazarus had been dead for days, in the desert heat, sealed in an crypt.

People weren’t embalmed back then as they are now. Today, a funeral can be delayed until it is a good time for the family. The deceased looks dead, but pleasantly dead, as if they are sleeping, whether the funeral is held the same day or a few weeks later. Chemicals, refrigerators, makeup… we delay the natural process of decomposition.

This sanitizes death.

Even a hundred years ago death was a much, much smellier affair. We say we send flowers to funerals to lift up the spirits of those who are mourning, and to symbolize life… but we originally sent flowers to help cover up the smell.

The smell of death.

Death, decaying bodies, is one of those smells that sticks in your nose, clings to your clothes, and Martha was so right to hold Jesus back and warn him, “Lord, he reeks!” Don’t remember your dear friend by making a memory of this smell. Remember him living!

The last time Jesus was in Bethany, Martha tried to save him of this experience and smell. He didn’t need to remember his friend Lazarus through the smell of death. Let him remember Lazarus with the smell of meals shared.

As you remember, Jesus ignores Martha’s practicality and tells people to open the stinking, reeking, tomb. He then told Lazarus boldly to come out. Lazarus does so! Still wrapped up in reeking, stinking, grave cloths. When these are removed, Lazarus is just fine. Resurrected.

Everyone who saw this believed in Jesus. Word spread like wildfire that the Messiah had arrived. The Jewish authorities got terrified – for as soon as word reached Rome, Rome would come in and destroy Israel. They put out orders that should Jesus come to the Passover festival, he was to be arrested, and then put to death, for as they argued, “it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50).

Jesus became an outlaw, hiding, until he set his eyes for Jerusalem and knew his hour was coming – the hour, the time, of God.

Today, Jesus has returned the home of the three siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Returned to Bethany, where everyone knows he resurrected Lazarus. Returned to a stone’s throw from Jerusalem where there is an order to capture Jesus. Returned to where the scent of death lingers.

Six days before Passover. A week.

Next week… Jesus knows… he will walk into Jerusalem. He will face his greatest challenges. He will plead with God for another way. He will trust his disciples to continue his mission in his absence. He will not perform miracles selfishly to save himself. He will be betrayed. Paraded about. Mocked. Tortured. Murdered. By the same people who will welcome him with palm branches as their king.

The scent of death doesn’t come so much from Lazarus’ old clothes, but from what Jesus knows is coming. He has told those around him of this, but… so few have understood, or believed.

But Mary.

Like the family last week, Mary is prodigal. Extravagantly wasteful. She wants to give and give and love and love regardless of the cost.

Mary knows Jesus raised her brother from the dead, and in doing so, convinced enough people Jesus is the messiah and got a death warrant on Jesus’ head. Mary knows coming back to Bethany and Jerusalem is the end for Jesus. Mary, a prophet in her own right, sees what is going to happen.

She can smell the death even in the celebratory meal Martha sets.

You remember that we use flowers to cover up the smell of death; in ancient Israel, they sometimes used the exotic perfume called spikenard or nard. It would be rubbed onto the feet of the deceased to help with the smell for the burial. The fragrant plant came from the Himalayans, and was used in the temple worship of God, and was used when put on the head of a king to anoint him.

Mary comes with an entire bottle of the strong, pure oil – worth an entire year’s wages – and dumps it all over Jesus’ feet. Once, she sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him preach, now she uses her own hair like a cloth to wipe Jesus’ feet clean and rub in the nard.

Remember, Jesus will use a cloth to bathe the feet of his disciples, like the lowest of the lowest slaves, and he will tell them to do the same for each other – for they are equals, servants, to one another.

Mary, long before Jesus directly tells the men to humble themselves, to serve one another, understands what Jesus is teaching and doing.

Mary knows Jesus is heading to his death. She is already mourning.

Mary knows to follow Jesus is to extravagantly love others. She is already loving extravagantly.

Mary knows to extravagantly love, a person cannot be too prideful, cannot view others as lower and less than.

Mary knows the scent of death can only be overcome with the fragrance of love.

So she loves- and loves and loves and loves – the entire house is filled with the smell. Was it choking? Like walking into the detergent aisle at the grocery store, or taking a full on sniff of a bottle of perfume? Did the nard soak into everyone’s clothing so that the rest of the trip to Jerusalem they continued to get whiffs of it?

I think Judas must begin protesting even before Mary is done. I like that Jesus defends her. I like that he recognizes she is acting more like a Christ-follower than Judas, and has listened more deeply than the other twelve about what is to come. I like that he honors her as she honors him – and they share the new fragrance memory of nard.

How many weeks did the siblings’ house smell of nard? And Mary’s hair! The fragrance of the nard in her hair had to stay for what seemed like forever. Every time she smelled it, I wonder if she thought of the man who brought her brother back from the dead, the promised Messiah who had came at last, and her Rabbi.

There is a Nigerian saying that the heart is what does the giving… the fingers only let go.

Mary has given from her heart… for Jesus had given from his heart… for God had given from God’s heart.

And like a fragrance, that giving, that love, lingers and persists. And it is stronger than the smell of decay, of separation, and of death. We are about to enter Holy Week – the week beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Holy Saturday. It begins with celebration and ends with death. But, like the nard, the fragrance of God’s love isn’t easily wiped away and gone with. Like nard, it persists into the grave… and is stronger than death. For we have a new week, a new day, a Sunday Easter resurrection waiting – a day where love is poured over us as freely as the costly oil Mary poured on Jesus.

For thus says the Lord: “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Can you not smell the fragrance of God’s love ever battling the stench life often throws at us?

Can you not perceive, not notice, that spring is among us, and what was dead shall come to life?

As the Psalmist sings,

“Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.” (Psalm 126).

With God, tears of sorrow become tears of joy.

Amen.

The Appalling Mercy of God

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The only time I ever hear the word ‘prodigal’ is in reference to this story. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I’ve always thought ‘prodigal’ must mean something like ‘repentant’ or ‘returning.’

Did you know it actually means wastefully extravagant? Lavish, imprudent, boundless, someone who is told to go to the store for milk and comes home with an entire barn of cows.

Jesus’ story is the story of an entire family who is wastefully extravagant.

He tells the story in response to the righteous, upstanding, church folk grumbling that Jesus is too generous for sitting down with sinners, even UNREPENTANT sinners, and sharing meals with them.

So the story goes like this:

A dad has a really good piece of farm land. He got it from his dad, who got it from his dad, all the way back to when they originally moved here. Over the generations, this farm went from a little single shoddy house in the wilderness to a big farm with hired hands. Now this land feeds not only the original family, but also the other families who work on the farm as farm hands.

This dad has two sons. The older son, let’s call him Bobby, is a really good boy. He does everything his dad tells him to do. He always goes to church with his dad, he always gets the crops in before rain, and he never, ever does wrong. Whenever there was a broken dish, or crayon marks on the walls, or a goat that got into the grapes… dad knew it wasn’t Bobby’s fault.

It was actually much more likely that dad’s younger son, let’s call him Timmy, forgot to close the gate. Timmy grew up in the shadow of Bobby. Bobby was older, the good kid, and always prudent. Timmy… well… sometimes Timmy felt like there was no place for him. He just couldn’t BE his older brother. His older brother was older- so of course he was better at things. He had more practice. To survive, to be his own person, Timmy had to find places Bobby wasn’t. Often, this was doing bad things.

I wonder if Jesus pauses here, before his crowd of church go-ers and sinners. The sinners are tax collectors, people who collect money for the Romans. Do you think these Jewish men would work for the Romans if they had an option? No! But, for one reason or another, this was the only job they could get. And what of these prostitutes? Do you think these women were little girls and said ‘One day, I’m going to have a job where I sell myself and everyone spits on me and looks down at me?’ No! Of course not. But circumstances, bad choices the girls made or that were made FOR them, forced them into this job. You Pharisees, you church-goers, you respectable people: listen up — this story is for you.

Jesus then continues that the younger boy Timmy wants to strike out on his own. He says, “Dad, when you die, you’re going to divide the farm between Bobby and I. Well, I don’t want to wait that long. Give me my share now.”

The dad is prodigal. He is extravagantly wasteful. He gives his son his son’s share of the farm.

And right away, the son is prodigal, extravagantly wasteful. He sells the land and sheep and goats and takes all the money far away.

Ancient Israelite farmers are much like modern Ohio farmers. The land we have is WHO we are when we say we’re farmers. This land has been cleared, fertilized, tilled and disked and cared for by our parents and grandparents. We love the land. It is a key part of our identity.

And our animals – and seeds – sometimes we have been breeding them from stock that’s just as old as the land.

The son does violence to his dad, to his ancestors, and to his community. Dad can’t hire as many farm hands now that a good portion of his land has been sold to strangers in a strange land.

These strangers come and they don’t know how to farm the land. Maybe they turn it into a McMansion or used car lot, or all the other development catastrophes we know. They bring in big trucks to build something in the middle of that beautiful piece of farmland and crush all the field tiles, tear down all the cattle fencing, and cut down the oaks your grandmother planted.

This younger son burns many, many bridges on his way out of town.

Where does he go? We don’t know. New York, Las Vegas, Columbus, Mexico – just somewhere that isn’t here. Somewhere where what it means to be a rural farmer isn’t understood.

And there, he blows through all the money from his dad’s work, his grandparent’s work, and his great-grandparent’s work. Broke, credit card debt past his eyeballs, the economy then tanks.

Hunger sets in. So Timmy looks for work. He’s a foreigner, a stranger, in this area. No one wants to hire him. They’d rather give a good job to a local. The only work he can find is being a farmer… ironic… and not a farmer like he knew back home, but a hired hand who has to do the dirtiest work.

Every good law-abiding Jewish person knows that swine, pigs, are dirty. The Romans eat them. But Jews do not. This foreigner, maybe a Roman, is making this Jewish kid help raise dirty food.

It’s kind of like the tax collectors. They are working for Romans… helping the Romans tax the Jews. It’s doing dirty work… so that they don’t starve.

I wonder if Jesus then asked, “Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners – how many times have you heard people whispering behind your backs, ‘Dirty pig!’ Was it foreigners calling you names, or was it people who are supposed to be your own community? Your own brothers and sisters?”

I think Jesus asks us to reflect… what names are we calling our fellow Christians?

… Especially those ones we see are sinning?

Are we calling them something else than beloved children of God?

Jesus then returns to his story: Hungering in the field after the pig’s bean husks, Timmy comes to his senses. He realizes that his dad’s hired hands are eating better than he is. If he wants to survive, he could go back to his dad.

Maybe Timmy really is sorry. Or maybe Timmy is just really hungry. We don’t know. We never know why people repent — why they turn back — why they say sorry. Maybe someone is truly sorry… or maybe they are doing it out of self-interest. Maybe people are saying sorry because they feel badly about what they have done. Or maybe they are saying sorry because they don’t want cut out of the will, or go to jail, or are scared of hell. We don’t know. And Jesus’ parable says the REASON someone repents isn’t as important as you and I would like it to be.

Rather, repentance and forgiveness belongs to the realm of grace. The realm of God. The realm of forgiving seventy times seventy or more times.

There’s no rap sheet with God.

No long list of, “Well, I already forgave you this same sin two times — this third strike? You’re out.”

As long as you’re confessing, returning, seeking God – the mercy and forgiveness of God is still pouring out, still coming, still washing away those sins.

Kinda appalling, isn’t it? Not fair at all. Extravagant waste.

Jesus’ story just keeps getting more prodigal and more not fair.

Timmy goes home, back to the town he’s wronged big time. Back to where the neighbors hate him. Back to where everyone looks at Timmy’s dad and shakes their head saying, “What a shame! Why did he ever let his son get that way? Why did he give his son that land? I wouldn’t let MY son act like that.”

And as Timmy walks through the little town, his dad sees him and goes running towards him. It’s like this dad has no sense of shame at all. For everyone to see, this dad acts like a giddy school girl and goes running down the street towards his sinful son to greet him! Does this mean he approves of how the kid’s acted?! The kid has just started to return, and dad runs all the rest of the way to greet him.

Of course he doesn’t approve. He just loves his son that much. God loves us like this!

And the father greets him with even more extravagant waste! Kisses and hugs, brushing off the son’s practiced apology, calling for new clothing and riches to be draped over the boy, and to throw a gigantic feast for the kid. The dad is going to throw a party for the whole town to celebrate the kid coming home.

It isn’t just the good son who’s appalled. I think the town is too.

What are we going to do? What are we going to choose? There’s a great big party getting ready to be thrown for this kid. Are we going to cross our arms, huff, and refuse to join? Are we going to turn our noses up and refuse to associate with this prodigal family?

The older son, Bobby, is walking towards town from the fields. He’s been working all day. He hears the celebration in town.

And when he learns what’s going on – oh boy is he angry.

He crosses his arm and refuses to go in. He refuses to celebrate that idiot who did so much wrong, so much sin. “I don’t care if he’s back safe and sound. I don’t care if he says he’s sorry. He should have never left in the first place!”

So dad leaves the party to come talk to his eldest son, Bobby. Truly, this dad has no shame when it comes to pulling his sons into his presence. He’s willing to plead now before the town with his eldest son. Plead, not demand, but plead.

God pleads with us. Never forces.

But the older son angrily answers his dad’s pleading, “No! THAT son — I won’t call him my brother — THAT son of your’s devoured your property and you rejoice? I’ve been a slave for you and you don’t do anything special for me – not once!”

And dad replies, “All that I have is your’s, and you have always been in my presence. Your brother was dead, but now alive. He was lost, but now found. We must celebrate and rejoice.”

I think Jesus’ crowd was so, so angry over this story. You church go-ers have always had God in your presence. All of God’s love, and presence, and mercy has always been your’s.

This sinner, this lost one, who turned back… this is your brother! Your sister! I have to rejoice. I have to welcome them. I love them.

Will you rejoice, will you welcome, will you love them too?

It is appalling that God’s mercy knows no limits. It is appalling that God’s love is for those who stay by God and those who wander. It’s appalling… but so, so necessary.

That older son was also lost and dead. He was in the field, so concerned about working, so concerned about doing right – that he, too, had wandered away from his father. He was dead in his heart – he refused to call his brother a brother. He refused to welcome his brother home.

This story of abundant, extravagent, endless mercy and love is for both sons.

The son who sins openly; and the son who sins privately.

The sinner who the world points at with shaming fingers; and the sinner who the world lauds.

Jesus, sitting there talking to tax collectors and church go-ers alike, talking to prostitutes and priests – says you all need God’s mercy, and you all have God’s love.

God’s love isn’t limited.

When a person enters the circle of God’s love, there is not less love for everyone else. When a sinner is given a welcome home party, that party isn’t just for that sinner. The party is an invite for everyone – rejoice! God’s love knows no ends.

I once heard this story told as so: Saint Peter stood at the gates of heaven checking names off for who could enter. However, more people were in heaven than the number on Peter’s list. “Go keep looking and find out what the issue is,” Peter told some angels. So the angels looked through heaven, took another count, and again more people were in heaven than Peter had let in.

Finally, one of the angels found the problem. The angel returned to Peter and said, “Found the issue with the numbers, sir. It’s Jesus. He’s standing out by the back wall lifting people over.”

That is our God.

Endless mercy. Endless love.

It may strike us as unfair, as appalling…

… but without this endless mercy and love, who would get past the gate?

Amen.

Blame Game

Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 13:1-9

Who’s to blame? Jesus’ disciples are trying to get their heads around the idea Jesus is preaching. An idea that isn’t popular in Jesus’ day, or our own day…

That message is don’t blame victims for their plights.

In our reading, Jesus is speaking privately to his disciples, but people keep bringing him more and more issues to address. There are so many, the scripture says the people began to trample and step on one another. And someone in the crowd calls out, “Rabbi! Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” And Jesus is upset with how greedy and lacking empathy the people coming to him are.

Some other person in the crowd comes and tells Jesus about an attack. Pilate murdered these worshipers as they brought their offerings to the temple. The person telling the story suggests, “Surely God protects God’s own people. So since these good faithful worshipers were killed in the middle of worship… they must have actually been sinners and made God so mad, God used Pilate to kill them. Right Jesus? So we can go boycott their funerals right?”

Jesus replies, “Ah, so then the 18 people who died in Jerusalem recently when that building fell – they must have been the 18 worst sinners in Jerusalem, right?” I think the crowd must nod. Yes, that’s right.

Jesus says, “No, I assure you. They weren’t the worst sinners. But unless you repent, you will perish just like they did.”

Who’s to blame when bad things happen?

When bad things happen – we, like the crowd, often lack empathy and we blame the victim. We say they weren’t a victim at all. They brought this on themselves. This is their own fault.

If a woman is pestered by a man, catcalled, touched: it’s because she shouldn’t have worn that clothing. She brought his attention on herself.

If a kid is bullied in school, he should be more of a man and stop crying. No one likes a whiner.

If a man is cheated on, he really should have been a better husband. Good husbands have faithful wives.

These people deserve their fate.

Do you remember how many preachers were saying hurricane Katrina was God’s response to Mardi Gras? It was God punishing the sinners of Louisiana? Surely Louisiana is the most sinful state of the US. So they deserved all that death, destruction, disease, and destroyed families.

How many preachers and politicians right now are saying the US is not flourishing because of “those sinners.” Depending on who you ask, those sinners are women seeking reproductive health care, gays and lesbians, non-Christians, or drug users.

Surely God is punishing the US, and that is why we aren’t the world’s only super power.

No! Says Jesus. No!

No to all of this! Each of these cases heap burdens on those already burdened.

Do not judge lest you be judged.

Nations rise and fall; hurricanes happen; good men are cheated on; all kids are bullied; and a woman isn’t responsible to police men.

Blaming those already in hurt turns us into sinners: into people who are hypocrites because we preach love but do harm.

One’s luck in life – whether good or bad – is NOT because of one’s sins. And, unless we repent of judging others, repent of harming others, repent of sin… we will perish. We will die on the inside. We will be heartless, and cruel, and continue to judge others…. continue to play the blame game and tell victims they deserve their bad luck.

Jesus, when no one understands what he means, tells a story about a fig tree. The land owner wants to cut it down, because the tree doesn’t produce figs. The gardener says, “No! Let me change the tree’s environment. It may be a bad tree, if so – then cut it down. It’s a bad tree. But give this tree the benefit of doubt. Give it a chance. Change the environment and you may be surprised.”

What does that mean?

… Often, we are victims of our circumstances, our environments, and not wholly to blame for our deeds.

Did you know one of the largest, if not THE largest, mental health institution in the US is the Cook County Jail in Chicago? It houses 9000 people, of which 35% are mentally ill. That’s 3150 mentally ill people at all times.

It didn’t always used to be like this. There had been social workers working the streets, and mental health places, and homeless shelters… but the city cut the funding for these projects. They said having these aids available encouraged people to be homeless. And, they said that with “Obama Care” everyone has health insurance, so now there is no need for free and low-income mental health help.

If you make too little money to afford health care insurance, you get a paper from the government that says you’re excused from purchasing it. So in reality, many people still do not have health insurance. Mostly the poor.

If you are able to get health insurance, next to none of them cover the full cost of prescriptions. Mental health drugs are expensive – $100 a pill at times. Even a good insurance plan that pays 80% of drug costs leaves a person paying $20 a day for their medication… and that is $20 most poor people have a hard time coming by.

Food stamps don’t cover medication.

In cities like Chicago, in cities like Columbus, like Lancaster, and even in rural areas like ourselves… the mentally ill fall through the cracks, often don’t have family or friends to help them, and end up homeless, hungry, and off their medication for months.

They do things like Daniel at Cook County did. His family was very rough growing up, and since he was 11, he’d been battling depression and PTSD. These things happen when you see your own relatives murdered.

When he turned 18, he was too old for foster care, he couldn’t get the money for his prescription antidepressants. So he went cold turkey. That was way too hard. He couldn’t afford a doctor, or the health care insurance, or the prescription drugs – but he could afford alcohol and street drugs. So he used these to self-medicate. One day, cops picked him up for loitering and found the drugs on him.

Daniel, like many in the Cook County Jail, are glad to be in the new environment. In jail, there is food, access to the right medication, and people to help kick addictions. But he worries when he gets out… where will he get this support?

Back on the streets, back to being homeless, now with a criminal record – so it’s harder to get a job – back to being without access to his medication… what is he going to do? Will he still produce good fruit when his environment is so bad?

Daniel is one of over 3000 people DAILY in this jail suffering from mental illness. Daniel is one of 9000 people there DAILY who are there because of something they did, some crime, but untold thousands of them did the crime because of circumstances outside of their control. They are victims of their environments. With different environments, with some fertilizer and a caring hand, with some love – they may just start producing good fruit.

Jesus is telling us that we are fruit trees, and supposed to produce good fruit: fruits like love, patience, kindness, forgiveness…. We’re supposed to produce the same fruit our parent tree, God, produces.

Here, this church, is a garden. We invite the gardener in to tend to us, to give us a good environment, to give us a place of welcome and forgiveness.

Jesus’ controversial teaching to his disciples and the crowd, his hard message to us today is that good people don’t have God’s magical protection barrier around them. Jesus is saying that bad things happen to people regardless of how much they sin.

Indeed, Jesus is saying that good people don’t go to heaven.

Forgiven people go to heaven.

For as our psalmist writes,

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord,
that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God,
for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We are not good people. We try to be. But our environment, our circumstances, means we often sin. Instead, we are forgiven people. People who know what its like to rely on mercy.

Jesus came for the sinsick. Came for fruit trees like you and me who need a better environment. God, who’s ways aren’t our ways and thoughts aren’t our thoughts, abundantly pardons us when we ask for forgiveness.

God is merciful with us. Let us be merciful with one another. Let us forgive each other. Let us forgive ourselves.

Let us not play the blame game, but worship God with love for God and one another. Amen.

Resource http://www.vice.com/read/what-life-is-like-inside-the-massive-jail-that-doubles-as-chicagos-largest-mental-health-facility?utm_source=vicetwitterus))\