Tag: sinners

Bring Out the Treasure

Romans 8:26-39lk19_11
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In today’s readings, I hear people asking, “What is the Kingdom like, Jesus? Tell us!”

And he thinks about this… and decides to take the old treasure of their daily lives, and the old treasure of their sacred scripture, and polish it up to be the new treasure for their present and futures.

Jesus says: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is like a weed someone purposefully planted. It is the smallest of seeds, but nothing can kill that weed off. You’ve heard in the Torah of the cedars of Lebanon and how the birds make their nests in the temple? I tell you birds bless weeds with their nests.

All you who have considered yourself a weed? God blesses you. All you who feel excluded from fine places and fine company? God seeks you out. The kingdom belongs not to the elite, but to everyone.

And the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. You’ve heard in the Torah how it is morally impure, morally questionable. Like mold. Like sinners. The kingdom is like yeast a woman takes and mixes it all through her flour. And the flour is leavened. It rises.

All you who the world says are sinners, outcasts, and impure – God needs you. You are what is going to bring life, bring growth, to all the world. The kingdom of God is made of sinners.

And the kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. Which someone accidentally finds. They never were looking at all! With joy, that someone goes and sells everything they have – their house, their home, their wealth, their ties – to buy that field where the treasure is hidden.

All you who accidentally find God, in a time of trial or in a time of peace, at home or at war, a relationship with God is worth changing all your plans over. You never meant to become Christian, never meant to be one of those faith types… but now that you’ve had a taste, it’s okay to risk more. With joy, God won’t let you down.

And the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. An educated business person, who knows just what they are seeking. They have a system, they have a plan, and they work diligently. Upon finding a pearl of great value, that merchant sells everything and buys the pearl.

All you who purposefully find God, studying texts and attending church – a relationship with God is worth all your work and troubles. You, too, can risk all you have built up to build a relationship with God and will not be let down.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that is thrown into the sea and catches up fish of every kind. Good fish. Bad fish. Fish who just need a little tender loving care and fish who refuse to be gathered in by Love even when every chance is given. And only at the end of the age are they separated. Until then, they’re all welcomed in and gathered.

Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is thrown wide to everyone and anyone. Those who have led good lives and those who have led bad lives. Those who repent and those who refuse. Only after all are gathered in will the righteous -those who wish to live in love with each other and with God- and the evil -those who wish to live at odds with God and hate each other- be separated. Then there will be peace.

So do you understand?

If so, then you are commissioned to bring out the new treasure out of these old words.

Do you get what the kingdom of God is like?

If so, you should be able to take your own old treasure, polish it up, and bring it out anew.

If so, you should be able to think of your own parables to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like for you.

A parable doesn’t perfectly fit. It is LIKE something. So an orange is not an apple, but it is LIKE an apple. It is a fruit, it is round, it grows on a tree. But they are not the same.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t a net or merchant or weed. But it is LIKE these things in some way. Or like how these things relate to other things.

So, how would you explain what heaven is like to others now-a-days?

Maybe…

The kingdom of heaven is like a line with no order. This is how Meredith (Vosburg) Bazzoli of Chicago explains what the kingdom is like for her. She witnessed a line all out of order, with this family mingling into that one, and people just milling about with no line. They were all Hispanic, and standing near a church with a sign that said, “los pasaportes.” Passport help was being given out here. No one grumbled as people moved in and out of the group; no police kept the line carefully in a row. There was no rope, no tickets, no different reward for those who came early or those who came late. Everyone got the same help. And they waited with joy. She writes, “The kingdom of God is like this, a line with no rules, a line that offends the righteous, those who’ve been in line for a while doing the right thing.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/09/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-line-with-no-order/))

Or maybe the kingdom is like a squeaky hamster wheel. Author Addie Zierman thinks so. Before you get upset – she doesn’t mean futile – as in going no where. That is the limits of parables! They’re not literal, and not perfect. They’re examples to try to get at something unspoken.

So go with Zierman and me with a moment… Have you, or any of your kids or grandkids had a hamster? The wheel squeaks, and squeaks, and squeaks as they run on it all the time. Dinner time the squeak begins. Bed time it continues. Midnight potty and guess what you hear — two in the morning and you roll over and you hear… squeak! Squeak! Squeak! She writes, “The hamster wheel squeak, squeak, squeaks, and it occurs to me that the Kingdom of God has been at work all this time — that when I am asleep, when I am distracted, when I am unaware, it is still turning, turning, turning — God at work, always, in the world he created… That we wake into a Kingdom that is always already happening.” God, and God’s in breaking into our world, never stops. Whether waking or sleeping, God is aware and present. ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/15/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-squeaky-hamster-wheel/))

Organists Gayl Wright says the kingdom of God, for her, is like an unexpected polka. One Sunday while she was playing the new church organ, her finger slipped on the buttons during the prayers. She thought she had the organ set back to a proper classical piano… but instead, when she pressed the first chord, the piano began to play a polka beat and rattle off drums with each press of a key. She writes, “In our church services we pray the same prayers and sing the same responses every week. If we are not careful in that routine, we might just go through the motions not even thinking about what we are saying. Sometimes we need a wake up call, like a blast of the unfamiliar.” ((https://abbynorman.net/2015/10/29/the-kingdom-of-god-is-like-a-surprise-during-church/))

And, sometimes, we need the unexpected polka to remind us God’s love is not based on perfection. If only perfect people make it to heaven, heaven is an empty place.

For Paul, the kingdom of heaven is a deep sigh. A holy, sacred sigh – the kind that we do when we don’t even know how to begin to pray. The kind we do when our dearest loves have deep pains and we wish we could alleviate them. The deep sigh we have, internally, when we ache head to toe and there is not enough time. Or too much time. That deep sigh when we know we need God, but have no idea in what way. The Spirit prays.

And when we are sleeping, the Spirit prays. And when we are distracted, the Spirit prays. And when we are spoken against, charged with crimes we did or didn’t commit, condemned, know hardship, peril, distress, persecution, poverty, war, sickness – when anything and when everything tries to break our faith in God…

That deep sigh and whisper inside of us keeps praying. The Spirit keeps us tightly. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The kingdom is an internal and eternal sigh, breath, whisper, connecting us with God forever.

So bring out the treasure of your hearts, of your sacred stories, of your experiences – polish it up – and present it anew to one another! Tell each other – where do you see the kingdom of heaven? What is it like for you?

Amen.

Like Father’s Voice

orlando1 Kings 19:1-15a
Galatians 3:23-29

All over the world, in all religions, people seek messages from the Divine to humanity. Where birds fly, how many times a cat licks her paw, meteors and shooting stars; the birth of a boy or girl; the outcome of a war or a sports game. We want to find evidence of God acting in our world and lives.

You know of the Orlando tragedies – of death after death. Because the terrorist attack was at a gay night club, there are Christian pastors saying this was God’s will, God’s punishment, on the men and women for being gay.

We have heard this rhetoric before. Why was New Orleans swamped and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina? Because of Mardi Gras. God chose to punish the sinful city.

Why did 9-11 happen? Because God chose to punish the sinful city of New York.

Name any catastrophe, any murder, any horror and somebody somewhere will be saying this terror was the will of God.

Our scripture, however, reads: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him,”

God wasn’t the hurricane and tornado; God wasn’t the earthquake and wildfire. God isn’t violence and harm and hate and hurt. God didn’t murder the priests in Elijah’s day. Didn’t scheme to raise Elijah as a prophet by destroying all the others. No. God, we must insist, is love. God is good. God is the sheer silence, the still small voice, the God who comes to Elijah and gives him food and drink. The God who hears Elijah’s prayers and responds powerfully. It’s God who is present.

Evils happen. Evils – where life is lost senselessly, where heartache and pain seem endless. God isn’t the evil.

God is in the voices and in the silences responding to evil. God is the voices saying, Let me help you. Let me bring you food. Let me bring you water. Let me pray with you. God is in the silences – the family and friends and strangers going to vigils, writing sympathy cards, and being shoulders to cry on.

When Elijah comes to the mountain top, God asks Elijah again and again – why are you HERE. Why HERE? And Elijah tells God – God! Your people have forgotten your ways. They’ve destroyed your places of worship. They’re murdered your priests! Doesn’t God already know this? Wouldn’t God already be wholly aware? Elijah isn’t there telling God some news. God isn’t remote. God is present.

No, Elijah is really saying: God. I’m scared. They want me dead. I’m alone.

And God’s answer is — no, you’re not alone. A peace beyond understanding, a supernatural silence, goes with you wherever you go. This peace is me, God. Yes, you’re scared. But I am with you. Yes, your enemies want you dead. But I prepare a feast before them and anoint you with oil – for the valley filled with the shadows, the threats, of death don’t scare me. I am God. I am with you.

Then God tells Elijah to go right back into the valley. Tells him to go right back to the Israelites who have forsaken, forgotten, God. Go back. And why?!

Because God isn’t a wildfire, earthquake, or tornado. God is a Word, a voice, a silence, a verb, a deed – God is a presense. And God sends Elijah back so that those who don’t know God will come to know God through Elijah.

God isn’t a terrorist, isn’t out to send hurricanes, or level cities. God didn’t murder the men and women of the Pulse Night Club. Because, God isn’t some disciplinarian, writes John. God isn’t a temperamental father waiting to strike you down if you mess up. No – God is our LOVING parent. God is like a LOVING dad; or LOVING mother, grandma, grandma — a caretaker who wants to wipe away tears and be present with us.

If God was a disciplinarian who sent out disasters, terrorists, and death to every person who sinned… who among us would be here today?

Jesus asked the same: who among you is without sin? You may be the first to judge.

Yes, there will be a judgment, a time, when God directs us to face our hearts and minds and deeds. But that is in God’s hands and on God’s time schedule. As Jesus said, not even the angels know when.

What we do know is to call ourselves Christian, we cannot be casting stones. To call ourselves Christian, we cannot be claiming God is punishing this sinner but not that sinner. To call ourselves Christian, we have to obey the Greatest Commandment: to LOVE God, and to LOVE each other.

LOVE, we have been commanded. Not JUDGE. Love.

Because, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” There is no sinner or non-sinner. There are simply children of God, robed in Christ.

Elijah is sent back – to people who want him dead – to spread the message of God.

We are sent from our churches, our homes, our comfort places – to people of all walks of life – to spread the message of God.

The message of acceptance and love.

This Father’s Day there are at least 49 fathers missing children who were murdered last week. There is a father missing a toddler. There is a father missing a daughter. Since Pulse happened, a 125 more shootings in the US have occurred — most 1 on 1 — but 125 dead by guns. All around the world fathers, mothers, grandmothers, grandparents, lovers, siblings, friends, and children are weeping.

We are sent.

We are sent to carry God’s presence into the world. We are sent to love.

We pray to God as Father, as Jesus did. So we often think of God as Father. But if our earthly role model of father has a raging voice as loud as a hurricane, and a temper as hot as wildfire, if he split rocks and threw things and was violent… we should be very careful not to confuse our Heavenly Father with our Earthly one. For our Heavenly Father wasn’t any of these things… but was the tender voice, the guide, the caretaker.

Your earthly caretaker – whomever he or she is – they speak with a voice like God.

You – child of God, heirs to the promise of God’s abiding care and presence – you are an earthly caretaker. It’s your job to be the voice and be the presence of God – for many won’t make the trip to the mountain, or church, or Bible. So it’s your job to live the Christian message. Your job to be the Christian message. Your job to be love when there is so much hate.

May your presence, love, and voice be a counter to the hate the world likes to think Christians spew. 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))\