Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Chance to Bear Fruit

Lent 3C, February 28, 2016
Image result for tower of siloam imageLuke 13:1-9At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Image result for fig tree fertilizer6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

I remember after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans years ago that there was a prominent Christian speaker who started saying that the devastation resulted from America' sin and need to repent- that we needed to change our ways and God was trying to get our attention before it was too late. That’s not the only time that humans have wondered if God punishes us for our sins or tries to get our attention using natural disasters or epidemics or other tragic events. It seems that after terrible events, there are lots of people who do return to God out of fear for what God will do.

Is that what Jesus is telling the people in the gospel today? Certainly, there are some who have interpreted verse 5 that way. Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did”- and he’s referring to the terrible deaths of sinners.

But then what do we do when we set this story alongside the reading from Isaiah 55? This passage is one of the great stories of God’s saving acts, ranked up there in Christian tradition with the stories like the Creation; the crossing of the Red Sea; the Valley of the Dry Bones; Jonah in the belly of the Big Fish; and Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace. As in those other stories, God does great things, giving abundant life to God’s people. In Isaiah 55 specifically, God promises new life and sustenance for the returning exiles from Babylon. God will make a new covenant with them, providing them mercy and forgiveness- a feast of new life that they will not pay for, even if they could afford it. The generosity of God is beyond comprehension, and the assurance of God’s love and faithfulness is given even before repentance.
So what could Jesus possibly mean in verse 5- unless you repent, you shall die as these others did?

Perhaps it is not about the fact that they died, but rather the state they died in- of having died before they ready.

I am reminded of the difference I have seen between unexpected death and a death where the family had time to prepare. When someone dies unexpectedly, there can be unfinished business- matters that one would not have wished to left incomplete. Perhaps it is a relationship that needed mending, apologies given or asked for, or words of love or gratitude expressed.

As someone reminded me this week, “Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.” Yet we put off for tomorrow what may be done today. Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to get into the muck of our lives, the manure, and work the soil of our spiritual lives and our relationships so that we can truly thrive. By attending now to the business of living, we can bear so much more fruit than if we put it off to tomorrow.

But to return to the question of suffering. Is it punishment? I look to the whole of the story of Jesus- who suffered and died on the cross and knows our human woes. God understands our suffering because in Jesus, God took on human experience. God did this not because humans had somehow earned it, but because God loved us first, flawed and broken and sinful as we are. Patiently, lovingly, God will keep waiting for us and urging us to grow and bear fruit worthy of the lives God has entrusted to us. As the gardener who waits for a tree’s first harvest, so God waits for us to bear the fruits of love and mercy.
Image result for fertilizer
So in this time of Lent, what is the fertilizer that your spiritual life needs? What can you do to tend your spiritual life by growing in love for God or for neighbor?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Lenten Reflection: The Spiritual Practice of Fasting

12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing. – Joel 2:12-13

Lent is a season for repentance, for taking a new direction, a new path. It’s a time to get out of old ruts, to try putting our feet on the path of following Jesus, taking the way of the cross.

Breaking old habits and forming new routines that lead us into wholeness is never easy. I know one person who gave up eating while reading. She hates it. One of the confirmation students gave up chocolate, and she can’t wait to get to Easter. When we take on a new practice, we may not like it very well at all.

Lent, and other times like it, are difficult because they are uncomfortable. For me, it’s less about the discomfort of giving up or fasting from a small thing like chocolate. It’s the discomfort of knowing our dependence on that small thing and how it makes us feel.  

This Lent, I gave up Facebook. I love getting the updates from friends about their lives and their thoughts. Happy or sad, I am glad to be able to share the life of my friends, even if only electronically. However, by fasting from it, I’ve realized that Facebook not only connects me with my family and friends, it also keeps me from loneliness. 

Without the distraction, I have had to confront the true distance from those I love, and my dependence on daily connection with people who live far away. My loneliness invites me to deeper connection with my God, the one who knows my sadness, my isolation. And it calls me to truly connect with those around me- my husband, my children, my acquaintances and friends locally.

It may not be fun to be uncomfortable or to realize our shortcomings, but God calls us to make true changes in our lives, to rend our hearts, not our garments. God calls us to make changes that go beyond the surface, and to strengthen our connection with our creator, returning us to the one who made us and desires us to have a whole and abundant life. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Trusting the God of the Covenant

Lent 2C, February 21, 2016
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
God's Covenant with Abram, by Jan Goeree (1670-1731)
7Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.  17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates...

Luke 13:31-35

Cara Hochhalter's woodblock print depicts the story of Jesus looking back on Jerusalem and yearning to gather all of her people under the love of an inclusive God, but they were not willing. "As a hen gathers..." is from Luke 13:31-34. Submitted photo
by Pastor Cara Hochhalter of Charlemont, MA
31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

It is no secret that I sometimes have trouble trusting God with the future. I like to know what’s going to happen next month, next year. I like to be able to envision what my life will be like, so I can prepare myself. Given the kinds of conversations I have with you as your pastor, I’m pretty sure this means I am human. I think about a conversation I had with one of our members who said she just wanted to know how much time she has left in her life- because then she’ll plan accordingly. Another person wanted to just know already what would happen with her job, whether her employer would renew her contract. We want to know and plan and prepare. Not knowing can be the hardest part.

I remember the weeks leading up to my interview to be approved for ordination I had the only panic attacks of my life- in which I had a tightness in my chest when I woke up in the morning. It was like a weight sitting right on top of my lungs, and I could barely get enough room to breathe. Even though I had no reason to worry, I did worry that the candidacy committee would turn me away and refuse to let me be a pastor, which was a future that I had hoped for and prayed for and prepared for over the course of several years.

I think that’s the kind of deep anxiety that Abram has in our text from Genesis today. He wonders aloud, not once, but twice, whether God will come through on the promise of offspring. Abram has a hard time trusting God with his future. He complains, “Look, I’m not getting any younger, God, and my heir is a servant born in my house, Eliezer of Damascus!”

We pray prayers like this all the time. We say things like, “Hey God, my son has MS, and the treatments don’t seem to be working!” or “This contract is running out, and I don’t have an offer of a new job after this one.” More generally, these prayers fit into the form of, “The future isn’t looking too bright. Are you paying attention, God? Do you even care?”

In our Old Testament story, Abram, the patriarch of faith, expresses deep doubts, and lovingly, God responds. For modern ears, it’s a strange story- God has Abram get a bunch of animals, which Abram then cuts in half. What we miss as modern people is that in this ritual, God is literally cutting a covenant with Abram, and that’s what you do in Hebrew- not make a covenant but cut a covenant. God is saying, “I swear that I will do this thing, and if I don’t, may I, God, be cut in half like these animals.” God’s very self is on the line as a sign of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Moreover, this covenantal promise is completely one-sided. Abram isn’t required to do anything. God simply promises to keep God’s word.

This foundational story of the Jewish faith continued to underpin St. Paul’s understanding of how God acts, and Martin Luther, who studied St. Paul’s writings extensively, took up the theme- God loves us and saves us, not because we are faithful or good or meritorious but because God loves us, and this is grace.

We see this grace not only in St. Paul or through Martin Luther’s writings, but we see it lived out by Jesus, who is God in the flesh, the Word incarnate. Jesus says to the Pharisees and all of Jerusalem, “How I longed to gather you under my wings, but you were not willing.” Jesus loves them, even though they turn away.

Even now, Jesus turns toward us in love, arms outstretched. So especially when we are afraid, let us run to Jesus, like chicks run to a mother hen. 

Lenten Reflection: The Spiritual Practice of Doing Our Own Work

A clever cartoon (can't find the artist's info)
Jesus said, “‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. –Matthew 7

I once went on a silent retreat at a Buddhist monastery. As part of the retreat, I was assigned to chop vegetables in the kitchen, along with a few others. We were given a knife, a chopping board, and a bucket of carrots, along with some simple instructions on how the chef wanted them chopped. We began our task. I noticed that my neighbor was not chopping the same way that I was. My immediate impulse was to correct them. But as it was a silent retreat and we were to be meditating as we worked, I kept quiet. It was not my job to correct my neighbor or control the quality of their work. My job was to concentrate on chopping the carrots in front of me, to chop them to the best of my ability.

So often, we may be tempted to worry about what other people are doing. We see their actions and worry for them. Focusing on other people conveniently excuses us from looking at our own work- that is, our own shortcomings.

In his explanation of Confession in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther invites us to consider our shortcomings in this way:  “Reflect on your walk of life in light of the Ten Commandments: whether you are father, mother, son, daughter, master, mistress, servant; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy, whether you have harmed anyone by word or deed; whether you have stolen, neglected, wasted, or injured anything.”

looking in the mirrorLuther asks us to think about our lives in particular, to think about what we have done or not done. Jesus calls us to pay attention to our own sins before we worry about the sins of others.

Let us pray: God of mercy, help me to trust in your love and grace for me, so that I may have the courage to honestly look at my own faults and shortcomings. Lead me and guide me, so that I may grow into the person you call me to be. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Temptations (not the singing kind)

Lent 1C, February 14, 2016
Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Image result for ash wednesdayLast week in confirmation class, I was telling the class about Ash Wednesday, which some of them had never experienced before. One student asked me, “Wait, do we have to wear ashes all day? Like at school? Because I know that people would make fun of me.” That student was relieved that we had an evening service so they wouldn’t have to wear their ashes in public. Most of us would agree that it’s easier to talk about 
beliefs with people who won’t judge you. We want to be liked and to be accepted.

Image result for meeting new peopleWhen I first became a pastor, I noticed this same instinct in myself- to be quiet about my faith. I would meet new people, and when they asked me what I did for a living, telling them I was a pastor would lead to people either apologizing for their language or beverage, they’d tell me how they hadn’t been to church in years and why, or they would stop talking to me altogether. I started dreaming of alternate ways to answer the question- just so I could start to have some friends.

But if I hide my identity as a follower of Jesus, how then will I proclaim the good news of Jesus, as Paul exhorted the Romans to do?  

Image result for church people
A place where faith is nurtured
I think about what it is that I value about my life in faith: God’s unconditional love for me and for all people, which inspires me to live justly and gratefully. The Body of Christ has surrounded me and upheld me and my family in the hardest times of my life- cried with us in grief and brought us casseroles and cards. The church was the place where I found love and belonging, encouragement as I grew, a community which encouraged the development of my gifts in music and leadership, people who wrestled with me in questions of faith, and held hope for me when I was lost in anger and confusion. Because of my faith in Jesus, I have been named and nourished, strengthened and sustained. God has made me God’s very own, and sent me to share God’s love.

So picture me, my hand outstretched, meeting someone for the very first time and longing for a friend in my new neighborhood. I may not have been standing at the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, but that was certainly a moment of testing for me.
The concept of the devil is an old one, and what the devil was to do was to play shaytan. The shaytan was an undercover agent in the Persian Empire, someone who worked for the king. The shaytan would go out to test the loyalty of the people in the kingdom. They’d see if someone would agree with traitorous statements or go along with plots to incite rebellion. They were setting up undercover stings, and people who failed the loyalty test would be punished.

In the season of Lent, when we are devoting ourselves to the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we might be more aware than usual of the forces that draw us away from God, the moments when we feel tempted to turn away from that which gives us life. Our Lenten disciplines invite us into challenging territory, to be sure. Many of us will cheat or fail or slip up. We would be in trouble for sure if this were the Persian Empire.

Image result for jesus in my heartBut here’s the good news: God already knew that we are fallible and that we make mistakes. Nothing is hidden or secret. That’s why God sent Jesus to be by our side, to love us always, to defeat the powers of death and evil and to lead us into life. So whenever you are feeling weak or ashamed, remember Jesus loves you and claims you forever. Even if you deny him or choose the wrong thing or make a mistake, he’ll never let you go, and he’ll never stop loving you. That is some beautiful news right there.