Feet in the Water

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, the day for confession, communion, and washing of feet.

Some of you may remember the name, Francois Clemmons. Francois Clemmons is the Grammy Award-winning opera singer who also had a recurring role as Officer Clemmons on the children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In 1968, Fred Rogers heard him sing and invited him to be on the show. But even though Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was getting quite popular, Clemmons was initially reluctant about playing the role. As an African American who grew up in the ghetto, he said, he did not have a positive opinion of police officers. He had seen corruption and officers siccing police dogs and turning water hoses on people, and he had a really hard time putting himself in that role. Eventually, though, he agreed, and he became the one on the show responsible for keeping Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood safe.

There’s a famous episode from 1969 that Clemmons says was especially memorable for him. The scene showed Mr. Rogers resting his feet in a plastic wading pool in his front yard on a hot summer day, and he invited Officer Clemmons to join him, which he did. So then, as they talked and sang together, these two friends sat side by side with their bare feet—brown skin and white skin—refreshed by the same water. It was a simple act but still a meaningful show of support for racial integration, Clemmons believed. And at the end, they even helped one another dry off their feet.

Again, it was a simple scene on a children’s television show, but still the willingness that Mr. Rogers and Mr. Clemmons had to sit together, to take off their shoes and socks, to roll up their pant legs and simply demonstrate their shared humanity—to each other and to the public—is inspiring.

This story makes me wonder, whose feet are in the pool with mine? Even before washing feet, whose feet are simply in the water with mine, maybe splashing and bumping up against my own? This also leads me to ask what would prevent me from sitting and talking with the others who share that water? Am I willing to listen deeply to their experiences and perspectives? Am I willing to be vulnerable and to keep my shoes off for a while?

As Jesus said farewell to his disciples, he wanted them to know that they were connected, that they shared something truly important. Just as they shared the bowl of water to wash their feet, they would each depend on the love and grace of God in all that was to come. They would rely on the compassion showed to them by Jesus as they continued his message and ministry. They would rely on each other, too.

Love one another as I have loved you, Jesus said. A little later he says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide in me, as I abide in you.” Part of the way we are called to love one another is to recognize our interconnectedness. There are differences among us, we have unique gifts and challenges and experiences, but we are nevertheless bound together. That’s simply the reality. But we probably don’t want to always admit that. We keep our shoes on. We guard ourselves. We ignore both what we have to share with others and what we need from others. We forget who we are.

Tonight you are invited to show a sign of compassion both by washing feet and having your feet washed. Now, it’s ok if you’re not able to participate for some reason. But for all of this, still, I hope this footwashing tonight can be a reminder of the compassion of Christ that does fill us and also connect us. As we go from here to love and serve our neighbors we do not do so alone but with the presence of Christ and a Christian community. When we come to God for help and forgiveness and new life, again, we do not do so alone but side by side with one another all in need of that same grace. We are one, with the compassion of Christ at our center.

 

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Gathered Together on Palm Sunday

Luke 19

28 After he had said this, Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphagee and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,

‘Blessed is the king

who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven,

and glory in the highest heaven!’

39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

 

One winter day twelve years ago, I happened to be in Iowa City on the same day that a presidential candidate was holding a rally. A friend and I decided to go, not having been to a presidential rally before and not really knowing what to expect. It was an exciting atmosphere when we arrived, even though there were just a few people in the school gym and some scattered news crews setting up their cameras. We waited for several hours and regretted not having brought snacks. Over time many more people came. The room began to fill up. The music got louder, and we started to get the feeling that we were about to witness something historic. A U.S. Senator got on stage and spoke. 80s rocker Joan Jet performed. And by the time the candidate took the stage, with Van Halen’s “Right Now” blasting from the speakers, we were convinced that we were witnessing a revolution. Well, that may be overstating it. But the atmosphere was electric.

I imagine it was the same type of environment that led this same politician weeks later to famously scream into a microphone, effectively ending his candidacy.

It’s not uncommon for people to get carried away at rallies. We know that well. It’s for that reason that the ancient Romans were so suspicious of them. They distrusted crowds and gatherings of most kinds, especially when they themselves were not in control of them. For example, the emperor Trajan of the early 2nd Century warned in a letter about how dangerous it is for Roman authority when people are allowed to assemble. He said, “When people gather together for a common purpose — whatever name we may give them and whatever function we may assign them — they soon become political groups.”

There is power in gathering together with a crowd, and it can be dangerous. There are times, we have to acknowledge, when large rallies can lead people to act on the worst of what’s in us. Fear and hatred can be fed, turning an assembly into a violent mob. But it is also true that gathering with others can help us to affirm what’s best in us. In many circumstances, with others, we might gain a greater sense of our own power and a greater willingness to act on our truest values and convictions. We can be reminded of who we are and what’s most important. You and I have seen powerful marches for justice where large gatherings helped to change social policy and lead to liberation. Demonstrations, conferences, and yes, worship services, are opportunities to be nurtured and inspired for the way of peace, justice, and faith.

Yesterday I attended a pancake breakfast put on by one of our social justice partners in the neighborhood. The basement fellowship hall at Bethany Lutheran was packed with people—from babies to grandparents, various races and backgrounds, speaking English and Spanish. At one point their director tried to quiet the busy room for a special announcement. It wasn’t easy. She joked, “I’m not used to doing this. Usually I’m trying to get people to speak up and use their voices.” She understands that there are times for loud rallies. Perhaps she understands, like Jesus, that there are times when if the people are silent then even the stones will shout out.

In any case, when a crowd gathers, there’s a good chance that something big will happen. When a crowd gathers, there’s good reason to pay attention.

So when Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem, I expect they absolutely wanted people to notice. They wanted to gather a crowd. Jesus knew the anxious Roman leaders would take notice, of course, including Pontius Pilate who had come to town specially to keep tabs on the Passover festival crowds. But maybe, most of all, Jesus wanted the authorities at the temple to stop and think—those priests and scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees. Israel at the time was in a difficult position. They were occupied by a powerful Roman empire they had no way of driving out, so their only practical option seemed to be cooperation, collusion with Rome in order to be allowed at least some freedoms. They tolerated corruption and systems that privileged the rich and took advantage of the poor. It was the way they could keep their identity and their religion alive.

But Jesus, for a few years now, had been teaching about a third way. He was pointing to a commonwealth of God that was not a replacement of empire but was instead all around them. It didn’t involve him or anyone else sitting on a throne. It didn’t depend even on a central temple in Jerusalem. It found its identity in faithfulness to God and in love for one another. This looked different. Maybe it looked more like a neighborhood getting together for a pancake breakfast. Maybe it looked like a worship service, this commonwealth of God. Maybe it looked like villagers throwing down their cloaks and waving branches in devotion to God and to the faithful way of peace that Jesus described.

That Palm Sunday procession, I believe, was an invitation for others to join in this third way. They could be their authentic selves, in relationship with God and others, no matter what they else they did or did not have to offer. And I think Jesus still—even especially—wanted those in power to be part of it, too.

As we prepare for our Holy Week remembrance, we know that this was not to be. Fears of the consequences kept them out of the procession, and they chose instead to be his enemies.

I don’t know if that surprised Jesus; I believe he was deeply disappointed. When the others in the crowd began to fall away, too, I believe he was grieved.

And yet Jesus rode on. He could have compromised his message by taking what was assumed to be the practical approach, but he rode on with faithfulness to God and consistent love for his neighbors. He could have fled and hid when things got dangerous for him personally, but he rode on with faithfulness to God and love for even his enemies. He could have picked up a sword and incited his remaining friends to attempt a violent replacement of power, but he rode on with an invitation to this third way of nonviolent love and forgiveness.

He was rejected and killed. But his way did not come to an end. In resurrection, his call to his followers did not change: remain faithful, continue to love one another, gather together. And where two or three or more are gathered, I will be with you.

Following this way of Jesus, even when it seems foolish or just too hard, is what I think faith is all about. Now somewhere along the line in church history, we started to get the impression that faith is only about intellectual assent to creeds and doctrine. But the faith of Jesus was not based in those things. It was simply about trust. It was trusting in God and trusting in God’s way of unconditional love.

So today we are right to wave our palm branches, in praise for the One who still surprises us with this way of love, and in gratitude that Christ gathers us around a table and renews our trust.

 

 

 

 

To Gaze Upon the Beauty of God

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from March 13, 2016.

The gospel according to John, the twelfth chapter:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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Today we head to Bethany, a first-ring suburb of Jerusalem. You know, like Richfield. We’re in the rambler of Jesus’ most beloved friends—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. We know these siblings and their strengths quite well. Martha is good at organizing and keeping food on the table. Lazarus, by no fault of his own, is good at being in crisis. And Mary is good at sitting around and being spiritual—just like any self-respecting youngest child. [It takes one to know one.]

Just days before, Jesus had raised the very dead Lazarus back to life, the story goes. He was dead; then he wasn’t. Lazarus came out of the tomb bruised and bleary-eyed. One theologian says his “tomb clothes trailed behind him like a used cocoon.” [I love that.] No doubt, his two adoring sisters, who, upon seeing that he was upright and breathing on this own, marched him straight from the cemetery to the bathtub. After all, it had already been four days.

After raising Lazarus, Jesus goes away for a few days on a work trip. Then he returns to his besties’ house with people coming after him—people who didn’t like that he was calling out privilege where he saw it; people who didn’t like that he was so undiscerning about who he healed and where he ate; people who were ticked that he didn’t associate poverty with moral failings. He was being criticized from all sides. There was a lot of ugliness going around, so Jesus returns to Bethany—that quiet suburb—where there were fewer planes flying overhead, so to speak.

Martha prepared comfort food. Lazarus was drowsy, but squeaky clean. Jesus was simply glad to have his phone turned off for a few hours. The chosen disciples were glad that Jesus wasn’t planning on getting them into any more trouble—at least until tomorrow. This scene is a lot like a Thanksgiving table—seated around it are love and devotion, hopes and expectations, memories of death and memories of life. I’m sure there were some mild resentments occupying a chair or two, as well. As the evening wore on, Mary pulled out the pure bottle of perfume that she’d been saving. She breaks every custom when she kneels near to Jesus, and she really messes up when she touches his feet. I think she’s knows exactly what she’s doing. The texts suggests she’s been waiting a long time for this.

In the wake of International Women’s Day this past Tuesday, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that, without much warning, Judas steals the show. We’re drawn to Judas in this story for the same reason that news outlets cover some candidates more than others—he has the loudest voice and says the most divisive things. Despite all of the gospel writer’s warnings that Judas is up to no good, we turn our attention to him. In some ways, I think we’re secretly thankful for Judas’ triumphal entry into the story. Why? Because what Mary is doing but is almost too painful to watch–it’s almost too loving.

In the Pulizer Prize-winning play called Wit, we encounter Vivian Bearing—a successful and single-minded academic who has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Vivian’s life has been devoted to researching the poetry of John Donne. She is confined to a hospital bed. Her aggressive treatment is unsuccessful. Visitors are few; community hadn’t really been her thing. Apart from a nurse, whose compassion spills all over the stage, we cannot ignore the fact that Vivian is dying alone.

Vivian’s college poetry teacher—an elderly woman by that time—comes to see her at the very end of the story. She enters the room of her star student—the student who, at one time, could do it all and now could do nothing for herself. The audience watches as the teacher gently crawls into Vivian’s hospital bed beside her. The moment is moving, not only because all the teacher has to read to Vivian is Runaway Bunny, the children’s book she kept in her purse for her grandson, but also because in that moment she loves Vivian for who she is. The professor’s compassion is painfully full. It bears no moral judgment. The audience watches as this loving act ushers Vivian into death.[i]

Mary’s intimate exchange with Jesus is like the teacher who holds her lonely student and reads to her as death draws near. It’s like the father who takes off running down the gravel road to meet his son who has been lost for years. It’s like the mama hen that always has room to stuff one more chick under her wing. These are moments that are so deeply loving that they make us look away, they make us feel like we ought not watch them.

The late John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher, loved Pascal’s phrase that one should always “keep something beautiful in your mind.” In times that have been particularly difficult for him, he says that keeping some kind of little picture that he could glimpse sideways at now and again allowed him to endure great bleakness. “Humans who do great things in the face of barbarity,” O’Donohue says, “are able to sustain [their work], because there is in them some kind of sense of beauty that knows the horizon that we are really called to in some way.”[ii]

While Judas cannot bear to look upon the loving exchange, I like to imagine that it’s Lazarus, who never averts his eyes from what is happening in front of him. He’s known suffering, struggle, and loss. All of these experiences have filled him with things like compassion, gentleness, and deep loving concern.[iii] He recognizes beauty when he sees it. He doesn’t need to look away. He’s tucking this gesture—this image—away for a rainy day, which will come sooner than any of them hopes.

Before he died, O’Donohue bodly claimed that beauty is a human calling and a defining aspect of God. He was quick to add that beauty isn’t glamor, and it’s not just nice loveliness. I think he would have said that the perfume, worth a year’s wages, was actually not essential to this story. No, “beauty is an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth,” O’Donohue said. It’s a kind of homecoming. It’s not a luxury. It can emerge in the roughest of places, in the worst situations.

It can also emerge at a suburban dinner table.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


 

[i] A friend pointed me toward this marvelous play. For more information about Wit, see: http://feministspectator.princeton.edu/2012/03/11/wit-3/

[ii] These O’Donohue pieces are from an interview he did, shortly before he died, with Krista Tippett’s program On Being. For the full transcript, see: http://www.onbeing.org/program/inner-landscape-beauty/transcript/1125

[iii] Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said something like this, concluding that “beautiful people don’t just happen.”

A Lost Child Welcomed Home

In response to complaints from religious leaders of the time, Jesus tells three parables in the 15th chapter of Luke. The first is about a lost sheep and a shepherd who leaves 99 others to go find it. The second is about a lost coin and a woman who searches her house for it and then throws a party when it’s found. The third is about a lost person, the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, our reading for today.

1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable:

11 “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”

Along with the Good Samaritan, this story is at the top of the list of best known parables of Jesus. So much so that if you were to ask people on the street for a definition of the word prodigal, it wouldn’t take long for someone to say that it describes someone who goes away for a while and then comes back. Many of us associate the word only with this story.

In fact, prodigal means “wasteful, imprudent, extravagant.” We’ve assigned that word to the second son in this story after zeroing in on one half-verse, out of the more than twenty in the passage, that says, “he squandered his property in dissolute living.” We—not Jesus or Luke but we—have called the son prodigal, wasteful because it comes so naturally to us to name personal neglect of fiscal responsibility as a root problem. It’s true that it is a problem—in this story and in real life—but we need to be clear that singling it out as the main problem is our choice. Others might not make this choice. Theologian Mark Allen Powell famously found that Christians in Russia, for example, are likely to tell you that the issue for the second son, the main reason why he ended up living with pigs is that there was a severe famine in the country. Did you catch that detail? It’s just as prominent as his squandering. Similarly, Powell found that readers of this story in Tanzania would probably point out that “no one gave him anything.” That’s a direct quote from the Bible. Why are we not as shocked by that fact? Why not call this the parable of the mean and selfish townspeople?

Instead, it has been handed down to us as the parable of the Prodigal Son. I wonder how the first audiences heard it. Where did they see things begin to go bad for this guy? It may have been when he asked for his inheritance early, effectively stating he couldn’t wait for his father’s death and needed to get on with it, breaking a couple of commandments in the process—honor your father and mother and do not kill. Let’s be clear: his request was a matter of life and death.

On the other hand, I suppose they could have been impressed by his assertiveness and sense of adventure. He took a bold risk that very well could have paid off for him and his whole family if he had just been a little smarter at managing his money. We all know stories like that where such impetuous demands are characteristic of the story’s hero, not the villain.

In any case, something seems wrong to me with any reading of this rich and complicated story that makes it only about a wasteful, foolish son and what he did. For one thing, we don’t need a story like this to make us feel bad about our own poor financial decisions. That message already surrounds us. Part of the reason this congregation started talking about payday lending and started a financial services organization is that there is such shame in our culture around financial issues. It’s because people don’t want to admit that they’re in financial trouble that they become vulnerable to predatory loans. These seemingly easy solutions mean not having to tell your friends, parents, or spouse that you’re short on rent again. But who in this room or in any room has not made a choice with their money that they regret? Most of us have, but we don’t talk about it because we so often think that it reveals something of our character. That’s why many people unnecessarily deal with their financial issues all alone. If only they knew how many people are in the same boat.

So was the son wasteful? Sure. But is that quality of his unique enough to define him and this whole story, I don’t think so. Nothing is that simple.

Instead, if anyone is going to be called prodigal in this story, my vote is for the father. When the lost son comes back, the dad didn’t just forgive him. He ran out to him and immediately called for a party and to barbecue the fatted calf. He brought out the best robe and ring, signs that this son was again his heir. He never even asked if the money had been squandered or invested. It’s as if the money didn’t have anything to do with their relationship, on his end at least.

Now this kind of behavior is wasteful. It’s foolish. Who’s to say he wouldn’t get burned again? Everyone must have been thinking of that possibility as they followed instructions and rushed to prepare the feast. Even the father himself had to have known the likelihood that his son would get restless again. He was wasteful but not naïve. Maybe that’s why only a slave had the guts to go tell the older brother about the evening plans underway. Everyone knew that this party was bound to bring up old anger and resentment that had been residing just under the surface all these years. The elder son had operated his whole life under the impression that one’s relationship to the family was built on such things as work, obedience, respect, and responsibility. He had followed through on all of this and kept his bitter anger to himself. Yet not once had he been given such a party. All the attention he had received over the years added up wouldn’t total the treatment his misfit brother was now getting.

Of course, he was right to be upset. The father had not been fair. So when that older son got the news about this ridiculous, wasteful party in the works, he must have looked around for some empathy, but almost everyone was already at the feast. Maybe he hoped the slave would at least have rolled his eyes as he conveyed the news about what was going on, but not even the slave acknowledged the foolishness of his father’s actions. And then maybe it dawned on that older son that all of his pent up anger and resentment had just left him feeling alone. Maybe he realized that though he never left home, he was lost.

The father came out of the party to talk with him. Yes, he said that all he had was his son’s. But then the story comes to an end—much too abruptly, as is often the case with parables. I want to hear more. More honestly, I hope for something more. To be sure, I hope that the younger son who returned home from his wilderness wandering had found what he needed and stopped hurting himself and others, though I expect it wasn’t that easy. I hope that there was reconciliation in the family—among siblings, among parents and their children, though I know forgiveness is a long journey.

I guess above all, I hope that the older brother didn’t stay outside of the party for very long but just long enough to tell his dad how very lost and lonely he felt. I hope in that moment he had the courage to weep at his father’s feet, just as his younger brother had earlier that day, that he could unload the burden of rejection and sorrow that he had been carrying all these years, that he could say how much he had longed for a party of his own and how hurt he was that it had never come, that he was hungry for something, too. I hope he did that because I’m just so sure that if he did, if he was honest about these things, then he would also feel the embrace of compassion. He would be welcomed home.

This parable, famous as it is, still leaves me with a lot of questions. And maybe that’s its purpose. It interrupts me in my busy routines and asks me to reflect a while on my assumptions  about blame and fairness and about who deserves what. It invites me into an economy of grace that I still find so troubling and amazing. It reminds me that life together is risky and challenging and sometimes painful. Often we are left with no good choices for protecting ourselves and others from hurt. Still, in the end, life together in all its complexity is worth celebrating. Life together is to be treasured.

Thanks be to God for such grace-filled interruptions.

Thanks be to God for a love that abides.

Hardships, Reasons, and Fig Trees

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from 02.28.16.

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Luke, the thirteenth chapter:

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6 Then 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. 7 So 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?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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Some of you may have seen the new line of greeting cards designed by a woman by the name of Emily McDowell.[i] McDowell’s series of empathy cards were born out of her experience as a cancer survivor. McDowell says that “the most difficult part of [her] illness wasn’t losing [her] hair, or being erroneously called ‘sir’ by the Starbucks baristas, or the sickness from chemo. It was the loneliness and isolation [she] felt when many of [her] close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.” In hopes of empowering the public to make fewer mistakes, McDowell now sells cards that read:

“There’s no good card for this. I’m sorry.”

“I promise never to refer to your illness as a journey. Unless someone takes you on a cruise.”

And her overall bestseller: “Please let me be the first to [correct] the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.”

Unfortunately, McDowell’s cards came about 2,000 years too late for the crowds gathered around Jesus in the thirteenth chapter of Luke.

To understand what’s happening in this strange gospel text, it’s helpful to think of the events that the gospel writer references as front page headlines—you know, as events that would have been familiar to ancient audiences. The headlines would have read: “Galilean Pilgrims Massacred on Their Way to Holy Site” and “Police Currently Investigating Tower of Siloam’s Collapse that Killed 18.” If those events still seem too far out of reach, it’s not difficult to modernize them: “More Than 2,000 Fleeing Syrians Have Drowned in Mediterranean” and “35W Bridge Collapses Killing 13 and Injuring 145 Others.” In the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner, this crowd is wondering why on earth “bad things happen to good people.”

They begin with silent questions: Why, O God, were the pilgrims killed on their way to the holy site? Why, O God, did that tower fall on the innocent?

Deep down, I have to assume that the crowd knew that these questions didn’t have answers. But that didn’t stop them from trying. And it doesn’t stop us, either. When the going gets tough, we, like our ancient ancestors, tend to fall into an if-then theology: If you’re good, then you’ll be blessed. If you’re bad, then curses will be befall you. Despite the fact that we push against this theology week after week, it still has a sneaky way of framing the way we see the world. It leads us to believe there must be reasons why bad stuff that happens to good people. It offers clean reasons why there appears to be an inequitable distribution of blessings and curses.

Kate Bowler, a religion professor at Duke, says the impulse to assign reasons to unreasonable realities is strong. A few months ago, thirty-five-year-old Bowler was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Last week, in a gorgeous piece in the New York Times,[ii] she described an interaction with a well-meaning neighbor, who upon hearing the news came to the door and tried to comfort Bowler and her family, saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” Bowler writes, “She wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of [being] #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.”

Ironically, Bowler has spent her academic career studying the prosperity gospel, which is just a fancier name for this if-then theology that is in the air we breathe. She says she “spent ten years interviewing televangelists with spiritual formulas for how to earn God’s miracle money. She held hands with people in wheelchairs being prayed for by celebrities known for their miracle touch. She sat in people’s living rooms and heard about how they never would have dreamed of owning this home without the encouragement they heard on Sundays.” Bowler says that “if there was a river running through the sanctuary, an eagle flying freely in the auditorium, or an enormous, spinning statue of a golden globe,” she was there. She claims that she once saw a megachurch pastor choke on his own fog machine.

In the wake of her diagnosis, however, Bowler writes that it became clearer that “[this prosperity gospel] has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all…it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addition to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our own deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder.”

By assigning reasons to unreasonable realities, if-then theology allows you and me and Presidential candidates to minimize the tragedies in other people’s lives. We don’t need eagles flying freely in our sanctuary to distance ourselves from the hurts of another. It is how we attempt to save our own hearts. But the gospel of Jesus Christ—or what Bowler so beautifully calls “the contemplations of a dying man”—invites us to live with hearts broken open for the sake of the world.

It’s hard work—this living in a world where some fig trees blossom and some never produce one piece of fruit, hard as they may try. But Jesus assures us we needn’t made it harder by interpreting good fortune as evidence of God’s special blessing, and tragedy as divine punishment. Luke is clear: sin doesn’t make hardships come. They just come. My friend Anna says that “faith doesn’t insulate [us] from troubles when life tanks.” But when hardships come or when tragedy strikes, the little fig tree left standing at the end of today’s reading reminds us that God will not leave us to our own devices. Together with the community, God will keep tending. God will keep speaking these words, which—though often interpreted as threatening—I believe to be words of compassion: “Let’s give it another year.”

Jesus references repentance in the gospel, which is why this tough passage is assigned to the season of Lent. I don’t think he’s talking about greed or licentiousness or too much chocolate or too much screen time. Important though these may be, we can leave them for another day. Here, repentance is less about bad behavior and regret and more about a new perspective and life. Here, repentance is something that God gives in the midst of hardship and fruitlessness and fear about the future. Here, repentance is a way of life that honestly acknowledges the way things are, and yet holds tightly to the way they are meant to be. Here, repentance is God’s gift of courage—audacity, really—to turn back to a world that is fragile, to a life that refuses to be controlled, and, with hearts broken open, say in the words of poet Ellen Bass, “I will take you. I will love you, again.”[iii]

AMEN.


 

[i] Here’s her website: http://emilymcdowell.com/collections/empathy-cards

[ii] Read the whole piece here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html

[iii] From Bass’ book Mules of Love.