March 7, 2010

The Sermon I did Preach

Here's the sermon I wrote on Friday and ended up preaching. A special thank you to those who pray for me every week. It is because of those prayers that God is able to push my nonsense out of the way and speak his Word.

I don't know about you, but I'm really enjoying the Henri Nouwen devotional book this Lent. Some days, Cassie and I read it and all we can say is, “wow.” But last Saturday's reflection left me really thinking. It was entitled, “Our Father Loves All” and the take home line from it is, “God doesn't need to divide the world into those who are for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally.” Let me repeat that, “God doesn't need to divide the world into those who are for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally.”
I didn't finish that reflection thinking, “wow.” Instead, I thought, “clearly Henri had lost it by this time. He's a fool. Obviously, God likes some people better than others. Surely God likes me more than, say, Donald Trump or Kim Jong Ill or even Pat Robertson.” They say that it is in our DNA to divide things into groups. Apples v. Oranges. Men v. Women. Good drivers v. bad drivers. Whatever the basis for our groupings, we do it all the time. Rich/Poor, Black/White, Cultured/Ignorant our minds are constantly grouping people. It is a coping technique. A person is a whole lot easier to deal with when they aren't a person at all, but instead a faceless label. Oh, I don't have to deal with him because he's a troublemaker or an ignorant fool or a liberal. And we rationalize this way of living by saying, “we have to do it; its how we are wired.” We get all up in arms when Pat Robertson does it by saying that Haiti's capital city was destroyed by an earthquake because they are vodoo practicing pagans, but it is perfectly OK for me to say he's a babbling buffoon with terrible theology. Well maybe that's no OK.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus seems to be wary of the label and dismiss lifestyle. Having “set his face toward Jerusalem” Jesus and his rag tag group of Galilean pilgrims are on their way to the holy city in time for the Passover Feast. Suddenly, news reaches them that Pilate has mingled the blood of Galilean pilgrims with their sacrifices, which is an amazingly polite way of saying that Pilate had a group of Jews killed in the Temple Court while they were offering their prayers and sacrifices. This is cause for serious anger and righteous indignation. Either that, or this is the time for somebody to stand up and say, “thank God we aren't sinners like them.” Jesus preempts the self-righteous option by saying, “do you think that because they suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” To this terrible story, Jesus adds one of his own. “Do you remember the eighteen who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.”
Jesus won't let us dismiss the bad things that happen to other people by labeling them as “sinners who deserve divine punishment” because, quite frankly, we are all sinners who deserve divine punishment. We put other gods (like money and power) ahead of God. We make idols and vote for them by phone or text message (standard messaging rates apply). We use God's name to invoke all sorts of terrible things. We never remember the Sabbath, let alone keep it holy. Our fathers and mothers are rarely honored. Murder, adultery, theft, lying, coveting – the list goes on and on. Every one of us has fallen short of God's dream Every one of us has made a mistake. Every one of us could use more time in silence after, “let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.” So when we dismiss “them” as deserving God's divine retribution, we are, in fact, condemning ourselves.
Reenter Henri Nouwen, “God doesn't need to divide the world into those who are for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally.” It has been five minutes since the last time I mentioned this line, and it seems even less true now. How can God love everyone uniquely and unconditionally when every one of us deserves God's bitter tears?
Conveniently enough, Jesus wraps up this run-in with bad news by way of a parable about precisely why God's love is universal. A wealthy man owned a lot of land. One day, he came to one of his vineyards, approached a three year-old fig tree and looked for fruit. Finding none, he told the land manager to cut down the tree because all it was doing was wasting soil. “Lord,” said the land manager, “forgive the tree for its fruitlessness. Let me dig around it and tend to it with fertilizer. If it produces fruit next year, that's great. If not, you can cut it down.”
Did you get it? Did you figure out how this story tells us that God's love is universal? No? Well its right there in two simple details. The first detail is in the timing. I'm told that three years would be plenty of time to expect fruit from a fig tree. If three years is a reasonable expectation for fruit production, then that would make a fourth year beyond reasonable expectations. God's grace goes beyond reasonable expectations, so much so that he loves each and every one of us uniquely and unconditionally, even though none of us deserve it. The second detail is in the Greek words of the land manager, “forgive the tree for its fruitlessness.” Aphes, to forgive, the same word Jesus uses when he teaches his disciples to pray, “forgive us our sins.” This takes us back to Jesus' command to “repent.” Ask for and receive forgiveness! Don't pretend like you've been producing fruit all along, admit your failures, your soft spots, your ugliness and then ask for and receive God's forgiveness. God's love is universal because it goes beyond reasonable expectations and it is based in the act of forgiveness.
“God doesn't need to divide the world into those who are for God and those against God because God loves everyone uniquely and unconditionally.” It is true, my brothers and sisters. It makes no sense, but this statement by Henri Nouwen is true. God loves with reckless abandon. He aches when he sees events like Pilate's massacre in the Temple, the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, the earthquake in Haiti and suicide bombs during Iraqi elections. He doesn't conjure up these events to punish evil doers, he laments that they happen and calls on each of us to repent and return to him. Repentance looks just like it did when Jesus called for it two-thousand years ago. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. If you have two coats, give one away. If you have extra food share it. Produce fruit worthy of repentance: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Let the Spirit lead you, let God's grace enfold you, and live a life of forgiveness. It is impossibly simple to do, but thanks be to God, his love that surpasses reasonable expectations. Thanks be to God we have another year in which to grow fruit. Thanks be to God we have the Spirit who fertilizes and nurtures. Thanks be to God for his ongoing forgiveness.
Repent my brothers and sister, not out of fear for God's divine punishment but out of joy for God's unending love. Repent and welcome the Kingdom. Amen.

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