March 7, 2010

The Sermon I Didn't Preach

Here's the sermon I wrote earlier this week, but did not preach. It is based on the work of Luise Schottroff and Tom Wright. It is a decent paper (I think), but not a good sermon.

Generally speaking, I think we like Jesus in sound bites. Or to play on my theme from a couple of weeks ago, we like Fortune Cookie Jesus. Short. Sweet. To the Point. Love God, Love your neighbor. Turn the other cheek. Drink your juice. Jesus is a whole lot easier to understand and follow when he is constrained to a text message (160 characters) or Twitter (140). His message is a whole lot easier to share when we can sum it up in a few simple words and plaster them on a bumper sticker or T-shirt. As hard as it might be to believe, we weaken the message of Jesus when we try to universalize his words. When we remove Jesus completely from all of his context, and make him the great Fortune Cookie Writer in the sky, we take away a lot of his power to teach, and removing power from the Son of God is a dangerous thing indeed. Jesus was born in a specific place at a specific time under a specific culture. He was Jewish. He was a Rabbi. And, By the time we reach the thirteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus has already "set his face toward Jerusalem."
He and a rag-tag group of Galilean pilgrims are on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus is sure of where he is headed and I'm pretty sure he knows what is going to happen when he gets there. Word comes to the group that Pilate has mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifice. This is a very polite way of saying that Pilate had killed people just like them inside the temple courts while they were dutifully offering their sacrifices and prayers. Even if this story didn't exist, we don't need the Bible to know that Pilate was a royal jerk. During his ten-year reign as Governor of Judea, Pilate routinely and intentionally picked fights with his subjects in Judea. He poked at their religious heritage by sending his army into the holy city of Jerusalem carrying banners boldly displaying Rome's pagan symbols. He udner-cut their laws by planning an elaborate aqueduct system for the city and then ordering that Temple funds be used to pay for it. When the Jews tried to rebel against the injustice of it all, Pilate sent his troops in to brutally end the rumblings as a reminder of who really was in charge.
To the story of Pilate's brutal attack in the Temple Court, Jesus adds his own; remembering when the tower fell at Siloam and killed 18 people. In the light of both tragedies, Jesus asks the same question, "where these people worse sinners than anyone else?" Answering his own question, Jesus says, "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." These people didn't die because of their sinfulness. They died because of the guilt of everyone. Jesus isn't saying that God doesn't punish people, he is reminding the people that death is the result of sin. He hearkens back to the Torah and reminds the people that they are just as susceptible to death not because of their individual guilt, but because of the guilt of all people. The only avenue for salvation is repentance.
Two-thousand years later, bad things are still happening to good people. Bad things happen to normal people. Bad things happen to bad people. Death is still a possibility not because of my sin, or your sin, but
because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. When we hear the story of Pilate's blood guilt and the tower of Siloam we can't help but think of events like the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, Temple stampedes in India, and suicide bombers in Iraq and think, "were these people worse sinners than anyone else?" Pat Robertson and people of his ilk think so, but Jesus is clear. "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
"Just as they did." It is an interesting choice of wording on Jesus' part. Is he telling his followers that they'd die in the Temple courts? Will a tower fall on them? "Just as they did" is not an idle phrase in first century Israel. This is a stark reminder to the people that war with Rome was a real possibility. Even here, as Jesus speaks forty years before war would break out, the fear is real. If you continue to forget God. If you continue to rattle your sabers and flex your muscles. If you continue to live outside of Torah the land will do what it has done for generations, it'll spit you out. This isn't a generalized fortune cookie Jesus saying. This isn't a life-after death, long-way-off spiritualized story. This is real, honest, truth he's speaking. If you keep acting this way, war is gonna come, and you will not like how it ends. Jesus calls on the people to read the signs of the time. He wants them to understand that like in the times of Ezekiel and Isaiah, the life of the whole people is in danger and the only way to fix it is to repent, to return to Torah and live by God's commandments.
It took me all week to wrap my mind around this. The call to repentance isn't a call to live under the thumb of Rome, but instead a call to live under the freedom of God. God's history of using foreign armies to meet out his justice is well documented. Jesus' call makes no sense to us today, but it is the only hope for the people of Israel, "Live according to Torah, and Rome will have no power over you. Share your bread, heal the sick, be transformed from threatened victims into active disciples."
Jesus goes on to tell the people a story of a landowner who for three years has come to his vineyard hoping to pick figs from a certain tree. After what should be a reasonable amount of time, the landowner wishes to cut down the fruitless tree because it is just wasting space, but his hired manager has another idea. "Sir, leave it alone. Give it another year. Let me dig around it and fertilize it." That verb, aphes, that gets translated "leave it alone" has more of a "forgive it" sense in the Greek. It is the same word Jesus uses in the Lord's Prayer when he asks God to "forgive our sins." "Forgive the tree for its fruitlessness, Master. Give it another chance."
Here is the hope in this story. Here is where the particulars of Roman/Jewish politics get laid aside and the universal truth comes out. During this season of Lent, as we set aside time to honestly and intentionally do the work of repentance, it makes sense that we again ask for forgiveness. We are sorry that we as individuals haven't produced much fruit. We are sorry that we as the people of St. Paul's haven't produced much fruit. We are sorry that we as the body of Christ have't produced much fruit. Give us another season. Give us some fertilizer and help us to grow. Give us another Lent to work in the garden of our hearts. Give us another Easter to rejoice in the ridiculousness of your grace. Give us another chance to produce fruit, and forgive us of our past unfruitfulness.
Maybe that is the sound bite that Jesus gives us here. The words between the lines, a sound bite that never gets spoken, "There is still time - right now - for you to repent together and do everything God has commanded you to do. So repent, or you will all perish just as they did."
And for us, 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: 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 we have another season to grow and the Spirit who fertilizes and nurtures. Repent my brothers and sister, repent and welcome the Kingdom. Amen.

No comments: