Isaiah 43:18-19 is a great reminder of God’s actions on our behalf.
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
We might feel like we are in a wilderness. We may be grieving, experiencing loss, or simply not sure where we are heading.
That can also be true of us as a church at times.
Yet, hear the good news: God is doing a new thing. A way in the wilderness.
We can honor the past, have some great traditions, and also know that God wants us to put whatever is behind us, behind us. Our best history is still ahead of us my friends!
How can I be confident in that, because of our Easter promise!
We may be facing death, we may have much to overcome, but we have a God who’s divine flow/presence/love throughout history raised Jesus from death!
Our identity is wrapped up in Christ! Therefore, we too are over-comers with Christ! What do we have to fear? as it says in Romans 8:31-38: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” and the “nothing can separate us from the love of God”!
If God overcomes all things, even death, then we can approach life with confidence in God’s commitment to us!
Check out this passage from Colossians 1:
15 He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
May we live into the Easter promise of resurrection and that Christ is making all things new and reconciling ALL things to God’s self. That all things are wrapped up in Christ. May we have confidence that Jesus is making a way through the wilderness of our lives. Love has won!
Hope to see you on Easter Sunday, or any other Sunday…really, any day of the week. Let’s be in this life, experiencing God’s new way, together!
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem 28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “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. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.37 As 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, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Have you ever been caught in a flow that you felt like you couldn’t get out of? Caught up in a crowd, or in some kind of motion that you just had to ride it out?
As I was reflecting on this passage for Palm Sunday last week, and in conversations with others,, I thought of lots of examples in my life and in culture.
I can remember the first time I went whitewater rafting on the Ocoee river in Georgia. PP
I fell out of the boat in the middle of the biggest rapid…scared the you know what out of me…yet, I remembered the video that they showed us before we got into the raft, if you fall out, point your feet downstream, lay on your back, and go with the flow…it wasn’t easy, yet, I did, and it turned out to be a pretty good experience!
Another time is being at a U2 Concert at the Rose Bowl in California.
Being surrounded by over 100,000 folks screaming and singing and dancing…the mo- ment caught me and I just went with it…it was a great night.
Another example is looking at our current political landscape.
It doesn’t matter what opinions you may or may not have, but it seems like there is a constant flow of information, and even misinformation, taking you in so many different directions. It can be disorienting at times. Yet, we hold out hope that people in leadership can put the money and ideology behind them and begin the process of building up trust and working towards the common good of all.
We all have hopes, dreams, and sometimes even the courage to believe in them.
May we remember when those aspirations don’t turn out the way that we had hoped, that there is always room for growth in ourselves and in our friendships. Sometimes things go the way we had hoped, sometimes even better…even when it seems like the opposite happens than what we expected. Other times we simply don’t see the possibilities that arise when things don’t go as planned. During those times, we may even shirk away from the moment, or work to try and minimize what we think is wrong, or control an outcome.
I think that’s kind of what our scripture is describing today. At least the hope and dreams part.
It’s a day we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The folks lining the streets wanted a savior, a king, a Messiah, deliverer. They had heard amazing things about Jesus and here he was coming to Jerusalem for the passover celebration.
The passage is about more than hope in an individual though, these folks that are yelling out praise and proclaiming Jesus as King, are quoting a passage from Psalm 118. They are anticipating Jesus being the hope of all of their generations before…the deliverer from Roman occupation, the reformation and renewal of their temple. In many ways, they are much like us – they want to believe, they want to see that their faith in something or someone become more concrete, something they could touch and see. They wanted to believe that the promises of God being an earthly king with them were coming to fruition.
They wanted certainty.
And, clearly, the writer of Luke is wanting to reinforce that this Jesus is a king…is worthy of praise. However , this king’s kingdom is more than just of this world, but encompasses all of humanity. And, it’s a kingdom of presence, faithful presence…a presence that is more about practice than what you believe in…the practice of living in God’s love and extending it to others. It’s not about certainty, as our friend Walter Brueggemann reminds us, it’s about relational fidelity.
Jesus is on a journey towards Jerusalem with his disciples. Those disciples were folks that had been living around Jesus, seeing how he practiced faith and relational fidelity, as well as what he proclaimed.
In this story, you don’t know which disciples. The writer is taking the focus off of them and squarely on Jesus and the crowds outside of Jesus’ inner circle. It’s as if the writer is saying that Jesus is not just for a select few, but for everyone.
Jesus tells two of the disciples to go and get a colt that has not been ridden. There is a prophetic symbol-ism of the Messiah riding a colt that has never been ridden into Jerusalem. The people in the crowds, or reading Luke in the early church, would have understood this as a sign of God’s fulfillment of God’s prophetic promises. Jesus would ride into Jerusalem, the cultural and spiritual center of Judaism. The symbolic dwelling of God’s earthly presence in the temple. So, the disciples find the colt, the owners ask why they are taking the colt, the disciples say that the Lord needs it. Other gospel narratives have Jesus riding a don-key, symbolizing Jesus’ humility…but, not Luke. A colt is more appropriate for a king.
The crowds are excited, they throw their cloaks on the ground so that even the colt won’t touch the dirt…even the disciples join in! They were in to a flow of the moment, a moment that had building up for a while. This was happening and they were filled with expectation!
The stories before this passage also point towards Jesus’ identity as king, as Lord. But, it seems like the disciples aren’t getting it…the very folks closest to Jesus. Yet, as this story says, and other stories before this, those on the outside of Jesus’ inner circle recognize Jesus as Lord more readily as they experienced his practice of love and inclusion.
The pharisees, religious rulers of the temple, did not live into this hope. They liked things the way they were, it may not have been the best system for everyone, but it’s what they knew. A different future, even one filled with a deeper awareness of God’s Kingdom, had not dawned upon all of them. Jesus’ worldview was different from their worldview and they were not wanting to relinquish their control to God’s viewpoint.
Maybe at one time, these pharisees did have hopes and dreams. But, the weight of the system that they knowingly or unknowingly lived in, had weighed them down. Somewhere in their lives, maybe over time or even generations, they settled for a life they could understand and a God they could control and looked a lot like them, rather than a life filled with abundance, imagination, and mystery in relationship with God.
Some of the Pharisees told Jesus to order his disciples to silence the crowd. Don’t let the crowd say what they were saying…Jesus responds that even if the crowd was silent, the stones would shout out…God’s flow can’t be stopped…even inanimate objects would recognize the abundant life and presence of God’s promises coming true.
At the end of that week, the crowds turned on Jesus as the religious leaders stirred them into action. There was a counter movement to God’s flow. Just as emotion can be filled with hope, that emotion can also be turned towards something more sinister. Fear and anxiety overtook hope and the deeper need for love, change, and growth. Our “shadow sides” can dim our eyes from seeing what we really want or even need. The crowds in this story wanted to go with what they knew, rather than have faith and hope in something even better. So, Jesus is killed.
Yet, that’s not the end of our story, God’s flow overcomes all things.
Nor is it the end of the story with Jesus. He was crucified. Killed in a violent way.
Jesus rose out of the grave three days later and the kingdom of God, or God’s Presence, God’s flow, demonstrated that God’s love for us was stronger than all of the disappointment, all of the weariness. God’s love was deeper than our desire for an earthly king. God’s flow overcame death and showed us that God’s belief in us, God’s expansiveness, God’s love for those on the margins, God’s desire for change, growth, and for a more just system where love is practiced and lived…God’s pursuit of everyone and God’s model of radical inclusive community, is stronger than anything in this world.
Friends, may we live opening and body in this flow of God!
12 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[a] 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[b] 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[c] 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.”
Nicaragua is one of the most beautiful places in the world, gorgeous scenery from the beaches to the mountains, but the people there are even more beautiful, inside and out. I’ve been there quite a few times and every time I go, I want to go back as soon as I get home!
I would love to get another group from Cincinnati to go there soon actually!
Folks from Nicaragua also practice amazing hospitality. When we went to Nicaragua with Young Life, or “Vida Joven” as it’s called there, we would do what we called “homestays”. Those were 24 hours where 2-3 of us would spend with a host family. We would have the normal struggles of language and cultural barriers, but every single home stay was such an enriching time of growth and learning.
I never will forget the first homestay. I was with a couple of high school guys from my church. We were with a great family and they wanted to take us out to restaurant in the city where we were, Matagalpa, in the mountains of Nicaragua.
When we arrived, we learned that several of their relatives had also come, as well as folks from the neighborhood. We sat down to order and noticed that only one or two other persons from the family also ordered food.
We, like many Americans or folks from wealthier nations, offered to pay for their meals and everyone else, which was kind of offensive to them I would realize later, but they were so kind. They insisted that we ate and that they pay for it.
It was a great lesson for me to learn, and a gift to receive.
The hospitality that they gave us was overwhelming. It breaks my heart that our country has not shown the same kind of hospitality to folks fleeing Central America that are on our southern border.
The gospel lesson has Jesus in the home of Lazarus. Mary and Martha are there as well. (Do you ever notice how women in these stories always seem to teach us as readers centuries later so much?!)
They are at the table and Mary comes to Jesus weeping. She then anoints his feet with expensive perfume. This is unusual because anointing someone’s feet wasn’t common, at all. You anointed someone’s head. Yet, this was an action of great humility, she recognized Jesus’ love, friendship, and acceptance of her. She wanted to show great respect for him…anointing his feet was and act of lowering herself.
I don’t know what her motives were or what to make of it completely, but I do wonder if the symbolism of feet, of being in the dirt, of movement, and of taking you somewhere has something to do with it. Israel and Judah are dry, semi-arid places with lots of dust. They wore sandals, touching and cleaning your feet is dirty business, yet we know that Jesus used that as a model for serving others.
We also read that she wiped off the perfume with her hair. Jewish women in that time always wore headcoverings and kept their hair up. She was showing great indignity, again, while recognizing Jesus’ acceptance of her.
We know that the perfume she used was very expensive. Judas, in this account, was upset. He made a good point that they could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. We also know that he was pocketing some of the money and may have had ulterior motives.
Yet, Jesus has this statement, it’s not about the money, and it’s not about the poor. Judas was missing the point. It’s not about simply giving away something, it’s about giving and receiving a gift, and being faithfully present with someone.
So many times we want to give money to something or write a check. It takes us off the hook, but Jesus is saying that Mary is giving a costly gift and Jesus is receiving it. They are practicing exuberant, over the top, blessing in the act of humility in giving and in the humility of receiving. It’s personal, it’s in the messiness of life, and it’s calling us to do the same…to jump in to the actions of Jesus with our whole lives, to not be afraid to be committed, and to even get a bit messy.
God wants us to know, through Jesus’s actions, that no one is outside of God’s gift giving and receiving, that we are called to be accepting, to show radical hospitality, even at great personal and corporate cost.
May we be a people that practices this costly and very personal way of friendship, of love, to one another and to the world around us…and, in so doing, may we feel the world with the sweet aroma of God’s divine flow!
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 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: The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother
11 Then Jesus[a] said, “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[b] 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.’[c] 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[d] 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.’”
Have you ever lost something like a wallet or your keys? Do you go and try to find them? Drives you crazy when you can’t right?
The gospel lesson from Luke finds Jesus telling similar experiences. He’s responding to some of the religious leaders of his day questioning why Jesus hung out with so many folks from outside the religious boundaries of the day.
Jesus’ disciples may have been wondering the same thing. It seems like Jesus hung out more with folks on the margins, folks who were outside the religious institutions…prostitutes, tax collectors who weren’t very honest, widows, children (who were not counted fully as people back then…).
So, Jesus does what he normally does. He tells stories, or parables. These parables have lots of deeper meanings. It’s as if he’s telling a story with a seed planted in the words. When those words hit fertile ground, one may not notice, but those seeds grow, giving meaning and growth.
Our opening shares the setting of the grumbling questioning. Why is Jesus not only talking to these folks, but he’s eating with them?! Which, back in that day, meant that you were building a friendship.
I get it, that’s why I’m always open for sharing some coffee, drink, or food together!
Always an open invitation!
Jesus then shares a couple of parables about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep to find one lost sheep, and about a woman having 10 silver coins who loses one and then cleans the whole house, turns it upside down, to find it.
The idea of course is that no one and no thing is outside of God’s pursuit, of God’s love and presence. God will not stop until God finds the lost person and brings it back into relationship, into community.
Then we come to this parable of the lost son, or the Prodigal son. We see a loving father of two sons. The younger son wants to strike out on his own, so he asks for his father’s inheritance. In essence, he’s saying that he doesn’t need the father anymore. Notice that the father gives the inheritance to both the younger son, and the older son.
What does the younger son do? He goes to a foreign land and wastes his money on prostitutes, parties, and all sorts of other vices. Then a famine comes to the land and he doesn’t have anything to eat. He’s left to finding a job feeding pigs, which for a Jewish audience in those days, that would be the worst!
After a while, he hits rock bottom in his life. Hitting rock bottom either kills ya’ or it makes you think. The younger son is hungry, he remembers that his dad’s servants had it better than what he’s experiencing now. So, he comes up with a great speech and resolves to go back to this dad, plead forgiveness and ask to be one of his father’s hired hands.
He sets off and as he’s approaching his father’s house, his dad sees him from a distance. Our scripture says that he was filled with compassion. That word in the Greek has a deep meaning of movement in the depth of your bowels, it moved him physically with love! He runs out, puts his arms around him, hugs him…then the son tries to begin his speech, but the father isn’t listening…he’s filled with love and tells his servants to give him the finest clothes, put the ring back on his finger signifying that he’s his son…kill the fatted calf, we are throwing a party!!!! He exclaims “my son was dead, and now he’s alive!”… he’s back.
The father had not given up on his son and now his son was back!
But, then there’s the older son. He hears the music and dancing and asks a servant what’s going on. The servant, kind of matter of factly, says that his brother is back and his dad’s throwing a party in celebration! How does the older son react? He’s angry, jealous, and filled with resentment. He refuses to go to the party. But, what does the father do? He loves his older son just as much, he goes out to him as well, away from the party, and pleads for him to go in. His son, with much outward and hurt pride, says that he’s been working hard all of these years while his younger son was partying away his inheritance…and his father had never thrown a party for him. The father responds, that yes, he has been with him, but this is his brother, and he was lost, but now found…so we must celebrate.
We don’t know what happens with the older son. But, both sons were lost, and both had a father who loved them.
We can all related to both sons if we are honest. We waste our gifts and talents on all sorts of distractions and/or frivolous living…or we live in resentment and pride when we don’t get what we think we deserve. We often don’t even recognize our need until we hit rock bottom, or we are so unhappy trying to live a false life of pride and works. Yet, we have a loving God who truly is crazy in love with us. That love can cause us to grow in wonderful ways. That love gives us the ability to love ourselves, love others, and to experience love from others.
The father shows us how God loves us, how God takes on everything, even our shame… what’s more, this God becomes our shame and transforms and redeems it into something more…God’s embrace that gives us our identity as God’s beloved. We also have to remember that God is both father and mother and many other things throughout scripture. What this and other texts is trying to share with us is that we have a God who is intimate and everywhere and in all things and people shaping us and shaping our world.
Henri Nouwen, the catholic philosopher, theologian, writer in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son (which I’d highly recommend reading) has some great commentary on this story.
There is a pattern in this passage of loss, recovery, restoration, and celebration.
The loss of relationship with self, others, God.
The recovery of one’s senses, a movement towards action in one’s life.
The restoration of relationship with self, others, God.
Which leads to the celebration of God with one’s self, other, and God recognition…a celebration of embrace and unrestrained love.
Nouwen goes on to say:
“Each time we touch the sacred emptiness of non-demanding love, heaven and earth tremble and there is great ‘rejoicing among the angels of God.’ it is the joy for the returning sons and daughters. It is the joy of spiritual parenthood.”
We are all invited to be gradually transformed by God’s love from being the younger and older sons, wherever we find ourselves, into the compassionate parent (as Nouwen says) and to live lives filled with gratitude, celebration, and not resentment.
In this process, in our life stories, may we be changed by transformational relationship in a world that often only understands transactional relationships.
May we remember that Jesus shows us through his life and actions that all are embraced by God! This is Good news! Welcome the embrace!
A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you,my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,[a]and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Repent or Perish
13 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.”
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
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.’”
Growing up, we had a large garden that we shared with my Uncle who lived next door. My Uncle had what I’d call a recreational farm. He had a few cattle, a large garden, and about 10 acres of land. We didn’t have cattle, but we did have about 6 acres of land, so we let the cattle roam between the properties.
I remember growing up and playing on our adjoining properties. Lots of great battles were won and lost as I would run around those woods and fields. But, I always had to be on the lookout for cattle and for what they would leave on the ground!
Since we had a large garden, we also had one spot on our properties that I would especially try to stay away from…the manure pile. Of course, once a year, I couldn’t stay away from it because that was the day that we’d hook up the manure spreader on our tractor and go to the pile and shovel manure into the spreader. Then we would take it and spread it on the garden…which would then fertilize the soil, give it nutrients, and, with some careful cultivation of the garden, we’d have corn, green beans, squash, watermelon, and all sorts of vegetables when it came time to harvest. Because of the process that we had with the garden, and the care that my Uncle and dad would take with that garden… and really all of our family members as we all had to pitch in…we had an abundance of fresh vegetables every year.
The setting of the gospel lesson quoted above is in 1st century Palestine. Palestine is often referred to as an agrarian culture. It was largely rural and had many crops. With its location, it was prime land that the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and Egyptians would invade and fight over because of its agricultural significance.
The folks who were with Jesus in this story knew about agriculture, as did Jesus. They had a shared identity that was tied to the land.
Within this text is a great metaphor around a fig tree.
The context is a group of folks sharing with Jesus about Pilate’s execution of some Galileans and intermingling their blood with sacrificial animals. Not only being killed, but having the shame of having their blood mixed. In a culture based on honor and shame, it’s not just death that is hard to deal with, it’s how you die…and that would have deeply held emotional responses. So, they were wondering if their sins had caused them to die in such a way. They may have asked this question out of anxiety or out of a sense in trying to trap Jesus, to see if he was pro-Roman or pro-revolutionary.
Jesus responds by saying, no, they were not worst sinners than anyone else. He even goes on to say that the same fate of being in an endless cycle of shame awaits them if they continue to live as they have always lived. They needed to have a change of heart and mind, they needed repentance which leads to growth.
Jesus also reminds his listeners that tragedy can fall on anyone. We can live life like we think we are supposed to, do what we think is right, but tragedy can come at any time. We all die, but we all also have grace in this life and it matters what we do with these lives we are given. In first century Judaism, tragedy would fall on the wicked. But, Jesus is saying that tragedy falls on us all, even on Jesus. Yet, how we grow through tragedy is what’s important. God shows mercy on all, those who are repentant and unrepentant.
The difference though, I believe, is that repentance can lead to new understanding, new growth, and can produce fruit in our lives and in the lives of others.
At first glance, we may think that Jesus is being harsh by saying that this tree should be cut down if it’s not producing fruit after years of cultivating. But, again, remember, this is an agrarian culture. What they hear is grace. This tree has been in a vineyard for a long time. The owner of the vineyard found that it wasn’t producing fruit. He calls his gardener, says that he’s been patient for 3 years, and it should be cut down. But, the gardener says to the owner, give it one more year. Let’s cultivate it, take care of it, and give it another year. If there isn’t fruit after a year, well then we can cut it down, dry it out, and use it as kindling for a fire or some other useful purpose.
The fig tree in this story is a sign of God’s mercy, it hasn’t produced fruit, but it’s still in the vineyard. The gardener has faith that the fig tree could stand a bit longer so that it can have the possibility of bearing fruit.
This story is about God’s faithfulness.
God doesn’t give up on anyone or any church or faith community. But, it’s up to us to ask questions of ourselves as persons and as persons joined together: Can we stay committed to one another, do we share in God’s faith in us, can we cultivate in our own lives the practices that produce an awareness of God’s gardening work in our lives, cultivating growth?
God continues to give us another year, another chance at growth. This can give us opportunity to consider what is really important in our lives . How we can slow down and choose to spend our time and resources to achieve what is important in our lives.
I believe that the biblical notion of “Jubilee” fits well within this passage. Jubilee was about the forgiveness of debts, the restoration of land to its rightful owners. It’s about removing the barriers that keep us apart in community. It’s about restoration of relationship, of listening to one another and treating all with equity.
It also says a lot about “abundance”. We often look around at what we don’t have, we have a scarcity mindset that keeps us locked in old ways of thinking that lends itself to transactional relationships. When we slow down, take a deep breath, and take inventory of what we see around us and in us, we can begin to live out of a sense of abundance and that there is always beauty and opportunities around us for growth and connections.
If we live into a jubilee concept, we can have freedom to consider a wide range of choices, whereas before we may have felt like we had little choice.
Last weekend, we had our friend Peter Block lead us in some conversations at Fleming Road.
It was a great time discussing possibilities and things we are passionate about. Much of those conversations were what I would even call “jubilee” imagination. How can we remove barriers from knowing one another, and how can do things to increase our connections to others.
Other jubilee conversations that I’ve had recently is how do we find ways to put finances together towards things that give us life through this jubilee mind and heartset. Maybe it means we start today, putting $20, $25, or some other amount together in a “dream jubilee fund” that we give to others in order to increase our connections and restore folks into relationship.
Our church, all of us together, also have an opportunity with Jubilee to think in new and exciting ways. I believe that Fleming Road UCC has been given a Jubilee year in 2019 to discern where God is leading us on how we can best use our abundance of time, talents, and resources to produce fruit as a church.
If we can ask those questions bravely and being in God’s vineyard together as authentic gathering of Jesus followers, then we can move towards living abundant, fruitful lives. We may want to avoid the manure piles that are necessary for growth, we may not like being pruned, but sometimes we have to get rid of unhealthy leaves in our lives, we may not enjoy being planted and replanted, but God has a vision for beautiful fruit bearing lives lived together.
If we can dare to live faithfully in God’s faith in us, if we can dare to live differently and in deep and inclusive love for each other and those in our neighborhoods, schools, and work places, we can move towards being people of Jubilee…we can take risks to love, forgive, and grow in our relationships…and change our world for the better while we’re at it!
15 After 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.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”[a]3 And Abeam said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But 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.” 5 He 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.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord[b] reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He 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.” 10 He 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. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On 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,
The Lament over Jerusalem
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me,[a] ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet 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.’ 34 Jerusalem, 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! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when[b] you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
What does the word “lament” mean to you?
We’ve all experienced disappointment in our lives. I know I have. We can probably all think of times when we hoped for something, and then not have it happen.
More than hoping for a new bike at Christmas, or warm weather, or even who wins a football or a basketball game, we have other hopes and aspirations for good recognition at work, paying the bills, going on a much needed vacation…or even more approval from others, for relationships to be healed, for connection with a friend or family member that you have not talked to for a while. As a church, we often don’t know what we want to see happen other than the church to survive. Maybe we have deeper hopes for it to thrive….yet, our definitions for thriving may be hard to articulate at times.
It’s safe to say that at our deepest hopes are with relationships. We are wired for relationship with the world around us and with people. It doesn’t matter if you are introvert or an extrovert, we all crave connection on some level and have some hope for relationships.
I like the story of Abram, before he was named Abraham. Abram was a faithful man according to the biblical accounts of him. His faith was based on a relationship with God and with others. Abram was advanced in age, he wanted an heir, a child that he could pass along his family name and legacy.
He went to God and lamented to God that he didn’t have an heir.
Lament is an interesting word…it’s a passionate word that means to wail, to express deep sadness or disappointment. Lament is an active expression of denial to the status quo as Walter Brueggemann, the great Old Testament scholar and friend, would say. It has a meaning of involving your whole self, affecting you physically even.
When we are faced with something that deeply moves us, it can potentially lead us towards anxiety, or some kind of stress…it affects us, it can move us into situational depression even. However, lamenting can come afterwards and be a positive movement towards healing and transformation.
Abram is in that place of lament. He is sad. But, there is a difference in this lament. Abram’s faith is in a relationship with God and in community with others. God hears Abram’s lament and affirms Abram and blesses him with a promise. His children will outnumber the stars in the sky. What happens next? A deep darkness falls over Abram. Not exactly what you’d expect after God gives him some news. But, lamenting does lead to growth. Growth happens in the midst of confronting one’s self, in the midst of struggle, which brings movement towards a deeper understanding of God’s purposes in your life and in your community.
God’s promised also leads to two sons: Isaac and Ishmael, and those descendants outnumber the stars in the sky. It may not have been exactly what Abram thought, but it certainly says that we are all brothers and sisters.
The text from the New Testaments finds Jesus lamenting as well. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when some sympathetic pharisees, or religious rulers warning him that Herod wants to kill him. Jesus calls Herod a “fox”, which is interesting to note. The understanding of a fox in this text is not that Herod is cunning, but that Herod is a small animal that does not have power, is impotent. Jesus says in affect, I’m casting out demons and have the relational power to overcome unseen forces. Herod has no control over me. Jesus then goes on to say that he must he has work today for the next couple of days and that it will be finished on the 3rd day. This could be a reference to Jesus death and resurrection.
Jesus certainly gives his hearers a reference that he cannot be killed outside of Jerusalem. Jerusalem has a hold in the imagination of Israel at the time. It is the center of Jewish faith at that time, the city where the temple of God is. Jewish folk believed that God’s Presence on earth dwelt there. It is also the place where prophets are killed. When prophets came with a message of lament, of a need for change, repentance, relational restoration…the established system, those in power, felt threatened, they would be killed.
Even though persons in the religious establishment may not have been very joyful, they still had control and did not want to give that control up. They were in a place of broken relationship with each other, themselves, and with God. They were what I’d call “resistors” and resistors have roadblocks that can often thwart their growth, their joy, and the growth and joy of others. Yet, resistors do have a part in the story as well.
Jesus laments, deeply, with great emotion for Jerusalem. Jesus understands the important of “place”, that people are deeply rooted in a community and that has potential for great things, but when not living up to it’s potential, when resistant to God’s desire for genuine relationship and community, a place can be destructive.
So, Jesus laments, describes a God who longs to take God’s people, all people, under God’s wings like a hen protecting her chicks. A God who longs to be in loving relationship with God’s people, to protect them, to bless them beyond measure with friendship and Presence.
Jerusalem not only signifies the center of religious life for Israel, it can also be descriptive of the church. God longs for the church to be a place of deep relationship, not only for those inside the church, but for those outside. Jesus represents all of humanity, and Jesus demonstrates that God is not limited to a building….Jesus goes to places outside of the temple, the synagogue, and continues today to go outside of the church walls. Jesus says that the temple, the house, is abandoned by God, but God does not abandon God’s people.
And, Jesus laments that Jerusalem kills its prophets. But, God keeps on sending those prophets. There is a flow in and through God that cannot be stopped.
Friends, hear this the good news, lamenting can come out of being dark places in our lives, but lamenting leads us towards growth. Jesus loves Jerusalem, and Jesus loves his church. Jesus has promised, and demonstrated, that even though he aches for us, he also aches with us. He is with us in all that we experience and is with us in the lamenting and in the darkness. We also know that God, through Jesus, demonstrates that darkness doesn’t win and that we can grow and move towards the promise of blessing as Jesus comes to us. Lamenting can produce faith. Faith in and through God’s commitment to us even in the midst of life’s hard places.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[a]
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
A few years back, I had a running injury that needed some attention. It didn’t keep me from running, but it was a nagging tendinits injury that didn’t seem to go away. Luckily, my spouse, Debbie, is Physical Therapy Assistant and works at a physical therapy office. Many of the Physical Therapists there are runners and are simply great to work with and have become friends over the years.
So, I set up an appointment with my friend Andy, who’s a Physical Therapist and a runner. He told me to wear running clothes for the appointment as he wanted to analyze my stride to see if that was causing some of the issues.
When I got there, we went through some dynamic stretching and checking of my tendons. Then he had me get on the treadmill to look at my stride. I thought that it would be a fairly short jog, so I kept my warm-up on and started running on their treadmill. Their treadmill was about 3 feet off of the ground so that the PT’s could have a better view of your running.
After about 3-4 minutes of running, I asked if they had seen enough. Andy said no, he wanted me to run a few more minutes. I started to warm up a bit more and, without thinking, I began to take my pullover off. While pulling it over my head, and still running on the treadmill, it got stuck a bit on my head…I lost my stride, hit the back of the treadmill and somehow lifted off the back of it! I got some serious airtime, but I nailed the landing!
When I looked around, the whole clinic was looking at me, kind of like, “wow, that guy is still alive!?”. Andy just said, well, that’s a first! At that point, I put my hands up in the air and simply said “thank you” to all in the clinic as they began to clap!
Today, we’re talking about being lifted up…not like my treadmill misadventure that day…no, we want to be lifted up in our everyday lives, out of the mundane, the ordinary, the routine. We so often get caught up in days upon days of wondering, is this it? Is this all there is to life? We get caught in ruts where we possibly make decisions or begin to think in ways that are not helpful. Oftentimes, these decisions and thoughts, especially when made in isolation or without a sense of intentional and positive growth, change, or maturity could lead to destructive patterns.
This is true in our own lives, as well as our life together as a community of faith. It happened to Israel. They were stuck in the desert, both physically and metaphorically. They were losing faith and getting tired. They decided to look for fulfillment in behaviors that led to destruction.
A good question for us as a church universal: Have we gotten tired of waiting on God, of having faith? Have we sought after other things such as a consumer based church where we chase after program after program or worry about worship styles? Have we chased after theologies and ideologies that are more closely related to cultural systems rather than radically inviting those systems towards a “re-functioning” or reformation? Have we become more focused on ourselves and our way of doing things rather than practicing hospitality and reconciliation with our community? I wonder what folks in this community, or the communities in which we live, think of churches throughout their neighborhoods? Would they notice if they shut their doors?
Within this tiredness or rut that the church finds itself in, and in the ruts of our every day that lead us to make personal decisions that may not be healthy, we get to the point where we finally realize and hope for something more. We want to be lifted up.
The good news is hat God wants to lift us up, but it starts with us looking towards God for deliverance rather than the systems of this world or the unhealthy places we may find ourselves.
With Israel, God told Moses to put up a pole with a snake on it. He did and folks were saved from death. Now, I’m not sure exactly of all the symbolism of a snake on a pole besides what I vaguely remember from seminary or commentaries, or if it’s simply a metaphor or a writer in antiquity trying to convey a deeper message…but I do believe that the writer of this story was saying that Moses went to God and God gave Moses a sign of deliverance.
Our gospel lessons finds the writer referring to this lesson from Numbers and saying that Jesus is being lifted up and we are called to look to him for deliverance, for justice, and for the way to to live.
As Jesus is lifted up, literally on a tree at calvary, but also lifted up daily in our lives through a deeper understanding of the Christ and how we find our find our salvation and personal and corporate agency.
Christ shares with us humanity and Christ is also eternal in Christ’s being, we can find that our identity is wrapped up in Christ. As Christ is lifted up, we are also lifted up.
Colossians 3:3 gives more evidence of this, “our lives are hid in God through Christ”. We are being lifted up with Christ. We are given eternal life. Now, we may be thinking, do I want to live forever if this life is a reflection of the life eternal? Well, the folks listening to this reading in John had an understanding of eternal that, on the surface, we might not understand. Eternal means the quality of life, not just quantity. And, eternal tied in with Jesus, the Christ, means amazing quality that does last forever, and it starts now, or rather, it started with a bang from the very beginning!
You see, Jesus is also lifted up as the one true human that we are all called to live in, just as Christ lives in us. Now, we are not perfect, we mess up…hang out with me for a while, crawl into my head, and you may have some deep reservations about me! Of course, the opposite is true, if I were to know your deepest thoughts and faults, I may be wanting to get away from you as well. But, our lives are wrapped up in Christ and Christ redeems and saves all of us, our thoughts, our actions, and, well, everything. Nothing is outside of God’s reach.
God also says that we can live in deep love with and through Christ’s love for us and be lifted up. We are given opportunity after opportunity to cultivate an understanding of ourselves, to find appropriate and safe places or communities where we can take off our masks, be vulnerable, and to grow. Jesus got that. In Jesus’ being he lived in community with the father and the Spirit, what we’d call the Trinity. Three in One community. Jesus also called a group of folks around him that were committed to him. They weren’t perfect, they fell away and disappointed themselves by their infidelity. Yet, God lifted them up and they changed the world.
Our text this morning talks about belief. In our culture, we seem to put a lot of emphasis on believing the right things. However, I would say that this text is calling us towards something deeper: trust. We are called to trust God and even to trust each other. Which, can be hard and we need to make sure we “walk in wisdom” with others. But, yes, we should grow towards building trusting relationships.
Sometimes, even with the best intentions, that trust can be broken. Yet, as we see with God, God continues to put his trust in us. Even after Jesus is crucified, Jesus comes to his disciples and shows them amazing trust.
As we do this, as we trust and risk, we can experience deliverance and become “lifted up” people. I believe we will grow stronger as persons and we will grow stronger as a church. We have potential to be agents of good, of change, of hospitality and of deep friendships as we experience God lifting up Jesus, lifting up us, and lifting up the community around us. All of the community, not just those that are similar to us, but everyone…that’s good news…may we all do the lifting up of Christ in our communities, following Christ’s example of radical hospitality, friendship, and inclusion and, in so doing, all be lifted up together.