Sunday, March 28, 2010

Prepare Ye

Sheepscott Community Church March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

Philippians 2: 5-11

Luke 22: 14 -23: 56 The Passion

Descent into Holy Week

We are descending ––and that is the word I want to use––indicative of depth––we are descending into the holiest week of the Christian year, when we remember and act out the central mysteries of our faith.

Today initiates that week, as we, with the crowd in Jerusalem, a great mix of all kinds of people––young, old, rich, poor, the religious, the not so religious, those of one way of thinking, those of another––all together on the common ground of hailing Jesus with hosannas, with palms, spreading them in the path of the donkey he rode as he descended into the city. The end of his life, and in a real way, the consequent beginning of ours, lay before him in a week of fraught days, and we will live out those days together with him.

On Thursday evening at 7 we will be doing in remembrance of Jesus what he asked: sharing the bread and wine––for us this Maundy Thursday, it will be matzo and grape juice. We will share that sacramental meal in commemoration of the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he died.

On Friday evening at 7 we will witness the Passion as it is sung by the choir, who with friends will render Theodore Dubois’ The Seven Last Words of Christ.

On Sunday, we will celebrate the resurrection of the Lord in a sunrise service at 7 at the Hill Church, and at our regular service at 10 here in the Valley Church. There will be a breakfast at 8 to ensure the strength all will need for rejoicing.

But what about Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week? Some traditions observe the entire week as Holy Week, and each of the days is marked by the reading of specific scriptures. For those who want to observe the week win the company of the universal church, scripturally speaking, or for their own private devotions, I have listed the readings for Monday through Wednesday on the back of the Order of Service.

Besides reading scriptures, how can we observe these days heading toward Easter? Recall the image from last week’s gospel of Mary, friend of Jesus and sister to Martha and Lazarus, as she poured out that precious spikenard on the feet of Jesus and then dried his feet with her hair. I asked you at that time to consider Mary’s action as a prefiguring of Jesus pouring out the last of his blood at the point of the centurion’s spear.

I further asked you to consider pouring out what is most precious to you at or onto the feet of Jesus, figuratively speaking, to hold nothing back from God, any more than Jesus did. What we may need to pour out may be a negative thing––envy, fear, slander, greed, lust, sloth––name your sin or obsession. We all have them. Or what we have to pour out as an offering may as well be something good or positive to which we attach more importance than we do to our relationship with God. I’m telling you, as I have before, God is relentless and insatiable, wanting to be first in our lives before all things and all people. Does it sound like I’m talking about personality? Well, I am. A personal God who asks everything of us, bit by bit, stone by stone, until the wall of our defenses crumbles and we are confronted with the living God who reveals to us our own selves and the purpose and meaning of our lives.

And that would answer the big question behind our fear of pouring out everything before God: If I let go of what I think is my meaning, how I define myself, who will I be? Whenever we give over to God what in fact is more important to us than God, God will not be outdone in generosity. We will be given our lives back, refreshed and renewed, and that, a hundred fold. But it does mean the prying back of our fingers, one by one, from the death grip in which we hold onto our lives, so that with open hands we can readily let go of and receive. Not an easy thing to do.

Why I bring this up in the context of this week is because Holy Week is a perfect opportunity to give up to God what we know we’ve been wanting to give up, get rid of, be no longer obsessed with––guilt, unforgiveness, judgment of others. And it’s also the time to meet the challenge of surrender to God that never seems to go away.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, let us think and pray about our relationship with God. Let us ask for discernment about what we need to look at closely. On Thursday let us come to the table to be nourished by communion in the presence of our worshipping community here at church. On Friday as we approach the noon hour, the time that Jesus traditionally was nailed to the cross, let us step aside in our mind, or go to the place where we meet God and lift up to Jesus whatever that obstacle, that block in relationship between ourselves and God is. Let us ask Jesus to take it up on the cross with him and then, Let It Go. Another way to do that is with the community on Friday night. Be fully present as the choir and Carroll lift up theirs and our lives in music before God in the sufferings of Jesus.

We will then rise up on Easter morning with joy. It is inevitable. We need to let go of our idea of what we think is our life in order for God to show us what our true life is and can be. It may end up and likely will end up being the same life, but having passed through the cleansing fire of the truth that is the Spirit of God, and which we experience upon surrender, it will be a hallowed life with a greater depth of meaning than we have known heretofore. Even though on the surface it may look the same to others, we will know the difference.

All of this is interior prayer, the vertical between ourselves and God. To complete the image of the cross, we need the horizontal cross piece between ourselves and others, whereby we empty out in service, and that with a smile, a handshake, a nod of understanding. We are flesh and blood beings in a material world, made holy by the fact of creation and further, by incarnation. Now, here comes holy week. Take advantage of the opportunities it provides for quickening and deepening of your faith, for coming to know that indeed the resurrected Jesus lives. Amen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Not Sparing the Expense for Christ

Sheepscott Community Church March 21, 2010

Isaiah 43: 16-21

Philippians 3: 4b-14

John 12: 1-8

Not Sparing the Expense for Christ

Because of the readings this week and this message out of those readings, right out of the gate I want to note an irony I never noted before: the inscription on all American money: “In God We Trust.” Has there ever been a country that has trusted in money as much as we do? It’s as though the country is hedging its bets by inscribing “In God We Trust” on its money. Well, if this doesn’t work, we can fall back on God. See God? We put your name on our money. Talk about self-serving.

It’s a useful platform from which to launch thoughts that arise from today’s readings. Whom or what do we really trust in? If we strip away what we are inclined to take for granted and in fact trust in to carry us from day to day, e.g., mental and physical health, our personal wealth, our family, work, religion, hope––I could go on, but you get the idea––if these blessings were stripped away, what would we be left with? God. Is God enough? If not, why not? If not, do you at least wish God were enough to sustain you, or do you not view God that personally, as One who gets involved in our lives? As one who would and did pour out everything for you, for me?

Today I am using the figure of Mary from today’s gospel––Martha and Lazarus’s sister and a close friend of Jesus––I am using the figure of Mary pouring out that costly nard or spikenard to prefigure Jesus pouring out his precious life, not holding anything back from us, anymore than Mary held back any of the spikenard to be sold and the profits given to the poor, and this over Judas’ objections.

Judas in this scene hearkens back to Jesus’ encounter with his temptations in the desert before his public life. Turn this stone into bread; fall down and worship me and I will give you control over all the kingdoms of the world, as it has been given to me; throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple. God will not allow you to dash your foot against a stone. Show your power.

Judas is throwing in the face of Jesus and the others gathered the wantonness of Mary’s generosity. What does he say? “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor. It was worth a year’s wages.” The writer of John tells us that Judas isn’t at all concerned about the poor, but as keeper of the purse, from which he used to help himself, he’s angry about what he perceives as a waste of potential money he won’t benefit from. The seeming “good cause” of helping the poor is a front and expression for his own greed. He was a victim of his greed, wasn’t he? Think about those thirty pieces of silver. How they must have burned in the palm of his hand when he realized what he had done. I can’t help saying, poor Judas. I hope his eternity provided an opportunity for him to receive God’s healing love and forgiveness. But, that isn’t my business, is it?

My business is following through with this idea, which only occurred to me as I was writing this sermon, of Mary prefiguring Jesus, her pouring out the precious nard without reserve, without holding back any of it, as Jesus himself would soon pour out his blood, the last of it rushing out at the end of the centurion’s spear. He did not withhold from God what he held most precious––his own life, when the circumstances played out at the end of that life and that was what was asked for. Could we do the same? Can we do the same in our own lives where God is always asking us to trust him, not what we see around us?

In her pouring out of the nard on Jesus’ feet––considering, as Judas points out, the high cost and value of the stuff––Mary is economically generous, or even wanton, to use again the word I used earlier. And that’s fine by Jesus. He even tells Judas to back off, easily seeing through his hypocritical raising up of the specter of the poor. He commends Mary’s generous impulse to action noting that she is preparing his body for burial. She is also notably sensually wanton or generous in her act of kneeling at his feet and pouring out the oil and then wiping his feet with her hair. Tell me that didn’t raise a few eyebrows in the room. Again, did Jesus chide her? Stop her? No. On the contrary, he rebuffed the criticism in telling Judas to “Leave her alone.” Important for us Puritans to note that response of his, don’t you think? Whether we’re Puritan or Victorian by religion, social upbringing or the combination in a culture which tends to “tsk-tsk.” Jesus didn’t “tsk-tsk;” he welcomed the attention, the homage in just the way Mary offered it.

Jesus also said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Part of what that says to me is that we will always have the opportunity to serve the poor because there will always be financial inequities in society, however those come about. Most of us are now on the giving end, but in a trice, we could find ourselves on the receiving end. We have been around long enough to see how that could happen. So, if you’re lacking in the generosity department spiritually speaking, you might do well to look after that department practically speaking. You just never know when Jesus might drop by for a visit, for a foot wash , and you want to have something on the shelf of your life as you have lived it to offer him.

What I am saying is, if it doesn’t come naturally to you to be generous or magnanimous, if that’s a really hard thing, be shrewd like the manager of the parable in Luke 16, who Jesus said was accused of wasting his master’s possessions. When the master found this out, he fired him, but the manager summoned all of his master’s creditors before he left the job and told them to mark down their invoices by 10 or 20 % or more. The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. “I tell you,” Jesus continued, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

“No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Do you see why I noted the irony of “In God We Trust” being written on our money?

“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus,” the scripture says. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable n God’s sight.”

Jesus is clearly saying in yet another way what I have quoted for the last two Sundays: That God’s ways and God’s thoughts are not our ways or our thoughts. Look at Jesus, hear what he says, do what he does and then do we begin to approach God in our way and in our thought, albeit obliquely, considering what and who we are before the Creator. What does Jesus say and do? He defends Mary when he tells Judas to back off when Judas criticizes her for pouring the nard on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. He also states clearly that she is preparing him for his burial, and there is no recorded response to that assertion from those gathered in the room for the supper that was honoring Lazarus, following him being raised from the dead.

Underneath the lesson of generosity Jesus and Mary teach through the anointing of the feet is the deeper lesson of trusting God for outcomes. There will be no money realized from the sale of the nard, but the apostles have to trust that there will be enough for them in their circumstances. How much did Jesus know of or guess at his own need for trust in God that was just in the offing? Next Sunday at the Palm Sunday service, we will be hailing the Messiah as he enters Jerusalem . We will wave our palms as the crowd did when Jesus entered the city over 2000 years ago. Within a week of that we will be among those calling for his death. How quickly the crowd is swayed, and we are the crowd.

How much of all that did Jesus know or sense ahead of time? We can learn from his trust in God in these last few weeks of his life to try to do the same in our circumstances. If we do not hold back from God our very selves, we too can be assured of resurrection in and with the Christ, when our time comes. And if we believe that this church supports the spiritual needs of the community––and that is part of our mission statement––then we in turn can support the church in meeting those needs through prayer, service, and donations of our time and wherewithal to the church.

Whatever may have led you to be skeptical about trusting in an unseen God, consider today’s reading from Isaiah. Through his prophet Isaiah and his followers, God is encouraging the Israelites, who are in captivity in Babylon by the time of this section of the Book of Isaiah, to “Forget the former things.” And those former things include the Exodus, where the writer refers to the path through the mighty waters of the Nile, the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements, laid low, “never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick.” God encourages the people to forget these former things, get their attention off the past so they can see the new thing God is doing. “Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”

God is still the God of the Exodus, who led the Israelites through his prophet Moses to the Promised Land, but let that history be internalized, part of just that: history. While it is important to learn from the past so that we do not repeat its mistakes in the future, it is at least as important to focus on the present, to stop looking over our shoulder at the past, in order not to miss what God is doing in the present.

Again, as Paul says in Philippians, “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

I would like to introduce you to the figure of the Angel of History, as described by 20th-century philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin. “His [the Angel’s] face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. [Does this make you think of Chile? Haiti?]. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”

I would suggest that we individually and as a church leave hand wringing, blaming, invocation of histories that separate and divide––I would suggest that we leave all of that debris to the Angel of History, which is to say, to God, and then to trust God for that future to which the back of the angel is turned. If we do not forget those former things, if we continue to dwell in the past, we will miss the new thing God is doing. We will miss how he is making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.

It is an unknown future we face individually and as a church. Are we willing to trust that God is wanting to do something new here? Are we willing to turn from the past and press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God is calling us heavenward in Christ Jesus? If you will accept my critical analysis of our model, Jesus, emptying out with complete generosity the last of his life’s blood because that was what obedience to God in the circumstance called for, if you can accept Mary as prefiguring that great sacrifice as she poured out the precious spikenard on his feet and dried them with her hair, if you can accept that level and kind of generosity of spirit that can lead to the actual sacrifice of a body, then perhaps you can accept that this is the model Jesus is giving us for responding to the One he called Father, whom we severally address by our own terms: God, Spirit, Creator, Mother, and so forth.

We too can empty out all of what we consider our wealth, whether that is money, time or service. Think about that in this season of sacrifice, this Lent where we see and anticipate what our leader did and is doing and if we can’t do the same, counting all else as rubbish by comparison, as Paul says. Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"This Man Welcomes Sinners and Eats with Them"

Sheepscott Community Church March 14, 2010

2 Cor. 5: 16-21

Luke 15: 1-3; 11b-32

“This Man Welcomes Sinners and Eats with Them”

Jesus would have been a big hit in any kindergarten class because he was the master of show-and-tell. He could tell a good story, and today’s gospel is one of his best. It didn’t originate with Jesus, it was a known story at the time. But he used it to good effect to teach about the loving mercy of God. And if he told a good story, he was at least as good at showing The Way of the story in his surrendered life as he lived it.

I’ve mentioned before that there was no Christianity as we know it in the time of Jesus. It hadn’t been codified yet as a religion separate from Judaism. It was a sect of Judaism, and Jesus referred to what he was doing, what he was teaching as The Way. How he was showing the way in the context of today’s gospel, as voiced by the Pharisees, was that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” You can almost hear them saying, “YEEEEWWWWWW.” Can we miss the parallel of the younger son in today’s gospel out in the fields with the pigs, feeding them pods or husks that he himself, because he was starving, longed to eat. That’s about as low as you can get, as low as you can go as a Jew, for the Law states, “Cursed is he who feeds swine.”

“He welcomes sinners and eats with them.” My kind of guy. We have to believe that we would be among those he welcomed and would eat with, yes? As we are all sinners fallen short of the glory of God, but, not to fear. Not to worry because we have this wonderful figure of the Father in the parable, whom Jesus wants us to understand, not as the caster of aimed lightning bolts, the thrower of the switch that zips us to hell, but as a Father who waits patiently for the return of a beloved child. Some of us were blessed with such a father. Others of us were not and consequently find it hard to relate to even God in that model of the loving patient father. But I ask that you suspend your disbelief in that model at least for the duration of this brief sermon. Give God as a Father a chance to show you who he is by what he does. Jesus learned his ability in the show-and-tell department right in the family circle of the Trinity.

So, the Father as a patient and loving God, not as the hurler of thunderbolts and the thrower of the punishing switch. Let’s try this on by focusing on the parable in the gospel. Under Jewish Law––Deuteronomy 21: 17––a father was not free to leave his property as he might wish to do. He had to leave two-thirds of it to his elder son and one-third to the younger son. And it wasn’t unusual for a father to distribute the estate before his death, as he does, at least partially, in this parable. He might want to retire from the active management of affairs, and this was one aspect of that status.

So, when the younger son demanded his share of the estate, he wasn’t being unusually unreasonable. Callous, maybe, as in, Why should I wait for you to die when I can have my share right now and get away from this boring, Godforsaken place? Do some of us parents not know that attitude? The father didn’t argue with him because he knew that if that son was ever to learn about life, it would have to be firsthand, the hard way, and so he gave him his portion of the estate and the younger son went off to a far country and squandered it, as the scripture tells us. It was only when he was starving out in the field where he fed the pigs that he came to his senses, realizing that the hired hands, the day laborers at his father’s farm had it better than he did.

Let me interrupt the narrative here to consider for a bit the idea of the young man coming to his senses. A different translation from ours is that the young man “came to himself.” It was axiomatic of Jesus’ teaching that so long as a man was away from God he was not truly himself. He was only himself when he was on the way home, when he was coming home to God. Jesus did not believe in total depravity in human beings, or the inevitability of it. God’s goodness, mercy and love were always greater and more far-reaching than the worst a man could do. The monk writer Thomas Merton touches on this when he says that the mystery of who we are is hidden in God, and it is only there, when we return there, that we indeed discover the mystery of ourselves.

Back to the story. When the younger son realized that the day laborers at his father’s farm, who had less value than slaves, were eating better than he was, he decided to return to his father and beg his forgiveness, asking only that he be allowed among the lowest of the hired hands. Up he got and off he went towards home. The father of the parable was out as usual one day scanning the horizon when he saw him, while he was still a long way off. And he ran. This old man gathered up his tunic and ran for all he was worth, his sandals flapping noisily, his heart beating fast as he ran to embrace his son.

The Father interrupted his son’s no-doubt well-rehearsed confession of repentance to tell his servant to bring a robe, put a ring on his finger, shoes on his feet and to kill the fatted calf. All of these directions, these actions have significance. The robe stands for honor; the ring for authority, for if a man gives his signet ring to another, he essentially gives the power of attorney; the shoes for a son, as opposed to a slave, for children of the family were shod, while slaves were not. [Don’t you hate slavery?] And the calf was killed for feasting, that all might rejoice at the son’s return.

This parable is among the favorite stories of the New Testament because it is so true to people’s lives. Family relations are family relations, no matter the age, no matter the culture. The daughter of a friend of Jon’s is in jail on felony, drug-related charges, and her father can’t afford the bail. As in every drug addiction story, the addict has to hit bottom and want to get well before that can happen. There are her father and her mother waiting on the road for her to come to her senses, to come to herself, and to come back home. Continuing to love her with the patience of God and bearing the suffering of not being able to bear the daughter’s suffering for her, is all they can do. So much of being a parent is waiting.

We love the story of the prodigal son, and we can understand it, rejoicing with the father, repenting with the son, but something’s missing: the elder son, the elder brother. I think we meet our other selves in him also, our judgmental, conniving, unforgiving selves, and we have to talk about that.

To say that the elder son is miffed is an understatement. He is in a fit of self-righteous pique, high dudgeon. He has judged his brother and found him wanting and now he judges his father’s merciful act of complete unconditional forgiveness and finds that wanting. What is his problem? Let’s go back to the text. “Look! All these years I have been slaving for you,” he says to his father, “and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours”––mind you, he doesn’t say, my brother––”when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!”

The exclamation points in the text betray the elder son’s anger. It’s clear from his language, however, that his years of obedience to his father were out of duty and not loving service. You can almost hear the “You owe me!” The arrogance. It’s reminiscent of the Pharisees, whom he is a figure of. We know from verse two of the gospel reading that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were there listening to this, for it was they who muttered about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. They are such sourpusses, refusing in their little self-righteous clique to hear what the teacher is saying.

Notwithstanding all of that, we understand how the elder brother feels. We knew what it was like when we were kids and one of the other kids got a bigger piece of cake, or more frosting, or got four presents to our three, or a full allowance when he didn’t take the garbage out but twice in the week, when he was supposed to take it out every day. We are close accountants when it comes to being shortchanged with regard to our own interests, and even now we get frustrated with a God who doesn’t seem to understand justice as it ought to be dispensed, which is to say, as we think it should be dispensed. We are full of objections and “But he’s...” to this God who forgives unconditionally, like the father in the parable. We want justice for others, on our terms, and mercy for ourselves on God’s terms. Really. It seems to be how we are built.

In this context, recall the last verse of the reading from Isaiah from last week’s service. Chapter 55, v. 9: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

So I understand this older brother, and I expect you do too. But we are called by Jesus to something better and higher, to God’s thought, which he was telling us about in this parable and which he shows us again and again in and by his actions. God, as the father of the parable, is more likely to be merciful toward us in his judgments than any human being would be, as in the older brother, and yet we cast God in our own judgmental image. Such idols we make, yes?

There’s a story about Abraham Lincoln, who was asked how he would treat the rebellious southerners, when they were finally defeated and returned to the Union. The questioner expected a vengeful response, but what Lincoln said was, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.” It is a marvel of the love of God that God treats us that way as well.

In contrast to the magnanimity of Abraham Lincoln and the father in the parable, we have the story of St. Paul who had anything but mercy on the followers of Jesus. A pharisee of pharisees––and I know I have alluded to this before, but Paul would be the first to say, “Use my story again and again if it means one person draws closer to God. Put it out there that they may learn from it.” A pharisee of pharisees, Paul was pulling Christians out of their houses and having them jailed, killed perhaps. Certainly he acquiesced in the stoning death of Stephen, the first martyr, as the cloaks of those who stoned were placed at his feet. Why did he do this? Because he judged them blasphemers in relation to the Law, which he swore by, and which he lived by. A man of the letter of the Law.

He was like the elder brother of the parable, who ticked off the sins of his younger brother to his father as reasons not to make a meal for him, not to forgive him, not to break bread with him. The older brother would judge him, did judge him, and would cast him out, reserving the father’s favor for the elite and acceptable group, which is to say, himself. Paul’s elite group was the Jews, the chosen people who accepted and lived by the Law. They were the ones who deserved the inheritance, not these sinners, these blasphemers who deserved only comeuppance.

The fact is none of them deserved anything, but the mercy of God covered all of of them and waited like the father of the parable, scanning the horizon for some sign of movement, some turning back, some coming to the senses. Him back to himself, her back to herself, them to the knowledge that who they are, who we are is in God, and we must return to God to find out the fullness of what that means.

Paul in his self-righteousness had to meet the living God face to face before he would be convinced, and he did and he was, permanently. For the rest of his life he cast himself as what he recognized he was, a sinner and the great persecutor of the church and thereby of Jesus as the Christ. But he accepted God’s forgiveness and allowed God to use him for the rest of his life as the apostle to the Gentiles.

Last week we heard what is called the gospel of the second chance. In the parable the owner of the vineyard allows the caretaker to give the unproductive fig tree another chance to fruit, to be useful. I think today’s gospel is also a gospel of a second chance, highlighting the uber-forgiveness of God, the magnanimity of whom and which is unsearchable. Even so, we can learn something about it through these gospel stories and can learn how to exercise that same forgiveness toward ourselves and toward others. And we know the power of being forgiven unconditionally. We must have felt that at least once in our lives. There’s nothing like it. What a gift that would be to give to someone else.

Reconciliation is there for the asking. What prevents reconciliation at the estate of the father and two brothers of this morning’s gospel is the older brother’s jealousy and judgment. I’ll conclude with a quotation from this morning’s reading from Corinthians that incorporates that. “God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

It has been my experience that when we see division, when we see one person seeking to divide the Body of Christ, seeking to set one person against another, we need to beware. That is not the life of God, the way of God. No. God is one, and God’s life is marked finally by the absence of division, by the reconciliation of seeming opposites. So if Paul implores us to be reconciled to God, I would implore further that we with humility be reconciled to each other that we might reflect the undivided oneness that is God, that is the Body of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Rule for Lent

With thanks to The Congregational Church of Bristol, UCC
for sharing the following with our congregation...

Rule for Lent

Fast from criticism, and feast on praise;

Fast from self-pity, and feast on joy;

Fast from ill temper, and feast on peace;

Fast from resentment, and feast on contentment;

Fast from jealousy, and feast on humility;

Fast from pride, and feast on love;

Fast from selfishness, and feast on service;

Fast from fear, and feast on faith.

The Fig Tree: To Chop or to Fertilize?

Sheespscott Community Church March 7, 2010

Isaiah 55: 1-9

Luke 13: 1-9

The Fig Tree: To Chop or to Fertilize?

When Jon and I were living on the Old Sheepscot Road back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we planted a peach tree in our side yard. A peach tree in Maine, a far cry from proverbial Georgia. The gardening catalogue said the variety was cold hardy, so we gave it a shot, took a chance. Why not? Some of you, I’m sure, have done the same with fruits, flowers, nuts and shrubs––given them the chance to survive and even thrive in our cold climate, notwithstanding the bizarre February we’ve just experienced.

The dwarf peach tree did nothing but survive for the first two years after planting, but again, in such an unfriendly climate, that’s saying a lot. The third summer we had three peaches. Lovely. We plucked them and ate them right off the tree. This is the kind of fruit you read about in literature where the flesh is burgeoning with juice which you can’t not let run down your chin and through your fingers. Sweet and delicious were those peaches. The next summer the tree was covered, hanging heavy with fruit. That was easily one of our most successful and rewarding agricultural experiments.

A similar story is that of our night-blooming cereus plant. A friend had pruned his plant because it was taking over the dining room at his house. I put the gift of a shoot in a jar of water, where it stood for six months, ugly and forlorn. My conscience got the better of me and I finally planted it. A dozen years later it had its first single blossom, the bud for which Jon had happened to espy the day before. We weren’t sure what it was, but that night it began to open at 7:30, bloomed in fragrant fullness by 10 and was collapsed in on itself the following morning––our introduction to this beautiful and mysterious tropical plant. At its height, before I became adept at pruning out of necessity to allow daylight back into the house, it had 22 blossoms one night, and nearly as many at the next month’s blooming. Blooming is June through October, usually as we near the full moon. This plant goes by the book.

These are just two examples of bloomer and fruiter, one requiring more time than the other to come to blooming, but no less rewarding when it did. We couldn’t eat those cereus blossoms, but their beauty fed the soul as surely as those memorable peaches fed ours and our children’s bodies.

By contrast my sister gave me a rowan or mountain ash tree when I was 40, which we planted out behind our house in Whitefield. It didn’t make it and was a big disappointment. My hopes and visions of rowan jelly with plenty of berries left for the birds were dashed.

In our lives, we’ve all seen both the successes and failures that these botanical stories conjure. Today’s gospel records a parable of just such an apparent failure to produce, if not to thrive. This is one of Jesus’ clearest cautionary tales, and just to review, the fig tree is in its third year when the owner of the vineyard finds it once again without fruit. He tells the caretaker to cut it down. The caretaker suggests that he dig up around the tree and fertilize it and keep it for one more year, and if there is no fruit the next year, then he will cut it down. The owner apparently acquiesces.

By way of a little background, it was not unusual to plant fig trees or apple trees in vineyards in Palestine at that time because of the scarcity of arable land. Every plant for itself! The expected fruiting time for a fig tree is at maturity at three years, and that is why the owner is ready to cut down the tree when there is nothing yet there after the third year. The fig tree was using up the elements of the precious soil and not giving anything back.

What can we learn from this? I’ll mention several things. Do we bloom and fruit where we are planted? The most searching question we have to ask ourselves and one which I think we will be asked at the end of our lives: Of what use were you in the world? Did you just take up space in the garden or did you produce good fruit? Not did your spouse or your neighbor or your child or your parent or your friend produce good fruit. Did you, did we produce good fruit?

Our lives, for which we can never render thanks enough because we can never on this side fully understand the size and meaning of the gift of life, our lives are gift to us from God and our parents. I know there are some of us who might object, Well, I never asked for it. Whether or not you did ask for it, you have life, and what will you do with it as an act of thanksgiving for it? Take up space in the garden and criticize other trees for their less than attractive crown of leaves? I advise against that. That is being less than useless in a civilization where uselessness invites disaster. The history of evolution is a history of survival and success marked by usefulness or adaptability. The useless is eliminated, as we hear the owner of the vineyard saying to his caretaker in the gospel. In case it doesn’t go without saying, there are as many different ways of being useful as there are people in the world. I am not arguing for euthanasia or selective breeding or eugenics, but recognition that we all contribute. Some, because of opportunities we have had, are challenged to contribute more, but all have a contribution to make, perhaps, something as beautiful and simple as a smile or word of encouragement to another. We don’t know what that word of encouragement might mean to another person. To say it can change the course of another’s history is not an overstatement. That is the Body of Christ in action.

Mind the caretaker of this morning’s gospel. I invite you to look on that character as the figure of Jesus, who intercedes for us. Give him, give her, give them another year, he says. And God as the owner agrees. This is the gospel of the second chance. Certainly Peter and Paul knew the meaning of a second chance and had enough character, humility and integrity to snap it up once it was given to them, unlike Judas who did not believe he deserved a second chance. But note well, there is finally a last chance. As the scripture says, The Spirit will not always contend with a man. If God’s appeal and challenge come again and again, and we refuse again and again, the day will finally come, not when God has shut us out, but when we have shut ourselves out from God, by our own successive choices, our own will. God honors that as always.

Like the night-blooming cereus that stood as a stick in a bottle unrooted for six months and eventually bloomed 12 years later in unanticipated glory, we too, no matter what our current status is, can come to God for fertilizing, for greater growth into our lives. And it isn’t Miracle-Gro that’s going to do it. Today being Communion Sunday, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, call it what you will, we can all come to the table and be fed. We heard the psalmist call out to God in this morning’s reading: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

The reading from Isaiah is like the response to that call: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost... Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Is this not what we are offered in the Lord’s supper? The richest of fare? What we will share only minutes from now? Extraordinary that Jesus makes himself available to us in just this way. Be conscious of that when you receive the bread and the fruit of the vine. They are recalling the lifegiver who offered himself to the apostles at that supper in this unique way by which they could remember him when he was no longer among them in the body. It is the same for us. He is no less among us than he was with the apostles when they remembered him in the breaking of the bread, in the sharing of the cup.

Now, hear this from Isaiah, hear it individually and as a church: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon,” as he did Paul, as he did Peter, as he surely would have pardoned Judas, and as he longs to pardon us, if we will only turn and seek the Lord while he may be found.

I was impressed with all of today’s scriptures as a member of this church as well as an individual charged to bring them to my own and to your attention. Two weeks ago I alluded to the state of the church, and I do it again today because the scriptures carry the weight of the lesson I think we are all being offered. At the last Board meeting Bill Robb expressed concern for the future of the church. As the treasurer of the church, his focus was rightly on the financial side. As the minister of the church, my focus is rightly on the spiritual side as I look to the future of this church.

I fully believe that the fig tree of the Sheepscott Community Church is living out a second chance to thrive and be self-sustaining, as well as to continue to contribute to the wider worshiping community in the ways God calls us to respond and contribute. It may be this is not the second, or third or fourth chance; only God knows that. I do now that this is a time of God’s visitation and invitation, and we have a great chance to respond generously with love and service. During this season of Lent, as we move toward Easter and thence to Pentecost once again, I believe the eye of God is inspecting this fig tree of the Sheepscott Community Church looking for fruit. What fruit? The good fruit that is a life lived for God, as God directs and rightfully expects, considering the great gift of life we have been given.

As it is written in Micah 6: 8: “You have been told, o man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Let us take in the sacrament of communion this morning as fertilizing nourishment for the tree of life that has been entrusted to us. Let us eat and drink the bread of angels, aware of what we eat and drink. Amen.