Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Bending Our Imagination Toward Hope". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in Lent.

"Bending Our Imagination Toward Hope"

Luke 13:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-9

            The headlines are grim.  Current events, like much about our lives, can leave us feeling hopeless, fearful, and uncertain.  We may struggle to figure out where God is in the midst of tragedy… crisis and hardship.
            When things go terribly wrong, we try to make sense of things.  We think:  there must be a reason.  It’s a way we try to get a grip on things.
            “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
            “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?”
            Jesus points to two calamities that may have been subjects of recent conversation around the local watering hole--one an instance of state-sanctioned terror, and one a random accident. Both saw people snuffed out with little warning and for no clearly apparent reason. Both kinds of events remind us to how precarious our existence is.
            Do bad things happen because people are bad?  The people of Flint—have they been suffering because they’re worse sinners than people of other cities?  The victims of the latest mass shootings—did they do something to deserve to be shot?
            When bad things happen, we may long for a cause-and-effect scenario, so we can explain away suffering as a means of distancing ourselves from it.  We may want God to give people we think are evil or wrong what we think they deserve.  The problem with that is that isn’t the way God works. 
            As Jill Duffield points out, “The problem with making our relationship with God a transactional one rather than a covenantal one—is that at some point the math just won’t add up.  We will be persecuted by Pilate for no reason other than Pilate chooses to persecute us.  Or the tower will fall on us because we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  We will seek a reason, some logical explanation, some underlying purpose and it simply will not be there.  Then what?  Are we bad people?  God forsaken?”[1]
            Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke who has researched and written about the prosperity gospel and has been wrestling with how that theology that claims the righteous are blessed impacts her understanding of being diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35.  In a recent piece in the New York Times, she writes:[2]
            “Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…
            “Tragedies are simply tests of character.
            “It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
            “I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
            “Pardon?” she said, startled.
            “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
            As Kate writes, “My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee.  But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns.  She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos.  Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: ‘Wow.  That’s awful.’  There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.”
            People may wonder, is she a worse sinner?  Did she smoke?  Did she eat poorly?  Not exercise enough?  Bad genes?  We hope for an answer that will explain why she has cancer—an answer that will help us feel safe from getting it.
            I was very moved by what Kate Bowler wrote, so I want to share a little more of how she describes her experience: 
            “Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life.  I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny.  I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep.  I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential… Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.
            But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive.  Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors.  In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments.  I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole.  I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again:  Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard.”
            So what do we do with this?  “Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard.”
            I think questions about who sinned or who is the worst sinner is irrelevant here.   In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gets pulled into a worried conversation about the latest news cycle.  Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong, nothing that caused their demise.
            It's such a tempting equation.  But Jesus won't go there.  He denies that there is a simple connection between what happens to people and the punishment of God.
            Does this mean that God never punishes us for our sins?   Not necessarily, though there are those who argue that retribution for human evil is built into life.   If we build houses on flood plains, we’ll be flooded out at some point.   If we insist on fighting wars, people will suffer and die.   If we pollute the environment, there will be all kinds of negative consequences.   
            But Jesus doesn’t get into all of that.  He simply denies that there is any easy connection between what happens to people and the punishment of God.    It just isn’t that simple. 
            What Jesus does say in today’s gospel lesson is, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  In other words, the issue is not why the tornado hit that particular town…or why the hurricane did so much damage.    God didn’t single out these people for punishment.  The issue is whether or not you and I will repent.

            For the entire previous chapter in Luke, Jesus has been calling for repentance—for lives turned around to embrace God’s mercy and gift of new life.   But people think he is talking about someone else—the Galileans Pilate had slaughtered as they worshiped, or the eighteen killed in Siloam when that tower fell on them.
            Like most of us, they try to avoid Jesus’ challenging words about repentance by playing the "But look; we’re not bad as them" game. You know that game?
            But Jesus will have none of it and makes the point that this is not about comparing ourselves with others.
            Unless you repent, you will all perish.  Unless you repent.
            Jesus follows this cheery thought with a story about an un-productive fig tree that gets one more chance -- aided by some re-invigorating horticulture -- to realize its purpose.  “Give it another year.  Cultivate the soil so more, and add some more manure, and give it another chance to bear fruit.”
            The parable clarifies Jesus’ motivations for previously exhorting people to “repent.”
            A lot of people hear “repentance” and think of behavior and guilt, as if Jesus’ primary goal was to reform personal morality.  But I think this is a misunderstanding.
            To repent is not so much a matter of giving up certain habits or practices… or about being sorry—as it is a matter of loyalty.  The Greek word that we translate as repentance—metanoia—means “to turn.”   Repentance means that we turn away from the forces of sin and evil—and turn toward God’s ways. 
            When we repent, we see things differently, and we come to new understandings of what God makes possible…  about how God wants us to live… and about what the world is like when God’s will is done.
            When Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did,” he isn’t saying that repenting will extend our lives or offer some kind of miraculous shield against super-storms or disease or catastrophe.  Rather, our repentance will lead to bearing fruit.  If we turn toward God’s ways and see things as God wants us to see them, we will live out God’s intentions for us.
            When Jesus calls us to repent, he’s inviting us to discover God as the source of our sustenance…belonging…meaning…and hope in this difficult life-- and into the future.  Repentance is the change that occurs within us when God meets us and re-shapes our understanding.
            The gospel invites us to live our lives in response to God’s gracious and patient invitation.  We don’t need to be wicked to repent.  If we find ourselves feeling empty… confused… overwhelmed…barren… aimless…or simply out of touch with the source of life, we have another chance to live out our God-given purpose and to bear fruit.   
            As a gardener and someone who grew up in farm country, I love the parable of the fig tree-- especially the image of manure being spread over the roots of our lives, to help us grow into who we are created and called to be.   God is willing to give us another chance… and can use anything and everything in our lives to help us grow, rooted and grounded in Christ, to produce good fruit.
            So, I wonder:  What does it take to turn us around?  How much manure does it take to bend our imaginations to trust in God to provide for us and sustain us? 
I believe God can use the manure of a spiritual or health or relationship crisis to cultivate and nurture us into a new life.   When we repent in the truest sense of that word, we can spend the rest of our lives embracing the new life God offers us.
            Earlier today we heard the prophet ask,  "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"   This is a question of eternal importance.  
            On this third Sunday of Lent, where do we need repentance?  Where do you need to turn around to embrace God’s love and promise of new, abundant life?
            This Lent, some of us have been getting some extra "fertilizer" and "cultivation" for our spirits through the practice of various spiritual disciplines.   Some of us have been getting our spirits "cultivated" in our weekly Lenten book study gatherings, and a few of you have been reading our Lenten book on your own.   Some of us have committed ourselves to a personal Lenten devotional practice.
            I believe God uses these kinds of spiritual disciplines to cultivate and fertilize our souls.  This cultivation can break up the hard soil that forms around our hearts.  Then, with the help of the Gardener, we will bear sweet juicy fruit-- the fruits of the Spirit.
            The good news in the story we heard today is that we worship a God who doesn't want to give up on us.  In Jesus, God calls us to live a transformed life, cultivating and nurturing our souls with daily care and attention.  If we will return to the God who created us and loves us, we will have life and we will have it abundantly.
            Thanks be to God!  Amen!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
February 28, 2016

[1] Jill Duffield, “3rd Sunday of Lent-February 28, 2016”, posted at The Presbyterian Outlook at

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