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Lent III                                                                                   The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris

Luke 13:1-9                                                                           February 28th, 2016

 

Last week I began my sermon by mentioning presidential candidate Donald Trump. As I did so, I felt a collective inhalation as you waited to see just what I would say about Trump. And it was a bit of a red herring as I really only discussed his use of the word “faith” as a jumping off point.

During the morning session of our Lenten study this week, the conversation kept coming back to the presidential campaign, again and again. At the evening session, it was mentioned briefly. I have stayed away from the campaign in the pulpit because I do not feel it’s my place, or the church’s place, to get involved in partisan politics—the key word being partisan. Jesus was not a republican or a democrat. 

But, I do not agree with the common argument that politics don’t believe in the pulpit. Jesus was deeply political. Our faith, our attempt to follow Jesus with our hearts and lives must impact our politics. A number of months back Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum told the Pope to stay out of politics and to limit himself to religion where he belongs. In effect, they understand faith and politics as belonging in separate isolated spheres. This understanding in fact fails to understand faith.

A lived faith cannot be placed in a box. A lived faith must, in being lived, influence every part of our lives. As we declare in our well known and loved hymn:

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

Politics are not excluded. Politics affect how we live, how we care for those in need, how we care for creation, our laws, just about every aspect of our shared life in this country… God be in our understanding.

The fear, concern, sadness, and frustration expressed at the morning session of our Lenten study made me realize it was appropriate and necessary to preach on the campaign… to bring it into our worship and shared life together. Our hearts and minds are very much caught up in this campaign. We in this nation are in a moment of great turmoil, of anger, of fear, publically expressed hatred, bigotry and aggressiveness. It is divisive. It is disorienting. It is chaotic, saddening, and scary. God be in our understanding.

I have nothing revolutionary to say on this topic but simply wish to remind you of what you already know.

In Matthew’s Gospel the Pharisees gather and question Jesus,

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

Everything hangs on these two commandments. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. God be in my heart

When asked who is my neighbor, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. It turns out a person of a different culture, a person Jews did not associate with, was the neighbor to the Jew who was beaten and left for dead. Neighbors are not necessarily those who we are normally responsible for—our family, our friends, our people. Our neighbors are not limited to those who live next door in our socioeconomically, racially, culturally segregated communities.

Ironically, both the Pharisee who asks which commandment is the greatest and the individual who inquires as to who is his neighbor are described as lawyers. But it turns out there is no fine print. There is not a loophole in Jesus’ command to love our neighbor. We are called to love. Period. God be in my heart

And we are called to reconciliation… one of the key Lenten themes. In Jesus’ life and death we were reconciled to God. Brought back to God. Reunited with God and reunited with one another. We are called to unity. We are called to work for unity.

As Pope Francis recently said,

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be,

and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”

 

In the book we’re reading this Lent, Crazy Christians, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry quotes the Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann who says,

“The central vision of world history in the Bible is that all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature.”

 

Curry elaborates,

“This perspective of unity amidst diversity enjoys a long and rich biblical history. If you survey the grand sweep of the biblical story, you can see this perspective unfolding until it reaches its fullest revelation in Jesus Christ. As the people of the Bible enter more deeply into God’s purposes and plans, they continually encounter this pattern of God reaching out to others, gathering, embracing, inviting. As time goes by, they discover that the reach of God’s grace and the extent of God’s embrace to all people are more expansive than they could ever have imagined” (52).

As we’ve discussed, in our liturgy, in the confession we confess our separation from God and one another, the ways we’ve failed to love God and neighbor. And in the peace, we prophetically live into the reconciliation available in Christ as we declare and share God’s peace with one another. God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking.

Being called to love and to reconciliation or unity means we must think of others and not only of ourselves. Presiding Bishop Curry defines sin as “unenlightened self-interest.” Sin is when we think only of ourselves, when we act only for our own good without even giving thought to others, without being aware of our impact on others, without being aware of the needs of others. Unenlightened self-interest.

In being called to love and unity we are called out of ourselves and commanded to think of and care for others. This care for others is counter-intuitive. It is perhaps counter-instinctual. And it is most definitely counter-cultural. It is the “crazy” Presiding Bishop Curry challenges us as Christians to be.

It isn’t easy, but we’re able to endeavor to live this love and reconciliation by God’s power.

The Epistle to the Colossians calls us to set our minds on things that are above (3:2). We set our hope on Christ (Ephesians 1:12).

Our psalmist today describes such hope:

1 O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; *
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.

2 Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, *
that I might behold your power and your glory.

3 For your loving-kindness is better than life itself; *
my lips shall give you praise.

4 So will I bless you as long as I live *
and lift up my hands in your Name.

5 My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness, *
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips,

6 When I remember you upon my bed, *
and meditate on you in the night watches.

7 For you have been my helper, *
and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.

8 My soul clings to you; *
your right hand holds me fast.

 

The psalmist has gazed upon God in God’s holy place. But she is not removed from life’s trials and turmoil. Instead, she clings to God in the midst of the chaos. In the midst of this life and this world, she seeks God, she thirsts for God, she praises God, her soul is nourished and content, she is protected under the shadow of God’s wings, and held fast by God’s hand.

May this psalm, this song, be our song. May we cling to God in the turmoil, may the shelter of God’s wings help us not to fall subject to fear or dismay, may we sing God’s praise, may our souls be nourished and contented in God, giving us the power to live in love and unity.

A caution as we do this important work: There is a strong temptation when you’re pretty sure you believe what’s right, when you’re pretty sure you’re trying to do what’s right, a pretty strong temptation toward self-righteousness. It is oh so easy for our anger and frustration at hatred and bigotry to slide into self-righteous anger.Commentator Rodney Clapp writes,

“Self-righteous anger. If emotions were cuisine, this would be the piece de resistance, the dish we love to linger over and return to, time and time again. Anger by itself does not taste so good. It is bitter and leaves an aftertaste. On the other hand self-righteousness—there is the seasoning that makes plain-old-hamburger anger irresistible. Self-righteous anger goes down smoothly. It makes us feel superior. It elevates us above lesser mortals, not to mention our enemies. So long as we have it on our plates, the confusing grayness of the wearisome world goes away. It is bracingly, refreshingly clear that we are the good guys and those others are the bad guys. If all this were not enough, self-righteous anger also reheats wonderfully; it tastes almost as fine the second or fifth or sixtieth time out of the oven.”

In our Gospel today, some Galileans come to Jesus in the midst of self-righteous anger. They are angry because the blood of Galileans offering sacrifice was mingled with that of their animal sacrifices when they were killed while offering sacrifice in the temple. They have good cause to be angry. They live in lands occupied by the Romans. Their live lives occupied and arbitrated by the Romans. And they experience such atrocities at the hands of their occupiers.

But Jesus does not go along with their self-righteous anger. He does not focus on the Romans but instead turns the attention back to those who come to him. He refuses to allow them to be defined by their enemies. And then he tells them a parable of God’s mercy.

A man plants a fig tree. He comes looking for fruit for three years and finds none. He says to his gardener, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” I feel the guy. We’ve got a few of these fruit trees in our yard. But the gardener responds, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” 

Three years should have been enough time for the fig tree to be productive. At least a few little figs! We’ve even gotten that off ours when the raccoons don’t steal them!It would have been logical to pull it up and use the space for something productive, but God’s mercy is extravagant, God’s mercy is illogical.

Jesus reminds the Galileans, and us, that it is only by God’s extravagant mercy and grace that we are not pulled out by our roots. Clapp writes,

“So, just when we begin to stir up flattering, heroic images of ourselves in full battle dress, ready to wipe evil off the face of the earth, Jesus knocks us off our moral high horses. He brings us back down to earth and back to ourselves, with talk of fertilizer and a scruffy tree. He says, ‘Ask yourself if you are like that fig tree. Are you bearing fruit or just taking up space?’”

 

As followers of Jesus, we are called to love. We are called to reconciliation with God and one another. We extend this love and work toward this unity out of the love with which we were first loved, out of the reconciliation we were first offered in God’s gracious and extravagant mercy.

 

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.