Why Repentance is Important

Luke 13:1-9               Sunday, February 28, 2016

13 About this same time Jesus was told that Pilate had given orders for some people from Galilee to be killed while they were offering sacrifices. 2 Jesus replied:
Do you think that these people were worse sinners than everyone else in Galilee just because of what happened to them? 3 Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also be killed. 4 What about those eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were worse than everyone else in Jerusalem? 5 Not at all! But you can be sure that if you don’t turn back to God, every one of you will also die.
6 Jesus then told them this story:
A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. One day he went out to pick some figs, but he didn’t find any. 7 So he said to the gardener, “For three years I have come looking for figs on this tree, and I haven’t found any yet. Chop it down! Why should it take up space?”
8 The gardener answered, “Master, leave it for another year. I’ll dig around it and put some manure on it to make it grow. 9 Maybe it will have figs on it next year. If it doesn’t, you can have it cut down.”
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Air strike on Yemen market kills 30
Many killed in Afghanistan bombings
Zika and Ebola outbreaks continue
Students and teachers fight for school funding
Driver dies after debris goes through windshield
Snow from Idaho cabin roof buries 3 children; 1 dead, 2 in hospital
Cyclone Winston made landfall on Feb. 20 on Fiji,  leaving 29 people dead and 13,000 others stranded and living in temporary shelters.
Kansas gunman killed 3 after being served restraining order, sheriff says
China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea
2 stabbed at KKK gathering in Southern California, police say
Car bomb kills 2 in Syria hours after cease-fire began
Indiana woman, 66, fights off robber in home
3 girls charged with putting red pepper in teacher’s soda
Methane leak largest in history
Marine beaten, robbed, and left for dead in Washington DC
US flexes muscle, tests ICBM off California coast
Strong winds blows train off the tracks  
Lead found in school drinking fountain

Those are headlines from the past week.  So many people hurt though no fault of their own.  Bad news is old news, in that Jesus shared the same kinds of headlines with his audience. Pilate had some people killed in Galilee while they were going through their usual ritual of offering sacrifices.  Some people in Jerusalem were killed when a tower collapsed.  Nobody did anything wrong, but they ended up dead or injured. Families lost mothers and fathers or children.

Some preachers like to say that God sends storms and guns as punishment for sin. Some preachers like to say that anything bad that happens is deserved for reasons unknown to us.  Remember 9/11 when one preacher said the destruction of the twin towers was punishment for people being gay?  That kind of thinking comes naturally because we like to think that bad things happen to only bad people, that natural disasters and acts of war happen for very specific, identifiable reasons.

That is partly true, of course. The twin towers came down because of the sinful actions of the perpetrators of the plot to cause death and fear and because of the sinful actions of the pilots who flew the planes. And the perpetrators saw Americans as evil in the first place.  Sin begets sin. We can’t separate sin entirely from suffering.

How many of our illnesses are caused by the sin of over consumption, of sloth, of pollution?  When Rita Hart and I were campaigning in Clinton, going door to door, we saw some sad stories of victims of sins. One neighborhood that shared a fence with ADM had half its houses boarded up because ADM was encroaching. Of the houses that remained, many of the residents had cancer caused by benzine, a chemical that is used in the processing of grain by ADM.  So, yes, sin causes suffering, but it’s not always the sin of the victim.

Jesus follows those two hard-luck headlines with a warning: Repent or you’re going to end up dead, too.  What did Jesus mean–was he talking about literal death or was he talking about a life that was empty? I’d like to share part of an article from the most recent issue of Christian Century,  a magazine to which I subscribe.  I think this story illustrates what Jesus was explaining so many years ago. This is taken from an article by Norman Wirzba;  1

Several years ago Mark Eddy and his family became part of the small college community in Georgetown, Kentucky, where I was working. My family invited them over for dinner, and we discovered that we shared interests. Mark played bluegrass music, and I hoped he would teach me to play the banjo. I even dreamed that we might someday form a band. But it was not to be. That first fall, Mark’s nagging cough got worse, and medical tests showed that he was in the advanced stages of cancer. His doctor told him to tell his family the awful news. Mark said that gathering his children around his bed to tell them he was going to die was the worst moment of his life.
Before joining our community of work and church, Mark had been a clinical therapist, but the work depressed him. He didn’t like himself or the people he served. Mark admitted he had become difficult to be around. But teaching college students was different. Mark felt he had finally found work that was life-giving and fulfilling. He had come to feel more alive than he had in years.
Our church community realized that Mark’s family would need a lot of help. Being new to our area, they had not had the time to establish the networks of friendship and support that would help them face major practical matters. How would his wife, Lisa, keep her new job as a middle school teacher while attending to Mark’s needs? How would their sons Paul and Matt make the transitions into their new school while dealing with a father who was dying? Should their eldest child, Karen, come home from college? Who would do the shopping, driving, cooking, and cleaning? Who would help when family members were exhausted?
So many people made offers of help. Some brought food. Some brought gift cards so that the family could buy what they needed. Some drove the boys to and from school activities, while others drove Mark to his visits to his doctor. Some sat with Mark so he would not have to sit alone. People who barely knew the Eddys adopted them as family members and committed themselves to sharing the family’s worry and fear, but also to sharing hope. It was beautiful to see a community of love develop around this family, but it was also very hard. Seeing his family grieve, staying with the family through ups and downs, and watching a man die—it was a lot to bear.
One Sunday morning not long before his death, Mark stood up in front of our congregation at Faith Baptist Church and read from a journal entry written several years before. Though physically well at that time, he had been living in a lonely hell.
Or maybe all of this—the anxiety, the emptiness, the vague illnesses—are all due to a common underlying factor: I dislike almost everything about my life, this town, this house, this job. They bore and disgust me. I have no friends and no group of people other than my family that I feel a part of, valued by, where I fit in. I dread getting up. If I am ever to be happy it will have to begin to happen soon. But I don’t feel any closer to that goal than I was ten years ago.
For ten years Mark had been functioning physically but was minimally alive because he was suffering from a sick heart. He was withdrawn, angry, sad, and anxious. He didn’t like people and didn’t want them to like him. He was angry at God for not helping him and had became an atheist.
Mark’s healing began when a psychiatrist helped him understand his depression. Antidepressants enabled him to feel some love and happiness, but he was still angry and anxious. He started to pray again. Gradually he began to see that God was calling him to restart his life as a college teacher. He realized that he needed to turn outward to help others rather than remain locked within his own pain.
The next time Mark stood before our congregation, he had an oxygen tank tucked under one arm. “I feel better than I have felt in years,” he said. “I can’t thank God enough for that.” How could this be? The cancer was not gone. Yet Mark testified to a miracle:
When it became known that I was sick, I found myself surrounded by the light of love from people who hardly knew me. My family was flooded with prayers, food, cards, and the assurance that we were not alone. . . . It was as though there were a thousand arms of love reaching out to us. I knew it was the presence of God. I felt that I’d been overtaken by the kingdom of God and allowed briefly to look inside to experience just for a moment the love and joy of Christ’s kingdom.
Mark believed himself to be forgiven and newly empowered by God’s love made real in the kindnesses of ordinary people. The darkness and the pain were gone. Love made it possible for him to be a father and a spouse, cherished by his family, and to be a valued friend who, though visibly dying, could encourage and give hope to people who had only recently come to know him. Mark could not have imagined that an ugly cancer would make his life and his world beautiful again.
I think this is the kind of repentance, the kind of turnaround Jesus was promoting.  Bad things happen to us, not because we are being punished but because that’s just the way life is.  So, where does God enter the picture? God is obviously not preventing bad things.  God has not protected any of us from hurt or sin or illness.  We have witnessed miracles, but we’ve also put up with disappointment.  This story of Mark is the story of how God works: God sends love. God does not punish us.  God comes to our rescue instead.  God walks with us, God sends relief in the form of friends and family, in the form of care, in the form of solutions to problems.

The other part of today’s reading is about the fig tree.  That fig tree was about to be cut down, but it got another chance to produce fruit.

Think again of the story of Mark, dying, who received, through love, a chance to be a good father and husband, a good teacher and a good friend.  God does not give up on us.  That makes me so happy.  If it were otherwise, if God punished me for every sin, I would be so miserable, so beaten down, I would have so many bad things happen to me that I wouldn’t be able to leave the house.  But I’m not punished, except by my own foolishness.  God sends love. In my case, God sent love in the guise of a loving family and a bottle of Prozac.  God did not punish me.  Granted, I had the bad luck of having a fairly common disease, depression. But it was not sent by God and God did not punish me for being sick. God stuck with me, shoved some Bible verses in front of me, gave me three children who continued to show their love and a husband whose loyalty was unparalleled.

If God sends love, why do we need to repent?  I thought about this. How does repentance  play into this rescuing gift of love. Why do we need to repent? God sends God’s love unconditionally.   I think I’ve figured it out. It’s like UPS or Fed Ex leaving a package on your porch when you never go out on that porch.  The package is not good to you until you open the door and take the package inside and unwrap it.  When we repent, we empty our hearts of evil and open the door to God’s love.   A heart full of evil, sin, anger, jealousy, despair, call it what you will cannot make room for love.  But a heart, a person who repents opens the door to let love in. And love changes our suffering, our misery.  We are able to see the good things around us, we are able to put the bad things behind us and we grow stronger than than the bad luck that befalls us.

So, yes bad things happen all the time, to all of us.  Yet, God sends the one thing that helps us survive, recover, endure, and grow: love.  It sounds too simplistic, too easy, too sappy.  But it’s true.  Love is contrary to everything the world teaches us.  The world teaches us survival of the fittest, may the best man win, only the strong survive,  We know, though, that love can change bad to good and that love can strengthen us more than than laws or guns or guards.

During this season of Lent, we are clearly and intentionally called to repent.  Repentance is not a “get-out-of-hell-free” ticket. Repentance is a “welcome-to-my- Kingdom-on-earth” ticket. God modeled love for us by giving us Jesus. Repentance is our acknowledgement of that love.

Let us pray.  God, I am sorry for my sins. Thank you for throwing them out the back door and letting love come in the front door.  Amen.

1 http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-02/love-goes-work

Courage

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “You had better get away from here! Herod wants to kill you.”
32 Jesus said to them:
Go tell that fox, “I am going to force out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and three days later I’ll be through.” 33 But I am going on my way today and tomorrow and the next day. After all, Jerusalem is the place where prophets are killed.
34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you. I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you wouldn’t let me. 35 Now your temple will be deserted. You won’t see me again until the time when you say,
“Blessed is the one who comes
    in the name of the Lord.”
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I was filling out some forms the other day and I realized I’ve been your pastor for about ten years now.  I was amazed to discover that.  I feel like I’m still new at this schtick and at the same time I feel as comfortable as an old foot in old shoe.  That means I’ve been writing sermons for quite a few years now.  Because I’m a lectionary preacher—that is, I follow the 3 year revised common lectionary, or list of assigned scripture readings. I’ve preached through the same scriptures at least three times.  Same scriptures, year after year, but never the same sermon.  I tried reusing a sermon once: it was awful. Every Sunday, we are presented with one or two Old Testament Lessons, a Gospel Lesson, one or two Psalms,  and an Epistle Lesson.  That means I have four-six choices every Sunday for my Sermon text. Pretty often, I choose the Gospel Lesson.  So, I wonder how many times I’ve preached each of the Gospel texts.  I’ll have my secretary go through my sermons and figure that out. (Mom, want a job?)  I bring this up, because of the mystery and magic of Scripture.  No matter how many times I choose a specific Scripture for my sermon, whether it is for the first time or the third time, the sermons never turn out the same.  Our Scripture is so rich, so profound, so deep and so basic, that we can learn something new every time we read a passage.
Have I ever told you about Lectio Divina? Lectio Divina is a prayerful way of reading scripture.  It is not complicated, but it requires discipline. I use it in a rather undisciplined way, but let me explain one way to read Scripture using Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina has four stages. There are different methods, but one that works for me starts with the stage of reading the scripture.
The Order of the Carmelites’ website explains the next three stages thus:

The second stage is meditatio (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us.1
The third stage is oratio (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God. This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.2
The final stage of Lectio Divina is contemplatio (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God.3

Other methods use writing for the fourth step—which is how my sermons are written.
I’m explaining all this because I’m still amazed that I can write four entirely different sermons from the same few verses.  In fact, my sermon often starts out with one topic and ends up with an entirely different lesson or reflection.   So, I start out by reading the passage, several times over the course of the week.  I let it simmer, sort of a combination of the second and third stages of reflection and response.  Then I add an extra step of reading and researching what scholars and theologians have to say about the passage.  After that, I’m ready to write.
Here’s what happened with today’s passage.  I focused on vs. 34: Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you. My thoughts jumped to the book I’ve been reading for the last couple weeks, The Rebellious LIfe of Mrs. Rosa Parks. 4   I emotionally climbed on my soapbox to lament the deaths of so many in the civil rights movement and I expected this sermon to call us to action to acknowledge our white privilege and our unintentional complicity in enabling racism.  After all, it’s Black History Month, I have a black grandson who worries me constantly and I have black friends who are patiently trying to wean me from my cultural ignorance.
But relax.  I’m not going in that direction. I certainly will another time, but today I was sidetracked by an article by David Lose, a seminary professor.
He is a brilliant writer whom I consult almost every week.  You’ve heard me quote him many times.  Let me share his reflection on Jesus’ situation as related in these five verses. He speaks of Jesus as courageous in his reaction to the threat of Herod and the threat of his impending trials in Jerusalem:

There is a [second] kind of courage as well, this one displayed not simply in a single moment or act but in anticipating a significant, daunting, or even frightening challenge and not turning away from it but rather meeting it head on. This is also a matter of character – character that has emerged from a lifetime of facing fears and shouldering burdens and that is also being forged in the very moment of accepting challenges and responsibilities that one could avoid.
It is this [second] kind of courage that Jesus displays in the passage before us this week. The Pharisees come and warn Jesus to go on the lamb [sic] because Herod is out for his blood. We don’t know who these particular Pharisees are or what motivates them, and it doesn’t really matter. We just know that they tell Jesus to run and save his life…and that Jesus refuses. Instead, he will keep to the road appointed, traveling the arduous path to Jerusalem to meet his death there like so many earlier prophets of God. This commitment to embrace his dark and difficult destiny for the sake of humanity is the very embodiment of this [second] kind of courage.5

I had never thought about Jesus having courage, other than on the cross.  But consider that Jesus knew that he was in danger from many directions and that he just keep doing what he knew he had to do.  Add to that courage that he had a choice: he could have said, “Enough with this human stuff!” He could have said to God, “I’m outta here!  Father, I hope you have a Plan B.”  But he didn’t stop; he didn’t even hesitate.  The  only hesitation he showed was on that dark night in Gethsemane.
Again, I am reminded that I can take nothing about Jesus for granted.  Here is Jesus, walking in my shoes again.  How many different aspects of human life, of the human condition, did Jesus experience?  Did God cut him any slack with any of the ten commandments?  I’m guessing that Jesus was tempted to break every one of those commandments at some point in his life. Add to that thought that Jesus is not content to just obey the commandments.  He is working as hard as he can to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, one healing, one touch, one word at a time.
Can you think of a time when you had to keep walking, even though you knew you were going to be hurt or harmed, even though you knew you would suffer?  The obvious one for me, of course, as a mother, was childbirth.  Once you get pregnant and tell the prospective grandparents, you know what’s ahead of you.  You know it’s going to hurt.  You know it’s going to hurt for a long time, and you just keep going.  Or what about medical treatments?  Or changing jobs?  Or watching your children screw up?  Or delivering bad news?  Or challenging wrongdoing?
A popular aphorism says that “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”6
That certainly describes Jesus’ courage, as does the courage each of us exhibits when we are challenged with harm or difficulty or danger.
Can you think of the first time you were courageous?  I think the time I was most courageous was when my Dad was sick and my brother and I had to do the chores.  As luck would have it, we were farrowing pigs.  Each sow was in her own pen in the hog house.  Each sow needed to have a pan of water and a pan of feed in her pen.  Each sow also had eight-ten piglets in the pen with her.  I will never ever forget climbing in each pen to get the pans, which of course, were scooted way to the back of the pen. Just one squeal from any pig in any pen would have had the whole place in an uproar with angry sows. Nothing is scarier than an angry sow, in my book.  Maybe I’m exaggerating this whole scene, but that’s how it still plays in my memory. I knew how easily a sow could jump over a panel and how sharp those teeth looked.  When I think back to all those sow stories, I can remember my Dad’s courage, too.  I can still see him leaping on to the roof of the hog house with a bushel basket of baby pigs in hand.
But back to Jesus: Herod is after him.  The Pharisees are nagging him.  The crowds are more and more demanding of his attention. And by now, Jesus knows that there is not going to be a happy ending in Jerusalem, at least not this Passover.
David Lose points out another aspect of courage:

To anticipate challenge and suffering and not look away is, by definition, to make oneself vulnerable for the sake of others.

Isn’t that odd? When I think of courage, I think of tough, strong, powerful. I don’t think of vulnerable.
Dr. Lose continues:

[Because,] as a culture, we don’t often equate vulnerability with courage and strength. With care, love, and concern, perhaps, but not often with courage and strength. At our worst, we see vulnerability as a sign of weakness, something to be avoided at all costs. At our best, we recognize the need to be vulnerable to those we care about most deeply. But we don’t often see vulnerability as essential to living a courageous life.7

Courageous and vulnerable at the same time…but stop and think about soldiers who go into battle.  Think about little kids who go home to a not-so-great home.  Think of Rosa Parks, who in her seven decades of more losses than wins in the civil rights movement, was for most of her life made all the more vulnerable by her courageous actions in writing letters, in participating in boycotts and marches, by speaking to crowds all over the country, by putting herself in harms’ way in Montgomery and Detroit and dozens of other cities.
And what about black parents who have to give their children “the talk” as they approach puberty.  “The talk” is not about sex, nothing as sweet as the birds and the bees.  “The talk” is about how to survive being black. What do white parents tell their kids when they go to the convenience store?  Put on a coat.  Don’t forget your money. Come straight home.  What do black parents tell their kids?  Tuck in your shirt. Pull up your pants.  Don’t put up the hood on your sweatshirt no matter how hard it’s raining or how cold you are.  Don’t put your hands in your pocket.  Always use a shopping cart or a basket or they’ll think you’re shoplifting.  Don’t hang out with more than one friend at a time. Always smile. Be super polite.  Make sure your shoes are tied. Don’t stand too long in one place.
There’s another talk about how to deal with police. It has nothing to do with breaking the law.  It has everything to do with being vulnerable to harassment for one reason: dark skin.
I know a lot of white people who believe this is exaggeration.  I know enough black people to know it’s not.  Courageous and vulnerable. And add a huge dose of feigned humility.
So, My point is, Jesus has walked the walk with us and with every one of our brothers and sisters. Jesus has a lot of company.  Courage is not born of bravado or pride or even confidence. Courage is born when we are afraid, when we are threatened, when we face defeat.
Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird,  put it this way:
Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
I’d like to believe, I’d like to reassure you that we Christians are armed to face our fears, not with guns, but with faith. I’d like to tell you we don’t have to worry about which laws we are breaking because we follow only two laws: love God, love our neighbor.  But it’s not that easy.
For those people who face guns, who face harassment, who have to be afraid when they are among people of a lighter complexion, faith might seem like a weak defense. Having an invisible Jesus walking next to me would not lessen my fear for myself or my children or grandchildren.
Well, it looks like I did get back to Black History month.  Racism has become something I can’t shake. It sticks to me like a tick.  Is it inappropriate for me to talk about it in this setting?  We, as a group, couldn’t be any whiter.  We do not need to worry about being stopped by a cop for one reason: our skin color.  We do not have to choose our words carefully or keep our hands out of our pockets when we go into the grocery store.  We do not have to pretend that everything is fine. We don’t have to hide our anger if someone treats us with kid gloves or ignores us because our skin color makes them uncomfortable. In short, we don’t have to shop where someone will always suspect we are doing something wrong.
Maybe I’m the only one in this room who sees skin color before I see the person.  Maybe I’m the only one in this room who assumes that the person who broke into my daughter’s car is a black high school kid.  It wasn’t, by the way.  It was a white woman.
Maybe I’m the only one who knows just enough black people to feel weird or awkward in their presence. Maybe I’m the only one who can’t figure out why there is even a problem.
But, I’ve had just enough experience to be sad and angry and frustrated.  So when I think of Jesus and his courage, as he keeps heading toward Jerusalem, as he pretends as if everything is normal and keeps on preaching and healing, I remember that he didn’t spend all his time praying and hoping that he would die a natural death. He just kept working.
So, I will keep working, worrying about Anthony and watching for what else I can do. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit is responsible for my obsession with racism. Why else would I have to even think about it? It makes no sense.  And, it’s just your luck that I’m dragging you into this.  Maybe you’ll leave today, hoping that I’ll get back on track by next Sunday.  Maybe you’ll leave today, hoping I find something else to think about this week.  Maybe I should ask you what you need from these sermons. Today is all about what I need, what the Holy Spirit is showing me, what Jesus is saying to me.
Remember that part about Lectio Divina at the beginning of this sermon?  Now you know how it works. I read scripture, it simmers, the Holy Spirit stirs and I come up with a half-baked sermon.
I told you that my key verse today was the first sentence of  vs. 34. 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you.   Here is the next sentence of vs. 34:
I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  
I think of how Jesus could have said something different. He could have said, “Jerusalem, I have often wanted to call in my father’s troops and destroy the Romans.”  He didn’t.  Picture this: Courageous as a fluffy, vulnerable hen gathering her chicks underneath her, hiding them from the hawk as she makes herself the target.
Non-violence.  Vulnerability. Courage.  God, give us courage to face the world as it is and to change the world into your Kingdom, not with guns, not even with law and order, but with love. Amen.

1 http://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/what-lectio-divina

2 http://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/what-lectio-divina

3 ttp://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/what-lectio-divina

4 The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

5 http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-2-c-courage-and-vulnerability/

6 Ambrose Redmoon
7 http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-2-c-courage-and-vulnerability/