March 24, 2019
Third Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
A pastor friend mine works with a church secretary who she describes as having “an amazing ability to catastrophize.” She worries that the bulletins are printed on Thursday morning because, as she has said, “There could be a tornado Thursday night, no power on Friday, and then no one in the office on Saturday.” She worries that the e-news be ready to be sent out but saved at a location other than the church’s server because on Wednesday when it’s time to send it out, a transformer in the neighborhood could get hit by lightning and fry all the church’s electronic equipment.
Here’s the truth. She’s not making it up. Each scenario that she can imagine has happened in the 35 years that she’s worked at the church.
Her past determines how she approaches the present and the future. Who can argue with that? It’s her frame of reference; her lens; her mode of making sense and controlling the narrative. The problem is that she lives in a constant state of crisis; of preparing for disaster. Sure, she’s always ready. She’s alert. She’s organized.
She’s also afraid.
In the gospel text, the friends of Jesus are dealing with crisis, too. There were some Galileans who were murdered by Pontius Pilate while in Jerusalem to say their prayers. “What did they do wrong that they suffered such violence?” Jesus responds by saying, “They weren’t any worse or better than anyone else. They didn’t die because they were more sinful. Same is true for those who got killed because a stone tower fell down.”
He does challenge their bad theology. He tells them that disaster isn’t linked to God’s judgment for sin. But he doesn’t describe the mechanism by which they can know how to work the universe. Maybe there’s blame. Maybe there’s not. It’s a mystery why these things happen. Instead, he says, “Pay attention to what’s going on inside you. Before you spend all your energy on why the world has gone wrong, or whose fault it is, start with yourself. How is that you respond to crisis? Who are you in this difficult, unexplainable world?”
I remember a retreat at which the leader had us make a list of all the things in the world that need to be changed. We were a group of progressive Christians. We listed all the biggies: poverty, racism, homophobia, classism. Some of us pushed the envelope: heterosexist constructions of sexuality; binary gender definitions, American exceptionalism. Some were practical: lukewarm governmental policy, bullying in the neighborhood schools, the need for compostable recycling. We were proud to read our lists.
One of my personality traits is that I pay particular attention to how things are perceived; actually what other people think of me. As I read my own list, I hoped people would perceive me as a committed social justice Christian. It’s a mystery how I can sound like I’m for the world, and be so self-centered, so full of it.
The retreat leader said, “No one put ME”
In the face of inexplicable violence and tragedy, we’re called to start by changing ME.
The word that Luke uses for repentance in this gospel text doesn’t mean making a list of all the things we need to change, either outward or inward. It doesn’t mean “turn around,” as it might in other places in scripture. Here it has a sense of “taking on a new frame of reference.” Jesus isn’t so much saying, “Get your act together.” He’s saying, “Try out a new frame of reference.” Read the world with a different set of eyes.
The parable fits this interpretation. The owner wants to cut down the tree because it hasn’t produced any fruit. It’s a perfectly logical conclusion. This is how the world works. Either get with the program or get out of the way. But this gardener turns out to be one of those who sees with the heart. The kind of people that drive us crazy. They make us stop and look again. They make us question our assumption. They make us wait. She sees the possibility. “Let me put a little manure around it.” She knows how nature works.
I need to tell you that the Greek word for manure isn’t that nice. You know what it really says. I want to say it, but I won’t because I don’t want to hear all your…. Well, you know what I mean.
In the crap. In the stink. In the crisis that non-production causes, God is tending to the creation. In fact, by the end of Luke’s story, Jesus is the one who ends up buried in the earth, planted at the root of creation, in the darkest of places, his blood mingled with our own, the stone fallen heavy on him. Yet even now as one year turns into the next, he is coming to life again. His Spirit is at work bringing new life and the promise of fruit that we cannot see with our eyes or experience, only with the Spirit.
I hear in these little verses that we read today an invitation to live from a different place. We all know how to live from our crisis, our anxiety, our fear. And what does that ever get us? Speaking personally, when I act from my fear, I make the wrong decisions. I create more fear and anxiety, now set at motion in others.
When I manage to get to the place of grace, usually with the help of some friend who really has their “stuff” together, I find the God place. I find the river of Spirit that runs under all things. When we come from that place, we’re transformed. And we begin to spread compassion and peace, love and gentleness, kindness and justice—the fruits of the Spirit.
We live in a time of constant and ongoing crisis, created every day by social media, by a style of politics that is cruel and manipulative, by the narcissm of an entire system. Perhaps the world doesn’t need one more community acting from its own narcissm, judgment, and arrogance. It needs a community that’s willing to sit with the “stuff” for a while, see a bigger picture, and then show up as a non-anxious and loving presence.
Think about it. Who do you want to show up in your own crises? Not the fearful, anxiety-driven friend, but the one who says, “Let me sit with you. Hold my hand. We’ll get through this. God is at work. Our hearts know what we need to do.
The world needs this: a community that says, “Don’t cut it all down. We’ve been through this before. Death and violence and pain and suffering have landed on us since the beginning of time, even before Pilate and the Tower of Siloam. Before Columbine and Katrina. Before white supremacy and consumerism. Before ISIS and any American president. And since the beginning of time, from the first garden, God has been at work nurturing, and pruning, and being sunlight, and being manure, so that the tree of life will have leaves for the healing of the nations and produce fruit that is beautiful and satisfying and eternal.
In God’s time, a year…even three days…can change everything.