Month: February 2016

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

[Luke 13:6-9 NRSV]

This is a significantly condensed version of the sermon I preached at Christ the Redeemer Lutheran Church, Brecksville, Ohio on Sunday, February 28, 2016 – the Third Sunday in Lent. You’ll note the focus verses are from the New Revised Standard Version today. Also, by clicking on the date above, you can link to all four lectionary readings for today.

Jesus and the barren fig tree Illumination of an Arabic manuscript Egypt, circa 1684 (photo: The Digital Walters )

Jesus and the barren fig tree
Illumination of an Arabic manuscript
Egypt, circa 1684 (photo: The Digital Walters )

Jesus’ parable of the fig tree is one of those unique to Luke’s gospel.  The fig tree is not producing fruit.  It is not serving the purpose for which it was planted.  The care given to it seems wasted.  The owner understandably intends to put the soil to better use.  The gardener intervenes.  

“Give it one more year,” he pleads.  One more season to nurture the plant to growth before it will either produce or be cut down.

The “sin” of the fig tree is not that it was doing something bad, but that it was doing nothing – just taking up space in the vineyard. 

The Gardener is more than a caretaker, but one who invests himself in fruitless trees so that they might not only look good, but bear fruit-good for people to eat and be nourished.  That Gardener in our parable is our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us another year to yield fruit.

God’s fruit trees (us) were not planted merely to look good, but to be good for something.  We were not planted in the orchard just to take up space, drawing the good out of the ground so we can shape out with an impressive profile.  No.  The purpose of a fig tree is to bear fruit. Without the fruit fig trees will cease to exist.  Not just this fig tree that is you or me or someone else.  All fig trees, the whole orchard.  No fruit. No next generation.

The cure that Jesus the patient gardener offers is radical horticulture: he will give his own life, his crucified body, as the fertilizer, the compost that will bring new life and growth.  Repentance–a turning away from death toward life and wholeness–is part of this process.

We come here this morning into the presence of the God who made us and loves and has sacrificed so much for us; God understands what it means to live in a world where so much is all wrong; and God “will abundantly pardon” to use the words of the prophet Isaiah.  Because God has set things right between God and us through Jesus’ death on the cross.

The parable of the fig tree invites us to consider the gift of another year of life as an act of God’s mercy.  The gardener pleads for and is granted one more year.  A year of forgiveness, restoration, and second chances.

Lent is a season of looking at our lives, of honest self-examination, and of reflection on the suffering, bleeding and dying that Jesus endured to be our Savior. 

Because God cares for each of us, we are free to trust in God’s love for us and God’s never-ending grace. 

Every Sunday when we come to worship we come before God acknowledging our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness.  We may want to make excuses and give explanations for our bad behavior but we know that God can see right through them all.

So with confidence we confess the wrong that is in our lives, and approach God’s throne of Grace with honesty, and we are assured and refreshed with the joy of knowing that because of Jesus our wrong is not held against us.

So I would invite you to consider the litany of our shortcomings as spelled out in the order for confession and forgiveness in this morning’s bulletin:

  • For self-centered living, and for failing to walk with humility and gentleness:
  • For longing to have what is not ours, and for hearts that are not at rest with ourselves:
  • For misuse of human relationships, and for unwillingness to see the image of God in others
  • For jealousies that divide families and nations, and for rivalries that create strife and warfare
  • For reluctance in sharing the gifts of God, and for carelessness with the fruits of creation:
  • For hurtful words that condemn, and for angry deeds that harm:
  • For idleness in witnessing to Jesus Christ, and for squandering the gifts of love and grace:

fig-tree-31And I leave you with another question to ponder. Put yourself in the place of the fig tree.

What would you do if you had only a year left to live, only a short time in which to make up for wrongs done and opportunities missed?  How important might that year be?

In our troubled accident-prone, disaster-ridden world, what can we do to become trees that bear good fruit, samples of produce good for something, good for people in bad times?!

It bears repeating that Jesus does not explain the causes of violence that nature and human beings regularly inflict upon unsuspecting people.  He does not blame victims.  He does not attempt to defend creation or the Creator when “why?” questions seem warranted.  He offers no theological speculation and inflicts no emotional abuse.  He simply asks: What about you? How will you live the life you get to live?

The lesson of the fig tree is a challenge to live each day as a gift from God.

Live each day in such a way that you will have no fear of living out the gospel and live lives of service.

Live each day using God’s gifts to heal the brokenness of the world.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Psalm 63:1-8

Isaiah 5:1-7

Luke 6:43-45

Do you get it? The vineyard of God-of-the-Angel-Armies
is the country of Israel.
All the men and women of Judah
are the garden he was so proud of.
He looked for a crop of justice
and saw them murdering each other.
He looked for a harvest of righteousness
and heard only the moans of victims.

[Isaiah 5:7 The Message]

I am fond of telling people that I am not a gardener. I envy those who have the gift of a green thumb.  The last thing I would ever want as a present is a plant or a flower.  I appreciate their beauty, but to have me care for it is courting disaster. The only plant that has a chance with me is a cactus because it thrives on neglect.

2014-07-21 Gervasi's Vineyard 5So whenever I read gardening images in Scripture I have to do everything in my power to suppress a chuckle. My meager knowledge of planting makes me to least credible person on earth to speak to gardening illustrations. Yet, the Bible is full of them.

And this one that we find in Isaiah at first glance appears to be pretty cut and dry. The prophet doesn’t hide behind subtlety, he tells it like it is, going so far as to make clear the symbolism behind the image of the vineyard.

As an aside, let me recommend that you read more than one interpretation of this reading. I have been sticking to The Message for the sake of consistency, but I caution that it is a paraphrase and paraphrases sometimes take liberties that go beyond what the text may have intended.

And it is tempting to take a leap from Israel and Judah to the modern day. Any other country can be substituted in the opening line of the verse above and the rest of the words would ring only too true:

God looked for a crop of justice
and saw them murdering each other.
God looked for a harvest of righteousness
and heard only the moans of victims.

But the message of the reading is not as obvious as it might seem. The prophets spoke unceasingly about justice and righteousness. For Isaiah, they were his central concern. But what do the terms really mean? What do justice and righteousness look like to you?

BlackLivesMatterAnniversaryWe find ourselves at a time in our country where the issues of hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, violence, income disparity, education, and countless others threaten to trample our sense of an equitable and just society. We feel frustrated that our institutions are negligent in fulfilling their duties responsibly. Protests and demonstrations become the way of raising our voice against the seats of power.

The challenge of passages like these is that it urges us to draw our own conclusions. That is the beauty of engaging in God’s word. We should not walk away unaffected after reading such a passage. It should not leave us comforted, but troubled. It should call us to react.

How will you respond?

Friday, February 26, 2016

Psalm 63:1-8

Daniel 12:1-4

Revelation 3:1-6

Michael, the chief of the angels, is the protector of your people, and he will come at a time of terrible suffering, the worst in all of history. And your people who have their names written in The Book will be protected. 

 [Daniel 12:1 The Message]

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

So begins Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. You can’t help but wonder if this opening paragraph was inspired by today’s reading from the book of Daniel. Even though he didn’t engage in religious activity to any noticeable degree, Dickens was a champion of the poor and oppressed throughout his life, as well as a critic of aristocratic and High-Church elitism. The similarities are striking, to say the least.

Dickens wrote his classic novel in 1859. He centered on the events leading up to the French Revolution, some four decades earlier.

In 1893, a man named Daniel Sidney Warner, wrote a hymn titled The Golden Morning. The first verse reads as follows:

We have reached an awful era in the onward flight of years,

While the nations are in slumber, crying “peace” ’mid drowning fears;

Lo, the shadows of creation lengthen to the eventide,

The Lord is surely coming to receive His holy bride.

Daniel Sidney Warner

Daniel Sidney Warner

Warner, known primarily as a church reformer, was one of the founders of the Church of God. Born in Marshallville, Ohio (in Wayne County), he was also a veteran of the Civil War, where he substituted for his brother. His text is more than a veiled reference to those troubled times.

We live in difficult times today, socially, politically, and economically, as we have from the dawn of history. In this age of technology, however, the immediacy of information simply delivers the bad news sooner.

It was no different in Daniel’s time. But note that neither Daniel nor his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ever reacted violently to the persecution they endured. Instead, the Lord fought their battles. Despite being tossed into a lions’ den and a fiery furnace, they were protected.

In modern times, the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., modeled that same non-violent resistance.

The reading and subsequent research that was prompted by this challenging passage from Daniel brings to mind the current political climate that we are engaged in. I confess that I have spent no time whatsoever watching the Presidential candidate debates. I consider my time absolutely too valuable to be wasted on hearing the shouting matches that pass for civil discourse.

As we approach the election, I feel we would all do well to ignore the hostile rhetoric of the candidates that is heard on a daily basis. As people of faith, we are called to follow a path that leads to a more hopeful outcome – a path of justice, righteousness, love, and peace.

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