February 28, 2016 – Lent III

Lent 3 February 28, 2016        Psalm 63, Luke 13:1-9, 10-17; Isaiah 55:1-9

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Even gentle Jesus isn’t sounding so gentle today – telling us in our first reading we all deserve to perish – and will perish, unless we repent.

If we were hoping for extra sympathy from Jesus for our fellow citizens who have perished at the hands of wicked governor Herod – sorry – but Jesus isn’t going there today. He isn’t going to feed even righteous anger. In fact, Jesus says, this kind of disaster will happen to everyone, everywhere – unless we make repentance…

I hope he’s speaking metaphorically… But I notice he’s making reference to real life events… Jesus is preaching on the universal nature of sin and judgement. Biblical facts-of-life from the get-to. Jesus re-narrates a biblical theme that runs from Genesis through Revelation. All have sinned. All have fallen short of God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s grace, God’s love…All fall short of living the fullness of the life God intends…

Notice sin is not described by Jesus as a check-list of bad things we’ve done – nearly so much as the power of cosmic evil that keeps us captive. Keeps us from living lives fully given to God.

Sin is anything that breaks or damages our relationship with God and neighbor. So gossip, coveting, envy, judgementalism and such can kill us just as surely as murder or adultery. And even God’s forgiven people need to keep repenting from the power of sin…Which, like addiction, is not something we can ever overcome in our own strength….And God’s people, when we repent become sinners in recovery – yet still also sinners in need of forgiveness…Till fullness of God’s kingdom come…

And, still in our first reading, Jesus tells a parable, next, of a vineyard owner who has a fig tree that won’t bear fruit. “Cut it down! Why should it keep wasting soil,” the vineyard owner says. Grape vines and fig trees were often planted close together, and both are biblical symbols for Israel. Fig trees can suck up nutrients nearby grape vines could be using. The vineyard owner has a point.

But the gardener says, “Leave it standing one more year. Let me dig in manure all around. If it bears fruit, good. If not, you can cut it down.”

It’s often assumed the vineyard owner represents God, and the gardener represents Jesus, pleading for a little more time for this fig tree that hasn’t given a fig – this non-producing asset in the vineyard of the Lord. It’s often assumed the fig tree represents Israel, the church, or both. And something like this seems implied in the gospel’s word today…Which can be hard to hear as good news.

Yet… Here we are, in the middle of Lent, listening also to God speaking through the prophet Isaiah… about delighting in a feast of rich foods. And here I thought – Lent’s supposed to be a season for fasting and repentance…

So what’s with God saying “come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money, without price…Eat what is good! Delight yourselves in rich food!”

And – what’s not to like about this kind of repentance?

Why is it then – we also hear God asking, in this same reading – “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread? Why do you spend your time laboring for things that don’t satisfy?

Why are there so many who have so much – yet seem so seldom satisfied? Why do so many work such long hours to buy so many things that last for only such a little while?

God is talking about money here mostly as a symbol of something deeper. Money itself is actually only a tool for economic transaction. Yet scripture tells us the love of money is a root of all manner of evil. And the love of money is a symptom of a deeper emptiness of soul and spirit… As Jesus and all the prophets, apostles, and saints through the ages have never ceased warning us of…

So – Why do we still spend so much time – pursuing things that can’t satisfy?

Why are so many still so reluctant to respond to God’s call – to come, eat, drink, and take delight in what God offers?

Why does God so often have to remind us – “Seek the Lord while he may be found – call upon him while he is near…”

These words of God are first spoken to the people of Israel, who are refusing to believe what God has been saying…about God bringing Israel home from exile, home from Babylon, home to a rebuilt temple, home to our heritage of faith and grace and love, restored…

But those who have been in exile in Babylon have grown accustomed to the Empire’s seductive ways. Now they’re finding it difficult to break out of the routines of life in exile, life that has become easier in a material sense, though emptier by far in the things of God. Now God is offering grace and joy beyond reckoning… And yet still very few respond…

Why do so many resist God, even when God is offering such a rich banquet of delight? This is not just a theoretical question. I wonder every week how we might better communicate the love of God…(Lives depend upon this…)

Last Friday some of us took part in a webinar – a discussion over phone and internet – led by our New England Methodist Conference director of Congregational Development – on the topic of biblical hospitality…. One of the things we were challenged to do is to work at getting better at getting to know each other…. Those of us who participated Friday have begun talking about setting specific goals for growing this church. We need your help.

So lets’s please take just two or three minutes now to gather in small groups of two, three, or four people. And let’s be deliberate about being in a group that includes someone we don’t already know – or know well.

All we need to do today is introduce each other, say where we grew up, where we live now. And how we first came to be in this church. Remembering we only have two or three minutes. Don’t try to tell the whole story all at once…

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Why do so many people resist God? Resist being active in God’s church?

Probably there are many reasons… Certainly some of this is not because of anything we’ve done… but due mostly to larger changes in the culture…

And some of this is the fault of the church… though not necessarily us. Sometimes the church has badly hurt people…. In the worst cases, through serious abuse, often by clergy, covered up by people in authority. It will take decades, maybe centuries, for recovery from the worst of this…

More often the hurts we experience in church are serious, but less extreme. Like teaching young children that God is very angry with us… Which is a distortion of the truth, but one we unconsciously sometimes make…(Because…)

We are all captive to powers of sin that cause us to hurt our gracious God and hurt humans made in the image of God. We all need to practice the arts of repenting – turning and returning to God, letting God change hearts and minds, change even our ways of seeing, hearing, and believing…

The power of sin causes us to do many things that are distorted, and very wrong. And like any loving human parent, God is upset when God’s children seriously misbehave.

But the love of God goes far beyond human love… Far beyond the love of even the most loving of all human parents… And God takes no pleasure in punishing God’s children… And we hear God speak, again, through Isaiah –

Let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” God will abundantly pardon. God adds the emphasis here.

And… Whenever we encounter words of judgement in the bible… If we keep reading we find… every word of warning leads to a word of forgiveness…a word of grace…

Even gentle Jesus sometimes has to speak to us with strong words… Like a mother hen warning children against disasters surely coming, if we persist in doing what we’re doing… Jesus warns us in love…to come to him in repentance without delay.

But even God’s strongest words of warning are meant to lead us to God’s mercy. Notice again, right after the parable of the fruitless fig tree, Jesus heals a woman bent and crippled by this world’s cruel indifference… And some are more upset by this healing – than by the woman’s crippled condition. They’re captive to a crippling of the soul…More upset about church etiquette than healing… But… again, God says –

My thoughts are not your thoughts – nor are your ways my waysFor as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.…”

God, speaking through the prophets, and most of all through Jesus, calls us to repent early and often, from all injustice and un-mercy against the weak, the poor, the needy… from all worship of false gods…From anything that separates us even a little from the love of God…

And here today we have one of the most astonishing of all calls to repentance – God calling us to repent of insufficient joy… Joy and delight – ours for the receiving – in God’s gracious presence… (so–)

Come, buy wine and milk without money, and without price.

Why spend your money for that which is not bread?

Why labor for that which does not satisfy?

Come, return – rejoice! Delight in the Lord our God!

The invitation of God… for the people of God…

Thanks be to God. Amen.