The House of the Lord

Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2019 || Lent 2C || PSALM 27; LUKE 13:31-35

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” These words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are the only adequate ones I can find to say this morning in the wake of the white supremacist terrorist attack on two Muslim mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. After writing that sentence yesterday morning, I stared at my computer screen for a long, long time because I had no adequate words of my own to add. All I have left are the inadequate ones, written through the fog of my own tears.

Continue reading “The House of the Lord”

The Freedom of Sabbath

Sermon for Sunday, August 21, 2016 || Proper 16C || Luke 13:10-17

A month ago, Leah and I loaded the twins into the minivan and began an 853-mile road trip to my favorite place on earth. Kanuga is nestled into 1,400 acres of western North Carolina’s beautiful mountains and is the site of my family’s annual vacation; though after more than twenty years of attendance, you might call it a pilgrimage. Every year during the final week of July, my family has trekked to this wonderful Episcopal conference center. We love going because it is so peaceful and because we’ve made lifelong friends there and because — until recently — there was no cell phone reception and no wireless internet. Continue reading “The Freedom of Sabbath”

The Grace of the Fig Tree

Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2016 || Lent 3C || Luke 13:1-9

graceofthefigtreeThis is a sermon about grace. I’ve been wanting to share with you my definition of grace for a while now, but the time didn’t seem right. Then after spending time with Megan Palmer’s family two weeks ago, preparing for and leading Megan’s service last weekend, and having the stomach flu most of this past week, the time to talk about grace has finally come. Maybe I was waiting for a moment when I was sure I had recently experienced it. But before we talk about grace, I need to tell you about my dad’s sense of humor.

Growing up, my favorite movie was Return of the Jedi. I watched it about once a week, except for the year I was six when I watched it once a day. VCRs were still relatively recent inventions, and none of us realized you could wear out a VHS tape until I wore out Return of the Jedi. Whenever I finished watching the movie and the iconic John Williams score started blasting throughout our house, my father would turn up in the living room doorway and ask, in all seriousness, “Did the rebels win this time?”

Whenever my sister or I got hooked on a particular movie, this same joke would resurface, notably in the late 90s. “Did the Titanic sink this time?” And after I got my Lord of the Rings Special Edition DVDs: “Was the ring destroyed this time?” Now when it comes to senses of humor, mine is a chip off the old block, for better and worse. And so when my kids start watching the same movie over and over again, I will never in a million years be able to resist the urge to ask: “Did they find Nemo this time?”

I tell you all this because, believe it or not, it impacts the way I interpret today’s Gospel lesson. You see, I think the Gospel writer Luke and my dad share this bit humor. Luke narrates Jesus telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So 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?’ The gardener replied, ‘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.’”

Do you get the joke yet? It’s pretty subtle (and not exactly haha funny), and maybe you had to grow up with a dad like mine to see it. The joke is this: that fig tree is never getting cut down. Luke preserved it in his Gospel. Luke knew this great story he was writing would be shared and he hoped it would be shared until the sun stopped putting forth its light. Every time someone read this parable, the fig tree got another chance. Luke wrote these words down about 1,936 years ago, which is 1,935 more years than that fig tree had to produce. And the fig tree is still standing. Every time we read it, there is the tree still standing. Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi – every time – because that’s how movies work. And yes, the fig tree is still standing because that gardener is taking care of it and always will. I told you this is a sermon about grace. Do you see it yet? We’re getting there.

Now you might quibble here and say Luke’s joke doesn’t work because, even though the fig tree is never going to be cut down, it’s also never going to bear fruit. It’s stuck in this in-between time, a time of potential but no results. Yes, this is true, and we’ll get back to that in a minute.

But first, one more word about why I think Luke is playing with his readers here. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a lot in common, so much in fact that we often refer to them as the “synoptic” Gospels. “Synoptic” means “with the same eyes.” But Luke’s version is the only one with this parable about the fig tree. There’s a fig tree in Matthew and Mark, which Luke does not include, and their fig tree fares much worse. In Matthew and Mark, the fig tree withers and dies when Jesus gets a bit petulant that it doesn’t have any figs on it. But Luke doesn’t share that story. Luke shares this one, the one about the fig tree that always has another chance to bear fruit whenever the story is read.

The key words here are “another chance.” That’s grace. “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Next year. Another chance. We read the parable again. Next year. Another chance. That’s grace.

Growing up, I always heard my dad define the concept of grace together with the concepts of justice and mercy, as a way to distinguish between them. His version went like this: “Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.” I’ve always loved that, and these definitions have guided me my whole life. But recently, I’ve added this: “Justice is having a chance. Mercy is having a second chance, or a third, or a fourth. Grace is not having your chances numbered.”

Grace is not having your chances numbered. Grace is being the fig tree that will always have the gardener tending to it, no matter how long it takes to bear fruit. Grace keeps us moving ever on, especially when we are stuck in the in-between time, the time of potential but no results. Grace gives us another breath when grief has knocked the wind from us. Grace gives us another chance when disillusionment or apathy sap our will to seek for justice and peace. Grace gives us another bit of rope when we think we’ve come to the end of ours.

Grace is the sublime consequence of a God who will never give up on us. That’s pretty good news, right? And yet, while God will never give up on us, we still have every opportunity to give up on God. Our chances are not numbered except by how many we are willing to take, by how often we are willing to trust God to be with us, come what may. That’s God’s promise to Moses in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, by the way. “I will be with you,” says God. No matter how often you fail, no matter how many chances you need, I will be with you. That’s grace.

It’s true that our chances are only numbered by how many we are willing to take. It’s also true that another chance is always shimmering on the horizon of possibility. And so grace beckons us to take more chances, to lead more expansive lives, to trust more deeply in the God who will never give up on us. And to bring that God to people who have never even been given one chance, who have never experienced the blessing of justice, let alone mercy or grace.

Yes, the rebels win at the end of Return of the Jedi. Every time. Yes, the Titanic sinks. Yes, the ring is destroyed. Yes, they find Nemo. Yes, the fig tree still stands. And yes, grace abounds in limitless chances to trust in a God who never gives up.

With My Arms Spread Wide

(Sermon for Sunday, February 24, 2013 || Lent 2C || Luke 13:31-35)

(Most sermons are better if you listen to them rather than read them. This one is especially so.)

Imagine with me a letter written by Simon the Pharisee some years after the events described in this morning’s Gospel reading.

henSimon, a servant of the Lord God, to Judith, my dearest sister and confidant: Peace to you and your house.

I know it’s an inside joke between us that I only write to you when I am vexed or need to process something, but in this case, I write with a more urgent need. Yesterday in the marketplace something happened that has shaken me to my bones. Not only that, but after all these years, this event has caused me to let go of a secret I had been holding onto so very tightly. I need to tell you the truth about myself before you hear others slander me. I hope after you read these words you do not think less of me; rather, I hope you might consider joining me in my new-found freedom. But I get ahead of myself.

Here’s what happened. I was walking with my colleagues, Eli and Reuben, when we witnessed a strange scene. A small boy, no bigger than your grandson, snatched a loaf of bread off a baker’s cart. The boy must have been on his last legs because as soon he turned to run away, he dropped to his knees, nearly fainting. The baker had the boy by the arm when a woman picked up the loaf of bread and handed it back to the hungry child, saying, “Go and eat your fill, young one, and may the blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon you.”

Then she reached into her purse to pay the baker for the bread. But before she could pull out a coin, Eli and Reuben rounded on her. I’ve never known them to be the most zealous persecutors of the followers of the Way, but something about this exchange riled them up. They dragged the woman to the ground, hollering the whole time about her blasphemy. Her trial, conviction, and sentence were the work of a moment, and before I knew what was happening, Eli had a chunk of rock in his hand ready to throw.

I didn’t plan to do it. I didn’t mean to do it. But in the instant after I realized what Eli was about to do, I found myself standing between him and the woman, arms wide, protecting her with my body. It was too late for Eli to stop, and I took the impact of the stone on my left shoulder. “If you’re going to stone her,” I yelled at them, “then you’ll have to stone me, too.”

What I’m trying to tell you, dear sister, is that, for these long years, I have been a follower of the Way of Jesus Christ. But until yesterday, my fear of being disowned by everyone I know convinced me to hold tightly to the secret. Now that my true devotion lies unmasked, I feel suddenly free to share my story with you – and not just free, but full of joy.

You see, you never know on what day your life will change. If you did, then you might be more prepared. You might wear a clean shirt or wash your face beforehand. The day my life started to change was a day similar to yesterday. I was out in the marketplace with a couple of colleagues. Jesus and his disciples were making a scene: throngs of people were clamoring for his attention, and talk of miraculous healing was in the air. You might recall I had met Jesus previously when he came to dinner at my house. That first meeting troubled me because he was so different than the country bumpkin I expected. This second meeting replaced my uneasiness with the seeds of new conviction.

At the time, we Pharisees were tired of Jesus upsetting the apple cart. He had been in our region quite long enough, and we wanted him gone. So we concocted a story about Herod wanting to kill him. The tale seemed plausible enough; after all, Herod had beheaded Jesus’ cousin John and then just continued on eating his dinner. Perhaps Herod did want Jesus dead. Either way, that’s what we told him. And I was completely unprepared for his response. Maybe he was calling our bluff. Or maybe he had no fear for his own life. He told us his plans – and they did not involve fleeing – and then told us to go tell Herod.

But his bravery wasn’t what enthralled me. It was what he said next. A haunted look played across his face as he lamented Jerusalem. I’ll never forget what he said: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Before I could arrange my face into the shocked expression appropriate for a Pharisee, my heart commandeered my body. It was the strangest sensation. Something deep inside me fluttered at his words, like one of the chicks in the hen’s brood. The fluttering stirred up three words that echoed in my depths. “I am willing.”

From that day on, I kept track of Jesus. My three words – “I am willing” – played over and over again in my mind. But I didn’t make the leap yet because I couldn’t chase his image of the hen and her brood out of my mind. What an odd animal to identify with. Why not something bigger? Something with teeth and claws. Something worthy of his fearlessness. Why a defenseless hen? A chicken, for God’s sake?

Later that year, I got my answer. I watched as he was crucified. I heard the dull thud of the hammer striking the nails. He was raised up on the cross, chest bared, arms wide. And as I watched and wept, all I could see was that mother hen, defenseless, spreading her wings wide to protect her brood, giving her life for theirs.

I was his from that moment on. I believe that he rose again and that his Spirit is with us to help us live a life full of God his Father. It feels good to write that down. Dear sister, it has taken me all these years to say it, but the words are there on the page now, never to be erased.

I might have said “I am willing” on that day of our second meeting, but as they say, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. So what made me abandon my well-worn lie yesterday? I had gotten comfortable living as his secret follower, even though I knew that meant I was cutting myself off from so much of what being his follower means. Something about the events yesterday brought to my mind the image that so haunted me.

Eli raised the rock, ready to strike the woman who had helped the little boy, and I found myself getting in the way. If I had had time for rational thought, I doubt I would have done it. Perhaps my long years as Jesus’ secret follower finally spurred me to action. My brain didn’t have time to get in the way, so my heart interceded. And since my heart belongs to Jesus Christ, he propelled me to take a risk, to take a chance, secure in the knowledge that I am always and forever standing under the shadow of his wing. In that moment, I knew Christ was alive in me. He used me as the mother hen, defenseless, chest bared, arms wide, ready to absorb the blow. If I hadn’t known I was secure under his wing, I wouldn’t have had the strength to protect someone under mine.

And so this is my prayer for all my days hence: Lord Jesus Christ, sustain my faith so I can be vulnerable. Be my sheltering wing so I can take risks. Help me spread my arms wide as you did on the cross so I can fully and truly embrace others with your love.

My sister, I bare my heart to you in this letter not to convince you to become a follower of the Way like I am, nor to make you worry for my safety. I have written these words simply because I am not afraid anymore. Jesus Christ is alive in me. Therefore, I am resolved to live my life under the shadow of his wings, with my arms spread wide.

* Special thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor for her words about this passage found here. They unlocked this sermon for me.