Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lectionary: 3/3/2013 - 3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

Prayer of the Day
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This week there are certainly themes of nature, and "bearing fruit", and that our actions have consequences.  But the one that came out the strongest for me is the differences between our ways and God's ways, and how our forgiveness and God's are so very different.  This is especially interesting after last week's text where a Pharisee warned Jesus his life was in danger, and in light of next week's text of the story of the Prodigal Son (and Jesus as the Good Shepherd!).

Isaiah 55:1-9
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way, 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.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

What a wonderful dose of good news and grace!  Hang on to it, you're going to need it later.  There are three notes here I want to comment on.  First, we are invited to do the impossible; second, God's love for sinners is steadfast and sure; and third, God's ways are not our ways.  The first thing we're told to do in this passage sounds impossible.  To buy without paying, to purchase without cost?  How could that work?  The Old  Testament is full of carefully constructed rules and systems to help society function, if society worked this way, how long could it last?  What is this impossible idea Isaiah invites us into?

And yet that's just what God's love is like.  Isaiah assures us that God's love for David (a sinner- adulterer, murderer, and occasionally just plain didn't listen to God) was steadfast (constant) and sure.  The wicked can be pardoned their actions and the unrighteous their thoughts.  In this Lenten season, as we wait for Easter and the new life Christ brings, here we are reminded that not only eternal life, but new life in the here and now is always possible.  Redemption is never truly impossible, and no one is beyond God's grace.

Finally, God's ways are not our ways- and we certainly know that.  Redemption is always possible with God, but we are not always so forgiving.  True forgiveness does not include whispered rumors and gossip.  True forgiveness does not include grudging resentment and latent anger.  Sometimes we simply cannot forgive, we do not have it in us.  But God, we are assured, has different ways than we do.

Psalm 63:1-8
A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

There are so many ways we seek God- in prayer and meditation, in our last thoughts of the day, in action and joyful praise.  And yet we continue seeking, because as Isaiah just reminded us, God's ways are not our own.  We will always be seeking God, because we will always continue to thirst.  (I am not terribly impressed with people who say they find God in a sunset.  Anyone can find God in a sunset, that doesn't involve looking very hard at all.  You want to impress me, look harder.)

Interesting note on the Hebrew- the word translated into English as "soul" in the second line is one of those words that has two meanings in Hebrew.  The other possible meaning besides soul (or "essence", really, rather than "spirit") is the face and throat area of the body.  So when the Psalm speaks of the soul "thirsting" for God- that word wasn't chosen idly.  It is a very apt way to talk about it though, isn't it?  Sometimes we are as desperate for God as we are for water at the end of a long walk.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. 

I'm going to try not to do this to you very often, but do me a favor real quick- scroll down a bit to the reading from Luke, read the last half or so of the first paragraph, and then scroll back up here.

Back?  Okay- what you just read down below?  Was from Jesus.  What you just read above? Was from Paul.  Anyone who disagrees with me that Jesus outranks Paul by kind of a lot, you want to go have a chat with your pastor.

And yet, what Paul just gave us here was a wonderful example of a way in which our human ways are different from God's.  It is absolutely our way to "blame the victim".  How many times have you heard someone say that poor people are poor because they're lazy, or fat people are fat because they aren't healthy, or the survivor of a sexual assault must have been asking for it?  And yet we know perfectly well that there are plenty of hardworking poor, and plenty of healthy people who are overweight (and also that the BMI index is terrible for making judgments about individuals), and that it is literally impossible to "ask" to be sexually assaulted.  God's ways are not our ways.  God does not make the judgments we make.

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ 

Then 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. 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?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’ 

The first thing I'd like to say about the first half of this passage, is that this ends all the arguments for "God punishes the wicked" or "God rewards the holy" forever and ever, amen.  Yes, all of them.  Yes, even that one.  (Now that you're paying attention, you will be stunned, as you go through daily life, how often this comes up.  It is a constant thing.  It certainly comes up often enough in the Bible.)

However, what is going on with the very last line of this part?  What is Jesus talking about, how is he not contradicting himself?  But when we think about this further- look, spoiler alert, but we are all going to die.  None of us are immortal.  So when Jesus says "perish as they did"- I don't think the dying is what he's talking about, because of course we're going to do that whether we repent or not.  These people he's talking about were sinners, just as we all are.  I think the difference he's talking about is that a sinner is separated from God, by sin which is a chasm between us and God.  But a repentant sinner is, like the Psalm above, thirsting for and reaching for God.  We are all separated from God, but some of us are facing towards God and reaching out, and because of that we both live, and die, somewhat differently.  The sermon linked to below on the text from last week really digs into that.

As for the second half of this passage, well, that's a little more complicated.  Next week we'll be hearing the parable of the Prodigal Son.  Everybody has that one story or passage from the Bible that makes their head explode, and that's mine, so I'm going to try to keep from getting into it now as well.

I don't read this, as others often have, seeing the vineyard owner as God, and the gardener as Jesus, with us as the fig tree.  God promised Noah to never destroy the Earth again, and I don't believe Jesus is all that's keeping God from breaking that promise.  (Not to mention that they are of course also one and the same, along with the Holy Spirit, so reading it this way just feels odd.)  Not to mention quite a few of us do bear fruit, and no one suggests getting rid of a kid if they don't "bear fruit" after three years.

So perhaps this story is simply suggesting that yes, we can set safe boundaries in our lives?  And yes, while there's room for grace and freedom, there's also no reason to throw resources away where they won't be used?  I'm pretty sure I'll be getting into this more deeply next week, so stay tuned.

I don't really plan on doing this very often, but yesterday I happened to listen to the weekly Day1 podcast, and I heard a fantastic sermon on the text from last week, which I think addresses a lot of important issues.  So, if you feel like being challenged, I suggest reading The Fox Is In The Henhouse, a sermon by the Presbyterian Rev. Joseph Evans, from Tennessee.

Go in peace, love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

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