Growing a Fig By Your Own Bootstraps

Luke 13:1-9

We have all been part of the conversation. Sitting on those plastic chairs bolted to the floor at Tim Hortons. Did you hear who is sick? Did you know who lost their job? Have you heard that they are splitting up? Did you know that they have a drinking problem? Community news like this travels fast because we need something to talk about over coffee, and what better to talk about than the misfortunes of others… the struggles and trials of others. We spread the news as a way or caring, or so we think. But along with the news comes judgement. Along with the news, comes interpretation and explanation. Well, maybe they got sick because they didn’t care for themselves. They lost their job because they were uncommitted. They are splitting up because they didn’t work at it. They have that addiction problem because they just can’t get their life together.

Jesus sounds like he is sitting in a Tim Hortons today having coffee talk. Luke doesn’t tell us who, but some people are telling Jesus about the group of Galilean pilgrims who were arbitrarily murdered by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers in a show of force. And then their blood was mixed with the blood of sacrifices… making these poor people unclean in the eyes of the law, even in death. What sin did they commit to earn this kind of fate, some wonder to Jesus.

This group of some people shows us just what the culture of the time thought about the good things and bad things that happened to people. As it is so easy to do, the group of some believed that an individual was to blame for any calamity, any curse, any tragedy that befell them. They must have done something to deserve what they got. Likewise, an individual was to be lauded for any blessing, any good fortune or any good thing that befell them. Clearly they did something to earn their rewards. It is classic pull yourself up by your bootstraps thinking.

And Jesus doesn’t like it one bit. 

And we get what Jesus is talking about. It seems harsh and uncaring to blame the victim. The Galileans were simple pilgrims… why blame them for what the Roman Governor ordered? We know that this is not a compassionate way to see this kind of violence.

And Jesus gives another example. A tragedy that lived deep in the memories of the people of Jerusalem, like a plane crash or terrorist attack. The tower of Siloam, a good building project ended up collapsing on 18 workers. It would’t make sense to blame the victims for such a thing.

We get what Jesus is railing against. Blaming victims of tragedy is cruel way to see the world… even if it can make some surface level sense of complex and difficult situations.

And yet, yet… our world is full of the same kind of thinking. We might not apply the logic the same way, but our world believes that an individual is mostly responsible for the good things or things that happen to them. In our coffee talk, we can be quick to blame someone for their misfortunes or to applaud someone for their luck.

And a part of us, the old sinner part of us, likes the idea. We like the idea that we are in control of our destiny. We like the idea that our lives our dictated solely by the strength of our actions. Whether is good or bad, we like the idea that we are responsible for what happens to us. We hate the idea that there are forces in the world beyond our control, forces bringing us fortune or misfortune completely outside of anything we have done. We would rather be in control, even if our control leads to tragedy and curse. We would rather tragically be God in God’s place, than admit that there might be forces beyond our control.

Like the ideas of the group of some gathered around Jesus, our ideas about our own power to control our lives doesn’t sit well with Jesus either.

As Jesus hears about the murdered he Galileans, instead of sympathetically nodding along and wringing his hands, he jumps down the throats of the messengers.

He challenges the ideas of the this group of some. He warns them. If you don’t repent of this thinking, you too might perish like the Galileans. If you don’t repent you might find yourself under a collapsing tower too.

Repent or die, Jesus seems to be saying.

Or, wait, that’s not what Jesus means. 

Jesus isn’t reinforcing the idea that we are in control, that we are the masters and commanders of our own fate. Jesus trying to challenge that idea. Repent or die isn’t the message.

Instead, Jesus has a parable for this group of some. Jesus has a parable for coffee talk at Tim Horton’s.

barrenfigtreeA landowner goes out to his vineyard. To his vineyard where he has inexplicably planted a fig tree which would have too big a root system, take too much ground water, produce too much shade for grape eating birds. And this landowner is annoyed that this fig tree doesn’t produce fruit. And with classic group of some thinking, coffee talk at Tim Horton’s thinking, he condemns the tree for its failure. The tree hasn’t seized upon its fate. It hasn’t pulled itself up by its boot straps. It is a poor, scraggly, unfruitful tree deserving of what it gets. In fact, it isn’t really the land owner condemning the tree, the tree is condemning itself.

But wait, says the Gardener.

Wait, there is more to this story.

Give it another year. Give the tree a second chance. The tree is not an individual living in isolation. The Gardener sees the big picture. The Gardener sees that the tree is not solely a product of its own power to control its own fate. The Gardener knows that the soil, the weather, the pruning, the fertilizer… the circumstances that surround the tree have as much to do with its fruit bearing ability as the tree itself.

The judgement of the landowner is all about power, the power of the tree to bear fruit. But the Gardener sees the big picture and the big picture is about love. Love sees that fruit is born not just by the tree, but by the soil, by the fertilizer, by the gardener. Love sees that fruit is born in community.

The gardener offers another year, the gardener offers grace. Instead of judging whether the tree produces by its own power, the gardener wants to see now if the tree will produce by grace. The grace of love and care, the grace of tending to the big picture.

Jesus the gardener knows that it is the same with us. That we cannot blame the victim for tragedy. The good and the bad things, the curses and the rewards, the tragedy and blessings of life do not happen solely by our own power. Instead, love bears the ups and down of life. And the curses and rewards are born by the community. The blessings and tragedy are carried by the same community that gathers around coffee to talk.

Jesus the gardener says, one more year. One more year, one more chance, one more offer of grace because none of us is solely responsible for the good and bad in our lives. Rather we bear these things together, and we bear these things with God.

This is the grace of seeing the big picture. This is the love of gardening Jesus, the love of a gardening God.

Our logic of power would blame the victim for the tragedies we endure. We would hold the individual accountable for the good and bad. But love that sees the big picture offers grace and mercy, the loving gardening God says one more year.

God the gardener says, let me care for you, let me tend to your roots, nourish your soil and help you grow fruit. Don’t worry about producing fruit on your own power, but together we will grow because of love.

This Lenten season, we have seen again and again how in the relationship between love and power, God comes to meet us. And today, despite our coffee talk that says its our power that matters, it is our power that controls our fate, that rewards us or curses us… God steps back to see the big picture. God steps back to shown us that our power is not in control. But rather, love is at work in our lives. God the Gardener says, one more year, because of love the fruit will grow.

How’s that for Tim Horton’s coffee talk.

Amen

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Being Threatened by Jesus

Luke 13:31-35

King Herod was not a well liked King.

He was a puppet King for the Romans… who probably didn’t really care about who was King over the backwater province of the empire, Judea. The people of Israel didn’t care for Herod, knowing that he was all about power. But like most people in power, Herod made the right allegiances. With Rome and with the religious authorities.

So when the Pharisees come to Jesus with a Message, he knows they too are puppet authorities, doing the puppet King’s dirty work in order to hold on to their own power and privilege.

Today, on the second Sunday of Lent we continue with Jesus who can’t help but be confronted by people who think they have power. Last week it was the Devil tempting Jesus to misuse the power of incarnation, the power that comes along with being God, and being God in flesh. The Devil’s temptations set the stage for the recurring theme that Luke’s gospel holds up for us this Lenten season. The Devil tries to offer Jesus power. And now the Pharisees come to Jesus with a warning. They sound sympathetic, maybe even concerned for Jesus. Herod is out to get you, they warn. And it just so happens that getting rid of Jesus might also be convenient for them too.

Herod, the unpopular King and the righteous yet conspiring Pharisees, are concerned about their power. They are concerned about Jesus’s impact on their power and privilege. They have worked to build alliances, with their unpalatable overlord Romans, and with each other. Their power is tenuously held and only maintained by fear and division. With soldiers who intimidate, with control over money, over the temple, over the city of Jerusalem.

Yet, no matter their work to maintain their power, they cannot gain the confidence and support of the people. Yet, Jesus who doesn’t seem to be looking for any power, is wandering the countryside, living off the generosity of others. Jesus is popular and therefore powerful in the eyes of Herod and the Pharisees. And while he hasn’t made a play for their power yer, they know it will come. And so they conspire. They will frighten Jesus off. Just as they frighten the people with soldiers or unrighteousness. They only see Jesus as a threat who must be dealt with.

Power in our time looks much different. It is not so much based in the ability to control God’s forgiveness like the Pharisees did, nor is it based in political allegiances with foreign occupiers. Politicians and corporations don’t rule over us, but pander to us. The days of religion holding damnation and judgement over the head of society may be recent enough to remember, but fewer and fewer people seem to care. And even those of us who who still do participate in organized religion, probably feel like religious leaders have little power to dictate the terms of our salvation.

Yet, there is something we do hold in common with Herod and the Pharisees.

Feeling threatened by Jesus.

There is a something inside of all of us that gets anxious and concerned when Jesus starts talking about what God wants for us. For those who have been coming to adult study, you will recognize the language of the tangled, twisted thing inside of us. That thought in the back our minds, that feeling that makes our blood pressure rise. It is the thing inside of us that makes us fearful of our different skinned neighbours. It it the thing that makes us resentful of the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities for being dependant on government welfare. It is the thing that inside of us that closes us off to people who think differently than we do. The twisted tangled thing makes us want to hoard more and more for ourself, makes us fear difference, makes us angry when we think we haven’t received our fair share.

The twisted, tangled thing is what Martin Luther called the Old Adam, the Old Sinner.

It is sin.

And the sinner inside of us bristles when Jesus starts talking about the first being last, and losing our lives to save them. The sinner doesn’t like the idea that God’s forgiveness isn’t earned, but instead given away freely.

The twisted tangled sinner is the part of us that thinks power will save us. That controlling the world around us will keep us from being hurt. That protecting ourselves from anyone different from us is the way to be safe.

And when Jesus starts talking about giving up power, the old sinner feels threatened. And when Jesus starts talking about prophets being stoned and hinting at crucifixion, the old sinner will have none of it. Like the Devil who thought power was the purpose last week, the old sinner thinks power is our salvation.

The pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is willing to kill Jesus for the sake of power.

Herod is worried that his power could be taken by the popular preacher Jesus.

How wrong can Herod and the Pharisees be?

How completely off the mark can the twisted, tangled sinner inside of us get?

Jesus has come in weakness, not power.

Jesus has come to be open, not closed off.

Jesus has come to be vulnerable, not fearful.

Jesus has come to show love.

Love that will change us.

Love that will undo the twisted, tangled thing inside of us.

Love that risks being hurt, being unsafe, being weak in order to come close and near. Love that gathers and holds us together under its wings.

Love that couldn’t care less for power.

Herod and the Pharisees don’t live in a world of love. They don’t know how to let go of the little power that they have. They can’t see that Jesus hasn’t come for power, they cannot see how Jesus is trying to show God’s love to the world.

And Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that the same crowds will chant “Blessed is He who comes in the same of the Lord” on Sunday, will shout crucify by Friday because they want a King of power, not a King of love.

Jesus knows that the Pharisees who are warning him to get away will cry to Pilate to do their dirty work.

Jesus knows that the King Herod will defer to the power of Rome to finally rid his Kingdom of this popular preacher.

Jesus knows that their desire for power will lead to death.

It is the way of the Old Sinner.

Herod and the Pharisees don’t know that Jesus is willingness to die for the sake of love, will save the world.

But we do.

And still this Jesus who saves the world, who endures our greatest power of death to show love, still threatens us.

Because the old sinner within us who pushes us to fear, to resent, to be closed off, to hoard and to control… this old sinner, this twisted and tangled thing knows that the love of Jesus will change us. That love will untwist and untangle. That love will forgive and show grace.

And Jesus knows that love makes us anxious, that old sinner, the twisted and tangled thing doesn’t want to be loved. Jesus knows that loving us will transform us. Jesus knows that loving us will make us care less about ourselves and more about others. Jesus knows that love will make us less afraid, less closed off, hoard less, control less, worry less. Jesus knows love will makes us let go of power…

Herod wasn’t a well-liked King and the Pharisees weren’t well-liked religious rulers. We are people threatened by love.

And Jesus isn’t either of these things either. Not puppet King, nor religious overlord, nor symbol of power and influence.

Jesus is a mother hen with nothing but love to give. Love for sinners who feel threatened. Love for tangled and twisted people who get anxious.

And just like stubborn chicks who need their mother hen, Jesus love will gather and change us too.


 

*Thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber for the “twisted-tangled” language for sin

How Churches Confuse the Method for the Mission

Who remembers Kodak? Who remembers taking photos with Kodak film? Does anyone know what happened to the Kodak company in 2012? Who still takes photos with film cameras?

In a recent blog post, Pastor and Blogger Carey Nieuwhof compares Kodak and the church. He suggests that Kodak made a fundamental mistake in understanding their company’s mission.

In many ways,” He writes, “Kodak sabotaged its future by refusing to respond to the massive changes in culture. 

Kodak bet too much of its future on the past (film photography). It lost.

He goes on:

Imagine what might have happened if someone at Kodak had asked:

Are we in the film business, or the photography business?

If Kodak was in the film business, the future would be dim.

But if Kodak had decided it was in the photography business, the future could have been very different.

Instead, Facebook decided it was in the photography business when it bought Instagram. And Apple decided it was in the photography business when it developed the iPhone.”

“Too many leaders mix up method and mission. That’s one of the things that happened to Kodak [and that’s happening in journalism].

It’s also an epidemic in the church world.

This mistake is so easy to make in leadership.

A method is a current approach that helps you accomplish the mission. It’s how you do what you do.

The mission is why you exist.

The problem in most churches is people (including leaders) get very fond of their methods.

When Carey Nieuwhof talks about METHODS, what kind of things do you think he is talking about in the church? – PAUSE –

I suspect that there are a lot of examples he is thinking about, here are a few:

1. When I was is my first congregation, I had a member who was adamant that we have a Sunday School program – even though there were no Sunday School aged children attending the church.

The method of Sunday School had become more important than the mission to help people grow in faith.

2. This past week as pastors and other leaders gathered with our Bishop  to talk about worship, Carey Nieuwhof’s article came up in terms of the methods of worship over the mission of worship.

Churches will devout tremendous resources to particular methods of worship: contemporary or traditional, organs or praise bands, music before 1950 and music after, what’s considered to be more formal, or liturgical, verses what is more casual in worship styles – the list goes on.

The method – or preferred style – of worship has become more important than mission of proclaiming the gospel in the worshipping assembly.

3. Or the ultimate example, congregations focussing on attendance and budgets in order to keep their doors open – and failing to see that buildings and budgets are just methods.

The mission is – and has always been – helping others grow in their relationship to Jesus.

Churches, along with Kodak, are not immune from mistaking the method for the mission.

So at this point, you might be wondering what does all this method and mission talk have to do with the temptation of Jesus?

The devil, like Kodak and many congregations, has mistaken Jesus’ methods for Jesus’ mission. As the devil happens along Jesus wandering and fasting in the wilderness, he forgets what he has likely just heard and witnessed as Jesus was baptized and what we heard repeated again on Transfiguration Sunday. The devil has forgotten that the Father has just declared Jesus the Son, the devil has forgotten that the Father and Son are one God.

And having forgotten that, the devil tries to tempt Jesus with power and its misuse. The devil mistakes God’s mission to be one of power. The devil sees only the method of the incarnation – God becoming flesh. And the only purpose for God coming into the world that the devil can imagine is power.

Turn rocks into bread the devil urges – show God-like power over creation.

The devil tries again and offers that Jesus could rule over nations and peoples – show God-like power over humanity.

And the most desperate temptation, the devil dares Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple – as if forcing God to act and save Jesus shows God-like power.

With each successive temptation, the devil is trying to get Jesus to use his power, the power of an incarnate God. And the devil gets more desperate with each offer, trying to get Jesus to do something with all that power. The devil has mistaken the method – God coming to creation in flesh – for the mission.

The mission that Jesus reminds the devil, that Jesus reminds us of, each time he responds:

One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.

Do not put the Lord your God to test.

These are not the responses of a noble pious man resisting temptation in front of the devil. Jesus isn’t reciting bible verses for his own benefit.  We cannot split apart the trinity, split apart Father and Son when it feels convenient. When Jesus speaks, it is God speaking.

One does not live by bread alone, Jesus says, for it is I who gives you life.

Worship the Lord your God, Jesus says, for it is I who will gives you a place in this world.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus says, for I have not come to show my power, but to show my love for all creation.

The method, God becoming flesh, is only to serve the mission.

And the mission is God’s deep and abiding love for the world. For each and everyone of us. 

And it is not just the devil who needs this reminder. We need it too. As individuals, and as communities. We need to be reminded that we exist in service of God’s mission. That all the things we do are in service of God’s mission. Whether it is Sunday School, or bible study or individual study and prayer, we serve God’s mission of growing in faith. Whether it is with organs or rock bands, old hymns or new songs, formal reverent liturgies or casual intimate gatherings we serve the mission of announcing God’s love.  Whether it is with grand buildings and large staffs, or rented space and volunteers, we serve God’s mission by being the places where forgiveness and mercy are offered. Where sinners are washed with Holy Baths. Where the hungry are fed with bread and wine. Where the dying are given words that breathe into us new, and eternal, life.

God’s mission is front and center today on this first Sunday in Lent, as Jesus refocuses us back to the heart of the issue.  And it’s no mistake that the story of the temptation of Jesus is always told on the first Sunday of Lent. It focuses us on the heart of the issue between God and us. And from now until Easter we are headed towards the core of the conflict, between method and mission, a conflict between power and love. Our desire for power, and God’s desire for love.

And as the devil tries to tempt Jesus, he doesn’t know where Jesus is headed. But we know how the conflict ends. We know the end of the story. Humanity’s desire for power leads to death on a cross on Good Friday. God’s desire for love leads to life and an empty tomb.

And the same story plays out here among us. Our desire might be to control the methods, to make how we do church the most important, but God’s desire is for the mission, to make the “why” the most important. Lest we forget that the mission comes before the method, God has a habit of stripping us of our methods. This Lent, God is calling us to look at whether our focus is on the methods we use, or on God’s mission for the church and us. God is leading us into the wilderness, calling us to leave our attachment to our favourite methods behind, challenging our assumptions  about power and then God is reminding of us what is most important.

Like Kodak who thought they were a film company rather than a photography company, the church too has a habit of mixing up the method for mission.

But unlike Kodak, God does not let us stay mixed up for long. Instead, God comes into our world and reminds us that isn’t about methods, not about the programs we have nor music or worship styles, nor buildings nor budgets.

The mission is God’s love. Everything else comes second. 


(*Thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for co-writing this sermon with me)

On Ash Wednesday, we confess our sins of Mardi Gras.

 

Last night parades marched down streets all over the world. Dancers in elaborate costumes danced. Partiers around the globe partied. Musicians played beats and sounds that kept party going. The crowds took in Mardi Gras or Carnival. Maybe some of us ate pancakes and maple syrup. Maybe we cut off or shrived the fat of ham and sausages for Shrove Tuesday.

Tuesday was the last day of normal. They last day of full flavoured enjoyment. The day to use up the fat and the sugar in the house. It was almost like the day to finish the Christmas baking, to leave the last of the holidays behind.

Because today the fasting begins. Today we begin towards a different part of the story. The wondrous births, the visits from foreign kings, the dramatic baptisms, the mountain top wonders are done.

Today, we descend into the valley of Ashes. Today we hear the words:

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

When God reached down into the dirt of creation, when God grabbed the dirt in God’s hands, felt the dust and clay between God’s fingers, do you supposed God knew that the Adam, the first human of creation, the dirtling, was what would be made. Or did it take a while for Adam to take shape? Did God need to work the dirt before Adam appeared?

Adam was created from dust and ash, from dirt. He was formed and moulded with God’s very hands, and Eve too was formed in the dirt, for she was split from Adam.

Did God know then, as God worked the dirt into torso and arms and legs that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit? Did God know as hands and feet were formed, as finger nails and hair, eyes and teeth took shape that the human beings would choose power and temptation? Did God know as God breathed breath into their lungs and brought them to life that the Adam and the Eve, the dirt creatures would choose the fat, the wild abandon, the risk of death? Did God know that they would choose Mardi Gras without knowing it would lead them to Ash Wednesday?

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

On Ash Wednesday, we confess. We confess our sins of Mardi Gras. We confess our original sin. We confess that we choose ourselves, our own pleasure, our own comfort, our own security, our own fears, our own neurosis ahead of others. We confess that we cannot see beyond ourselves, we cannot escape our selfishness, we cannot stop getting in our own way.

Today, we confess our sins and we mark ourselves with Ash.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. 

Today, we cannot escape that the consequences of our choices mean death. Adam and Eve ate the fruit and they died. Abraham and Sarah laughed at God and they died. Moses lashed out in rage, and he died. King David lusted for Bathsheba and he died. Peter denied Christ and he too was crucified. Paul murdered Christians and he rotted in prison.

Their choices meant death.

And our choices mean death.

We let the weak and vulnerable fend for themselves. We make our world sick for the sake of stuff. We allow a few to hoard much and call greed “good business”. We call for war because we are more afraid of people on the other side of the earth than we are of the injustices and tragedies that are killing us here.

We keep choosing the fruit. The fat. Mardi Gras.

As if we forget that our choices lead to Ashes.

And so today, God says

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But God doesn’t leave us in the dust. God doesn’t let our Mardi Gras choice be the end of us.

On Ash Wednesday God reminds who we are, but also who God is.

God says Remember that you are dust because I became dust with you.

To dust you shall return because I returned from the dust as well.

Remember that you are my dust and I am your dust.

Remember that I became dust on the cross, and returned from the dust as I walked from the empty tomb.

Remember that I returned your fruit. I returned your fat. I turned Mardi Gras into Ash Wednesday. And Ash Wednesday into Good Friday. And Good Friday into the 3rd day, the First Day of the Week.

Today, the choices of yesterday, our Mardi Gras choices, our choices of self before others, our choices of now before the future, our choice of consumption and destruction over conservation and reconciliation. Our choices lead us to ashes and to death.

Remember, that you are dust and to dust you shall return, says the Lord.

But remember also, says the Lord, that I am the one who formed you from the dust and dirt. I am the one who held you in my hands, who first loved you. I am the one who breathed life into you.

I did it once, says the Lord… and I will do it again.

Amen.