Sunday, February 28, 2016

“A Matter of Perspective” (Luke 13:1-9)

Jesus tells a parable about an unresponsive fig tree in a man’s vineyard.  Seeing that the tree has never produced any fruit in the past three years, the man tells the caretaker to cut it down.  It is worthless and is taking up ground that could be used for something else.  Cut it down, he tells the caretaker.  But the caretaker pleads with the man to give the tree one more year . . . he will give it some extra tender loving care . . . give it more fertilizer; then, after a year, if it is still not bearing any fruit . . . then cut it down.

Now this is an interesting parable that Jesus is sharing . . . interesting because it comes at the end of a discussion about some pretty horrific things that have taken place.  In one, we hear a story how Pilate has sent his soldiers into the Temple, attacked a group of Galilean pilgrims as they are worshipping and offering their sacrifices to God . . . murder them all.  The writer of the Gospel of Luke tells us that their blood was mixed with their sacrifices.  A horrible and sacrilegious act on the part of Pilate upon innocent people.  Then the second, is a story about some innocent bystanders who are standing by a tower when it falls down . . . kills 18 people.  They are just standing there, going about their business, when the tower suddenly falls down and smashes them flat.

Of course, from those who shared the story of the Galileans killed by Pilate, the question is why did this happen . . . why do “bad” things seem to happen to “good” people?  In Jesus sharing the story of the tower falling on innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time . . . the same question is being thought . . . why do “bad” things happen to “good” people?

So, the question is “why?”

The prevalent view point in Jesus’ time was that bad things happened to bad people.  The story of Job is a good example of this thinking.  Remember how Job’s wife and friends urged him to step up and admit his sin to end his suffering?  They just assumed that Job had committed some horrendous sin deserving of the way his life had gone down the tubes.  But, Job was spotless . . . even God had said that he was the best and most faithful.  But, the prevalent point of view was that “bad” things happen to “bad” people. 

The problem with this view point is that it doesn’t always fit.  This is what makes those sharing the story of what happened to their friends at the hands of Pilate so frustrated . . . that makes them so angry.  Their friends were good and faithful people . . . they were killed in the Temple worshipping.  This just doesn’t make sense or fit.

Of course Jesus doesn’t feed into their anger.  Instead he presents them with the situation of the tower falling down and killing 18 individuals.  Again, when viewed in the formula of cause and effect . . . of “bad” things happening to “bad” people . . . it doesn’t make any sense.  So Jesus tells asks them, “. . . do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”  Of course not!  These people were just innocent bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Most twelve step groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, have that popular saying, “Poop happens!”  And, that is true.  The belief that “good” things happen only to those who are “good”, and “bad” things only happen to those who are “bad” . . . it just doesn’t stand up to experience.  All of us can share stories that fly in the face of this belief; yet, it is still a pretty prevalent understanding of faith.  The truth is that fate plays no favorites . . . “good” and “bad” things happen on both sides of the fence to both “good” and “bad” people.

Jesus doesn’t even go there.

Instead, after each of the two stories, Jesus hits his listeners up with the statement: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  Jesus is not going to get into this game, instead he gives a stern warning with a clear call to repentance . . . he calls upon his listeners to change direction.  Now, remember, to “repent” is to turn and change direction.  Jesus is not going to get into this idea of “cause and effect” nature of sin.  This is not a matter of sin, if it were . . . well, we’d all be dead . . . after all, we are all sinners.

Here is Jesus issuing a call to all those who are listening to change directions in life . . . to change directions in life before it is too late.  Since Jesus issues that call to change twice, I would think that this is probably an important point that he is trying to make.  Yet, there is that lingering question . . . that prevalent idea of “good” and “bad” . . . that just won’t go away.  The focus is there . . . and, because the focus is there, we are missing the point.

I’m going to hand out a picture for you to look at.  (Look at the picture at the top of this page.)  Take a moment to look at the picture and tell me what you see . . . some of you saw a young woman . . . some of you saw an old woman.  Which is it?  Well, it comes down to perspectives . . . comes down to what you think you see.  With those who shared the story of Pilate’s killing of the Galileans in the Temple, there was only one perspective; and, because of that one perspective there were conflicting feelings . . . these were good people that did nothing to deserve what had happened to them.  Same for those who were killed when the tower fell down . . . they did not deserve what had happened to them.  That is all that anyone could see.

Yet Jesus sees it differently.  For Jesus this is not a matter of whether or not they deserved it because “bad” things happen all the time . . . sometimes they happen to “good” people, sometimes they happen to “bad” people.  They just happen and when they happen that is it . . . it is done . . . there is no going back to fix things or change things . . . there is no chance of going forward and changing things.  It is done.  More upsetting to Jesus is the idea of whether or not these people had repented . . . whether or not they had changed their course in life . . . before they had died.

Thus he warns them . . . “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  And, remember, he issues this warning not once, but twice.  This is what he wants . . . he wants people to change course . . . to get into relationship with God . . . to love God completely . . . and, in a like manner to love others.

Which brings us back to that parable.  What does this parable mean?  What does it mean in light of the previous discussion of the “cause and effect” of sin?

Simply put, the man who owns the vineyard has a “cause and effect” view of the trees in his vineyard.  If it is producing . . . it gets to live; if it is not producing . . . chop it down.  But the caretaker steps in for the unproductive tree . . . tells the owner that he will give it some special tender loving care . . . give it extra fertilizer . . . then if it does not produce fruit at the end of the year, he will cut it down.  It is a moment of grace as the owner allows the caretaker to step in with the offer.  In the year to come, the tree survives on grace . . . it is given another chance.

On one hand this parable tells us that we . . . who are still alive despite all the things that have happened in our lives . . . are still here because of the grace of God, and that our purpose is to bear fruit for God.  Especially if we view ourselves . . . in the abundance we have, as being among those who are blessed.  After all, we are “good” people.  Thank goodness for grace.

On the other hand . . . another perspective . . . is that maybe, “cause and effect” has nothing to do with it.  Maybe, just maybe, we are that unproductive tree in the vineyard who has been given all this extra special care because we do have a difficult time producing fruit for God.  Maybe it is not a matter of blessing as much as it is a matter of needing extra time and help to get it right.  In hearing the parable, which tree in the vineyard would you have identified with?  I imagine that most of us would have chosen one of the trees that were producing fruit . . . we would never chose to be identified with the unproductive tree.  And, yet, we very well could be that tree.  It is a matter of perspective . . . ours or God’s.

So, in the end it all comes down to repentance.  We are to turn around.  We are to change the course of our lives.  We are to get in line with Jesus and his ways.  That is what Jesus wants from us.  And, maybe we ought to seriously consider this call to repentance . . . you never know what is going to happen when it comes to life . . . one day we are here, the next we might be gone.  Each day is a day of grace . . . miraculous grace.  Once again, God has decided to give us one more chance.  Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

“With Openness” (Luke 13:31-35)

Years ago Henri Nouwen, one of this generation’s greatest spiritual writers, declared that from our youth we are taught to pray incorrectly.  He states that we teach children at a very young age to clasp our hands together in order to pray.  This is wrong he said.  Instead we should be teaching children to pray with their hands and arms wide open in a posture of reception.  Then he tells a story.

In his book, With Open Hands, he tells of his encounter with an elderly women at a state home.  Here was a woman who clenched her fists tightly and would never open them for anyone . . . she could not hold hands with another, nor could she receive from others . . . always, her fists were tightly clenched.  This went on for a long time until some of the staff were curious to see what she was clenching in her hands so tightly.  Prying open her hands they discovered a penny . . . a penny—the only possession she owned . . . and, the one she clung tightly too in fear she would lose it and have nothing.  In doing so she closed herself off to any approaches at bringing her in . . . of receiving from others.

This, Nouwen says, is what we do when we pray with our hands clenched together.  We close ourselves off.  To pray, he states, one must do so with openness.  This morning I want you to think about openness . . . towards God . . . towards others.

Our scripture reading this morning begins with a warning.  The Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him to abandon his ministry and get the heck out of Dodge.  They warn him that King Herod desires to kill him if he continues to preach, teach, and perform miracles . . . Jesus is making Herod uncomfortable.  In Herod’s mind the quickest way to get rid of a problem is to kill it.  So, the Pharisees . . . hoping to quell a storm . . . suggest that Jesus might want to quit while he is ahead and go home . . . quit before it gets worse.

Last week, if you remember, Jesus is tested.  The writer of Luke’s gospel tells us that the temptations do not end at the end of the forty days, but that they would continue—especially at opportune times.  Here is one of those opportune times.  Instead of a test of glory, it is a test of fear . . . the Pharisees are encouraging Jesus to abandon his mission and save himself.  Remember, we are always tested.

Jesus does not take the bait.  No, instead he turns the whole situation around . . . turns it upside down.  He is the Holy . . . the ultimate . . . all powerful . . . who could choose any critter in the world to be in response to the Pharisees’ subtle threat . . . and . . . and . . . he chooses a chicken . . . and, not just a chicken, but a hen!  To the threat he responds: “I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings . . .” 

Think about it . . . a chicken!  Pretty frightening wouldn’t you say?  No!  A chicken is what we are having for lunch in a couple of hours.  No one is really scared of a chicken; yet, Jesus chooses a chicken in standing up to the subtle threat of the Pharisees.  Why not a lion . . . or a tiger . . . or even a grizzly bear?  Now those are threatening images.  But Jesus chooses a chicken.

Well, I tell you what . . . a hen can be pretty scary when she feels that her brood is threatened.  As a mother hen she will stand between her chicks and those who mean to them harm.  With no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles . . . she will defend her brood.  All she has is the willingness to stand between the threat and shield her babies with her own body.  If whatever is threatening her brood want her brood, well that threat will have to kill her first.

Does this sound familiar?  Is this not what Jesus is willing to do for us?

That is what Jesus is willing to do . . . whether they are in Jerusalem or elsewhere.  Jesus is willing to spread his arms and hope to protect us all.  Yet, Jesus is not stupid.  Jesus understands.  Not everyone is going to seek safety under the span of his arms . . . no, there will be those who cannot be protected.  Jesus cannot make anyone walk into the safety of his arms.  All Jesus can do is to offer.

All Jesus can do is to offer . . .

We go back to openness. 

One of the toughest lessons I learned as a parent is that I cannot protect my children from life . . . no matter how hard I try; I cannot protect my children from the circumstances of life.  Life happens, and good luck in trying to control it in order to protect your children.  As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Poop happens.”  As vigilant as we can be, we cannot protect our children from getting hurt . . . and, guess what?  It does not matter what age our children are . . . life is going to bop them . . . life is going to hurt them.  As parents we cannot protect our children no matter how hard we try . . . and, that hurts to the very roots of our hearts.

Knowing this, we should be able to understand the predicament that Jesus is in . . . understand the depth of his lament.  As much as he wants to protect everyone . . . he can’t.  He has no control over it.  It is all in the hands of those he seeks to protect . . . it is their choice.  Jesus cannot make anyone walk into the safety of his out-spread arms.  Yet, he is willing . . . willing to lay it all on the line if others are willing to accept.  His offer is with openness.

My wife, Dana, was talking to her best friend from Nebraska recently.  This friend told my wife that she had been taking a class for concealed weapons for protection when she took her dogs for a walk at a nearby lake where she had encountered a mountain lion and several coyotes . . . she wanted to make sure she was protected.  Dana quipped that she would be shooting the heads off of everything she saw.  Of course her friend laughed and said, “No, you are taught to shoot at the chest.” 

The chest . . . the breast . . . the most vulnerable spot on the body.  Behind the breast lies the heart . . . the heart which gives life.  The mother hen spreads her wings . . . exposes her breast . . . opens herself to the threat . . . there is a willingness to lay down one’s life for others.  This is openness.

Openness plays both ways.

We know the openness of Jesus . . . we know that he lays down his life for all.  We know the saying that there is no greater sacrifice . . . no greater gift . . . than for one to lay down his or her life for another.  Jesus spreads his arms and the offer is there . . . we are invited to run under the safety of Jesus’ outspread arms.  This is not something that is forced upon us; no, this is up to us . . . it is our choice.  It is always our choice.

Jesus wants to embrace us . . . wants us to follow in his footsteps . . . wants us to emulate him.  It is a powerful suggest, but one we must decide on whether or not we will accepted it.  It is a tough choice.

It is a tough choice because for any of us to ever embrace Jesus we must do so with a willingness to be open . . . to open our hands in order to receive.  This means we have to let go of that which we think defines us . . . that we think makes us who we are . . . we have to let go, open our hands, and allow God to fully embrace us.  We have to be open.

Being open is easier said than done.  As I stated last week, in John Powell’s book, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am, the hardest thing in life is exposing our created selves . . . who God created us to be with all of our strengths and weaknesses . . . to others.  It is difficult because if that person doesn’t receive us or who we are, then what else do we have to offer?  It is a scary proposition to open our hands . . . to expose who we really are.  It does not matter whether it is to another person or to God . . . it is scary.  And, you know what . . . it really doesn’t matter how much God or Jesus or anyone wants to protect us and keep us safe . . . they cannot control it.  It is up to us.  It is our choice.

Remember what Jesus said?  Jesus said:  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  Look, your house is left desolate.”

During the season of Lent we are confronted with making a choice . . . and, it is our choice.  God cannot make us make the choice.  Jesus cannot make us make the choice.  It is our choice.  Are we willing to open ourselves . . . to unclench our fists . . . and, truly receive the gift that is being offered?  It is always our choice . . . may we choose wisely.  May we choose to be open.  Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

“Test Anxiety” (Luke 4:1-13)

First the “butterflies” hit . . . maybe a stomachache . . . or a tension headache.  Maybe a shaky feeling comes . . . sweatiness . . . the heart starts racing.  A dizziness—like one wants to pass out . . . or the urge to throw up.  Is this the reaction of someone in love when his or her object of adoration walks into a room . . . after all, it is Valentine’s Day; or, is this a person having a heart attack?

Actually, what I described is an anxiety attack . . . in particular, a “test” anxiety attack.  This is how certain individuals’ bodies react when presented with some sort of “test” or “performance” that is being required of them . . . they fall apart . . . they cannot remember the answers . . . their minds go blank . . . they cannot perform no matter how well prepared they might be.  The inherent “fight or flight” kicks in, and their bodies and minds are telling them to get the heck out of there!

Please understand that there is nothing wrong with anxiety . . . we all experience anxiety.  It is a natural part of who we are as it often times gets us revved up and helps us stay at an optimum level to perform our best.  That is normal . . . what is not normal is when this anxiety immobilizes us to the point that we cannot do anything. 

Our scripture reading this morning is on the “temptation of Jesus” in the Gospel of Luke.  As the story goes, Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist . . . there has been a reference of “who” Jesus is—heavenly doves and the opening of the heaven . . . he is God’s own son.  From there he heads off to the wilderness to fast and pray.  While in the wilderness he is tempted . . . tempted by the devil.  In other words, he is put to the “test”.  We are given three examples of the test that the devil threw at Jesus . . . all point to the self-interest of the individual that was centered on self-satisfaction, self-accomplishment, and self-glorification.  Each of the temptations of the devil had to do with the devil playing on Jesus’ humanity . . . the desire of putting one’s self first.

For those of you who are C.S. Lewis fans, you might recognize what the devil is attempting here.  In Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, a young devil named Wormwood is sent up to work on taking away a potential disciple for the enemy . . . in this case the enemy is Jesus.  Being new to the field this young devil writes to his uncle—a senior devil named Screwtape—for advice on how to keep the potential disciple from throwing in completely with the enemy.  One bit of advice that Screwtape gives to his nephew is to get the individual focusing on himself . . . to think only of himself.  If the individual is totally focused on himself then he has no time for things like God or other people.  In this way the devil wins.

The three temptations thrown at Jesus in our reading deal with the self . . . focus on the self . . . and, there is no room for God or others.  And, luckily, Jesus does not fall into the trap . . . does not embrace the temptations.  No, Jesus remains adamant in his focus . . . he will love the Lord with his whole being . . . rely only on God . . . and, he will love others.  To the devil he says, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

And, we all stand and cheer.  Jesus has defeated the devil . . . put the devil where the devil belongs . . . and, life is wonderful.  All the testing is done . . . or so it seems.  In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew one would think that all the testing of Jesus is over . . . Matthew says that the devil left Jesus and the angels came to minister to him . . . Mark doesn’t really even mention the devil . . . but, Luke, well he tells a slightly and probably more realistic story.  Luke writes: “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.”  In other words, when it comes to faith, the “testing” is never done . . . not even for Jesus.

When it comes to faith, we are always being tested . . . always being challenged to live up to what we profess that we believe as the followers of Jesus . . . always being put up to the test on our relationship with God and one another.  Some of the tests are little bitty things like remembering to say a prayer of thanksgiving before a quick lunch at the fast food restaurant; others are bigger, like delving to an issue like feeding the hungry, welcoming the homeless, clothing the naked, or helping the poor.  Whatever the case, all of us can attest that our faith is tested.

And, paraphrasing Sister Teresa, “Yes, I know God will not give me more than I can handle . . . but, I wish God didn’t trust me so much!”  We all have those moments in our lives . . . when it comes to our faith . . . that we experience more than a little normal anxiety . . . we experience that full-blown bout of butterflies, stomachaches, tension headaches . . . we feel shaky, sweaty, and think that if our hearts beat any faster it is going to leap right out of our chests . . . we feel like we are going to pass out or even throw up.  We get that “test anxiety”. 

In one of Bob Newhart’s classic skits (LINK) he plays a psychiatrist working with a new patient.  At the beginning he explains his fees and process . . . he charges five dollars for the first five minutes and then absolutely nothing after that.  This impresses the patient . . . almost too good to be true.  But, he assures her that their session probably won’t even last the full five minutes.  Then he explains that he must be paid in cash or check—five dollars, and he does not make change.  Again, the patient is impressed.

Then he tells the patient to start . . . and, she begins: “Oh, okay.  Well, I have this fear of being buried alive.  I just start thinking about being buried alive and I begin to panic.”

He asks her: “Has anyone ever tried to bury you alive in a box?”

She responds: “No. No, but truly thinking about it does make my life horrible. I mean, I can’t go through tunnels or be in an elevator or in a house, anything boxy.”

To this the doctor tells her that she is saying that she is claustrophobic.  To which she agrees.  At this time he is prepared to offer his counsel: “All right.  Well, let’s go, Katherine.  I’m going to say two words to you right now.  I want you to listen to them very, very carefully.  Then I want you to take them out of the office and incorporate them into your life.”

The patient asks if she should write them down.  “No.  If it makes you comfortable.  It’s just two words.  We find most people can remember them.”

The patient says: “Okay.”

The doctor asks if she is ready.  She says she is. “Okay.  Here they are.  Stop it!”

Patient: “I’m sorry.”
“Stop it!”

Patient: “Stop it?”

“Yes. S-T-O-P, new word, I-T.”

Patient: “So, what are you saying?”

“You know, it’s funny.  I say two simple words and I cannot tell you the amount of people who say exactly the same thing you are saying.  I mean, you know, this is not Yiddish, Katherine.  This is English.  Stop it.”

Patient: “So then, I should just stop it?”

“There you go.  I mean, you don’t want to go through life scared of being buried alive in a box do you?  I mean, that sounds frightening.”

Patient: “It is.”

“Then stop it.”

Patient: “I can’t.  I mean it’s . . .”

“No, no, no. We don’t go there.  Just stop it.”

Patient: “So, I should just stop being afraid of being buried alive in a box?”

“You got it.  Good girl.  Well, it’s only been three minutes, so that will be three dollars.”  To which the patient admits she only has a five dollar bill, but the doctor tells her that he does not make change.  Thus she demands to use the full five minutes and proceeds to tell the doctor of all her conditions.    After each one, the doctor tells her two simple words: Stop it!

At the end of the temptation story, Jesus tells the devil to: Stop it!  Jesus knows where his faith and allegiance are . . . they are with God and God’s will.  For Jesus there is only one purpose and that is to love, serve, and praise . . . to love, serve, and praise God . . . to love, serve, and praise others.  There is nothing else.  When confronted with temptation, Jesus tells the devil to “stop it”. 

So should we.

Test anxiety when it comes to faith does kick in the “fight or flight” mechanism in us . . . especially if the test is difficult and a great risk to our understanding of who we are as individuals in the eyes of others and ourselves.  The tendency is to want to run away.  Yet, the test will never go away . . . it will never go away until we face it and deal with it.  And, yes, I know this sounds a little too simplistic, but we need to remember those words of the good doctor: “Stop it!”

As the followers of Jesus we have sworn our complete selves to loving God and others . . . just as Jesus did.  We have committed ourselves to loving, serving, and praising God and others.  In this we live and find life . . . eternal life.  This is the foundation upon which all our tests of faith come down to . . . are we loving, serving, and praising God and others in all that we say and do?  If we are, then what is the problem?  Shouldn’t we be able to look the test right in the eyes and tell it to “stop it”?

We are not Jesus, so why would we ever think that the temptations and tests of faith end when we are baptized and committed to following Jesus?  They did not end for Jesus after his baptism, his declaration of faith to God, or even after the big test in the wilderness.  The writer of the Gospel of Luke tells us that the temptations and tests would continue . . . and, they did for Jesus.  But he remained firm in his faith . . . to the very end.

As we enter into the season of Lent, we enter into a time of testing . . . the testing of our faith.  We will be challenged . . . confronted . . . and, put to the test to see whether the words that we speak and the actions that we take are congruent to what we call our faith.  We know the foundation of our faith . . . the love of God for each and every one of us.  A love that can never be taken away.  A love that will not lead us astray no matter how big or small the test might be.  God loves us.

So, remember . . . if you are experiencing a “test anxiety” during this season of Lent . . . pause and remember two little words: “Stop it!”  Amen.