Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Transfiguration of Imagination

Mark 9:1-10
by Daniel Harrell

We’re walking in the light all this fall and winter; easy to do when reading the Bible since throughout light shines as the Lord’s true identity. “God is light,” we read, meaning that the physical properties of light resemble the character of the Lord—illuminating, brilliant, radiant, unchanging, omnipresent, undivided, unifying, simple, uncorrupt, accessible yet mysterious, dynamic, life-giving and good. Sometimes when God appears in the Bible he does literally shine. There’s the light of creation in Genesis, the light of a fiery pillar in Exodus, the thunderous flashes of light atop Mt. Sinai for Moses, the blazing light of a chariot of fire for Elijah, a shining star for the Magi, a dazzling blast at Jesus’ baptism, and a knock-down flare that converted St. Paul. In this morning’s gleam, regarded by Christian orthodox traditions as the pinnacle light passage in Scripture, the light of God radiates from Jesus himself. Last week in John’s gospel, Jesus declared himself to be the “light of the world.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, he literally shines.

Mark’s version kicked off with Jesus promising how “some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Six days later (which would make this the seventh day: hint, hint), Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain (Moses and Elijah met God on high mountains too: hint, hint). Once there, Jesus’ “clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” Matthew adds that Jesus’ also face shone like the sun. This transfiguration was no doubt an amazing spectacle. Mark tells us that it scared the disciples to death.

Last week in John’s gospel, on the other hand, Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world made the Pharisees furious. For first century Jews, light was the realm reserved for God alone, thus causing Jesus to sound utterly sacrilegious. So why Jesus didn’t glow a little bit for them? It probably would have just taken a flicker for the Pharisees to come around. But the danger was that had the Pharisees believed, they may not have had Jesus crucified. God’s whole plan for changing the world would have been ruined. As St. Paul would later realize, “in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

You may also remember from last Sunday how the Pharisees refused to take Jesus’ word for all this. They said because he testified on his own behalf his testimony was invalid. Jewish law required two witnesses to verify anything as true. Wanting to make sure that his disciples did believe (and just in case his lighting up wasn’t sufficient) Jesus offered up witnesses. A two reliable good ones. Setting aside how it was that the disciples recognized Moses and Elijah, why these two saints instead of, say, Jeremiah and Isaiah? Or David and Deborah?
The reasons had to do with popular Messianic expectations of that day. God had promised that he would raise up another savior like Moses, only greater. For ancient Israel, this meant another hero to make fools of their enemies and establish Israel as the greatest nation on earth. When Elijah arrived on the scene, he was a whole lot like Moses—meeting God on mountains, walking across parted waters, calling fire down from heaven. But then Elijah just left, carried back to heaven in that fiery chariot, leaving Israel to languish in eventual captivity to the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Romans, nevertheless determined to hold out for eventual glory. Still, because Elijah did not technically die, everybody expected he would return someday to finish the job. The prophet Malachi said as much. And Elijah would come back alright. He would call back Israel to God. But it would take another Moses to get them there.

So you can imagine the disciples’ awe not only at seeing Jesus shine, but at Moses and Elijah standing alongside. This was huge. Peter (being Peter) suggested turning the mountaintop into a three-ring circus to prolong the experience. (Mark, perhaps embarrassed for Peter, adds that Peter didn’t know what he was saying because he was so freaked out). God himself puts a stop to the silliness by lowering a tent of his own. A cloud enveloped them and they heard a voice say regarding Jesus, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” Moses and Elijah provide their own validation, pointing to Jesus and not to themselves as the One. Jesus was not to be confused with a reconstituted Moses (a political hero to deliver them from their oppression) nor a returning Elijah (a flame-throwing prophet to coerce the religious leaders into faith). Jesus’ victory would come through defeat, coercion by way of love. He would save their lives by losing his own. Jesus shines with the dark light of a crucified Savior.

No sooner had it all happened, it was over, leaving Jesus alone with his disciples again, clad as the poor and scandalized carpenter from Nazareth. The disciples likely now thought Jesus to be merely disguised as a homeless human—Almighty God in cheap clothes. But Jesus debunked this fallacy by telling them again to keep quiet until after he rose from the dead; thereby reminding them that being human meant dying, something that superhero Messiahs weren’t supposed to do. It was all very confusing, but Peter knew better than to open his mouth again. Instead, “they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ might mean.” Nobody they knew had done that before.

The disciples wouldn’t fully get it even after the resurrection. It would take a big lick of hot light and power from heaven at Pentecost for the disciples to fully come around. But even when you get it, it’s still hard to get it right. Hike up the traditional site of the Transfiguration and you’ll see they built that circus anyway. OK, it’s a church, but that only makes it worse. The power of Pentecost was power to to go out into the world to do good and make beauty and speak truth and share the gospel. Not shut yourself up inside to talk about it. The church was never supposed to be a monument so much as a mission, the ongoing work of Christ in the world. For Jesus to turn and call us the light of the world makes this very clear.

And yet, as we all know, churches still struggle to get this right. Rather than worry that we’re not serving the world, we worry that people don’t come to our services so much anymore. Al lot has been made of late of “the rise of the nones”—n-o-n-e-s—as opposed to the Catholic women in black habits. “None” as in “no religious affiliation.” Twenty percent of the American public—a third of adults under 30— are religiously unaffiliated—the highest percentages ever according to reliable studies. This number has doubled in the past ten years and continues to accelerate. According to Duke sociologist of religion Mark Chaves, “The evidence for a decades-long decline in religiosity is now incontrovertible—like the evidence for global warming, it comes from multiple sources, shows up in several dimensions, and paints a consistent factual picture.” Religion among young people in on a steep decline.

Diana Butler-Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion, insists that more people would go to church if they could find a community—or a Christianity—that embodied God’s love and mercy in practical and meaningful ways. “People are fed up,” she writes. “They are unwilling to put up with religious business-as-usual.” As I concluded last Sunday, church has to be more than well-done music and a well-honed sermon in a well-crafted building. Church must be situated in the concrete things Christians do to, with and for other people. We must embody the words we preach. Our lives must match our speech—even when we fail—because in our failures we demonstrate what repentance and resurrection look like. “You are the light of the world” Jesus said, not because we are flawless, but because his light shines through us, even on those days when it’s the dark light of crucifixion.

As with death and resurrection, bad news often plows the ground for good news. Diana Butler-Bass goes on to write that the rejection of religion-as-usual may lead to the very resurrection of Christianity itself. Young adults may be ditching institutional religion, but they aren’t abandoning the gospel.

Take Morgan Perry and Jasen Chung, two young Christians who lead a campaign to fight child sex trafficking in the United States. Morgan got involved after seeing a young prostitute left for dead on the streets of Thailand. While researching to write a book about it, she was shocked to discover the same thing happening in America. Jason spent four years in corporate finance, but then left the trading floor to serve the poor in Haiti, fueling his passion for the oppressed. Together they’ve produced a documentary and other resources currently being used for training purposes by the FBI, The Salvation Army and The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as other organizations. Their goal is to do church by effectively combat trafficking in America by increasing education, supporting restoration homes for survivors, improving state legislation, and addressing the primary elements of demand that perpetuate the abuse.

Or take Hannah Song, a former ad exec, and Justin Wheeler, who worked with war-affected children in East Africa, two more young Christians, who together founded an agency that provides emergency rescues to North Korean refugees hiding in China and direct assistance upon their resettlement in safe countries. Called “Liberty in North Korea,” they do church by changing public perceptions of North Korea through focusing on the people instead of the politics.

Or take Tyler Merrick, a young Christian and founder of Project 7, a company that does church everyday by manufacturing and selling products that give back to seven areas for good around the globe: health care, homelessness, hunger, creation care, water, education and peace. You can find their products in places like Caribou Coffee, Target, Wal-Mart and elsewhere.

Each of these enterprises, along with many others, have been funded by Christian initiatives such as one called Praxis, a mentorship-driven program for young social entrepreneurs & innovators compelled by their faith to advance the common good and embody the Gospel. One of the founders of Praxis, Steve Graves, was here at Colonial yesterday to train some of our member to be navigators for our own Innové project. We hope to give away $250K along with mentoring and coaching to young Christian social entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities: people like Tyler and Hannah and Justin and Morgan and Jason.

With this morning’s Scripture as our inspiration, think of InnovĂ© as a transfiguration of church: a coming down off the mountain in order to shine light in the world. It’s not that mountains don’t matter—they do. We desperately need encounters with God in worship and the love and care we receive in gathered community. Worship reorients our priorities and community keeps us strong and compels us to serve. You can’t be a Christian alone. It’s only together with the Spirit’s power that we can be the real body of Christ. What makes our service to the world different from similar work done by say Partners in Health or Doctors Without Borders or the United Way? The difference is that Christian service brings an everlasting lifetime guarantee. In Christ, health means more than well-functioning bodies, and our borders extend into the expanse of eternity. Eternal life still matters. But rather than viewing it simply something good that happens after we die—remember the transfiguration. Christ’s light shines on earth. Good happens now. The kingdom is here with power. Eternity has already started. Like starlight from billions of years out, the bright future of God pulls us forward toward a life that is already happening, a glory that is already ours, not only to have, but also to share.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Light of the World

John 8:12-20; Mathew 5:14-16
by Daniel Harrell

I’ve told some of you about a lovely visit I paid this past week to one of the oldest church members who unfortunately is unable to attend worship services anymore. Due to her being homebound, we’d never had the chance to meet. She enjoys regular visits from our Deacons, so she was glad to welcome me too and proceeded to regale me with a catalog of hilarious stories from her many years at Colonial Church. She eagerly de-closeted a few skeletons, broadcast a number of well-articulated if trenchant critiques on church politics, and topped it off with a few tasty tidbits about some of our former ministers. 

“However,” she eventually added, “I do hear that Harrell is doing OK.” 

“Oh?” I replied. “What else have you heard about Harrell?” 

Before she could respond, the phone rang. Calling was a neighbor whom I was also to visit. The neighbor asked, “Is Dr. Harrell there?” “No, just one of the deacons.” “Actually,” I interrupted, “I’m Dr. Harrell.” Pause. Cue the surprise.


When I called later to ask whether I could share this story, she told me that she wasn’t sure she believed me until her neighbor, whom I had met, vouched for my identity. She admitted I didn’t much look like a Senior Minister, which I decided to take as a compliment. For the Pharisees confronting Jesus here in John’s gospel, he didn’t look like much of a Messiah. And it wasn’t enough that he would vouch for himself. “You are testifying on your own behalf;” they said, “your testimony is not valid.” This was especially true given that Jesus outrageously declared himself to be the light of the world.

In a day when we unflinchingly sing about Jesus as light, it may be hard to imagine how utterly sacrilegious he sounded. For first century Jews, light was a realm reserved for God alone. “Let there be light,” he announced at creation, which was practically the same as his saying “let there be me.” As we have observed throughout our series on light in the Bible, light is an apt description for God. Among all the constituents of the physical world, light is the least material. It illumines the objects upon which it falls without suffering loss or change in itself. It spreads throughout space yet remains undivided, conveying the impression of being everywhere at once. It holds the universe together. It is pure and clear, simple and uncorrupt, immediately accessible to us and yet at the same time eluding our grasp. More important, light is dynamic and life-giving, bestowing on us a sense of warmth, hope and beauty. To be the light was nothing short of being God. Whenever God had shown himself to his people of old, he had always brightly shone. Light was his calling card; his brilliance a sure sign of his presence. Yet here stood dull and dingy Jesus without hardly a glimmer. Is it any wonder the clergy of his day were skeptical?

Their skepticism was enhanced by the occasion on which Jesus revealed his identity. These chapters in John occur during the Jewish Thanksgiving-like Feast of Tabernacles. Tabernacles gets its name from the tents or “tabernacles” built to commemorate the ancient Israelites’ desert sojourn on their way to the Promised Land. Jews then as now camped out in these temporary shelters to remind themselves of the transience of earthly life, and to spur their hope for a future Promised Land. Tabernacles coincided with the grape and olive harvests and therefore included rituals geared toward promoting harvest success. Prayers for necessary rainwater and sunlight, both literal and metaphorical, were offered in grand liturgical fashion. 

The water ritual invoked God’s provision of seasonal rain but also celebrated God’s faithful provision of miraculous water in the past, specifically the instance of his providing water from a rock during the desert Exodus. An accompanying light ritual likewise called to mind God’s past provision of miraculous luminosity during the Exodus in the form of a fiery pillar of cloud. This pillar of light guided Israel through darkness and guarded them from harm. As for the future, the prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when, “The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.”

The Tabernacles light ritual occurred in an area of the Temple known as The Court of Women, so named for its allowance of women to join the men in worship. In the center of this court were four huge candlesticks, on top of which sat these massive bowls of lamp oil with wicks, made from of all things, the discarded trousers of priests (don’t ask me why). At the commencement of Tabernacles, these four great lamps were lit and reportedly they radiated such intense light that every courtyard in Jerusalem reflected the glare. As the lamps blazed, the reputably wisest and holiest men of Israel danced before God until dawn, praising the Lord with songs of joy with harps and cymbals.

Picture the energy and excitement such worship generated; especially for a people currently oppressed under Roman occupation. If but for a moment, their minds were free to dream of that day when their sorrows would end, their storehouses would be filled, their joy complete, and their prayers answered. Picture yourself amidst all of this celebratory expectation, not unlike jubilant crowds whose candidates won on election night, enraptured with hope, passionate for salvation—a salvation that first century Jews believed would be inaugurated by the return of their King, a superhero Messiah who single-handedly would rescue them from the tyranny of their gloomy oppression and usher them into shining everlasting glory. Whip all of this eagerness up to a fervent pitch only to have some homeless, working-class, ex-carpenter step up and shout: “It’s me! I’m the answer to your prayers! I’m the light of the world! Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

It’s like somebody who’d prayed her whole life for prince charming, who’d packed a hope chest full of baby clothes, wistfully waiting for Mr. Right to appear, only to finally have some homely, unemployed Mama’s boy waltz up and announce, “Hi honey, it’s me. I’m the answer to your prayers.” Or for that same homely vagabond to step up onto the platform during the doxology, grab the mike and after we sang Praise God from whom all blessings flow, hold up his hand and say “You’re welcome.” Who’d ever believe such a person?

It was around Veteran’s Day in 1998 when the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan debuted to much acclaim, especially that opening scene depicting in courageous yet gruesome Technicolor the Normandy D-Day invasion. Marveling at the bloodiness depicted on screen, a bunch of us at work were joined in our conversation by a longtime member of the custodial team, a kindly retired gentleman who never said whole lot. I asked whether he’d seen the movie (he had), and what he thought about it. He said the surf was actually bloodier than Spielberg depicted. I chuckled, what, are you some sort of history buff or something? Not really, he said, but I was on Normandy beach that day. What!?!? What do you mean you were on the beach? He said, I fought in the battle. He went on to describe being 19 years old and riding in the transports trying not to puke, and then storming the beach, being terrified as he clung to an anti-tank barrier in the freezing cold as bullets whizzed by, and then advancing deep into France. He went on to earn Six Battle Stars including one from the Battle of the Bulge. Or so he said. I believed him, but I told him I needed to see those stars.

“Just because you say it doesn’t make it true,” the Pharisees replied to Jesus. “You’re testifying on your own behalf. Your testimony is not verifiable.” It’s easy to empathize with the Pharisees here. People are naturally suspicious of anything that smacks of self-adulation. Unfortunately, Jesus’ response hardly tempered their suspicions. “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid,” he said, “for I know where I came from and where I am going.” This issue of “coming and going” revolved around whether or not Jesus came from Bethlehem, a requirement for any Messiah since Bethlehem was King David’s hometown. Folks mistakenly thought Jesus to be from Galilee. But there’s a double meaning here too. Jesus may have had his earthly origins in Bethlehem, but his actual origins (as well as his destiny) were far above any earthly map. But the Pharisees were too committed to their own earthbound standards for judging Messianic authenticity. Their certainty blinded them to seeing reality.

“You judge by human standards,” Jesus said, a word that literally means flesh, a classic New Testament contrast to spirit, along the lines of the contrast between darkness and light. For Jesus to say “I judge no one” meant that he judged nobody based on appearances like the Pharisees did. Instead, Jesus judged with the wisdom and insight of his heavenly Father. He said to them, “In your own Law (that is, your own interpretation of the Law), it takes two witnesses to verify a fact. Very well, I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”

This only further exasperated the Pharisees who snidely demanded to know, then “Where is your father?” For them, to have Jesus put forward his “Father” as a witness was lame unless he could produce his Father in the flesh. But ironically, producing His Father in the flesh was the very thing Jesus had been doing all along. “If you knew me,” he replied, “you would know my Father too,” meaning, of course, that they would know the God they claimed to serve. Granted, his own disciples had the same trouble making this connection. Philip said, “Lord, just show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” To which Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

It’s easy to empathize with Philip here too. It would be nice to have an observable manifestation of God now and then, some visible proof that God’s really here. This would be especially during times of doubt or when you are trying to explain what you believe to someone who doesn’t believe it. The good news is that the Bible says there is visible proof. You can roll out a observable manifestation of God on demand. Jesus will allude to himself as “the light of the world” again in John 11; but otherwise the designation only shows up one more time in all of Scripture. Jesus uses it in Matthew 5, but not in reference to himself. There, addressing his followers, Jesus said, “you are the light of the world.” Like the light of Tabernacles radiating from the Temple that reflected off every courtyard in Jerusalem, so the light of the world radiating from Christ reflects off of those who call Christ Lord. As Jesus was visible proof of the Father, so are Christians the visible proof of Jesus. The apostle Paul calls us the body of Christ.

“Great,” you’re thinking. "That should go over real well. For folks to believe that Jesus is real, they need to look at Christians? No wonder the church is doomed.”

And yet for most of us, coming to real faith in Jesus when it happened finally came through real relationships with real-live Christians who were connected to real-live Christian communities of Christians where real-live Christianity was practiced. The gospel is more than some abstract compilation of evidence with a simple prayer tacked onto the back. The gospel is more than a well-crafted event or a well-honed speech. The gospel is situated in the concrete things Christians do to, with and for other people. Most of us weren’t talked into faith. We were loved into faith.

I once had the pleasure of speaking at a university where a group of Christian students took Halloween as an opportunity to invite their entire campus to a discussion about Christianity. They wanted to be the light for their whole campus. Theirs was an expansive effort to reach every student, which they did by purchasing 12,000 pieces of candy which they packed into 4000 trick or treat bags along with an invitation to the discussion. They then delivered these bags to every single dorm room at the university. I was impressed, but also curious. So I asked, “how many people were in their rooms when you stopped by?” “I don’t know,” she said, “we never got to talk to anyone, we just dropped off the bags.”

The turnout that night turned out to be nearly all Christians. And we ended up having a good discussion. Yet afterwards, one student came over to express her disappointment. She said she and her friends put so much effort into these outreach events but the people they invited rarely came. “I’m tired of going through all of this work just to have nobody show up,” she said. “Why should we have to keep trying so hard?” I replied with something pastoral about the long haul of obedience and trusting God with the outcomes, about how the search for truth must begin with an interest in finding it, and about how they should probably have had somebody else be their speaker that night. But as I thought about her comments later, I was again reminded how among the reasons we busy ourselves doing all the stuff we do is because the real work of the gospel can be so scary.

The gospel is more than a well-crafted event or a well-honed speech. The gospel is situated in the concrete things people do to, with and for other people. Acting justly, loving mercifully and walking humbly all imply actual interactions with difficult and needy people, not imaginary conceptualizations of how you wish or might wish people should be. Jesus died on the cross to redeem sinners. Redeemed sinners die to ourselves for the sake of others. To share the gospel is to bear witness to Christ who is the paragon and paradigm of new life lived. To witness to Jesus means that others have to witness you. We embody the words we say. Our practice shapes our proclamation. Our lives match our speech. And this is true even when we fail—because when we fail, that’s when we demonstrate what repentance and resurrection look like. We are the light of the world not because we are flawless, but because we strive to be honest and humble and courageous and faithful and hopeful and kind.

“Let your light shine before all people so they can see it,” Jesus said, even on those days when it's just a flicker. In the final analysis, light proves itself simply by shining.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Power Outage

Luke 13:1-9
by Daniel Harrell

I trust none of you are surprised that David Fisher isn’t preaching here this morning as promised. Our former Senior Minister, scheduled to swap pulpits with me today, has rightly remained in New York City with his congregation as they recover from the ravages of Super-storm Sandy. The storm left at least 41 dead in the city alone with a financial toll approaching $50 billion. David told me that many from his congregation had been flooded out, with a few needing to stay with him and Gloria in their parsonage. Sitting up on a hill, their church building has been a refuge for many evacuated from their low-lying homes. Transportation problems have made going back to work difficult, especially with so many from his church working in blacked out lower Manhattan. We’ve rescheduled our swap for Mother’s Day, though many parts of New York and New Jersey will still be rebuilding even then. The whole area is left to deal with a new normal.

Sandy was a magnificent storm. Had she stayed out at sea, we would have marveled at her immensity and power for a moment, but then switched over to watch Monday Night Football. But once Sandy came ashore, marvel turned to horror and there was no changing the channel. We watched, transfixed, as the enormous waves pounded beachfronts and boardwalks and profuse water fiercely roared into subways and tunnels and over houses in what many now agree is the worst storm ever to hit New York City. Afterwards, religious blogs pondered the meaning of it all. Throughout the Old Testament especially, natural disaster is a commonly employed as an agent of justice, alongside pestilence and war. But these days, those who remain willing to attribute nature’s power to God generally refrain from ascribing any intentionality. As Jesus says in the New Testament, rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, asserts that “God is moral,” but “nature as not. Nature is value-free. It can’t tell the role between the deserving the undeserving. God’s role is not to decide where the hurricane goes and how severe it is. God’s role is to motivate people to help neighbors and improve methods to predict hurricanes. God is found not in the problem, but in the resilience.”

I don’t disagree with this. It makes me feel better about a God who presumably is more powerful than nature. But as the Creator of heaven and earth, hurricanes and storm surges still fall under his watch. So where was God? The best theologians have been able to offer by way of apology is what’s called the “free-will defense.” It goes something like this: The Trinitarian God who exists in eternal relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit desires a relationship of love with his creatures, but cannot coerce it and still call it love. Love by definition must be freely given and freely received, which means that it can also be freely rejected. Could not God simply force his creatures to use their freedom appropriately? No, because a person is not truly free if they are not free to choose wrongly. Ergo the rub. God allows for his people’s rejection and subsequent sin in order to have genuine relationship with them.

 But that still leaves open the question of where the initial desire to choose wrongly came from. It’s the same question we ask in regard to our own behavior. How is it that we who possess the very Spirit of God, can nevertheless choose to behave in ways so contrary to that Spirit? We answer that God is not done with us yet. Sin still has a foothold. We’ve yet to become who we will be in Christ. If this is the case for the creature, could it also be the case for creation? What if creation is not so much something good that went bad, but something started as good but just not yet done, incomplete and yet still due to be finished? This is not to say that nature is moral and makes willful choices, but the processes by which it operates can freely go this way or that, resulting in everything from random mutations to colliding galaxies. Just as the free will of people can result in rejecting God’s will, so the free process of creation results in mosquitoes and the diseases they carry—as well as hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and drought. Still, we would like to think that God would do more to protect people from harm. Are deaths and disasters an unavoidable outcome of freedom? Does the Lord value creaturely freedom so much as to be constrained by it?

God only knows. Creation ultimately exists for His glory, not for human approval. Granted, there are places where God does defy human freedom in response to our own abuses of it. Again, Scripture describes severe weather at times as an agent of justice. The Lord is awesome and righteous and hates evil. Does this mean he would ever still cause calamity? Personally, I’m more comfortable blaming climate change. However I do know there remains a response to calamity that the Lord eagerly welcomes. In the 13th chapter of Luke’s gospel a report goes viral about a hideous crime some attribute to the rule of Pontius Pilate. While ceremonial sacrifices were being offered in the Temple, Roman security forces stormed in and brutally massacred five worshippers. Adding blasphemy to murder, Pilate’s soldiers then proceeded to pour the victim’s blood upon the Temple altar. Where was God? Over in the next county, in the flesh.

Apparently reports had yet to reach Jesus. Several rushed to break the news. Surely as a Galilean himself, he would share their shock and fury. Surely as a compassionate shepherd he would share their sorrow. Surely as a revered and renowned teacher and prophet, he would offer shrewd guidance as to the ferocious vengeance they could exact in exchange. Surely as a popular preacher, he would launch into a tirade against the tyranny of Pilate and demand his ouster. Surely as a celebrated miracle worker would call down from heaven the thunderous wrath of God! But Jesus does none of these things. Instead, he makes it all about them: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all others?”

What about barbarous sacrilege has been committed against God’s people in His very house? What about Pilate? What about the Romans? What about the victims? Employing that annoying ability to peer inside the human heart; Jesus knew their ultimate concern was not for the ill-fated Galileans, but for their own fate. Customary among the convictions of ancient people was the belief that one’s miseries and tragedies correlated, tit for tat, to one’s misdeeds and transgressions. By behaving yourself and being good, you could ward off most misfortune. Bad things only happened to bad people. These slaughtered Galileans had obviously done something to bring this tragedy upon themselves. 

But Jesus said no. “Unless you repent you will perish just as they did.” And then adding calamity to atrocity, Jesus went on to cite eighteen who were killed when a tower collapsed on top of them—not unlike the sad losses of many whose trees and houses collapsed in the storm. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others? No,” Jesus said, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”  Try to imagine my preaching this sermon to David’s New York congregation this morning. They would have hauled me out to the harbor and tossed me in. I hope they don’t listen to this on the podcast or that Mother’s Day pulpit swap won’t happen either. This is an insensitive sermon. Some may even say offensive. But it’s what Jesus preached. His congregation needed support and compassion, some assurances that everything would work out OK, that God loved them just as they are. But Jesus goes hellfire and brimstone instead.

And then he tells them a parable. A man planted a fig tree in his vineyard. He plants it and expects figs from it. Year one goes by. No figs. Year two. No figs. Year three. Still no figs. He’s frustrated. He’s infuriated! He screams for his gardener. “Look at this tree. Look at it! Three years it’s taken up space in my vineyard. THREE YEARS!! And for what? FOR Nothing. NOTHING. Not one stinking fig. Get it out of here. Cut it down! It’s just wasting dirt!”

His gardener replies, “Why don’t we give it one more year?”
End of parable.

The standard interpretation runs something like this: God is the vineyard owner, you’re the fig tree. God demands results. Your life is marked by a lack of results. You’re not producing any fruit. God has been patient, but you have not responded. The ax of judgment tickles your trunk. “Wait,” interrupts a gardener, “let’s give it one more chance.” “OK,” replies the stern vineyard owner, “But that’s it. One more chance.” Standard application: Your time is limited, you had better get your act together and start producing fruit or you’re going to find yourself producing sparks. Unless you repent you will perish. There’s a limit to God’s patience. 

Such an interpretation only supports the misguided equation the Galilean congregation presumed. I behave and God rewards. Be fruitful and thrive! Be fruitless and burn. I’ll buy the vineyard owner being God. A severe representation to be sure, but nevertheless firmly in line with his holy and judicial righteousness. The wrath of God against sin is real. I’ll also accept the mantle of our being fruitless fig trees. God looks for fruit in our lives and doesn’t always find much. There’s plenty of other stuff to be sure, but when it comes down to the things God cares about most: love, kindness, honesty and faithfulness, the pickings are too often slim. “I planted you in the middle of my vineyard but you just waste my dirt. I come around looking for fruit but I find none. Firewood is your only good.”

Enter the gardener. I think he's the pivotal character in this tale. He’s willing to do whatever he can. As he appeared to Mary on Easter morning, I think the gardener is Jesus. He intercedes for the tree. “Wait a minute, sir,” he says to the owner, “Let it alone one more year. Let me dig around it and throw some manure on it. Let’s see if it bears fruit next year. If not, cut it down then.” End of parable. The parable ends and the gardener descends into the dirt and the dung for the sake of the tree. “Sir, let it alone,” is the exact same Greek phrase translated later in Luke as “Father forgive them,” words Jesus uttered as he hung on the cross. The gardener descends into the dirt and the dung of human sin for our sake. He brings resurrection to our roots and fruit to our branches.

 “Repent or you’ll perish too” does seem so harsh and untimely. But judging from the responses of many in Sandy’s aftermath—from the affable cooperation between Governor Christie and President Obama just in time for the election, all the way to isolated New York apartment dwellers suddenly behaving like lifelong neighbors—it’s as if repentance goes without saying. If you remember a few sermons back, you may recall me noting that the focal component of repentance is typically sorrow or contrition. The English word derives from Latin meaning to double down on your penitence. But in Greek, the word is more akin to changing the way that you think. To repent is to have your eyes opened, your heart transformed, you spirit moved, your priorities shifted. And as we all know, disaster has a way of doing that. 

Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs and mainstream media all offered a seemingly endless stream of photos and stories of devastation. One New York blogger wrote, “It’s impossible to process it all. We are dazed and feeling the effects of a real and sustained threat to basics we all took for granted a week ago. Physical safety, food, shelter, clean water, a hot shower, electricity, a pleasant walk in the park or on the beach, and the stability and predictability of our daily routines feel more cherished as they become more distant. What we are seeing now is that there is strength in the number of Sandy survivors. There's also a collective consciousness that much of the petty, generic stuff we worried about before we had heard a hurricane was heading our way is a lot less relevant now. The past few days have resulted in a shift of priorities and resources.” 

Of course, talk to anyone who works in emergency services and who has responded to disasters, and you’ll hear that in the days and weeks that follow tragedy, people often lose their patience and their hope. It's easy to get frustrated with the fact that recovery takes time. Again, one New Yorker wrote, “For all the computer-generated models we saw over the weekend about Sandy's expected path, the next stage is almost worse; it’s unchartered territory.” New ground.

A perfect place to plant a fruit tree. Hope for New York, a partnership connecting local churches, is mobilizing volunteers to help clean up flooded buildings and go door to door in apartments with power outages to connect with those in need. And in Haiti, where flooding and unsanitary conditions have led to a cholera outbreak, the disaster response team of the Evangelical Lutheran Church is sending medical doctors and supplies. Next Saturday we gather to pack food for Haiti through Impact Lives—an endeavor that now carries increased urgency. Sign up to help if you haven’t already. Our youth ministry packed close to 12,000 meals on Halloween. World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse and other relief organizations are on the ground too. As a church and as individuals we support their efforts. 

Disaster spurs repentance. Hardship bears fruit. Lost is found, least is great, weakness is strength, darkness is light, death is life, defeat is victory—such are the ways of the Lord. A cross marks the path of redemption. Christ’s own body and blood become our thanksgiving feast. But you have to open your eyes to see it, have your heart transformed, you spirit moved, your priorities shifted. In a word, you have to repent.