Delivered at Ames UCC
on March 12, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to beheard rather than read.
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For the last two weeks we’ve had guest preachers, Tim Wolfe on Seminary Sunday and Harry Cook as our Theologian in Residence. Tim and Harry came to us from very different branches of the Christian family tree: Tim was, for most of his life, Pentecostal and for years directed very large African American gospel choirs. Harry is a long-retired Episcopal priest and newspaperman.
Tim preached on the transfiguration story. This is the one where a few of the disciples wake up and see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, prophets from the far distant past. Harry had the story of the Samaritan who helped a naked, bleeding man in a ditch when neither a priest nor a deacon would do so.
Tim’s message was “Get woke and stay woke.” Harry’s was “Go and do it.”
Despite their divergent religious traditions, Tim and Harry came to the same conclusion: God wants us to be awake to the world and responsive to what we see.
That was neither planned nor is it a coincidence: The Jesus in the gospel of Luke is insistently oriented to the needs of the world and to action.
He is also impatient, as in our reading today.
Do you think you are special? Do you think anyone is more favored by God? Jesus asks his listeners. Not really the best tactic for building a movement. But Jesus doesn’t care. He goes on to tell a story about an orchard owner and his farmer and a fig tree. One way to hear it is with God as the orchard owner and all of us as the gardener and our faith as the fig tree.
For years, such an interpretation goes, God has been looking for us to nurture some productivity from our faith, only to be met with disappointment. We are a waste of space and resources if we do not fertilize, till, and weed our souls so that they are actually of use. So that we may provide sustenance and succor. If our fig tree does not actually produce something, best to yank it out and move on, Jesus says.
It’s a harsh story. It is harsh because Jesus, like all of the Biblical prophets before him, knows what is on the line: lives. Not life in the sky by-and-by, but lives chucked into ditches like trash.
The reason we have so many healing stories about Jesus isn’t just because people are sick. It is also because he is impatient for us to know that God cares about actual bodies and so we should, too. When bodies and the communities in which they exist are sick, there is no time to waste.
This is not a particularly radical statement to make within a United Church of Christ congregation. We are very well known for caring about bodies, families, and communities. We are not partisan but we don’t shy away from what makes people sick, even if the issues become political: HIV/AIDS education, actual access to health care, water pollution, safe and affordable housing. We have adopted Jesus’ impatience to heal the world. We are unafraid to be as curt and direct as we see him in Luke.
And the word about us seems to be out. I keep getting phone calls and e-mails from people I don’t know saying that they have heard we are a people who care, we are a people who know how to get things, the things of justice, done. When the news about immigrant deportations hit, I heard both from members of our church working on sanctuary and members of our community who assumed we would be working on sanctuary, within a couple of hours of each other.
It feels really good to be recognized for our efforts. It feels good to learn that our faithfulness to God is visible outside this sanctuary. We have borne fruit! We have provided sustenance and succor!
WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE?
But so have a lot of people, and not necessarily through a Christian church. We do not hold a monopoly on the capacity to do good. So why are we doing it here, through this kind of space? Are we just a collection of people who respond well to Jesus’ harshness? I don’t think so.
I spend a lot of my time each week in one to one conversations, called relational meetings, because to do my work, I need to know who I am working with. But I haven’t yet met with everyone in this room and I shouldn’t be the only one having such conversations, so last week I took advantage of my coloring book Bible study and the intro to Lent class to ask attendees to pair up. I then asked them to answer the question of why, with the kinds of pressures we have on their time, why take that time to come to this kind place?
Time is our one non-renewable resource. Time is the only substance of life that we cannot control or contain, or even assess how much we have. So with our one precious life, to quote the poet Mary Oliver, why come to a place that is interested in Jesus and sings about God and even sometimes claims to feel a breath of a power we call Spirit?
I didn’t eavesdrop on all of the conversations, but based on my experience, I suspect the answer could be boiled down to what we hear in the second half of our reading today: love.
The group of theologians who put together our reading schedule, called the narrative lectionary, made an interesting choice today. You may have already noticed it, but we skip 22 verses between the fig story and Jesus talking back to those who would warn him away from his sacred work.
Despite the jump, he’s just as impatient. “You tell that old fox Herod,” Jesus says, “that I have work to do and he will just have to catch up with me if he wants to kill me.”
But then the impatience falls away: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…,” Jesus says.
I want to shield you from harm, I want to comfort you with the warmth of my core and the close beating of my heart. I would be your mother defender, if you would let me. I see how hard life is and know all that I ask of you. Let me give you all of the food that you will need to follow me.
The difference between doing good in general, and doing good through a faith community like ours is love: the love of God and the love from God.
Don’t get me wrong. Doing good is always good. We do beautifully well by each other whenever we step up for health care and housing and maybe even the sanctuary of our immigrant families, friends, and neighbors, as we will discuss after church. I applaud and give thanks for all hard work on behalf of others regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. But we do it sustainably when we enter into intimate love with Mother God. We are offered, though faith, the means to do good even better, the means to even do good by ourselves.
As harsh and impatient as Jesus can be, the healing of the world by tearing down kingdoms does not call for the tearing and wearing down of ourselves through stress and too much coffee. Frazzled nerves do not a free world make. It is made through souls that occasionally take shelter under Mother God’s wings, that receive her tender care and mercies.
Or, to go back to the fig tree metaphor we do best by the world when we are ripe and juicy with God’s love. When we are in the luscious bloom and fruit of relationship with God, we have the strength needed to keep the world from erecting even one more cross—and the strength to raise our kids and endure cancer and maybe even find a decent job.
I look forward to sitting down with each of you, to hearing more about who you are, what you know of life, and why you are interested in living your life with God. But in the meantime, any and all of us can be having that same conversation with God.
If Jesus is right, God wants to take on our anger and our hopes, our exhaustion and our energy.
I think both of our recent guest preachers would agree that it will be a relationship as sweet and fruitful for the desperate of this world as for each of us.