Thursday, April 7, 2016

Another ironic episode from my totally ironic life

This year Holy Trinity is celebrating its 100th year of ministry. Our Anniversary Committee began meeting nearly three years ago to make plans. One of the things we did early on was establish a budget. We debated whether or not we would commission an anniversary anthem. When considering the pros and cons, we decided there were a lot of other things we wanted to spend our money on, so the idea of an anniversary anthem was nixed.

Late last fall, unbeknownst to me, an email was circulated among our choir members about having an anniversary anthem commissioned. When I caught wind of it, I was more than a little perturbed. We made the decision not to do this, and we hadn’t budgeted for it. Now a few people were taking it upon themselves to come up with the dollars to make it happen. Grrrrrr.

As part of our Anniversary Celebration, we decided to have a Centennial Campaign to give thanks by giving back. After years of capital campaigns at Holy Trinity that were always dedicated to gathering money for necessary repairs to our physical facility, we’re in a better place today -- we’re in a position to give to others, outside our congregation. We allocated where the money would go and invited our members to give. I was bound and determined that if we were going to ask for money for our anniversary, it would be to give the money away, not to spend it on ourselves. So, this little non-sanctioned funding project for an anthem was really getting under my skin. I did everything I could to put a kibosh on it. It wasn’t going to happen!

But they wouldn’t let it go.

The week of Christmas, with our anniversary year only a week away, I had a brilliant idea. What if someone (like me) wrote an anniversary hymn that we could sing on our anniversary Sundays? Wouldn’t that satisfy those who were clamoring for an anthem to be commissioned? So, on Christmas Eve, I was inspired to write a hymn text simply to put a stop to all this talk of an anniversary anthem. I decided to use the tune of “Shenandoah”, which has always been a favorite of mine. The words were inspired by our anniversary banners shown here. 


1
Beside a stream of living water
Stands a tree of God’s blest people,
Its roots run deep, from those before us.
By grace, it grows by grace, the love of God abounding.

2
A hundred rings, a living hist’ry,
Some are thin from years of struggle,
Some circle wide from times of plenty.
By grace, it grows by grace, the love of God abounding

3
The branches soar beyond the steeple,
Leaves as varied as its people;
So many gifts, and yet one Body.
By grace, it grows by grace, the love of God abounding.

4
O tree of life, O tree of glory,
May our witness tell God’s story
For all who follow in the future.
By grace, it grows by grace, the love of God abounding.

I wasn’t sure how folks would receive the hymn, but on the Sunday in January when it made its debut, it was a resounding success. Mission accomplished. Now we could stop talking about that blasted anthem. 

Well, our big anniversary blow-out worship is on April 24, and you aren't going to believe what’s about to happen. After I wrote the hymn text, our Director of Music, Ron Ellis, contacted a friend of mine, who happens to be a wonderful composer of church music, Tom Keesecker. Behind my back, Tom was commissioned to write a choir anthem from the hymn text I had written for our anniversary. By the time I learned of it, what could I do? I realized that I’d lost this battle. So on our big Anniversary Sunday, the choir will be singing, “Beside a Stream of Living Water” – text: Nancy Kraft, arrangement: Tom Keesecker.

What can I say? I’m so humbled by this honor. And I’m glad that sometimes my people know better than to listen to me. What a gracious act of kindness from a faith community that has done nothing but love me for the past eleven years. Often despite my best efforts to thwart that love, it seems they just can’t help themselves.

And now, here’s the kicker. The anthem has a publisher—Choristers Guild. Isn’t that just perfect! I didn’t want us to have an anthem commissioned for our anniversary and I ended up writing it myself--without knowing I was writing it. And I’ll even be receiving royalties.

Just another ironic episode from my totally ironic life.



Sunday, April 3, 2016

Walking Through Walls

Preached at Holy Trinity, Charlotte, on April 3, 2016. 

In this second week of Easter the disciples and Jesus have traded spaces. Even though a week has passed for us here at Holy Trinity, today’s gospel story also takes place on the day Jesus’ was resurrected.

Earlier in the day, Jesus had been sealed inside a tomb behind a stone that no person could move. Now, it was the disciples who were sealed inside a tomb. There in the upper room, the anxious disciples are shut tightly inside. The suspicious world is shut tightly outside. It’s like they have been hermetically sealed off from everything. Everything, including Jesus.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all have times when we do that, don’t we? We want to seal ourselves off from everyone and everything, maybe even God himself. We can do that when we’re hurt. When we’re afraid. When we dare not allow ourselves to hope. We lock ourselves up in our little tombs and there we sit. Safe, secure and protected from any intruders.

Most people tend to do that when things get tough. They seal themselves off from the rest of the world. Sometimes they do this physically. Sometimes mentally or spiritually.

As a pastor, one of the things that distresses me is how, when people need the church the most, they tend to distance themselves from it. When they’re filled with sorrow, fear, or despair, they don’t want to be around people of faith, as if the community of the faithful will just make them feel even more faithless. They seal themselves off and retreat to their tombs. 

But, you know, those times when we want to separate ourselves from the church are usually the times we most need to remain connected to it. None of us is a pillar of faith at all times. We’re all faith challenged from time to time. That’s why God puts us in community, so that at any given time, some of us have the faith that others of us need to carry us through.

The message of Easter is a message of hope. It’s a message for all of us living in our own individual tombs. Or maybe I should say, it’s a message for all of us dying in our own individual tombs. God’s message to us is this –
You can try to seal yourself off from me if you want, but you can’t keep me out. I will come after you. I will hunt you down. If need be, I’ll walk right through the wall you’re hiding behind.

Some of you know that I have struggled with clinical depression in the past. When I was lost in my own despair, what I wanted to do was seal myself away where no one can get to me. I wanted to stay in my own little world, and the last thing I wanted was to be around people who might have challenged my distorted view of reality.

I certainly didn’t want to be bothered by a God who would bring a message of hope in the midst of my hopelessness, who would tell me that I’m worth as much to him as the life of his own Son. I had no interest in hearing that.

There have been times in my life when I’ve hidden in the upper room with the disciples, behind a locked door, sealing myself off from the very one who would save me.

This week I was thinking about my two favorite Bible passages, and I realized why they mean so much to me. They’re both about the same thing. And they both relate to my faith experience. They’re a lot like this week’s text where Jesus walks through a wall to get to the ones he loves.

The first one is Psalm 139 –
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

And then the other one is from Paul’s letter to the Romans –
Who will separate us from the God’s love? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?
Paul’s answer? 
I am certain that there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Now, did you notice the similarity between my two favorite Bible passages? They’re both about how nothing can keep us away from God because nothing can keep God away from us.

It seems to be a theme for me in my life because God knows I’ve tried. I can definitely relate to those crazy disciples who thought that they could actually keep Jesus out by locking the door.

A passage from the Bible that I don’t connect with very well is the one where Jesus says that he stands at the door and knocks. I know there have been times in my life when he could knock until his knuckles bleed, I’m not about to open that door.

But the thing is, at those times, Jesus doesn’t bother knocking. He just appears. Sometimes in startling ways. Often through the people he sends into my life who seem to be oblivious to the walls I’m hiding behind. 

Over the past eleven years, many of you have walked through walls for me and you probably didn’t even know it. 

I know beyond a doubt that Jesus appears to us just as he did to the disciples. Whether we believe in the resurrection or not, the resurrected Christ appears to us. Whether we embrace the abundant new life or not, God gives it to us. Whether we welcome God into our lives or not, he’s with us, loving us every step of the way.

The disciples couldn’t lock him out even if they wanted to. Jesus appears. Defying closed doors, and locked hearts. He simply appears. A dead God is resurrected. A dead faith is re-created. A dead hope is born again. 

The good news of the gospel is clear. There’s more to the resurrection than the story of Jesus breaking out of a sealed tomb. The resurrection is also about Jesus breaking into our sealed tombs. Despite our best efforts to seal ourselves off from him, Jesus appears. When we least expect him, and when we most need him, Jesus appears.




Sunday, March 27, 2016

Looking for the Living

The sermon for Easter Sunday, 2016, at Holy Trinity in Charlotte. 


Barbara and Pauline had a cat named Buddy. He had been with them for a long time and was like the third member of their family. Once after they had been away on a trip, as they were returning home they saw something on the side of the road that made their hearts sink. It was a dead cat. And it looked a lot like Buddy.

They pulled over and got a closer look only to see that it was their beloved Buddy the cat. So they wrapped his dead body in a blanket, brought him home and buried him, shedding more than a few tears at the loss of their precious friend.

The next day, Pauline and Barbara were out in the yard and they saw a cat come walking up their driveway. Sure enough, it was Buddy the cat. Apparently they had buried the wrong cat.

It made me think of all the times I get myself all worked up over something that seems to me like the end of the world, only to discover that it wasn’t the end of the world at all.

I imagine that might have been the way the women felt when they went to the tomb. These were not the sniveling little disciples who ran like scared rabbits when the going got tough. These were the faithful, courageous disciples of Jesus who didn’t leave his side even as he died on the cross. They followed those who took Jesus’ body and saw where they laid it. Early in the morning while the whole world was sleeping, they took their spices and returned to the tomb to honor the body of the one they loved. Even in death, they couldn’t abandon him.

When they arrived at the tomb, the stone was rolled back and they went inside. But the body was gone. Where was he? What happened? And then suddenly two men in dazzling clothes appeared. The women, of course, were scared out of their wits. And what did the men have to say to them? Something that strikes me as rather odd, under the circumstances. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, when he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to you, women. Don’t you remember what he told you? Well, if you need any proof that these women were really disciples of Jesus, here it is. Don’t you remember what he told you? Yes, they remembered. Because they were there. They heard Jesus tell them about his death and resurrection. They remembered.

And suddenly all the pieces were falling into place. Yes, this happened exactly as Jesus had told them it would. He hadn’t been speaking metaphorically. It really happened. He was crucified; they saw it happen. He died; they saw it happen. And he was buried; they saw it happen.  And now he’s been raised from the dead. 

They had been stumbling through a graveyard in the dark, and suddenly they were running swiftly, leaping over gravestones with wings on their feet to tell their friends the good news.

Perhaps you can understand what it means to stumble through a graveyard in the dark, to walk the way of death. It’s easy to get caught there.
·        Maybe you’re so disheartened by the political process, or ISIS or climate change that you’ve lost all hope in humanity.
·        Maybe you’re mired down in depression after the underhanded way our elected leaders in North Carolina have voted in favor of discrimination.
·        Maybe you’ve received news of an illness that threatens to seriously alter your life.
·        Maybe you’ve been so disappointed by someone or something that you’re finding it hard to trust again.
·        Maybe you're feeling trapped in a situation that is bringing only misery to your life and you can’t see any way out of it.
·        Maybe you’re replaying the same destructive pattern in your life over and over so that it feels like it’s holding you captive.
·        Maybe you’re grieving a loss that has taken away so much of you that you can’t imagine you’ll ever be whole again.
·        Maybe you’re having a crisis of faith and you wish with all your heart that you could believe what your head tells you couldn’t possibly be true.
That’s what it means to stumble through a graveyard in the dark.

And yet, you’re here today. You came to gather with other people who have done their share of stumbling around in the dark, too. 

Because we’re all here to remember. To remember the teachings of a man who showed us the way to life, real life, abundant life, what some Biblical writers call eternal life. A life that is found, not by amassing great fortune or by proving that you’re a winner in a world filled with losers. It’s a life that’s only found in denying the twisted, self-centered values of the world around us and taking up a life of compassion and mercy. We’re here to remember the life of a man who practiced this truth at every turn, even when it took him to a cross. We remember the death of the one who forgave those who unjustly executed him. And we remember his resurrection to new life.

We’re here today because we know that despite the fact that we may find ourselves stumbling through a graveyard in the dark, we remember where to look for the living. Among God’s faithful people. Singing hymns. Praying prayers. Hearing the word proclaimed. Sharing in a meal where out host reminds us that every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, it is an act of remembering. “Do this to remember me,” Jesus said.

We’re here because we know we can never find life by stumbling around a graveyard in the dark. We look for life among the living.  


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Moved by the Cross Yet Indifferent to the Crucified

At Holy Trinity we gathered outside the building for the Blessing of Palms and then processed into the nave singing a raucous two-part song that filled the space with electricity. It was noisy, much like I imagine the streets of Jerusalem were as Jesus made his grand entrance with crowds cheering and branches waving. But just as the tone of Jesus’ final week quickly shifted, so did the tone of our worship on Sunday.

On Passion Sunday, we have developed the practice of listening to the entire passion narrative presented as a readers’ theater at the very end of worship. Then we have a brief confession and depart in silence. It’s always powerful when an entire congregation, including restless kids, walks out of the building in complete silence.

This year, between the reading of Luke’s Passion and the confession of our own complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus, Lonnie was with us to sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord…” Lonnie has a powerful voice that you have to hear to believe. He is a well-known expert in African American spirituals and sings from the heart, like someone who truly believes every word coming from his mouth. His rendering of “Were You There” brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes.

What many people at Holy Trinity don’t realize is that when Lonnie was a small child in Louisiana, he was forced to witness the death of a man hung from a tree at the hands of a lynch mob. That man was his father.

Just let that sink in for a while.

Most Christians can get their head around the idea that we were there when they crucified our Lord, so our confession at the end of worship was embraced by all who were present on Sunday.
Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?
I am here.
Peter, slave of fear, where are you?
I am here.
Thomas, slave of doubt, where are you?
I am here.
Men and women of Jerusalem, enslaved to mob rule, where are you?
I am here.
Pilate, slave of expediency, where are you?
I am here.

We understand that we didn’t have to actually be present to be complicit in the crucifixion of Jesus. We can identify with the guilt of humanity. Some people call this the doctrine of Original Sin. To me it means that sin is a part of what it means to be human, it's inescapable, and we have to face that hard truth about ourselves.  

But I wonder if the majority of Americans, who happen to consider themselves white, can comprehend our complicity in the Original Sin of our nation, the sin of slavery? Can we begin to confess the way we have systematically tortured and killed those who were stolen from their homes and brought to this country as a commodity to be traded and sold like investments on Wall Street? Can we recognize how the American Dream that we hold dear excludes so many of those who have fought for and built our nation at the cost of their own bodies? Can we admit our own moments of judging the actions of others based on the prejudices we carry about their race? Can we acknowledge the racism that has become so much a part of who we are that it has become invisible to us?

I was having lunch with a group of friends and one of them remarked about how tired she is of hearing about racism. Now that the “Black Lives Matter” movement had made its point, it’s time for us all to move on. (Did I mention that this friend is white?) She’s a good person who often advocates for the poor and the marginalized, so I was surprised to hear her say this. And yet, I know many other white people who consider themselves above racism share her feelings. All this talk of racism is making them weary.

What a luxury it is for us to decide when racism is a topic that has become old for us and we’re ready to move on. The mother who worries every time her young black son leaves the house that he might be shot has no such luxury. The black children who drive by gated, affluent suburbs filled with McMansions and well-manicured lawns and then return home to neighborhoods riddled by crumbling buildings and drug deals happening on every street corner have no such luxury. The young man who has been incarcerated for the same crime that can be dismissed easily for a person with the right color skin has no such luxury.

Where You There. I will never hear that song again without thinking about Lonnie’s father and the countless people in our country who have been lynched at the hands of a hate filled crowd. Like Jesus, they have been victims of a system that seems to only find security by identifying “the other” to hate, fear and destroy.

Were you there, sisters and brothers of mine who self-identify as white? We hear the words to the song with some understanding that, yes, we were there when Jesus was crucified, and we beat our breasts in contrition. I wonder how we can be so moved by the cross and yet so indifferent to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and those who are crucified in our midst?



Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What I learned at the Donald Trump rally

Last Friday, when I heard that Donald Trump would be speaking at Lenoir-Rhyne University, which is an institution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was livid. Then I learned how institutions of higher learning make themselves available to all political candidates in the interest of a free exchange of ideas. So, Mr. Trump decided to speak at L-R. Okay. Well, it was not okay, really. But I understood why L-R allowed it to happen.  

As it turned out, as enraged as many of us were, it gave us Lutherans an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus, so I’m glad it happened. After a bit of Facebook messaging with our NC bishop, Tim Smith, plans were underway for a peaceful demonstration at the event. I was going to be away for the weekend. The last thing I did before walking out the door was post a FB event and get the invitations going. The first thing I did when I returned home, before I unpacked my bags, was print off 35 signs to take to the rally on Monday.

They were simple signs. None of them bashed Donald Trump. That wasn’t our intent. We were gathering on Monday morning to lift up the teachings of Christ, which happen to be antithetical to the teachings of Donald Trump. Most of the signs were Bible verses: “God is Love”, “Do justice – Love kindness – Walk humbly with God”, “Do not neglect to show kindness to strangers”, “As you did if for the least of these…”

I didn’t know what to expect as I traveled through the dense fog to Hickory early Monday with my friends Dick and Cherie. Would many be there to stand with our bishop? Would we succeed in bringing a peaceful presence to the gathering? Would anyone even notice us?

The auditorium where Trump spoke seats about 1,400 people. They gave out over 4,000 free tickets. When we arrived, people were standing in a line that snaked all through the campus. Pockets of protesters were scattered here and there. Pastors in collars were starting to arrive. I quickly distributed all the signs I brought and saved one for myself that said: “BRIDGES NOT WALLS.”

In the end, approximately 300 Lutherans gathered that day to show those who had come to the Trump rally what it means to follow Jesus. Some came from as far away as Nashville and Atlanta. A group of students and professors from our seminary in Columbia joined us. About 100 of us were wearing clergy collars. We sang hymns about love, grace, and justice, over and over, until we were just about hoarse.

Because of the fog, Trump was two hours late in arriving. When folks standing in line were finally told they weren’t going to get in, things got tense. The grassy area that had separated protesters from supporters slowly melted away and angry people on both sides were standing face to face, shouting obscenities, ready to exchange blows. Those of us wearing collars were called upon to hold the line. We linked arms and did just that, standing between anger and anger.  One of us started singing “Jesus Loves YOU” and we all joined in.

I read a Facebook post from someone who was there. The person wrote:
“…out of nowhere, a red-haired redneck started screaming at the Latinos. They were nice back, but a black group then jumped in to their defense and it got ugly, with a lot of profanity. I was in the middle of this and then a bit of shoving started. Before I knew it, about a dozen pastors jumped in and formed a line between the factions, locking arms and singing hymns. How I got in that line I don't know, but it was surreal, really a religious experience. These days, I am not really pro-organized religion, but I was daggum proud of them today- they really were the peacemakers...”

I know you didn’t see any of this on the news. But I’m telling you it happened.

I also spent some of my time mingling in the crowd. I talked to a group of young African American men who told me how they had tickets to go inside the event and they were turned away at the door. They were wearing nice clothes. They were respectful. And they knew there was only one reason why they were turned away. I don’t know for sure if any people of color were admitted to the rally, but according this this group of youth, none were.

After the rally ended I spoke to some of the people who had heard Trump speak, including an older white couple. The man was an Air Force veteran. “How was the speech?” I asked them. “Oh, he was so wonderful. I’m so glad we came!” “He didn’t talk very long, did he?” I asked. “No, but he has to get to Florida. They need to hear what he has to say down there.” I held up my BRIDGES NOT WALLS sign and said, “Well, I’m on the other side, but I’m glad you got to hear him.” They smiled.

I have no doubt that many of the 4,000+ who came to see Trump in Hickory self-identify as Christian. I wonder what they thought when they heard us singing traditional Christian hymns, when they saw us lifting up the Scriptures in our signs? Could they hear and see Jesus? Could they recognize the dissonance between the message of Jesus and the message of the one they came to hear speak that day?


We ELCA Lutherans are often hard on ourselves because, although our first name is Evangelical, we don’t feel like we’re very good at living up to that name. I think a big part of that is because we think that evangelism means walking up to strangers and convincing them to accept Jesus as their personal Savior lest they die today and end up in hell. We’ve allowed a certain flavor of Christianity to define what it means to be evangelical for us. Actually, evangelism is sharing the good news about Jesus. And, I don’t see a whole lot of good news in the scaring-the-hell-out-of-people approach. The actions of the Lutherans gathered at Lenoir Rhyne on Monday were about as evangelical as you can get. We were there to show people another Jesus than the one they may have seen from those who use the name of Christ to invoke fear, hatred and judgment.

I learned a lot on Monday. I learned that there’s a whole lot of power in the collar I wear. I learned what a gift our NC bishop is to the Church. And I learned that Lutherans can be Evangelical in the best sense of the word.  







Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sages Come in All Ages

Today I was reminded again of the amazing contribution children make to our worship life. I know I’m biased, but I have to tell you that we have been blessed with extraordinary children at Holy Trinity. They understand the gospel, particularly our mission of Loving Not Judging, in a way that often seems to elude many of us adults.

The gospel lesson this morning was the story of two lost sons from Luke’s gospel. The younger one is a snot-nosed little brat who runs off with his inheritance and ends up foolishly blowing every last penny. When he comes to the point of starving, he decides it's time to return to his father and plead for mercy. But he doesn’t get the chance. Instead, the father greets him with open arms and is so thrilled to have him back that he throws him an extravagant party.

The older son is the responsible one. Unlike his brat of a brother, he stays home and helps his father with the family business. When he sees the shameless way his father forgives his prodigal brother and celebrates his return, the older son is justifiably ticked. This is an outrage! There’s no way he's going to that party.

The parable of the prodigal brothers was preceded in chapter 15 with two other stories that ended in parties after the lost had been found. And here's how it all begins--what prompts Jesus to tell this trilogy of parables: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

The sermon today was interactive. By that, I mean that, in addition to sharing my own thoughts, I invited the congregation to share their thoughts, too. After we had worked our way through the text together, I posed the question: “Now, how does Luke 15 relate to the world around us, or even your own personal world?”

Adults gave some thoughtful examples from the world of politics and the workplace. Then Bailey, a fourth grader, raised his hand. I looked at his parents who seemed to squirm a little as they had no idea what he was going to say. I thought, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot what he has to say; it’s just wonderful that he feels comfortable enough to join in the conversation with the rest of the congregation. 

I called on Bailey, and he told us about how hard he works in school, and then sometimes someone will come along who hasn’t worked at all and they end up winning, and it makes him mad. He was right on point. He understood what it felt like to be the resentful older brother. Wow! (And I had assumed that either, a. he wasn’t paying attention during the sermon, or b. it was all above his head and he couldn’t possibly understand the meaning of the parable.)

Then Pearl, a fifth grader, had a story to share, too. She told us about how she goes to gymnastics class, and she’s been trying to do a handstand for a long time. A new guy came to their class because his mother made him come, and he can do all kinds of stuff that Pearl can’t do, with no effort at all. And the worst part for Pearl is that he doesn’t even want to be there. Well—to use gymnastics lingo—Pearl nailed it!

I looked around at the congregation and we all knew that the presence of God was truly in our midst.

And I thought about how often we ignore children in worship, or we relegate their significance to cute moments in a children sermon, and we don’t take them seriously as members of the Body of Christ. When we do that, we’re missing out on Spirit-filled moments that can transform us as a faith community and as individuals. Sages come in all ages, to be sure.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Supreme Supreme Court: no vacancies, always in session

Preached at Holy Trinity, Charlotte on February 28, 2016. (Luke 13:1-9)

Last Monday night I was at our City Council meeting for the vote on the non-discrimination ordinances. I was one of 140 people who spoke. Some of us favored the ordinances and there were also those who opposed them. From the opposition, we heard recurring themes. There was a whole lot of misinformation being spewed about who can and can’t use a public restroom. There was also a lot of quoting Scripture and condemnation of whoever doesn’t interpret it the same way they do.

According to many of those who opposed the ordinances, Charlotte would pay for its errant ways if they passed. God would smite us, in a big way. Well, they passed. Are any of you scared?

We’ve heard this kind of logic before. Various groups who don’t meet the moral standards of the religious right have been blamed for everything from 9-11 to Hurricane Katrina. According to them, God’s in the business of rooting out evil-doers and punishing them. Sometimes in horrific ways.

Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that this viewpoint is nothing new. Jesus points to some of the tragedies that were making headline news in his day, and he knows that the conventional wisdom of his time said those tragedies occurred because the people had done something to make God angry, so God zapped ‘em. “But that’s not how things work,” Jesus says. God isn’t out to get us when we sin. In fact, just the opposite.

The philosopher Susan Nieman has written about evil in modern thought. Basically, her thesis is that we ascribe evil to things we don’t understand. It’s a way of creating the other, the person or thing or idea we label evil. The other is the manifestation of fear and ignorance. Nieman says that once we understand what we had designated evil, we no longer see it as evil. For example, at one time a person with schizophenia was considered demon possessed. Now, we understand more about it. The person isn’t evil. They have a mental illness. We ascribe evil to the things we don’t understand.

So, when we throw God in the mix, and we project our own limited and often distorted way of thinking onto God, we figure God must perceive evil the same way we do.

That’s the first fallacy in a theology that ascribes catastrophes and tragedies to the activity of God. That logic concludes, if you sin, according to our definition of sin, then you’re evil and an enemy of God.

But there’s a second problem with that theology. It assumes that God is angry and vengeful. And that’s what Jesus addresses in today’s lesson with a parable about a fig tree.

Now, Jesus could have chosen any kind of tree that his listeners might have been familiar with in this story. But he chooses a fig tree, and here’s why. Because a fig tree tries a gardener’s patience. It has to have just enough sunlight, just enough cultivation, just enough nutrients to produce figs. And even if you do all that, it can take a while for the tree to bear fruit. And, by a while I don’t mean  a year or two. It can take up to six years for a fig tree to grow fruit. That’s a lot of work, and that’s a lot of time to wait. Many a gardener would be tempted to cut the darn thing down after a year or two with no results. “You good for nothin’ fig tree! You’re outa here!” Chop! Chop! Chop!

And yet, that’s not how the parable goes. Instead, after three years with no figs the man who planted the tree is ready to cut it down. “It’s just wasting the soil,” he says. But the gardener replies, “Let’s give it another chance. Let’s give it more time. Let’s not be so quick to say it’s worthless. Let’s care for it and see what it can do.”

Jesus wants his listeners to know that they’re all wrong about God’s justice.

You see, there are two kinds of justice. One is retributive justice. That’s a tit for tat kind of justice. You hurt me or someone I care about, and I’m going to hurt you back. You say something I don’t like, and I will verbally rip you to shreds. You attack our country and we will blow your country to smithereens. We call that justice. You will pay for what you’ve done, and you will pay in a big way. But that’s a limited view of justice. It’s retributive justice. That may be what we expect from something like the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Supreme Court takes us someplace else. God’s not into retributive justice. When we talk about the justice of God, that’s not what we’re talking about.

God is into another kind of justice—restorative justice. Restorative justice has a different goal. It’s all about restoring the relationship. When someone harms us, our relationship has been broken. The way to restore the relationship doesn’t come through punishing the other person. It comes through mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.

When we say that God is a God of justice, that’s what we’re talking about. Not that God is going to zap everyone who does evil, but that God will do everything possible to bring us back into relationship with him when we’ve wandered from that relationship. It’s the kind of justice we’ll read about next week in the story of the lost sheep and the prodigal son.

Trusting in the restorative justice of God is the work of Lent: Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Like the gardener in the parable of the fig tree.

The parable invites us to consider the distinction between judgment and mercy. The easiest way to deal with the fruitless fig tree would be to cut it down.
That’s always the easiest way to deal with jobs that are difficult. Or people who are difficult.  Or situations that are difficult. We just walk away. We cut them off. Problem solved.

It’s more difficult to care for the tree, to hunker down and do the hard work. We’ll have to endure a little manure under our fingernails and wait in hopeful expectation for fruit that may or may not come.

Mercy is like that. It takes lots of sweat and toil, with no guarantee of success or reward. There’s a big difference between being a person of retributive justice and a person of restorative justice-- a person of mercy.

In today’s parable, Jesus challenges his listeners, including us, to be merciful as God is merciful.  As a community of people striving to be loving not judging, that’s a direct challenge to us.

So, consider the trees God has planted in your life. They may be people or a place or a situation. They may be dreams or projects. Which ones have been giving you a hard time lately? Which ones aren’t producing the fruit that you’ve expected? Which ones have you been tempted to chop down and walk away from? Perhaps with a little more tender care, these barren trees just might produce some fruit.

The question is, are you willing to be patient enough for this to happen? That’s what the Jesus way of life, loving not judging, calls us to do.