Sunday, March 28, 2010

On the Centrality of Story

A third time [Pilate] said to them, "Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him." 23 But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished. (Luke 23:22-25 NRSV)

I borrowed an idea from a friend, and read the passion narrative from a chair (couldn't find a rocking chair, so an overstuffed armchair had to do). The ensuing conversation (ie, sermon) then revolved around the role and power of story in our lives, and the centrality of the passion narrative for defining who we are as God's people today.

The image of a family reunion came to mind. Gathered together around meal and story, sharing the stories which bring us together and define who we are as a family. I asked them to think about how the early believers gathered together and shared their stories and experiences of Jesus. I asked them to imagine Peter with people gathered around his feet telling about how he was willing to follow Jesus, even to death, but ended up denying he ever knew Jesus and running away in cowardice and shame. And then how Jesus forgave him and restored him to the community. I asked to imagine the emphases and the pathos of the man, Peter, as he told the story and how that would effect how the story was heard and received. And then I asked them to imagine how easy it was to identify with the man Peter and his story, and to see ourselves reflected in the telling. The disciples' story, Peter's story, the story of the early believers, the story of Christ's passionate suffering love for us: it is our story.

Today, Sunday of the Passion/Palm Sunday, we hear that story again. And we reflect on how that story is our story; how it intersects our own life story; and how we are called to listen to one another's stories and to find those points of intersection -- those places where our conversations can begin.

I am the Unlikely Pastor. welcome to my world.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Do We Do About Those Dirty, Rotten, Stinking Feet?

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:1-3) NRSV
The odor filled the room. Strong. Sweet. Pungent. Oil of nard. Costly, very expensive, oil of nard. Poured out. Lovingly and lavishly poured out. An act of extravagant, loving service performed on Jesus' behalf. A sign, pointing and preparing for what is about to come.

Ironic that this event should happen in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. You 'member Lazarus. The friend whose death moved Jesus to tears. When last we saw Lazarus on this story's stage he was bound up in the clothes of the grave: bound by death; and yet, alive through Jesus' mighty act of love and compassion. Ironic, isn't it, that in the home where we celebrate the gift of life, we make preparations for death. The death of the Lamb whose blood paints the doorpost of the house marking the place to be passed over by the angel of death; the flesh of the lamb to be consumed to sustain us on our journey to freedom and life in the promised land.

The odor filled the room. Strong. Sweet. Pungent. Oil of nard. Costly, very expensive, oil of nard. Poured out. Lovingly and lavishly poured out. An act of extravagant, loving service performed on Jesus' behalf. A sign, pointing and preparing for what is about to come.

Only a few short days later it is Jesus, the master, who performs the act of loving service. It is Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who humbles himself, like the lowliest of slaves, who dons a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Instructing them in his farewell address to love one another, to humble themselves in the presence of one another by outdoing each other in acts of loving service. "Love one another, as I have loved you," he tells them; the parting command of the one who kneels down to wash the dirt of the earth from our feet, who lays down his life to wash the dirt of the world from our soul. Jesus is the master who shows us how to act as faithful loving servants. For if the master goes about humbly washing feet, what do you suppose the servants of the master are called to do?

"Love one another as I have loved you," the Master's parting command to his followers. The Master's legacy, the Master's final bequest, prefigured in dramatic, aromatic fashion by the woman draped around his feet, polishing, buffeting, and drying those feet with her hair. Loving hose feet that would soon travel the villa dela rosa, the way of sorrow, as an act of love for us. A sign, a prefiguring, a preparation for that which is to come.

Could Mary have known what was to come? Could she even have had an inkling of what her Lord must endure and of where those feet so lovingly anointed would have to tread? Could she possibly have comprehended the events that were to come? We know. But we have the advantage of time, of distance, of history. And yet, do we comprehend any better? We know what the Lord endured, what the Lord endured for us. We know where those feet trod, where they trod for us. And yet, do we comprehend any better than Mary? Mary's actions prepared Jesus for what was about to take place for us. How well are we prepared?

Are we ready to love, to serve, to give, to follow? Are we prepared to take up the towel and wash each others feet? What aroma fills the air on this day and in this place? Is it the smell of dirty, stinking, neglected feet; the feet of those too wrapped up in the busyness of business, too ground down by the daily grind to notice? Or is it the sweet aroma of feet washed clean in humble loving service? Feet that have followed the Master along the villa dela rosa on behalf of the world?

The world does not know, cannot comprehend, such loving extravagance. The world is too busy accumulating, humiliating, hoarding, grasping. The stink of frustration, desperation, humiliation, destitution sticks to feet blistered and calloused by the world and its minions who know little of joy, little of love, little of peace. little of hope.

The odor filled the room. Strong. Sweet. Pungent. Blood. Costly, very expensive, blood. Poured out. Lovingly and lavishly poured out. An act of extravagant, loving service performed on our behalf. A sign, pointing and preparing for what is about to come.

Perhaps Mary's oil could have been sold and the proceeds used otherwise. Perhaps Jesus' blood need not have been poured out, and the life it contained spent otherwise. Perhaps... But then we would be left only with the aroma of decaying feet, feet lost and wandering in the mire of sin and death. It is Jesus' blood which washes us clean, cutting through the accumulated layers of dust and filth, cleansing us and calling us into service on behalf of others.

We are drawing near to the end of our Lenten journey. Our feet are weary, aching, longing for rest. Soon we will experience anew the events that came to pass: the triumphal entry; the meal; the garden; the handing over; the denial; the hasty trial; the scourging; the mocking; the humiliation; the agony; the pain; the bloody sweat and tears; the dying and the rising. All done for us... for us.

But for now, a pause: a moment of indulgence, of preparation, a sign pointing and preparing us for all that is to come. For now we are left with the aroma of pure oil of nard filling our nostrils with its sweet, overwhelming presence. Soon enough it will yield to the odor of blood, blood poured out lovingly, lavishly, extravagantly for us.

The odors of sweet perfume, of blood, of sin and death, all mingle together on this day and in this place. Pointing and preparing us for all that will come. Amen

Sermon for Lent 5C (RCL)

Thus concludes my self titled, unofficial sermon series (for you see, I usually don't do the "sermon series" thing), The Stories of Lent in C Major (strike that, since it is Lent, after all, better make that C minor). Wiser heads than mine have conferred and decided that it is better not to post full sermon texts on blogs, but rather thoughts that occur during sermon prep. Perhaps so. Who am I to argue with wiser heads? So from now on, I will be posting more random thoughts, rants, and ravings (with the occasional sermon text mixed in, this is still my "world" isn't it?). Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed The Stories of Lent in C Minor. Peace out.

I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Prodigal Wife/Mother Speaks

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: There was a man who had two sons... (Luke 15:1-3, 11) NRSV

What do you do when your whole world is flying apart and you feel helpless, powerless, impotent
? That was her daily question of God. It had been for some time now. She had been raised to be a dutiful wife, a loving mother, and a skilled runner of the household. She was all that and more. Attractive, witty, charming, and much smarter than she let on. The years had been kind to her, too, but none of that mattered now.

She looked out the window. Yes, there he was, sitting, staring off into the distance. Waiting. Hoping. He hardly did anything else anymore. He ate little and talked even less. If it weren't for the evening chill, he probably would stay out there all night.

He long ago had turned over the management of day to day operations to their oldest son. Too much too soon. She had done her best to help out, without helping out, after all, she was only a woman, and what did she know? ;-) But with her advising and pulling a few strings behind the scenes, her oldest son had matured in a hurry and now ran the place with consummate skill.

Even so, she could sense the growing distance and resentment between her oldest son and his father. His father who spent his days and nights waiting, watching, praying. Too engrossed to teach a maturing boy the things a father should teach, to preoccupied to work side by side with him the way that most of his friends' fathers did. These days the two barely spoke. Just sort of exchanged grunts in the morning. Her world was disintegrating right before her eyes...

It wasn't always this way. They were a happy family, a deliriously happy family, once. She and her beloved and her two boys. God had truly smiled on them. They laughed and worked and prayed together. They weren't rich, but they were comfortable, lacking for nothing. The boys were developing their own personalities: the oldest, dutiful, honor-bound, responsible; the youngest, carefree, curious, a dreamer and a free-thinker. She saw herself in both her sons, and she loved them both, more than life itself.

It hurt to admit to herself that she saw the cracks beginning to form, and was powerless to do anything to prevent them. Her youngest was always testing, always pushing the boundaries and limits. His father was patient and tolerant. But the relationship between the two seemed precarious at best. Her youngest felt confined, cornered, boxed in by the expectations of his father and of his place in the family. So, even though it broke her heart, it didn't surprise her at all when the day came that he asked for his share of the inheritance and walked off down the lane and out the main gate, stopping only to give a perfunctory hug to his father on the way out. A spot forever memorialized, for on that exact spot is where his father, her beloved, kept his solitary vigil. From that exact spot radiated the cracks which threatened to shatter her world...

Every once in a while she would run into someone in the marketplace who in the course of their travels had seen her son. At first he was doing well. High hopes. Big dreams. But as time went by the reports became less frequent and less hopeful: This opportunity didn't pan out. That investor pulled out. After a time the reports dried up all together. She wasn't sure whether her son had moved on or something awful had happened and people were just trying to spare her from the truth.

She grew desperate for information. She finally succeeded in dragging some out of an old family friend who was told by a business associate that one of his field agents had spotted her son slopping hogs and occasionally sneaking a carob pod or two from the hogs feed. Her heart sank. Her son was alive, but that was no life. How could a Jew slop hogs? It was a disgusting and humiliating thought. Clearly outside the law of Moses. He must really be desperate. Her mother's instinct was to rush in and save him, she even said as much to her husband, but he just grunted something unintelligible and returned to sentry duty.

What was she to do? The rift grew wider. She loved her husband. She loved her boys. She loved her God. But love didn't seem to be enough to hold it all together. The resentments grew and the fault lines grew ever more dangerous and shifty. Her world was flying apart and she felt helpless, powerless, and impotent.

Suddenly, at the depths of her despair, she saw a figure approaching in the distance. Could it be? Dare she hope? As the figure drew closer and closer her heart leaped for joy and dread. He was home! He was home! Her baby boy was home! As she watched her husband rush the gate and begin barking orders to the servants she feared for her older son, and wondered if this day that everything would finally disintegrate and perhaps never come back together again. Healing is a tricky business, and is seldom easy and rarely pain free. She said a quick prayer and hustled off to begin homecoming preparations...

Hard to tell the players without a scorecard? Sometimes that's the way it is. Let's see, we have the younger son who wants to do his own thing, live by his own rules, make his own way in the world; to whom his father is as good as dead, and who comes to himself, realizing that his relationship with his father is everything. We have the older son, who plays by the rules, does his duty, slaves away in his father's house, all the while taking his relationship with his father for granted. Perhaps, even secretly envying his brother for being his own person, while publicly keeping up appearances, all very PC, don't you know. Then there is this enigma of a father, whose life seems to go an pause until his younger son returns, and who welcomes him home with joy and honor and respect. For him, all is not right until relationship is restored, with both his sons, younger and older. And, he is willing to let them make their judgments in order for relationship to happen. He does not force, threaten or coerce, because relationship built on those terms is no relationship at all. Relationship in order to be true needs to be entered into freely. Neither son is truly a son, until they come to themselves and freely enter into relationship with their father.

Throughout the course of my life I have moved rather fluidly between the roles of the two sons. I have been the older son, slaving away out of duty or obligation, never fully appreciating the joy of day to day life in my Father's presence. I have been the younger son, bound and determined to my own thing, to make my own way, to be my own person, only to have it all come crashing down and realize that perhaps life in the Father's presence wasn't so bad after all, and coming to myself, have headed home, tail between my legs, only to find my Father waiting and welcoming. That being said, I suspect most of us gathered here this morning, truth be told, have the most in common with the older son. Most of us have been loyal and dutiful; have never strayed too far from the fold; and probably feel we have earned our place in the household.

And that is where we get off track. Relationship is not earned. It simply is. We either live in relationship with our Father, or we live outside of it, trying to be our own person. Both sons are opposite sides of the same coin The younger son comes to himself and realizes that he can only truly be himself in relationship to his father, on his father's terms. As it turns out his father's terms are gracious, welcoming, and forgiving.

The older son begrudges the father's graciousness, that graciousness which has surrounded him every day, if he only had the eyes to see it. The older son is blinded by his own sense of self-righteousness and entitlement, which will not allow him to enjoy the father's lavish graciousness, and keeps him locked away from his true self, that self which is defined on the father's terms. And still the Father is gracious and welcoming, not truly happy until all join the party, until all come to themselves. There is room for all in the Father's household, younger and older sons alike, and the Father will not rest until all come and join in the celebration.

Jesus leaves the parable open-ended. We do not know what the older brother did. We are left with the Father's invitation to restored relationship. How will we respond? And if we respond in the affirmative and join in the celebration, what will it cost us? For you see, healing and restoration are a tricky business, seldom easy and rarely pain free. Dare we risk it? Dare we not? Amen.

Sermon for Lent 4C (RCL)

I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lenten Discipline 2010: Who 'Jacked My Lenten Discipline?

We have enrolled my daughter in a Roman Catholic school this year because to be blunt the public school system where we live sucks (can I say "sucks" in a pastoral blog? guess I just did) when it comes to students with special needs. It seems they consider her to be a normal functioning 5th grader, when in fact she functions more at a 3rd grade level. Suppose they didn't want her dragging their TAKS scores down (Don't even get me started on that brain fart called the TAKS test, that's a whole other rant). Anyway, She's going to this Roman Catholic School, where they celebrate school masses every Friday morning, and during Lent they do Stations of the Cross on Friday @ 2:30. School mass and Stations of the Cross, a perfect Lenten discipline I thought to myself. And God laughed.

You see, I've been on Facebook for, oh, maybe a year and a half. I got on it because the Dean of the San Antonio Conference (it's an ELCA thing), got the brilliant idea that it would be easier to communicate conference events and news via Facebook than regular e-mail. Okay, I'm a loyal, dutiful person and I get on Facebook. Pretty benign, until lately.

Throughout my life I have drifted across the paths of many people and have enjoyed their company for a time and then just kind of drifted off. I've really led kind of a disconnected existence. Well, God's Lenten project for me seems to be in re-establishing many of those old connections. And Facebook is the vehicle by which this is being accomplished.

Facebook which started out as a benign, professional endeavor has grabbed a bigger time share than I ever would have thought possible. Now I trade barbs and puns with my 18 year old niece whom I've only seen once in her life, but who now knows that her uncle is a certified loony. I now converse regularly with a gaggle of fraternity brothers most of whom I haven't seen since college graduation in 1982. While commenting on the relationship status of one of my colleagues, I began a running conversation with a person who turns out attended the same Cursillo weekend back in 1988 and was even a fellow table member. And as a result of that conversation I will be writing a piece of palanka (it's a 4th Day thing) for my internship supervisor's daughter, whom I may have met once, back in '87-'88. Then there's the seminary buddy turned homletics professor; and the first guy who ever came out to me who is now happily married to his husband (and the world didn't come to an end). It's like, who's next? The milkman who delivered our milk when we lived in Cincinnati back in the late '60's (yes, we did have a milkman!)?

It has been an awakening for me, to see that spider web of relationships that I have ignored for so long begin to take shape before me. And to just ride with it and let it happen. God may be messing with me via Facebook (not to mention this sudden urge to author a blog), but I'm sure enjoying the experience. And to think, I was willing to settle for a school mass and stations of the cross. Just goes to show God's ways are not our ways and God's thoughts not our thoughts...

I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.

Giving the Devil Her Blog

Jesus full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. Luke 4:1-2, NIV

You humans have a saying, "The devil is in the details." You don't know how right you are. I really shouldn't be telling you this, it being a trade secret and all, but all of the wars and genocide; the violence, prejudice, and hatred, they're mere cover fire for the real onslaught. If I can keep you distracted with "shock and awe" then the more subtle attacks which lie hiding in the weed-like details, the everyday stuff of life, go virtually undetected. And once I establish a beachhead, I am almost impossible to remove, yet alone, resist.

The secret to temptation is really no secret at all. I only dangle before a person what they themselves already desire. The old "carrot and stick" approach, keeping fulfillment just one step out of reach, and of course, concealing my role in the process in the myriad of details. And before you know it, scandal, ruin, values and position compromised. Booya! Score one in the old victory column! And the beauty of it all is that they do it to themselves, and have little to no idea of my involvement. Ah, the satisfaction is to die for, so to speak.

The one exception to the rule, over which I have scratched my horns for centuries is the case of Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously, over the course of time you win a few, lose a few; balance and harmony in the universe; yin and yang; yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. But the way I lost and the stakes involved... It should have been an easy play. It really should have...

I mean, come on, the guy fasted for forty days and nights -- obvious piece of cake, so to speak. Dude, he was hungry! Duh... tempt him to use his power to create food for himself. Rocks into bread. Scorpions into lobsters. Whatever! Jesus could have done it with his eyes closed; one arm tied behind his back; while hopping on one foot. You could here his stomach growling for miles. And the beauty of it all was playing out the implications. Rocks into bread... Sand into fish... An olive tree into a full course meal for a starving family... Become a traveling , magical, miracle, freak show. Forget the cross and the Father's will. Meet a few pressing needs now. Take the short term gains and let the long term take care of itself. But he resisted, and all I managed was a long foul ball down the right field line. Strike one.

Not to be easily deterred, I showed him all the kingdoms of the world in an instant. Told him that they would all be his if he just worshiped me. Thought I could slip that one past him, play on his compassion for the suffering of humanity, and have him forget that they were really his to begin with. But he saw through my effort, and I fouled it straight back. Strike two.

Now I really had to dig my heels in. Down to my last strike. The game hung in the balance. What to do? What to do? The it occurred to me: Play on his sense of doubt. Yeah, that's the ticket. If you are the Son of God... A wonderful word, if. You have no idea how much havoc I wreak with just those two simple letters: i... f... if... If you are the Son of God, make a big show. Everyone will see and everyone will know that you are truly God-in-the-flesh, and they will worship you and this messy business with the cross can be all forgotten. I thought I had him. I really did. I didn't even hear his reply. The pitch slipped right past me. Called strike three. I was out.

I put up a protest. Threw a base or two, even kicked a little dirt. But it did no good. Game over. I had lost the battle but was unwilling to concede the war. I was not through with Jesus of Nazareth; we would meet again. I am not used to losing, and am unashamedly what you humans would call a "poor loser". Oh, I can feign graciousness, but inside I am aflame with anger. Failure in my business can have eternal consequences, and is not tolerated under any circumstances. Hey, but I'm the boss, right? Who's going to question me -- and live?

So, I didn't fail. No, I just... It was just... a temporary setback. Yeah, a temporary setback. That's the ticket! I would find a weakness somehow, somewhere and exploit it. I just needed to bide my time and look for an opportune moment. Perhaps, one of his followers, I thought to myself at the time, a wicked smile twisting across my lips... Yeah, one of his followers. That's the ticket! But that story is a whole other post...

And so the devil failed in her attempt to bring Jesus up short of the cross. How is the devil doing in our midst? As the saying goes, "If you want to follow Jesus, you'd better look good on wood." What fears do we have that the devil plays upon? What weaknesses, unconfessed doubts, misguided ambitions do we suffer from, which give the devil an avenue of attack? What are we willing to settle for which brings us up short of the cross?

Lent is a time to explore these questions; to draw closer to God and God's vision for us. We do so, confident in the knowledge that Jesus has gone before us... and has won. And that even in our darkest hours, when temptation looms largest... We have hope. We can bear up. We can struggle through; stagger forward, carrying our appointed cross and following in the path pioneered and perfected by Jesus our Savior and Lord.

Our Lenten journey has begun now in earnest. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 1c (RCL).

No, I have not forgotten how to count. Due to popular demand by my many devoted followers, all 2 of them (I do appreciate you, honest, I do), I thought I would post the whole series of the what I am calling "The Stories of Lent C". Okay, okay, so there is no demand, just my OCD, but I hope you enjoy them anyway. Peace out.

I am the Unlikely Pastor. Welcome to my world.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Of Life and Fig Trees

At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did?" Luke 13:1-3, NRSV

Isaac existed in a realm of fog and shadows. People
appeared as if out of nowhere, their faces indistinct, yet vaguely familiar; their voices a muffled whisper, barely audible, hardly understandable. And then, just as quickly, they would vanish again back into the fog which engulfed him.

His emotions were just as clouded and hazy. Oh, there was anger at first, intense, white hot, searing; but it soon flashed out, giving way to feelings of helplessness and despair, and then ultimately to numbness, nothingness. Flat. Sterile. That is what his existence had become. Two-dimensional. He was reduced to a mere cipher of himself on the scroll of human existence.

He wasn't always like this. There were distinct flashes in his mind of times when he was happy, joyous and free. Even living as a Galilean transplant in Jerusalem and having even closer contact with those disgusting Romans. Ari had made it all bearable. He would put a bowl on his head as a mock helmet and do an impersonation of a Roman soldier that would have him in stitches for hours. Pops would have been so proud to see his sons working side by side in the family pottery business. He, Isaac, the master craftsman, and Ari, with his wit and charm the salesman deluxe. They made a good team and a good living for themselves even in those difficult times.

Through it all, Ari kept him laughing and kept him faithful. Isaac never had much use for religious faith. Being a Jew was more of an ethnic identity than a religious one for him. But Ari would not let him forget the deeper meaning of his Jewish identity. Isaac went to synagogue more out of duty and obligation. "Hey, at least I go," he would tell his protesting brother. The whole enterprise didn't make much sense to him though: old stories of long ago ancestors and a mysterious God who somehow singled them out of all the peoples of the world for special relationship. Yeah, right. He just sort of politely smile and pray that he wouldn't fall asleep and start snoring. But when Ari talked about the Jewish life of faith and explained things to him, it seemed to make more sense. Imagine that, his younger brother, the consummate salesman, being his rabbi. What would Pops thought about that?

So, when on that fateful day, Ari went off to offer sacrifice, Isaac let him go, even though they were in the midst of a rush order that was backing everything else up. Rabbi Ari, off to the Temple, Practical Isaac at home to work the wheel and fire the kiln. "We all make our own sacrifices," he could remember thinking to himself.

But then it got late. Ari never came home. That wasn't like him. He was prompt and true to his word to a fault. Isaac became worried. What could have happened? If he slipped out on him, leaving him behind with all that work... No, Ari was not like that. Something must be wrong. He hurriedly shut down the store, praying he remembered to shut off the kiln. As he approached the Temple he remembered a growing sense of foreboding and a knot in his stomach the size of Egypt.

The rest was a blur. The gawking crowd. The wailing women. And the smell of blood. He pushed his way through the chaos. Blood. A sea of red. Goat blood. Lamb blood. Human blood. All mixed together and indistinguishable. And there was Ari's lifeless body, a death grip on the lead of the lamb that he had purchased. The lamb was stunned and silent. Splashes of red like flames illuminating its fleecy coat. It looked up at Isaac with confused eyes.

Ari never got to offer his sacrifice. Ari became the sacrifice. Isaac barely remembered releasing the lamb and watching it wander off into the maze of people. He simply clutched his brother close to him, not even noticing the blood that stained his tunic.

Then the anger. Then the fog. It turns out that the Roman flunky of a governor, Pilate, got it in his head that day to sacrifice a few Jews. Why? Pilate probably had his reasons, but none that would make sense to any sane human being. Romans! Ari was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A victim of a mad man's random wanton violence. Ironic, Isaac mused, Ari a victim of randomness in what he professed to be a God ordered world. Where was this God when Ari needed him most? What could Ari have done to deserve such a fate? Surely God didn't sacrifice Ari, because of Isaac's doubt and indifference? The questioning. The doubt. The accusing finger-pointing. The guilt. It was too much for Isaac to relive. He drifted back into the oblivion of his foggy existence.

One day some friends dragged him along to see this new rabbi that was the rage of the whole countryside, Jesus. Quite a reputation, they told him. Healed lepers. Gave sight to the blind. Even cast out demons. Quite a show. And to top it all off he was reported to be quite the preacher and teacher. Should make for great entertainment, they told him. Nothing like a good exorcism to perk up one's spirit! Besides, they reasoned, you have hardly left your house since, well, since it happened. And so they whisked Isaac away. He didn't have the energy to put up much of a protest.

Jesus, it turned out, was a rather unimpressive, ordinary looking man with a small entourage of followers. They found him setting in the Temple courts with his followers gathered around him, much like any plain old run-of-the-mill rabbi. They sat down on the edge to listen. It was pretty unspectacular, not very memorable at all until one of his buddies, wishing to to stir the pot, blurted out, "Hey, teacher, what do you think about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?"

Time stood still. Jesus looked up. He looked right at Isaac and his friends. Then Isaac saw a little flash of recognition in Jesus' eyes. He felt very naked and transparent. Jesus saw his guilt and despair. Jesus saw his rage and doubt. Jesus knew him. And despite all of the ugliness he carried around with him, Jesus loved him.

Oh, Ari... Tears, long dammed up, began to flow freely and pool on the ground, much like the blood had flowed and pooled in the Temple on that day. Oh, Ari... And now under Jesus' knowing gaze, Isaac began to realize what Ari had always tried to teach him: Life is God's daily gift to us, what we do with it is our gift to God. How many times had Ari said that to him? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Now Isaac began to realize. now he began to understand. "God, forgive me!" he prayed falling to his knees. On that day, the fog that had engulfed Isaac, began to dissipate...

We want things to make sense. We want things to be fair. We want them to be right. We want to think that we get what we deserve, if not in this life, at least in the next. Problem is, what we want is not always reality. The wicked prosper. The righteous suffer. Face it, we can piously say, "Everything happens for a reason," until we turn blue; but that doesn't make it so. The fact is, stuff happens. That's reality. We are all sinners. We all fall short of God's glory. We are all dependent solely on God's grace for life.

"Don't think these are any worse sinners than any others," says Jesus, "Repent while you still can." Turn to God and trust in his grace for life, for you never know when a fatal heart attack, or a car wreck, or even a violent home invasion may occur. Treat each day, each person, as the precious gift of God they are, and live with a grateful and praise-filled heart.

Consider the fig tree in Jesus' parable: given a gift, a reprieve, another day to bear fruit, fruit worthy of repentance. Just as that tree depended upon the care of a loving gardener for the things that make for a life of abundance; so, too, we are dependent upon God for all that we need for life. And, yes, the pruning can prove painful, and the fertilizer messy and stinky, and the whole process long and drawn out and seemingly leading nowhere. And, yet, God still gifts us with another chance, another opportunity, another possibility for trust and repentance and life in abundance.

The questions asked by this text are not so much "Why?" but "How?" How can we live life in such a way, that we live out of God's gift of grace? How do we treat others as God's special gifts of grace to us? How do we bear fruit worthy of our calling as baptized Children of God?

As this season of Lent continues, may these questions lead us deeper and closer into relationship with the one who is our life, our hope, our love. Amen

Sermon for Lent 3c (RCL)

I am the unlikely pastor. Welcome to my world.