March 3, 2013


fig tree

Sermon for Year C, The Third Sunday of Lent
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
March 3, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

In the last century there was a Swiss Reformed theologian who did great work.
His name was Karl Barth.
He was an academic, which means that in addition to being a lifelong student himself,
  He was a teacher responsible for helping to form up the next generation of leaders.
Barth was profiled for Time magazine in 1963,
  And in that interview he remembered telling his students to
  “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.
   “But,” he said, “interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

A newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other.
The contents of the Bible interpreting and clarifying the contents of the newspaper.
Today, Barth would say, “a smart phone in one hand and a Bible in the other,”
  Or a newspaper in one hand and NPR or CNN or Fox or “The Daily Show” in one ear,
  And the Word of God, sharper than a two-edged sword, coming in from the other side,
    And always, in our reading and hearing, remembering the Bible side,
  Listening for the overlaps, standing in the gaps, and being willing to hear the Gospel
    No matter which side it comes from.
The technology changes, the daily stories change, but the principle remains the same.

Not a bad way to do life. But …
By and large, the church does a disservice to its members by making them think
  That to be able to interpret the Word of God, living and active in the world day by day,
  One needs to have extensive training and specialized knowledge.
I hope you don’t get me wrong –
  It certainly does not hurt to have those things –
    I’ve scraped for mine and benefitted so much from having them –
  But quite often it seems we professional clergy
    Can unintentionally cut people off at the knees when it comes to this
    Because the Word of God is our bread and butter,
      And, we wrongly conclude, because my turf is my turf, it cannot also be yours.
Rather than working to spread the Good News by training folks in how to listen for it,
  Rather than helping to empower, we hoard it, and work at divining it ourselves,
  And that, brothers and sisters, is not good news.
It’s a problem in our work, and it violates the spirit of the priesthood.
So shame on us who wear collars; the Bible is not for professionalizing.

At any rate, when we do see God acting in the world, any person of faith has the duty
  To call immediate attention to it so we can rejoice in it together.
Wherever we see Christ present in the headlines, we point to him, and say, Look here!

Now all of this is some of what Jesus himself is up to today:
  Doing theology on his feet as it were,
  As the headlines roll in, and spreading the wealth of his teaching.
There’s no such thing as a newspaper, of course, in his day,
  And he doesn’t own a Bible
  Because that’s not a concept that’s even been invented yet.
But news is still news: it makes its way around,
  From interested party to interested party,
  Passed about from person to person,
    Until it reaches the ground on which Jesus is standing
    When the folks show up who have news to share.

There’s a breaking story to report:
  “Hey, Jesus, did you hear that Pilate had some people killed
      Right in the middle of their worship?”
“Mingled their blood with their sacrifices” is the precise verbiage,
  Which is a fancy way of saying that all the blood got mixed in together.
This particular sacrifice is an animal sacrifice, but …
  For us, it would be like if I were in the middle of saying the Eucharistic Prayer
  And someone broke in and shot me
    And took some of my own blood and poured into the chalice
    That we say contains the Blood of Christ. “Mingled.” Defiled.
A terrible and dark and humiliating and in-your-face kind of death.
The kind of death that those listening to Luke’s Gospel would have felt as all too real,
  For they too were persecuted and on the run for their belief in Jesus as the Messiah.
Jackbooted Roman soldiers breathing down on them.

“Hey, Jesus, did you hear about this?” The Bible and the newspaper.
There’s a subtle question at play that Jesus wants to bring right up to the surface
  And raise to a level of speech, and not allow to be simply a matter of quiet assumption.
Whenever we hear about someone suffering,
  Sometimes we ask ourselves, very quietly,
  What the person did to deserve it.
It’s not a fair question and we all know that, but human nature is prone to go there.
Jesus answers this question for all time.
Nothing, he says. They didn’t do anything to deserve it. It’s just something that happened.
Something terrible and unnecessary to be sure,
  But they weren’t doing anything to bring down any sort of divine wrath.

It’s an easy trap – magical thinking, I call it, almost voodoo thinking –
  To believe that someone did something so bad that it crossed some invisible line:
  That someone did something deserving of God’s punishment,
    And sometimes we hear it and think to ourselves,
    Well, he had it coming, didn’t he? or Gosh – I wonder what she did to deserve that.
Jesus cautions us today in the strongest possible terms to avoid this kind of thinking.

In our Rite I service, there is a form of confession available to us
  In which we would say,
  “Almighty God, …
    We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,
    Which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
    By thought, word, and deed,
    Against thy divine Majesty,
    Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.”
I don’t know what to do with this; but it’s in our thinking, too.

And I guess there are plenty of reasons why we should avoid it.

Yesterday Bobby Knight, the famous college basketball coach,
  Was interviewed on “Weekend Edition,” a radio show, by the host, Scott Simon.
Simon asked Knight, “Why didn’t you have pregame prayers?”
Here’s what Knight said:
  He said, “Well, I’ll tell you what.
  I watched the guy that hits a home run
    And he comes across the plate and he points skyward,
    Like thanking for the help from the Almighty to hit the home run.
  And as he does that, I say to myself God screwed the pitcher.
  And I don’t know how else you look at it.
  You know, I’ve always felt that, you know,
    The Almighty has a lot of things to do other than help my basketball team.”

This is sort of humorous, but it’s also sort of liberating.
We don’t have to play the game of whether we’re worthy before God,
  Or whether our petition, our prayer, our action is worthier than the other guy’s.
We don’t have to play the game at all
  Where God likes the other team better,
  Or God didn’t want my brother to get that job,
  Or God gave my mom cancer so I’m leaving the church,
   Or  God is just never going to be a Cubs fan.
We don’t have to play that game
  Of whether we deserve punishment or favor,
  Whether we deserve to win or to lose.
God roots for life abundant and justice and community.

If Lent teaches us anything, it’s that the Worthiness Game is always a losing game.
It’s a dead-end street, a rabbit trail, a road to nowhere.
Don’t go down it! It’ll waste your time!
We look to the heavens and we ask, Am I worthy, O God?
God wants us to move past this, and to simply lead lives
  That are good and charitable and mutual and that build up the Kingdom of Heaven
  And that show the face of Jesus to friend and stranger alike.

Now, not far from the site of these murders being reported –
  Just steps away, maybe –
  Archaeologists have found the remains of the Tower of Siloam.
Here, too, Jesus finds more fodder for the point he wants to make.
Apparently there was a tower –
  More than likely a tower that was still in the middle of construction –
  And it fell, killing eighteen people.
A moment ripped from recent headlines.
Apparently you just had to say “Tower of Siloam,” and people would have understood
  You were referring to this recent disaster.
Like saying “9/11.” “Columbine.” “Murrah Building.”
Or more accurately, for those who remember those horrific days at Texas A&M,
  The phrase “Aggie Bonfire” would come very close to Siloam:
  Twelve dead and twenty-seven injured in a structural collapse back in 2002.
“Tower of Siloam.” Eighteen people dead in this terrible accident.
And Jesus returns to the quiet thoughts
  That the people must have been amusing themselves with:
  What did those people who were killed do to deserve this?
A thought so natural it’s where we default.
But again, a place of uselessness, gossip, rank speculation.

In the end, his point about the fig tree is quite plain:
  Quit worrying what others did or did not do to appear worthy in God’s eyes,
  And start living lives of your own that meet the standard of the Kingdom of God.
Life is short, as this season of Lent teaches us, and we are finite, mortal creatures.
We will all die someday.
Meanwhile, we’re given a span of time in which to do as much good as possible
  To measure up to the standard of the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom, you’ll remember me saying often,
  Is not about heaven, pie in the sky, bye and bye, after you die,
  But about bringing the life and work of Jesus Christ to light, in the here-and-now.
It’s an all-encompassing spiritual, civic, economic, and political reality
  In which justice is done and the truth is spoken;
    And, that all, in the end, may come to know the peace of God.
That’s the Kingdom.

From Mark chapter 12:
  “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another,
    And seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him,
    ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’
    Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;
    You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
      And with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
    The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
    There is no other commandment greater than these.’
    Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that
      “He is one, and besides him there is no other”;
      And “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding,
      And with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—
      This is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’
    When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him,
      ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

So we have our orders today.
Not to play the Worthiness Game with ourselves or others.
Not to ask, “What did I/you/we/they do to deserve this?”
  But instead to ask, “What can I/you/we/they do to help?”
And once we have the answer, to do it.
The shorthand term for all that is Mission.

It means we set our faces each and every day
  Toward making Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God a reality.

So may we all bear this fruit. Amen.

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