Sunday, April 28, 4:00 – 6:00 pm
“Faith in Community”
You are invited to a community interfaith dinner for youth and their families! Come participate in a sharing of faith traditions. There will be a Q&A session with youth from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. After the Q&A, stay for a potluck dinner that will include small-group, interfaith discussions about the value and role of faith communities in our lives.
Teens Ages 11-18 and their Families Welcome!
Bring a Dish to Share! (Vegetarian only)
$$$ FREE $$$
RSVP to Carolyn Dempsey at email@example.com
“Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it…” Luke 13:8
This is the time of year when you hear me talk a lot about basketball. I apologize to those of you who don’t care a bit about the NCAA tournament. I’ll admit I’m a little obsessed. This year I find myself feeling more superstitious than I usually do. For the first round game on Friday, I wore my favorite Virginia t-shirt. I put on the lucky earrings, which I’m also wearing today in preparation for tonight’s game. When we were losing at halftime, I poured a little bourbon and tried to face the fact that all of my loyalty, all of my cheering, all of my superstitions might not be enough to help Virginia win the game. Thankfully they emerged victorious. But it wasn’t anything I did…probably.
We can laugh about superstitions, but they are a version of something we know deep within ourselves. We want to be able to control what is beyond our control. At the very least we want to be able to draw a clear line of cause and effect between what people deserve and what happens to them: “She is a kind and loving person, and she works so hard…I hope she gets that job she wants.” Or the reverse: “He has been awful to his family…I hope all his toenails fall off.”
When bad things happen in the world, it’s not helpful to try to make sense of them in terms of divine punishment. It’s tempting, but it’s not helpful. We may want to blame someone, we may sometimes want tragedy to be a form of cosmic justice, but that’s not where Jesus points us.
Jesus knows that we sometimes want to look at terrible events this way. He sees it in the situation that people bring to him in this gospel.[i] The first tragedy is at the hands of the Roman government – Pilate has had some people killed, their blood mixed in with the sacrifices that people have made in observance of their faith. Jesus guesses the question people are wondering about this tragedy: Did the people deserve it? Were they somehow worse than the rest of us? The answer is, emphatically, no.
To highlight this point, Jesus refers to a different tragedy – the collapse of a tower that has killed eighteen people. Did those people deserve to have a pile of bricks come falling down on their heads? Were they somehow worse than the rest of us? The answer is again, emphatically, no.
In our own time it would be like asking if the people in the latest mass shooting deserved to die. Or if the people overwhelmed by floodwaters in Nebraska and Iowa deserved to lose their homes, their land, their livestock. The answer is clear: no and no.
That part of us that wants it to be about deserving, the part that longs for a clear cause and effect – it’s usually connected to the part of us that doesn’t want to look at our own behavior. If we spend our time looking at those other people and judging their actions as worthy of reward or punishment, then we can avoid facing our own choices and the harm we often do.
But Jesus asks us to be honest with ourselves. The verb he uses here – repent – from the Greek metanoeo – means to face what we have done and to be turned in a new direction. The gospel of Luke is especially interested in repentance. A form of this word appears 14 times in this gospel, twice as often as in Matthew’s gospel and far more often than in Mark or John.[ii]
Jesus is also talking to a plural “you.” All of you, he says, must repent. Stop obsessing about other people’s sin. Face up to what you have done. And then do better.
Jesus then serves up this strange story about a fig tree that hasn’t yet produced any figs. It sounds like a cautionary tale –Be careful so you won’t get chopped down!– and maybe it is. But let’s not miss the mercy in this story. The fig tree gets another chance. And that second chance will come with some extra nourishment, some tender care from the gardener and the manure to help it grow.
We don’t really know what happens to that fig tree. The gospel doesn’t tell us. But it lives to see another day. It has another chance to bear fruit.
A call to repentance is one of the hallmarks of the season of Lent. It asks us to spend some time in self-examination – to look at our lives and ask how we can – with God’s help – do some things differently.
What happens when we repent? Consider what our first reading from Isaiah has to say about that (55:6-8): “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that God may have mercy on them…for [God] will abundantly pardon.”
God will abundantly pardon. There are second chances and still more chances after that. Repentance is ongoing, a fundamental practice in a life of faith. It’s why we begin worship with confession – so that we might together, in community with one another – own up to what we’ve done and left undone – and hear, in community and with one another, the promise of forgiveness that only God can give. God wants that forgiveness to set us free, free to bear fruit in the world. To give what we can offer, to grow in the ways we were meant to grow.
My friend Jeni lives in Jerusalem where there are many fig trees.[iii] They grow well there; the climate suits them, and they often produce more fruit than anyone can manage. Jeni’s neighbor had to cut down part of his fig tree because it threatened to overwhelm the entrance to his home.
Jeni has been watching for the leaves of the fig trees to emerge this year. And now they have. She reminded me this week that those leaves are shaped like a hand in blessing. I thought of that at the beginning of today’s service as I raised my hand in blessing and said those words of forgiveness: “I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the ☩Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Given how easily fig trees grow where she lives, Jeni admits it’s hard for her to imagine a fig tree not bearing fruit. She writes:
I’m curious about the fig tree that hasn’t blossomed in three years. I almost can’t believe it is real. It was really dead, maybe just like Jesus, in the tomb those three days.
But maybe it is like us, sometimes. Seemingly gone, ruined, done. A little digging and dunging, a little outside love and nourishment, yields a lot of transformation.
The reign of God is always about transformation more than condemnation. New life awaits. New beginnings. New chances to blossom. God brings life out of death, fruit out of barren branches.
Do we believe that’s possible? Are we ready to grow?
God has given us more time. Let’s use it well.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am very grateful to my friend and colleague, The Rev. Meta Carlson, whose commentary on this Sunday’s texts proved exceedingly helpful: http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/168
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” Luke 13:34
If I were to ask you how you picture Jesus, what would you say? You probably have any number of images in your mind that you’ve collected from children’s Bibles or stained glass windows. If I pushed you to name your favorite biblical image of Jesus, you might go for something like “shepherd” or “teacher.” If I pushed you a little more to name a biblical metaphor for Jesus, you might come up with the light of the world or the bread of life or the vine from which the branches grow.
I’m guessing you would not come up with “chicken.”
Yes, the gospel reading puts it a little more poetically. Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” It’s a gorgeous image of maternal love and protection that Jesus claims as his own, an image that one scholar describes as both “fierce and vulnerable.”[i]
We might prefer for Jesus to choose a different image. Why can’t he borrow from the prophet Hosea and be a lion, crushing his enemies with a single blow, or (another Hosea image) a bear ready to charge in and set things right? (Hosea 11:10 and 13:6)[ii] Or, if we must have a bird image, why not the language from last week’s psalm (Psalm 91), from which we get the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”? In that hymn we sing about God lifting us up on eagle’s wings so that we need not fear the terror of the night.
Today we don’t get those images. Today we get a chicken. A mother hen, yes. But a chicken nonetheless.
The image takes on a deeper meaning when we hear Herod described as a fox. The Pharisees come to Jesus with a warning: Herod is out to get him. Herod is a classic biblical villain. He is a political pawn of the Roman government, just clever enough to be dangerous and just foolish enough to be manipulated by others. Herod’s only tools are intimidation and violence, which makes him a fox circling the henhouse. Jesus is increasingly becoming a political problem for Herod, and we know how Herod deals with perceived enemies. Remember that Herod was the one who imprisoned John the Baptist and later had him beheaded.
Notice that Jesus is the one who calls Herod a fox in response to the Pharisees’ warning: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” I love this response. It shows no fear of Herod’s power. Jesus seems to be saying: Herod will be Herod. I’m focused on the work of healing.
Jesus is looking down the road toward Jerusalem. He knows that death awaits him there. He knows that he does not have much time. That’s why we get a reference to the moment when he will enter Jerusalem in triumph, a moment we will celebrate on Palm Sunday – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And, still more subtle, we hear Jesus say that he will finish his work on the third day. We know what happens three days after Jesus is crucified.
No one other than Jesus gets these references. But for us, on this side of the empty tomb, we are able to see that Jesus knows he is about to die and does not flinch. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a mother hen defending her chicks, but it is indeed both fierce and vulnerable. Like a mother hen, Jesus puts his own life between the evil of the world and us. He faces down the fox, who will at first appear to have won the fight. But that is not the end of the story. The fox does not know about resurrection.
Our world is full of Herods, who, when they feel threatened, know only intimidation and violence as a response. We see the effects day after day of an evil run rampant. We have certainly seen it this week as once again people are massacred while practicing their faith. Once again we see the sin of white supremacy claim innocent lives. Once again we see people murdered while worshipping the same God that we worship this morning.
I don’t know how much more I can take. We saw it in Charleston. We saw it in Pittsburgh. We now see it in Christchurch, New Zealand.
My friend Misty moved to Christchurch a few months ago with her family because she took a position as a professor at the University of Canterbury there. Her account of Friday’s horror is heartbreaking. Fifty people dead. The university and local schools were on lockdown for hours. Misty was separated from her husband and two children for most of the day as she and her colleagues worked to keep other people’s children safe and calm. As of yesterday they were still working to connect with all of their PhD students, several of whom are Muslim. Kids who go to school with her children are among the injured. A father from the school is among the dead.
We all grieve alongside the people of Christchurch, especially the Muslim community there. We will pray for them in our Prayers of the People today. And we ask: What can we do?
Earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus has said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
In the chapter just after today’s gospel, Jesus says it again: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me,” he’s asking us to risk death. Not just physical death, but the death of playing it safe, the death of feeling too embarrassed to speak up, the death of putting concern for reputation above what is right. One of the things Jesus is asking us to do is put ourselves between evil and the ones whom evil would harm. Just like the mother hen would do.
Strangely, this week, as I was pondering what it means that Jesus uses this image of the mother hen, I stumbled upon a news story about a fox who just a few days ago snuck into a chicken coop at night on a big farm in France.[iii] I’m sure the fox thought that it was dinner time. The next morning the fox’s dead body was found in the corner of the chicken coop. Some combination of the 3000 chickens had joined forces and pecked him to death.
Now let me be clear. I don’t want to be too literal here. I’m not suggesting we should gang up and return violence for violence. But what if we take a lesson from the solidarity of the chickens? What if we stood together as people of faith and resisted prejudice and evil in all its forms? The foxes always think they are more powerful than the chickens. The foxes assume that their predatory ways will prevail. But what if we came together and said no more?
Because every time we allow a stereotype to be invoked without being challenged, when we remain silent in the face of a prejudiced comment, when we hold back because we’re too scared to say something – then we allow the world to be less safe for all of us, but especially for our Muslim neighbors, our Jewish neighbors, our black or brown neighbors, our LGBTQ neighbors, our disabled neighbors.
Evil is on the loose, prowling around like the fox looking for the next way into the henhouse.
So let’s put our mothering wings together and, like the Savior we follow, risk everything to stop it. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]See David Schnasa Jacobsen’s commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3990
[ii]Thank you to Dr. Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3010&fbclid=IwAR3713q6xb_3rUYyTONLwHF0tjWpkGFgtVoWl8Au-gGU3CQ7EMEP923eOZU