Sermons

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Third Sunday of Lent Cycle C (2)

One of the rules I was taught in High School English was to never begin a letter or a paragraph with the word “I”.  This has always been good advice.  Taught it to my son and it has been taken as a sign of him being focused on others which got him all his jobs and into Catholic University. Yet God breaks this rule in today’s first reading:

I am the God of your fathers, “ he continued,
“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
But the LORD said,
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites
and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’
if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”
God replied, “I am who am.”
Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites:
I AM sent me to you.”

I guess God doesn’t have to follow the rules. But it is an interesting choice that God made.  He tells us first of all He is the God of people.  He is not thunder or lightening or Seasonal which all the pagan God were. He is an individual I and He is related to these people.  Then He says I have witnessed, I have heard, I know well Therefore I have come down. God says he observes what happens to his people, He hears their cries of torment He hears their prayers and He KNOWS and when God knows God acts, He has come down.  Our God is concerned about us and when we pray for His help when He knows we need it. He comes down.  Why because He is the God of every person here.

Let’s imagine that everyone today is a follower of Jesus Christ. Let me ask a most important question: what is the worst sin any of us can commit as a follower of Christ? Of course, I’m assuming that we are not going to murder someone, or commit adultery, or rob a bank. What then is the worst thing we can do as a follower of Jesus Christ? Think about that for a moment.

Jesus told a parable: Now let me ask you the question again in light of this text. As a follower of Jesus Christ what is the worst sin you can commit? The answer is: the worst sin you can commit is to do nothing. Doing nothing, or in this case, not bearing fruit, is the quickest way to disqualify you from the kingdom of God.

You remember the story of the two men who were talking about their friendship. One of them said, “We’ve been friends for 25 years and there is nothing we wouldn’t do for each other.”And the other man said, “And that’s what we’ve been doing for one another for 25 years. Absolutely nothing.”

As a follower of Jesus that’s the worst thing you can do in the light of the parable of the fig tree? Nothing.

Remember Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats? What was the decisive factor between the sheep going into the kingdom of God and the goats being thrown into a lake of fire? What did the goats do that was so terrible? They did nothing. Absolutely nothing. In Matthew 25, the King says to the goats, “I was hungry and you gave me  what? You gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me [what?]. Nothing to drink . . . sick and in prison and you did what? You didn’t visit me.” In other words, you had a chance to minister to me when I was at my worst. And you did what? Nothing. Then he speaks those devastating words, “When you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” What was the sin of those he called goats who went into the lake of fire? Doing nothing.

In Luke 16, there is another of Jesus’ memorable stories. It was about a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury. At his gate lay a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side, in heaven. The rich man also died. But he didn’t go to heaven. Instead he found himself in Hades, where he was in torment. He looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”Why did the rich man end up in such a state? There is no evidence that he ever did anything wrong except for one. He did nothing. There was a poor man lying literally at his gate, and he did nothing to help. So often in Jesus’ teaching this is the sin that condemns people . . . not something desperately foul that they did, but something noble and good that they neglected to do.

In Matthew 25, just before the parable of the sheep and goats, we find another well-known parable of a man going on a journey who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a time the man returned and settled accounts with his servants. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.”

“Well done, good and faithful servant!” said the master. “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

The same scenario played out with the servant who was given two bags and earned two bags more. The master was intensely pleased.

But then the man who had received one bag of gold came. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”

What was his master’s reaction? Not so good. “You wicked, lazy servant!” he said. “So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. (25:14-30).

It’s easy to feel sorry for this poor guy. After all, he was probably a pretty nice guy. But being a nice guy or a nice lady isn’t nearly as important as making your life count for something. And how do you make your life count? By using what you have for God’s glory and making the world a better place.

I believe it is the most consistent theme in Jesus’ teachings. Yes, there are sins of the flesh. Yes, there are sins that fill our lives with guilt and shame. But the sin of which most of us is guilty, the sin that threatens to keep us out of the kingdom of God, is a sin of omission. It is the sin of doing nothing when we have the opportunity for doing something productive, something that will help someone in need, something that will glorify God.

this is what the Great Commandment is all about. You can’t love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself and sit idly by when a fellow human being, regardless of who they may be, needs help.

St. Paul himself in Galatians 5 talked about “the fruit of the Spirit”–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That’s a good beginning. But caring for the down-and-out tops the list, according to Jesus’ teachings. Caring for those who are sick, those who are troubled, those who are lonely, those who are in trouble.

Bearing fruit is something that all of us can do. We don’t have to have a university degree. We don’t have to be gifted in terms of leadership or technical abilities or gifted as speakers. All we need is Christ’s heart giving us sensitivity to the needs of others and the willingness to serve.

Some of you may be fans of the Irish rock singer Bono of the band, U-2. Since 1985 Bono and his wife Ali have been working for underprivileged people around the world, especially in Africa.

Bono recalls an incident that really affected his thinking about his responsibility to the world. In 1985, he and Ali spent one month living in Ethiopia near a feeding station. A man walked up to Bono and thrust his baby son into Bono’s arms, saying, “You take my son. He’ll live if you take him.”

Bono thought to himself, how deep could a country’s suffering be that a father would give up his son to a stranger if it might save his son’s life? At this point, Bono and Ali realized that they could not go back to the complacency in which they had once lived.

Bono understood that to be confronted with such misery required that he do something. I don’t know how many people worldwide that Bono has helped since that awakening. I’m sure it’s in the thousands, perhaps the millions. You and I don’t have the kinds of opportunity that Bono has, but even if we help only one person, according to Christ, it will not go unrewarded. 

But notice something quite interesting in this story of the fig tree. I realize that a sermon like this can be quite guilt-inducing if you take it seriously. I, myself, experience that guilt. But notice there is a note of grace in this story. The caretaker replies, “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” That’s interesting, don’t you think? The caretaker asks the master for one more year before he cuts it down. This act introduces a note of grace into the story.

In the insurance industry. In that industry, there is what is known as a “grace period.” A grace period is defined as the additional period of time a lender or an insurance policy issuer provides for a borrower to make passed due payment on a debt without penalty.

I believe that there are a number of Christians living in their spiritual grace period.

All of us have to be prepared for the future because we don’t want to be caught out of our GRACE period. The Gospel reading speaks about sudden and sad tragedies that took place at the time of the Lord.  Jesus uses these as a lesson for his disciples and for us.  He begins by noting the tragedies.  One was an accident: a tower under construction fell in Siloam.  Eighteen people, workers and bystanders, were killed.  The second was an unprovoked attack. Pontius Pilate turned a Temple service into a bloodbath.  The center of opposition to the Roman occupation of Israel was Galilee. The most adamant of the rebels were the members of a party called the Zealots.  By the way, one of these men, Simon the Zealot, left his political agenda and became one of the twelve disciples and then apostles.  Pilate heard that a large number of Galilean zealots had gathered in Jerusalem and would be attending a special Temple service.  “Perhaps,” Pilate’s spies told him, “they would stir up the locals against Rome.”  Pilate decided to nip this in the bud.  Only Jews were allowed in the Temple precincts. So Pilate had his soldiers dress as though they were Jews, and mingle in with the crowd.  At a given signal, they attacked all those at the service, thus mixing their blood with their Temple sacrifices.

            When people’s lives come to a sudden end, whether it is through disease, an accident, due to violence or a natural disaster, we all ask questions like: “Where is God?   Has God lost control?  Doesn’t he recognize what is happening to his people?”  Jesus says in the Gospel for today, “God knows, but the time is not yet ready for him to come to judge all people, to protect the innocent victims of evil in the world and to bring evildoers to their just ends.  Just as the farmer gives the fig tree one more chance to bear fruit, God gives mankind in general and us in particular a little more time to change our ways.” But God witnesses, God hears, God knows and God will come down.

  It is Lent, the time for us to face up to the evil that is around us and within us.  Let me briefly reflect on a psychological aspect of evil. History has clearly shown that the more we participate in evil, the less we notice its existence.  Those who ran the death camps of Nazi Germany were so used to arbitrarily choosing individuals for death that many of these murderers had no recognition of the evil of their actions.  Those who run the sleazy halls of our society take no responsibility in their actions.  Closer to home, the guy at school or at work who treats girls like objects for his lust, motivated by both selfishness and porn, you know the guy usually referred to as “a jerk”, or the girl at school or at work who is perfectly happy with using her sexuality to fill her lust and to achieve whatever else she wants, and there are words we use for her that need not be said, these people have become so used to their own immorality, even so comfortable with it, that they take no responsibility for their actions.  “Everyone does this. There is nothing wrong with it.”  That is the rationalizing of the devil. 

            There are times that we have all fallen for this great lie.  Even worse, the more we allow ourselves to become involved in immoral activity, the easier it is for us to actually become comfortable with our own immorality. 

            It does not have to be this way.  We are not animals compelled by natural instincts to a course of action. We can change.  We need help though.  The time to choose the Lord, not just with our words but with the actions of our lives, the time to choose is now, not at some moment in the future when we think we will drastically change and embrace God.  That future time might never come.  Towers fall. Massacres take place.  Loved ones die. 

            We call upon God to come now and heal this sick world of ours.  Are we ready for Him?  Are we a fig tree that is producing fruit, or would we have to be cut down with every other part of creation that has failed to serve its purpose?

            Lent is the time for reconciliation.  Great word, reconciliation. Much better than confession or penance.  Reconciliation means setting ourselves right in our relationships with others, God first and then with His presence in His people.  Lent is the time for us to recognize our own participation in the cumulative effects of evil in the world.  Lent is a time for us to view our own personal tragedies as resulting from the effect of evil on the innocent.  Lent is a time for us to ask for forgiveness and courage so that we might bear fruit. Lent is a time for us to face up to our own failings as we recognize that God can and will heal us and help us.  

            It is not too late.  The fig tree has been given another year.  May God give us the courage to use His time and our time wisely.  May we bear fruit.

 

Third Sunday of Lent Cycle C (1)

 

I

There is a hilarious story about a farmer who had three sons: Ron, Don and Little John. All had their names on the church roll but none ever attended church or had time for God.  Then one day Don was bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor was called and he did all he could to help Don, but the outlook for his recovery was very dim indeed. So the pastor was called to evaluate the situation.

The pastor arrived, and began to pray: “O wise and righteous Father, we thank Thee that in Thine wisdom thou didst send this rattlesnake to bite Don. He hasn’t been inside the church in years and has shown little interest in You. We trust that this experience will be a valuable lesson to him and will lead him to genuine repentance. And now, O Father, wilt thou send another rattlesnake to bite Ron, and another to bite Little John, and another really big one to bite the old man. For years we have done everything we know to get them to get serious with Thee. Thank you God for rattlesnakes. Amen.” (1)

          That’s some prayer, isn’t it? We don’t know if Don recovered or not, but if he did, maybe he decided that God had given him a second chance and was in church the following Sunday. Second chances are good.

Some of you remember a man named Alan Simpson who served with distinction as a Republican member of the United States Senate from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997. In his younger years, however, Alan Simpson’s life was not so circumspect.

Not too long ago, Simpson was involved in a Supreme Court case, Graham v. Florida. In a brief in support of the claimant in the case, Simpson admitted that as a juvenile he was–in his own words–“a monster.” At one time he was on federal probation for shooting mailboxes and punching a cop.

One day when Simpson was in high school, he and some friends “went out to do damage.” They went to an abandoned war relocation structure and decided to “torch” it. They committed arson on federal property, a crime now punishable by up to twenty years in prison if no one is hurt, and punishable by up to life in prison if the arson causes a person’s death. Luckily for Simpson, no one was injured in the blaze.

Simpson not only played with fire, he also played with guns. He played a game with his friends in which they shot at rocks. These were rocks situated close to the other participants, at times using bullets they stole from the local hardware store. The goal of the game was to come as close as possible to striking someone without actually doing so. Again, Simpson was lucky: no one was killed or seriously injured.

Simpson and his friends went shooting fire arms throughout their community. They fired at mailboxes, blowing holes in several and killing a cow. They fired at a road grader. Federal authorities charged Simpson with destroying government property. He pleaded guilty. He received two years of probation and was required to make restitution from his own funds–funds that he was supposed to obtain by holding down a job. (2)

As all this was unfolding, Alan saw his parents look at each other in total disbelief, and he saw his father cry. Fortunately, Alan Simpson got a second chance, and he became one of the most respected senators of his generation.

I have to wonder, though, what would have happened if Alan Simpson had been a young black male from a poor family and had committed the same offenses? Would he have been given the same second chance or would he still be rotting away in prison many years later? I’m just wondering.

Do you believe in second chances? Thankfully, God does.

Jesus told a parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’”

That makes sense, doesn’t it? What good is a fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit? Notice that it had been three years that the owner had the fig tree growing in his vineyard and yet it yielded nothing. Three years is the length of time that it takes a fig tree to become an established, fruit-bearing tree. That it was not bearing at this point seemed highly unlikely that it would ever bear fruit. So the owner of the vineyard was making a practical business-like decision. The tree’s taking up room. It’s using fertile soil in which another tree might prosper. “Cut it down!” he says to the man who cared for his vineyard.

But the man who cared for the vineyard tries to intervene. “Sir,” the man replies, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” Obviously the man who cared for the vineyard saw possibilities in the tree that the owner of the tree could not. The owner could see only a tree that wasn’t pulling its weight. But the man who looked after the tree was more familiar with it and believed the tree deserved another chance.

Thank God for second chances. Some of you may have seen a movie a few years ago titled Catch Me if You Can. It was an exciting movie based on the true story of Frank W. Abagnale, played in the movie by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Frank’s dad, Frank, Sr. played by Christopher Walken was, for a time, in serious trouble with the I.R.S. His self?indulgent wife divorced him. The resulting break-up of his family had a profound effect on young Frank, aged sixteen. He began acting out his frustration by impersonating adults engaged in several vocations.

For example, he becomes a substitute teacher even though he was only a high-schooler himself at the time. Then he successfully impersonated a Pan Am co?pilot. After that a he impersonated a physician (yes, a medical doctor). How would you like a high school kid operating on you? He also impersonated a lawyer.

He funded these adventures by passing hundreds of fake checks. He succeeded partly because he was careful to dress right–after all, clothes make the man (they say), and more importantly because he possessed a convincing charm–enough charm to acquire information, hotel rooms, flights around the world, and oodles of cash.

In the film a determined FBI agent, played by Tom Hanks, tracks Frank across several continents.  Arrested and sentenced to 12 years in jail, 26-year-old Frank is given a second chance by the government. He is given early release in return for his skill and expertise. As a consultant to the FBI and thousands of corporations around the world, he is now known as one of the world’s leading experts on fraud. (3)

He is also a polished public speaker addressing corporations about how to protect themselves from people like him. True story. Frank Abagnale, like Alan Simpson, is a man who could testify, “Thank God for second chances.”

Here’s something we should note. A second chance implies that something we’ve done is wrong. We need to consider this truth for a few moments while we still have the word “sin” in our vocabulary. I’m being serious. The whole concept that God would ever pass judgment on human beings is fast disappearing from American religion. Writer David Brooks in his recent best-selling book The Road to Character says that we have done our young people a disservice in letting this ancient word sin slip from our modern lexicon. We have made it very difficult for our young to even talk about right and wrong. (4) I believe he is right.

You know me by now. I am a person who preaches 99% of the time about a God of grace and love. But from time to time we need to face facts. It is absurd to think that a Creator God has no expectations from those whom He has created.

That wonderful preacher Dr. Tom Long tells a story about one of his students who hailed him one day as he walked across campus. “Dr. Long,” she said, “could I speak to you for a minute?”

Long said, “I’m going to get a cup of coffee, you want to go?” She did, and as they were sharing coffee, she told him what was on her mind. She said that she was serving as a field education student in a local church and that her supervising pastor was requiring her to preach next Sunday. Long said, “Good.”

She said, “No. It’s not good. He’s making me preach on the lectionary.”

Long again said, “Good.”

She said, “It’s not good. Have you read the lectionary texts for this week? They’re all about judgment. I don’t believe in judgment. I believe in grace. I believe in mercy. I believe . . . it took me three years of therapy to get over judgment. I am not going to preach judgment.”

They talked about it for a while and then they moved on to other things. She started to tell Dr. Long about her family life. She and her husband have several children, only the youngest of whom–a teenage boy–was still at home and he was driving them crazy. He was into drugs, maybe dealing them, in trouble with the police.

She said, “Like last night we were sitting at supper, we had no idea where our son was. In the middle of supper, he comes in the back door and I said would you like some supper and he practically spit at us. He just stomped down the hall to his room and slammed the door.” She said, “My husband got up and turned on ESPN. That is always his response to this.”

She said, “I don’t know, something got into me.” She said, “I’m afraid of my son physically. Physically afraid of my own son. But something got into me and I got up from the table and I went down to his room and I pushed open the door and I said to him, ‘You listen to me. I love you so much I am not going to put up with this.’”

Tom Long said, “Caroline, I think you just preached a sermon on judgment. God loves us so much God will not put up with the foolishness in our lives. We have foolishly hungered for success and power and status, and God says through Jesus, ‘That’s foolish. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. That’s what makes life free and good . . . Jesus says that’s foolish [to hunger for success and power and status]. I love you so much I’m not going to put up with that.’” (5)

To say that God gives us second chances is to imply the fact of God’s judgment on our sometimes foolish lives. God created us to bear fruit–the fruit of love, joy, peace, [tolerance], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). To think that God would forever put up with our lack of fruit . . . and even the bearing of wrong fruit . . . simply defies logic. We don’t know what form God’s judgment may take, whether in this world or the next, but God does judge. If nothing else, we see foolishness take a toll on our bodies, our relationships, our reputations, on our witness to others.

The late humorist Lewis Grizzard once said that thinking about God’s final judgment over our lives scared the “you-know-what” out of him. One day he received a questionnaire in the mail titled “Heaven: Are You Eligible?”

Grizzard said he took the test and scored “too close to call.” (6)

I suspect that all of us might score “too close to call.” Thank God for second chances. But a second chance implies that we are not living our lives at the highest level and we need to do something about it. That’s called repentance.

“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’”

And who can argue that the owner had the right to cut down the nonbearing tree? Look around you. That is how all of life is ordered. It is part of the law of sowing and reaping. Sow all the wild oats you want to, but eventually there will be a harvest. What kind of harvest can you expect under such circumstances–certainly not a good one?

“Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” The need for a second chance implies that something we’ve done is wrong, and we need to do something about it.

Life’s second chance is what the cross is about. “So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’”

“But the man who cared for the vineyard replied, ‘Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

The man who cared for the vineyard obviously represents Christ. Someone once called Christ “the forgiving side of God.” That’s not a perfect statement theologically, but for our unsophisticated minds, that is close enough. We read in Hebrews 7:24-25, “But because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”

Second chances are what the cross is all about. Christ lives with God to make intercession in our behalf. The question is, what will we do in response to the second chance God gives us? Do we continue to make the same foolish mistakes?

We are making a pilgrimage through the Lenten season. On the first Sunday, we dealt with Christ’s temptations in the wilderness. We called it a test. And we noted that this is how we should always look at temptations, not as a test designed to defeat us but as an opportunity for us to become stronger. Last Sunday we saw how Abraham was tested when he doubted God’s promise that God would provide him with an heir. This test was another way of making Abraham stronger. 

In the same way, second chances are designed to help us learn and grow stronger as we make our pilgrimage through life so that we might bear more and better fruit. I love the way Louisa Tarkington once put it. She wrote:

“I wish there were some wonderful place called the Land of Beginning Again,

Where all of our past mistakes and heartaches,

And all of our poor selfish grief,

Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door

And never be put on again.”

          Well, there is such a place, this Land of Beginning Again. It’s at the foot of the cross. Lent is a reminder to us that we all have missed the mark. But Christ offers us a second chance. Won’t you accept his gracious offer and make a new beginning today?

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1. Rev. Lang Yang, http://www.stmichaelsrichville.com/uploads/1/1/8/9/11898089/3-3-13_repent_or_you_will_be_perish_-_luke_13.5_-_rev._lang_yang_-_3rd_sunday_in_lent.pdf.

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_K._Simpson.

3. http://jamespye.webspace.fish.co.uk/1%20Peter%201.13?  25.htm. 

4. (New York: Random House, 2015).

5. The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long, http://www.nationalcathedral.org/worship/sermonTexts/tl080601.shtml.

6. A Heapin’ Helping of True Grizzard (New York: Galahad Books, 1991), p. 326.