God: The gardener.
It doesn’t take much effort these days to bump into tragedy. You don’t have to look very far to see bad news. That old newsperson adage is true: if it bleeds, it leads. In our information age, we are more aware of the bad stuff in the world than ever.
The list of bad news is long: strife and conflict overseas in Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. Viruses that harm unborn children and hunger around the world that kills millions of people, young and old, each year around the world. Right here in Canada, a school shooting in Alberta, and a stabbing at a high school in Toronto.
And these are only the public tragedies in our world. They speak nothing of the personal tragedies we all experience and are weighed down by, that keep us awake and haunt as at night.
It is easy when we turn on the news to ask ourselves, “Why?” or maybe even, “Why God?”
Why those innocent children in an elementary school? Why God? Why does everything in this world, sometimes, feel so God-forsaken?
It is the same question the townspeople in our story ask Jesus. It seems Herod had yet again slaughtered religious pilgrims, slaughtered them while they were making sacrifices to God. Horrific wouldn’t begin to describe it. It was sacrilegious. And before we begin to count ourselves lucky that we have progressed enough in the past 2000 years that no one in our modern world would dream of slaughtering a group of immigrants while worshipping, perhaps we should remember those 11 people who were beheaded last week in a village in Syria.
These questions are our questions. We have had our own falling towers just as they did in the first century.
Why? they ask. Why? we ask.
Now, in the first century, most people believed that when tragedy struck it was a punishment, a warning, the judgment of God. They believed that good things happened to good people. And when bad things happened, it was a reflection of your character.
Those Galileans that Herod slaughtered? They must have sinned something terrible. Those who died in the tower? They must have angered God. This was the conventional wisdom of the day, and we are not so far removed from this line of thinking in our own modern culture. Those children slaughtered? We had voices that told us it was because we’ve turned away from God, because we’ve banned prayer in schools, because we’ve let people own guns, because we’ve let our children play video games. Those towers fell in New York City? It was God’s judgment on a corrupt nation.
We must have angered God.
And so these voices spray blame around in the face of tragedy in order to avoid dealing with it. Tragedy is much easier to stomach when there is someone to blame. So they call on us to repent, to be better people, so that maybe next time we can prevent tragedy, maybe next time God won’t get so mad, maybe next time we can control the uncertainties in our world.
Jesus in this story, too, calls us to repent. But for something different.
He calls us to repent of the belief that God is a God who sends violence, tragedy and death upon those who have sinned. He calls us to repent of making God into a monstrosity whose anger burns white hot at our mistakes and missteps. He calls us to repent of believing that God repays evil with evil, violence for sin.
God is not so petty and small a God as to do that.
In our lives, though, we want a God who takes that kind of vengeance. We want a God who gets even. We want a God who triumphs over enemies.
We don’t want a God who washes feet. We don’t want a God who loves enemies. We don’t want a God who, instead of getting even, stretches out on a cross to be executed.
So, as the people are asking Jesus whether tragedy is God’s judgment, Jesus in response tells them a story about who God really is. He tells a story about a vineyard owner, a fig tree and a gardener.
See this fig tree, it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Fig trees are supposed to produce figs, but this tree wasn’t. It wasn’t following the rules of a fig tree. And so the vineyard owner comes in, angry at the tree for its lack of production, and calls for it to be completely uprooted, chopped up and used for firewood. It was good for nothing. It did nothing but take up space, take nutrients from the soil and waste them, take up the vineyard owner’s time. It wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do, and the vineyard owner was tired of all the taking. He wanted some making. He needed a fig tree that was a maker, not a taker. But the fig tree is saved by an unconventional gardener.
The problem is, though, we still view this story and God through the lens of the vineyard owner, through the lens of a God who punishes us for not doing what we are supposed to do, who sends tragedy and calamity our way when we mess up. We think that God is the vineyard owner, angry at our sin, our lack of production, our lack of fruit. And we see Jesus as the gardener, standing between us an abusive father’s rage, saying, give them one more chance, one more year to get their stuff together.
And we miss the point. God is not the vineyard owner. No, the vineyard owner is the wisdom of the world. It is the wisdom of the world that measures our value in how good we are, if we are following all the rules, if we are doing what we are supposed to. It is the wisdom of the world that says that our value is in how much we produce for the vineyard owner, how much profit we can make for the person in charge, how much we can put out for families, our churches, or communities. It is the wisdom of the world that says if you are not a maker, then you are a taker and good for nothing.
The wisdom of the world lionizes and values competency and success. It doesn’t value suffering or pain or failure or falling apart. It doesn’t value lament. It considers weeping a weakness. When tragedy happens, it wants to fix it and if it can’t fix it, it wants to find someone to blame. When grief happens, it wants us to get over it and move on. When it sees us fall, it tells us to get right back up and try, try again. It admonishes us that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And if you don’t get back up and if you don’t get going, then you are good-for-nothing.
It is the wisdom of the world that sees such a vulnerable tree and demands that it be uprooted and throw into the fire.
Thank goodness that God is not the vineyard owner.
Rather, God is the gardener. God is the gardener who says no to the wisdom of the world. God is the gardener whose love rejects the wisdom of the world. God is the gardener who proclaims our value not in terms of whether we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, not in terms of what we produce, what we make or even what we take. God the gardener tells us, “All that doesn’t matter. I don’t care about all that. What matters is how much I care.”
And God says I care so much that not only am I not going to send punishment down on your for missteps, not only am I not going to uproot you when life seems to have sapped the life from you, but I am also going to get down there with you, in the dirt, in the manure, in the places where it smells and stinks and gets overwhelming.
God says, “I care enough to get dirty!”
And so Jesus is saying, in the midst of news of tragedy, don’t look to place blame on the victims of violence, the victims of hunger, the victims of poverty, the victims of grief, the victims of suffering. Don’t try to explain away tragedy by finding a convenient place to put the blame for it. And don’t put it on God. Don’t look for tragedy and trauma as evidence of the vineyard owner who has come and gotten even, offered retribution for wrongdoing.
Amid tragedy, if you want to find God, look where the suffering is. God is there suffering with us. This is the message of the Incarnation. That God is with us. So don’t look at the heavens and shake your first. Look at the dirt. And the manure. The earth. And dig you hands in. For that is where God is, with us in the midst of it all. In this parable, Jesus is telling us that God, when we feel most lifeless and hopeless and worthless, isn’t going to leave or forsake us or send us to the fires. Rather, God is entering into our lifelessness, hopelessness and worthlessness with compassion and love.
God will see us and not want to rid the land of such wastefulness. Rather God will see us and start getting dirty, smelling to high heaven, amid the crap that life throws at us, piles on us, shovels on us. And God is working. With us. Tending the soil. Creating life, from lifelessness. Creating life with us in the midst of manure, waste and dead things.
Jesus calls us to repent of our image that sees God as a vineyard owner who sows and reaps tragedy when we mess up. And he calls us to be gardeners, too. He calls us to follow him, to dig into the soil and the manure of what life can throw at people, to care about them, love them and stand with them. Don’t repent just by saying you’re sorry. Don’t repent just by saying all the right words. Repent by standing with those who are suffering, stagnant or stuck. Not to save them, or make their lives better, but to enter into their reality with them. God doesn’t want us to have the answer to suffering. God doesn’t want us to be the solution to suffering. God wants us to do exactly what Jesus did with us: to enter into the suffering of others and suffer with them.
See because as Paul told the Corinthians, there is no suffering, no testing that we cannot endure. But it’s not that God will magically zap us with the pluck to pick ourselves up and keep walking. Rather the strength comes from knowing that we are God’s beloved. We are God’s ongoing story in the world. The strength comes from knowing, as Paul says, that there is no testing that is not common to us all.
The strength comes from not being alone. The strength comes from us. This community. This church. If it all seems like too much, don’t look toward the heavens for God or for the strength to keep going. Look around in these pews. God is here already. The strength comes from this great cloud of witnesses who have walked through the valleys and the shadows of death and defeat. These are our neighbors, our friends, our Church family, who will walk through the valleys with us; who will share the darkness with us. Our strength to endure comes from each other.
When we bear burdens, together.
When we join hands, together.
When we get dirty, together.
When we sow new life, together.
Reading by Eric (was supposed to be read on Valentine's day)
A Lesson On Love
(John, the apostle, enters)
My name is John, son of Zebedee. When my brother James and I first became apostles, Jesus called us “the sons of thunder,” because we were easily angered and full of bluster. I remember early in our ministry we found some strangers driving out demons in the name of Jesus. We were indignant!
“Master, we saw a man driving out demons in Your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”
But Jesus, in His usually calm manner, just reminded us that “whosoever is not against you is for you.”
A little while later, when we were about to go through a village on our way to Jerusalem, the town leaders sent word that we were not welcome there. Of course, James and I were enraged. We shouted, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”
How dare they reject the one true Messiah of God! But, again, Jesus calmly reminded us that the Messiah is the Saviour, not the destroyer.
So now you can see how we became known as the “Sons of Thunder.” It’s hard to imagine that after all these years I am now known as the apostle of love. I suppose this only goes to show you that love is a behaviour you can learn and not an emotion that you feel.
As I see it, love stands on two legs. If you remove either leg, love will not stand. The first leg is trust. I learned that if there is no trust in a relationship there is no love. Oddly, I learned about this in a row boat on the Sea of Galilee. We had left Jesus behind on the shore to mourn the loss of His cousin, John the Baptist. He sent us on ahead, so we began to row across the lake, when a storm came up suddenly. During the storm Jesus caught up to us. But instead of rowing a boat, Jesus was walking on the water!
Well, as you might suspect, we were all terrified, both by the storm and by this person walking on top of the waves. Some of us thought that this was a ghost. But Jesus calmed our fears the moment He spoke.
Now I suppose you’re going to ask, what does storms and row boats have to do with love? Well, of all people, it was a loud-mouth named Peter who taught me about love that day. When Peter confirmed that it was Jesus out there walking on water, he asked Jesus if he could do it too. Jesus agreed and Peter stepped out of the boat and began to walk on water.
Mind you, when most people remember this story, they remember how Peter began to sink when he let the size of the waves intimidate him. But I remember that Peter was the only apostle in the boat to TRUST Jesus. Trust is one of the legs that love stands on and Peter was strong in trust. He was an example for all of us.
The other leg that love stands on is sacrifice. Oddly, my role model for sacrifice was a tax collector. His name was Matthew.
Now, I don’t know how much you know about tax collectors, but I can tell you from personal experience that tax collectors in Israel were very wealthy! When Matthew decided to follow Jesus, he gave up a huge fortune. And what Matthew taught me was that the more of this world you let go of, the tighter your grip on Jesus. No one loved Jesus more than Matthew because no one sacrificed more for Jesus.
So, there you have it, a lesson on love from the apostle of love. And now you know the truth. I get my reputation for love from merely copying the behaviour of two other people. But that was before I found an even better example of love in the person of Jesus Himself. He was the ultimate example of love standing on a foundation of trust and sacrifice. No human being has ever trusted the Father more and no one ever sacrificed more than Jesus Himself.
Love the Good News. Romans chapter 1 verse 16 to 17.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, For it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first
and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written. "But just so live by faith".
This was the verse that Martin Luther was convicted by. "The just shall live by faith" that is faith in the gospel! It is what brought about the whole Protestant Reformation.
This quote. The just shall live by faith. Is found in the Old Testament in the book of Habakkuk. Chapter 2 verse 4,,,, and the context is this. Use your imagination and try to picture it.
Habakkuk has questions for God, or a complaint if you will. And I think we can all relate. The question is basically this... Why oh Lord do you not hear and not answer my complaints, why do you not judge Judah? chapter 1 verse 2-4
He was looking around and he saw Judah filled with sin. Do something Lord!. , We look around and see world filled with sin.
Violence etc. And we say, Lord do something!
The Lord's answer was.... I will send Babylon to destroy Judah. 1 verse 5-11
Habakkuk has another question, and now another complaint. Why, or how can you allow Babylon A more sinful nation then us to judge us??? 1 verse 12-21
The Lord responds, Babylon will be judged as well. 2 verse 2-20
Habakkuk's final response,,,, I will trust the Lord! I will praise him! I will write a song, recounting all the deeds and the powerful things that the Lord has done throughout the generations! 3 verse 1-19
Ladies and gentlemen what is the purpose of my message, but this.
It is a Jesus came to earth born of a virgin. The sinless son of God, died on the cross and his blood paid the penalty for our sin. That he rose from the grave on the third day according to the Scriptures, proving himself to be the son of God. And that he will return again to judge the earth and set up is eternal Kingdom!
This is what I believe, this is what all who call themselves christians "believe"
A PLACE FOR EVERYONE
Isaiah 60:1-5, 10-12. Matt.2:1-12
We have all attended Sunday School Christmas pageants—and we all enjoyed seeing the children from the youngest to the oldest dressed up and playing their part.
I’m sure it brought back memories--- we all wanted to be near the baby --to be Mary or Joseph but first –we were assigned the part of an angel-or a shepherd or one of many animals.—oh to be a Magi–to kneel before the baby Jesus. Finally we got to be one of the Magi or Mary or Joseph near baby Jesus who lay beaming brightly in the cradle. And the flashing of cameras as our parents and grandparents recorded our performance.
When the curtain fell, we all sang “Away in a Manger.” And bow to the applause!
****I read a story over the holidays- concerned a minister who learned a special message from the Christmas story.
He went on to say—“Once I’d been given an acting part in the church Christmas play-it was then I began to understand central message of Christmas Pageant. The main message of the story- there’s PLACE for everyone in the Christmas story. As we were getting ready for our first performance—just before the curtain went up--
A beloved kindergartener appeared on stage-wearing a feathered white swan costume- it stood out in sharp contrast to the gray/brown manger scene.
As the minister, the Director expected me to discourage this little girl from wearing the swan costume. Kneeling down beside the little girl I asked if she wouldn’t she rather be a donkey-sheep or goat.
I’M A SWAN she said. —I tried to explain there were no swans at Jesus’ cradle.
She looked at me with calm conviction.
DON’T YOU THINK SWANS LOVE JESUS TOO?
I TOLD DIRECTOR SWANS ARE IN!!
The minister suddenly realized that the Christmas story is not just about Jesus being born BUT THERE IS ROOM IN GOD’S INN FOR EVERYONE including a swan.
Many of us church goers never get past the beautiful story of baby Jesus in the cradle and all the children on stage. When it is over we go home and wait for another year for the Christmas celebration.
We often miss important lessons that lie within the story; so, this morning, I thought it might be a good idea to take another look back at the Christmas story and see if there is a message for us today.
-- Just think about the angel telling MARY, 12-14 year old young girl she is pregnant with Jesus—and her cousin ELIZABETH 90 years old pregnant with John the Baptist – Mary goes to Elizabeth and console each other. Why had God had chosen them, a young unmarried girl and an old cousin who was beyond her child bearing years.
It’s the “IMPOSSIBLE BECOMING POSSIBLE.”
A message, God will use people no matter their age, their gender and even if handicapped physical or mentally; God can and will use you.
We think we’re too young or too old to help out.—or don’t ask me, I’ve been there done that-- maybe it’s a bad ankle or hip. But this scene tells us God has a plan for us -we just have to be willing!
--Then there’s the struggle of YOUNG Mary and hubby JOSEPH—having to put up with a long journey on a donkey to Bethlehem—having to settle for a smelly, draughty stable to have her baby-no baby clothes, just some thin strips of cloth.
Just think, right here in our own valley there could be a young couple, the young mother expecting their first child-father unemployed--living in a one room apartment --getting food from a food bank.
It remind us of all REFUGEES from mid east countries, who face a similar situation today —travelling in the desert, in unfriendly land.-- mothers giving birth in tents.
Are we, in the West going to turn them away-do we have “ROOM IN OUR INN?” The story tells us to search out those in need and make a place at our table.
--Then, there’s the SHEPHERDS, the poor dirt farmers of the day --why are they part of the story— shouldn’t the rich Magi have been the first to pay homage to the baby. God seems to give priority to the poor
God is expecting US to reach out to the poverty stricken –the homeless-drug addicted –they are not to be forgotten.
-- the story tells us God’s love has a special place for the poor-the lonely—the downtrodden. There are approx. 100 homeless in Valleyfield-- can the church make room for them in our busy lives?
Finally the amazing story of THE MAGI or Wisemen, coming from countries like Iran, Turkey and Syria,(today’s names) these were scholars coming together to honour baby Jesus.
Wealthy Magi sharing their fortune with a poor family who had to bed down with the barn animals.— GOD tells us—“ we are our brother’s keeper” and we must share our very best for those in need. The Magi brought very expensive gifts of gold-frankincense and no shoddy second hand stuff-- but the best.
Embedded with the celebration of Christ’s birth is the story give us the message that God has a “PLACE FOR EVERYONE,” the young and old, rich and poor, Christians and non-Christians.
If we reflect on this theme “God has a PLACE FOR EVERYONE,” the question arises “what do we do with all the refugees fleeing the war torn middle east countries.—what about the REFUGEES coming to Canada.
Some of us choke, when we think of the 50,000 how will we ever be able to handle that many. They will over burden our social programs, our health systems.
We need to be reminded this is not the first time we have opened our door to others.
The Irish potato famine in 1847, 110,000 (more than double) sick and dying Irish arrived in Quebec City and Montreal, many of them with typhus.
45,000 were sent to Toronto in one summer, double the population of the city. Citizens responded, they built hospitals, sent newcomers to farms, fed them and averted what could have been a disaster.
Protestants had to tame their fears of CATHOLICS, look past differences to help our fellow human beings. Today we must eliminate our fear of MUSLIMS-learn about their culture and recognize every refugee wants peace and security.
We have the experience, in fact, we have no excuse for not doubling up on the 50,000. Our ancestors did it and Canada became better off for it. So we should learn from our past and look forward to a more diverse, prosperous nation.
On the TV News it showed refugee children sliding in the snow; the look on their faces was enough to melt our hearts knowing we have ROOM IN OUR INN and can give them a better future.
In the Christmas Story -- God is telling us:
There’s- a place for those of different faiths
a place for those who are suffering
a place for those who need healing.
“GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD SHE GAVE HER SON… a son whose light shines on all of us- male and female-young-old-rich-poor-the pensioners-gays-transgender; yes there is a PLACE FOR EVERYONE in his KINGDOM.
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