Monday, February 29, 2016

The Third Sunday in Lent [Year C] - February 28, 2016 (Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

It’s been another bumpy week in the news for Starbucks. On Monday the Seattle-based coffee chain made a lot of folks unhappy when they announced major changes to their rewards system, which is one of their gimmicks to cultivate lots of repeat customers. Beginning in April rewards will be earned based on how much money a customer spends each time they visit, rather than on how many times a customer simply visits. This means those who purchase the really expensive—and unhealthier—drinks on a regular basis will have a much easier time earning reward stars and the freebies that come with them. Those who stick to plain coffee come up shorter. They will spend and spend, just the same as they always did, but it will take longer to rack up new reward stars. I figure under the new rewards system, it will be next August before I get my free drink that I so clearly deserve.

It’s funny how successfully enticing those little rewards systems are, aren’t they? Not just for Starbucks, but for everything! They hook you right in, making you spend far more money than you normally ever would simply because they dangle some free rewards treat out there in front of you. You usually get a card, along with some distinction of privileged status like being called a member or a premier client. Starbucks calls them members—gold-level members, even—and the chain reveals that Rewards members spend three times as much as non-members.

Contrast all this with God’s Rewards system, announced, as it is, with such gracious openness by the barista Isaiah:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
Come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!”

There is no special card here, no elite privileged status that you must earn or maintain. God is simply prepared just to give it out, the best there is around. It’s always free. Loyalty is valuable, but God’s got no gimmicks to keep us interested. It makes no sense, especially for the business-minded. And that’s quite alright, for God reminds us,“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” That is, “I don’t do things like Starbucks. This gracious and open-ended anti-rewards program of goodness that I offer is intended wholly for your well-being. Like a feast of foods both delicious and nutritious, it has been offered for us you to thrive and grow.”

Early church giant St. Augustine once said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Isaiah would have worded it, “Our souls are continuously hungry, and they do not find nourishment until they feast on God.” This is the way we stand before God from the time we are born until the time we take our final breath: a thirsting, a hungering for the God who gives us life. And even though we are prone to go searching for things which eventually leave us empty, and sink our roots into soils that never really nourish us, God still stands there offering his goodness for free. God still draws near, hoping we will notice we can turn to the Lord and listen that we may live. The rewards in this relationship is the relationship itself. There is no manipulation here, so salvation latte dangling on the edge of a stick. We are created to receive God’s mercy and, as we receive it, grow in the faith and love of God.

In Jesus’ day, then, it was tempting to think that when bad things happened to people, then it must be some form of divine retribution. People were prone to believe that one stood before God in terms of whether or not they were getting what they deserved. That is, if one did not turn and listen to receive the mercy and pardon God granted, that person could expect some form of just desserts. Luke tells us about some people who come before Jesus to ask him how God might have been at work in a tragedy involving some Galileans who Pilate ordered killed during their trip to the Jerusalem temple. Did they somehow get what was coming to them? And Jesus not only answers, “No,” but he adds on another story that people of that time would have probably known about, a story about a freak accident involving a tower that fell and killed eighteen people. In neither case, Jesus clarifies, was God somehow at work handing out justice or revoking rewards points because of something those victims had done at some point.

It may frustrate us to hear this, but Jesus doesn’t seem concerned with the question of why bad things happen, whether they’re the result of human deeds of evil or seemingly random acts of nature. What Jesus is concerned about is our repentance, His point is this: we do not stand before God in terms of whether or not we’re getting what we deserve. Jesus certainly didn’t get what he deserved, and he stood before God blameless. To paraphrase Bono, front man for the band U2 says, love has interrupted any type of system of karma we might believe the universe ever had.[1] We stand before God in terms of listening and living, of seeking and searching; that is, we stand ready to receive him as nourishment, or as medicine, or as sunshine that tilts the head of a flower towards it so that it may grow.

Jesus doesn’t reach for the image of a sunflower to illustrate this, however. Instead he uses a fig tree and manure. There is a fig tree that isn’t producing any figs. It’s at least three years old, which is the traditional length of time that even a young fig sapling would take to grow some fruit. Sadly, it just sits there, using up a valuable spot in the vineyard, wasting precious soil that could be used for another plant. If the fig tree truly got what it deserved, the landowner would rip it out immediately, but love interrupts. The gardener still sees potential, in spite of its reluctance, in spite of its age. It was made to grow and produce figs. Maybe one more year and an extra helping of free, nutritious fertilizer will wake it up to a life of fruitful repentance.

A couple of weeks ago Epiphany hosted a one-day conference called, “Engaging Adults in Faith Formation.” Geared towards church professionals and volunteers responsible for leading things like Sunday School for grown-ups, it challenged us to think of adult faith formation as the primary emphasis of a congregation’s ministry. So often all the resources and attention go into faith formation of children and young people. Congregations beef up offerings for their youth group. They look at our numbers of children’s ministry and Sunday School. And while the conference reaffirmed that all of those things are important and good, it also pointed out that learning about faith and growing in understanding of God is something that continues lifelong.

The presenter pointed to the work of John Bowlby, a British researcher whose pioneering work on orphans in the 19th century showed that children can literally die of loneliness. He further demonstrated that we never outgrow our need for human contact and deep emotional bonds. The thought that we reach some point final maturity, at least in terms of our need for growth in our relationships, isn’t really true. Likewise, our ability to grow figs is always there. And yet it is so easy to harbor this thought that our bond with God is something that kind of stops growing once we get confirmed or when we think we are too old to go to Sunday School anymore. For whatever reason—perhaps fear, perhaps apathy—we neglect our desire to engage those roots and wrestle with deeper questions within the community of our brother and sister faith travelers as we get older. Studies show that by the time our children are age 10 or 11 they have figured out if faith practice is really real and important to their parents or if they do it only for the sake of the kids.
I must say that this congregation is blessed to have so many people of all ages who have felt that continuous interruption of God’s love and who are regularly searching and seeking, who aren’t participating in worship and other activities out of a sense of obligation or duty but because of a desire to grow and learn. Last summer our minister of faith formation, Christy Huffman, planned a week of Vacation Bible School for whole families in addition to the one we traditionally offer for pre-school and elementary aged children. The children had a blast, but it was the adults who requested we do it again and maybe expand it. A new fellowship group for those who are in their 50s and 60s who may now be empty-nesters has formed and is getting ready for their second event next week. Adult Bible studies are full and growing, and Dr. Westin’s class on the history of the Reformation has almost been standing room only. Over the past year, we have supported three members who have been pursuing seminary studies.

Numbers are nice, of course, but it is not the only way to measure the growth God gives us. Even if just one fig tree suddenly produces a fruit it is something the landowner would look on with pride. There is one gentleman in his 80s who is hear on a regular basis whom I regularly hear saying after a Men’s lunch gathering or a Bible study, “You know, I had never thought of that Scripture in that way before.” Still growing. Still admitting the need for wisdom, still listening so that he may really live.

It’s another instance of that love that interrupts, a grace that offers itself again and again, without money and without price. It’s another gracious run-in with the gardener who still believes in that fig tree, who intercedes with his life and says, “Nuh-uh. Not so fast. I like this tree. It just needs a little more attention.”

Yes, it’s another surprising encounter with a most rewarding God who tells us there is no need for points. “Throw away that silly member card. You, my child, are my star.”

 Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Michka Assayas

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