Sermon, March 24, 2019, “Free Food and Life”
Based on Isaiah 55:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
Life is precious. Your life as an individual – precious. Our communal life as a community of faith – precious. Our one and precious life (both singular and plural) is like a 2,000 year old piece of scripture. Precious, beautiful and sometimes really confusing and difficult to make sense of. As individuals and as a community of faith – we are constantly at work trying to figure things out. We are all involved in an ongoing process of taking some things in, while letting other things go. That’s how we grow and overcome obstacles, and find meaning in what we do.
Yet aside from the laws of physics and the rules involving grammar – which are, apparently immutable – so much of what we learn is a matter of perspective. What we learn, what we take in or let go of, depends a lot on who we are, where we were born, where we are standing “when the thing went down”, and the people and ideas that have some influence in our lives. When we accept that our understanding is based on our perception of a thing, then that’s the first step in tending and growing our one and precious life. Perceptions can change. In fact, I would argue, that perceptions need to constantly change – life doesn’t remain static and in one place – it flows. So too must our perceptions of what is real, what is worthy, and why any of it matters.
Sometimes we hear some word or thought expressed, and it changes how we view things. Not long ago I heard a colleague say that she wanted people who came to her funeral to donate to her church – because she didn’t want to memorialize what she died of, but wanted people to have a sense of what it was she lived for. Sometimes our shift in perspective takes years of hard work and perseverance – a long time of studying a thing, until we understand a thing, and then our hard won understanding changes how we see that thing. I would put calculus in this category. There was a time I perceived calculus as the cruelest means by which the world wanted to make me suffer (and yes, I took it personally) – and then came the day when calculus finally fell into place and I realized – even at my rudimentary level of understanding – that it was the very stuff of the universe.
And then there are those times where, seemingly, through no overt effort, our perception changes in an instant. One minute we perceived something one way, and then “boom” in the blink of an eye it has shifted. Years ago I worked as a para-legal advocate for the poor and the homeless. The Executive Director of the Mission was a formidable woman. Two doctorates, two master’s degrees, a couple of under-grad degrees, and a persona that screamed strength and a no nonsense approach to life. Everyone respected her deeply, and to be honest most of us were a little intimidated by her.
One day I was working on a case I was taking in front of a tribunal – and lost in thought, I put the pen in my mouth as I thought my argument through. I really don’t know what happened, but as I took the pen from my mouth I realized my hands were covered in blue ink. In shock, I put my hands to my mouth and realized there was a ton of blue ink there too. In a panic, I tried to wipe the blue ink of my face with my ink covered hands. And that is the precise moment when the Executive Director walked into my office.
She stopped. Whatever it was that she was going to tell me – froze in her throat. She looked at me, blue ink all over my face, my hands, suspended in mid-air, also dripping blue ink – and laughing she said, “Jenny, you are such a dork.” I smiled with my blue teeth in response. It was in that moment that my perception of her shifted. In that moment she went from being a rather intimidating boss to someone I still call friend. For me, this was a moment of grace. Unexpected, unbidden, grace.
Faith, that deep place within us all, is a place where perception meets the Holy One. God is faithful and may not change – but we humans are variable and finite creatures. Our understanding of all things – including God things – is mediated by how we have learned to view things. Sometimes our world, and the teachers in our lives, help us view things in healthy ways – and sometimes the opposite happens. Our perceptions are malformed, which results in misunderstandings, and often (especially when it comes to our faith/spiritual lives) people can be hurt. So, from time to time, we need to do the work of correcting our perceptions of a thing.
Which is exactly what is going on in both of our readings this morning. In the Isaiah reading we have a passage directed at the people who had been taken into exile in Babylon and were living as slaves. As a people they viewed their prospects of having any semblance of a good life, as impossible. They were poor. They were slaves. They had lost their home. What was the point of having faith? What was the point of honouring their covenantal responsibilities? What was the point of any of it? Why not just turn their back on it all, identify with the oppressors and call it a day? Clearly God had turned God’s back on them, so why not turn their backs on God?
Which was a prevalent and widespread misperception that Isaiah was wanting to correct. He wanted them to know that because bad things, catastrophic things, had happened, it wasn’t a sign of God turning away from them. Not at all. Sometimes bad things happen. Life, this one and precious life, can be messy and even horrible at times. Yet even in the midst of the struggle and the hurt, God can be found. The invitation to come and eat – is an invitation to look at their current circumstances not as God’s punishment – but instead, to look at their present lives as the ground where God is working to grow their new life. That no matter our circumstances – even when our world seems devoid of life – to always remember that with God, even deserts bloom.
The same thing is happening in our reading from Luke. Again we have the themes of repentance and blessing and turning our perceptions (our understandings) around. Which is especially important when really horrible things have happened. In our story this morning, Jesus makes reference to two horrific events that his listeners would have been really familiar with. One event was how Pilate had his men storm the Temple and how in so doing, many Galileans were massacred. The other was when the tower of a building had collapsed, killing many people. These events were front and centre of people’s conversation. They, like we so often do, wanting to distance themselves from such a horrible event, by naming it as the victims fault. Clearly, according to the communal wisdom, they must have deserved this punishment from God.
So Jesus was trying to correct this misperception. No. He says. They didn’t bring this calamity upon themselves. God doesn’t work that way. God isn’t found in the making of the tragedy, God is found in the recovery operation after tragedy hits.
Then our story continues with the tree that isn’t bearing fruit, and is being threatened with the axe. This is where some of our own misperceptions might come into play. In some bibles, this story is titled “Repent or Perish”. What a horrible title! It feels like a threat. Yet this is a misperception. What Jesus was trying to demonstrate in this parable is the notion of grace, and the power of seeing things clearly – that is, to turn away from our misperceptions of self and God. That when we see things clearly, we experience grace. Yet the opposite is also true, when we cannot see God at work, when we tend to hold on to narrow views instead of expansive ones, we limit God in our lives. And it is not long before we spiritually starve and feel like we might perish.
In Luke’s gospel, this turning away from our misperceptions of God, is called repentance. Yet for this author, repentance is not about moral uprightness, or expressions of regret, or even a 180 degree turn around. In Luke’s gospel repentance cannot be reduced to a reengineered life and ethics. In this gospel, repentance is about seeking to see all things through the lens of grace, and with the eyes of faith. To see that we are all works in progress – that maybe this has been a tough year, and we don’t have much spiritual fruit to show for it – but if we continue to tend and care for ourselves, our community, and our world, next year might be different. To see that we are all flawed in some ways, and we all make mistakes, but those flaws and mistakes do not define who we are, nor do they limit the good we can still accomplish.
So if we are the tree in the parable, or the desert in Isaiah, here’s the thing: if we are to bloom, we need to live from the deep place of faith that exists in all of us. That place where we know we are worthy and loved and human and capable of greatness – because God has shown us that we are worthy and loved and human and capable of greatness. And once we see that – then we are to go out and live in ways that show that we believe it.
One final thing, we don’t have to worry too much about intentionally lifting up every single thing we think or believe – examine it under a microscope – and declare it good or bad. We simply need to be open to the Spirit that is all around us, and let the Spirit of love and grace, change our ways of looking at things. To change from staring at the shadows of hopelessness or blame, to one of looking for the new thing God is doing in us, and around us. That is grace.