Sermon Passion/Palm Sunday, Yr C

Passion/Palm Sunday Yr C, 1/04/2007

Lk 23:1-49

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Jesus and Pontius Pilate”

 

Today we focus on one of the key actors of Christ’s Passion, Pontius Pilate. In our Nicene Creed we confess the following: “For our sake he (i.e. Jesus) was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” And in our Apostles’ Creed we confess a similar truth: “He (i.e. Jesus) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Both of these creeds reflect the truth of what is recorded in all four Gospels—Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, was responsible for the trial, sentence and crucifixion of Jesus. Who was this Pontius Pilate anyways? What kind of a person was he? Let’s take a closer look.

Pontius Pilate, according to an inscription verified by archaeologists in 1961, in Caesarea Maritima, was Roman Prefect of Judea. He held this office for ten years, from A.D. 26-36. In light of the political power structure in Judea at this time in history, it seems that Pilate may have been a shrewd, politically correct type of politician who knew how to protect and preserve his political power.

According to biblical scholar, Dr. David L. Tiede: the high priesthood was a complex political and religious office in first-century Palestine, and the Romans controlled it as much as possible. Since the era of Herod the Great, who killed the last of the Hasmonean priests, the Romans appointed the high priests and at times controlled the rituals by holding the priestly vestments. For many years a new high priest was appointed annually by the procurator, but Caiaphas was reappointed for 18 years, including 10 by Pilate. He knew how to get along with the Romans.1 I would add that the reverse also seems true; Pilate knew how to get along with the high priest Caiaphas.

According to Jewish historians writing about Pilate, the Prefect of Judea comes across as: insensitive to Jewish religious scruples and all too ready to use brutal force to repress any dissent. According to Jewish historian Josephus, Pilate allowed Roman troops to enter Jerusalem bringing idolatrous images of the emperor. Only after the Jews vigorously protested in a confrontation with Roman soldiers, only then did Pilate remove them. The historian Philo records a similar incident, and the Jews were so offended that they sent a letter of appeal to Rome against Pilate, and only then, upon the emperor’s intervention did Pilate comply with the Jewish wishes. Josephus also writes about Jewish protests against Pilate when he ordered that funds from the Jerusalem temple be taken to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. On this occasion, Pilate had Roman soldiers, dressed as Jewish civilians and armed with hidden clubs, mingle with the shouting crowd and attack the people at a prearranged signal. Many were killed or hurt.

In Luke 13:1, Pilate comes across as a political tyrant, with no respect for people of faith, having orchestrated the murdering of Galileans—mixing their blood with the blood from the sacrifices they were offering in the temple.

Again according to Josephus, Pilate was recalled back to Rome in A.D. 35 to give an account of a brutal slaughtering of a crowd of Samaritans, who had no intention of violence against Rome. Pilate treated the event as an insurrection and attacked the crowd with cavalry and heavy infantry, killing many in the battle and executing the leaders among the captured.2

As you can see, based on these accounts, Pilate was certainly no saint or righteous ruler by any stretch of the imagination. Now let us take a look at Luke 23 and see what kind of picture Luke presents us with here.

In verse one to seven, we are given an account of Pilate’s first meeting with Jesus. Jesus here is brought before Pilate by some of the Jewish religious authorities. They accuse Jesus of “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” This first charge of perverting our nation, according to Dr. Tiede, was one of being a false prophet, hence a religious charge. Most likely Pilate didn’t want to deal with such a charge—leaving it up to the religious leaders. The second charge, “forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor,” now one would think that such a charge may have been taken seriously by Pilate, but according to Luke, he doesn’t even address it. There is irony in this charge, for the Jewish leaders who lived by their laws would have followed the law of not bearing false witness against one’s neighbour—yet, that is what they are doing here. Jesus never forbade Jews to pay the emperor taxes, rather he had taught that one should give to God what belongs to God and give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. The third charge, his claim that he was the Messiah-king, of course, for Luke and us Christians is true, but he is a different Messiah-king than either the Jewish leaders here or Pontius Pilate had in mind. He was not a military-political leader with the intention of overthrowing the Roman occupation by violent means. His rule was one of peace and love, over and above all earthly powers.

Pilate does pick up on this third charge, and asks Jesus if it is true. Jesus gives him a rather thought provoking, ironic, ambiguous answer: “You say so.” Jesus’ answer, according to Dr. Tiede, could mean: “If you say so!” or “You tell me!” or “You are saying so by means of this very trial!”3 It is interesting that Pilate does not respond to Jesus’ answer here. Perhaps he thought Jesus was crazy or maybe he thought he was actually acknowledging Pilate’s authority. At any rate, he declares Jesus innocent, finding no basis to the accusations against him. Jesus’ accusers continue, this time making the charge that Jesus stirs people up by his teaching throughout Judea and Galilee. This charge seems to be one made by the leaders out of envy over Jesus’ popularity more than anything.

When Pilate hears the word Galilee, he then tries to pass the buck and sends Jesus to Herod. Or the other possibility is that Pilate is paying Herod Antipas a courtesy, giving him the chance to deal with a citizen under his jurisdiction. However, the silence of Jesus before Herod seems to be one of the factors preventing Herod from pursuing any charges against him. So Herod, ironically, passes the buck back to Pilate. Although we are told that Herod had treated Jesus with contempt and mocked him. It seems in this mistreatment of Jesus, Pilate and Herod became friends. Perhaps Luke is thinking of what Paul said in 1 Cor 2:8 about the secular authorities: “none of the rulers of this age understood this; (i.e. Christ’s true identity and purpose) for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

So, once again Jesus is brought before Pilate. This time Pilate clearly states before the Jewish leaders and people that Jesus is innocent of the charges made against him, both he and Herod found him innocent. He then offers to have him flogged and released. The flogging may have been offered as a deterrent to cause trouble in the future, as well as a display of Pilate’s power and authority as the Roman prefect. The crowd is not satisfied; they continue to shout for the crucifixion of Jesus and release of the criminal Barabbas. A third time Pilate repeats that he has no evidence against Jesus to justify a death sentence. The crowd shouts even more vigorously for the death of Jesus. Finally, Pilate caves in to the clamouring crowd, perhaps acting out of fear of a riot, which might even endanger his political career, thus he agrees to release Barabbas and hands Jesus over to be crucified. Ultimately Pilate, trying to survive as a political leader, is unable to do so. Why? Because he could not remain neutral between the secular power passing the final sentence and the religious power that was clamouring for such a sentence against the innocent Jesus. Pilate, caught in the middle, finally gives in and has Christ crucified to save his own political skin. There is a tragic irony in Luke’s Passion Story, those who represent God are the enemies of God, and Pilate representing the oppressive Roman occupational power comes across as doing everything within his means to prevent Jesus from being crucified and yet cannot do otherwise—for it was ultimately God’s divine will being orchestrated in order to save humankind through the events of Jesus’ life, suffering and death.

As we focus on the last week of Jesus’ earthly life; as we ponder the people in the Passion Story; may we not say: “I would never do such things.” Rather, may we see ourselves in those ancient people; we too are guilty of nailing Jesus to the cross. Our sins also crucify Jesus.

Let us pray: Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Thank you Jesus that even in our sins and failures; even when we hurt you beyond imagining; you respond with love, forgiveness and salvation. Amen.

 

1 David L. Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), pp. 403-404.

2 I am indebted to Dr. Francisco O. Garcia-Treto, “Pilate, Pontius” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Paul J. Achtemeier, General Editor (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers & The Society of Biblical Literature, 1985), pp. 796-798.

3 Tiede, ibid, p. 405.

 

Advertisements

Sermon 5 Lent, Yr C

5 Lent Yr C, 25/03/2007

Jn 12:1-8

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Mary’s Extravagant Love”

 

It was a bright, sunshiny day and Margie was very happy. It was her birthday. She was seven years old. That afternoon, Margie’s mother gave her a party. All of her friends were there. They played games, and ate lots of cake and ice cream. Margie blew out all of the candles on her cake in one blow. Her friends cheered and urged her to open her presents. She got a bracelet, a new blouse, a baby doll, and a book of adventure stories. But her favourite gift was a friendship ring from her best friend, Helen. It was silver and had a red heart in its center. Margie told Helen that it was the best present she had ever received, and she promised she would wear it everywhere.

The next day a beautiful woman came to Margie’s school to talk to the students about hungry children. The beautiful woman was a famous movie actress who had given a year of her life to traveling as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. She told them about all of the hungry children she had visited in refugee camps around the world.

In Cambodia she had met a hungry boy who told her, “Sometimes I cry, but only when it rains, so the other children will not see.” Then she said, “You and I can help wipe away his tears.”

She told about several refugee camps in Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and a little country called Djibouti, all on the Horn of Africa. “In one of the refugee camps water is so scarce,” she said, “that the women dig in brown mud, and that’s what they drink.” She told the children that millions of people would soon die in these refugee camps unless the world did something to help them.

In another refugee camp she met a little girl who owned nothing in life but a tiny ring with a red glass stone in it. The little girl had taken off her ring and given it to her to give to some child who needed it more.

When the beautiful woman had finished speaking, all of the students in Margie’s school crowded around her to thank her and to ask for her autograph. When it was Margie’s turn she stepped up to her and took off the silver ring with the red heart in its center, gave it to the beautiful woman, and said, “When you meet a little girl in one of those refugee camps who needs a ring, please give this to her.”

Just then the teacher came up and said, “Oh, no, Margie, you shouldn’t give your ring. What would your parents say?” But the beautiful woman said, “Let her give what she can. She may not always have so much to give or the heart to give it.”1

In today’s gospel, we encounter a similar kind of heart-filled giving. This is one of the most beautiful gospel stories, full-to-overflowing with love and meaning. At the centre of this story are Mary and her extravagant gift of anointing Jesus’ feet.

The story comes right after Jesus raised Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus from the dead. In response to this miraculous act, some of the religious leaders in Jerusalem planned to arrest Jesus and put him to death. It was dangerous for Jesus to travel near or into Jerusalem during the Passover season. Yet, travel there he did, with the knowledge that he was about to face his arrest, trial, sentence and death on the cross. The time now is six days before the Passover. The place is Lazarus’ home at Bethany, where a dinner is served likely in gratitude for Jesus having Lazarus from the dead.

Everything seems to be going along smoothly until Mary enters the room with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. This was probably a very surprising intrusion into the evening. Why? Well, first of all, Mary’s action went against the proper cultural traditions of the day. Women were not supposed to be the centre of attention in the presence of men, this was a patriarchal society. Moreover, women were especially not supposed to touch a spiritual leader in public like Mary did here in the story. It was customary for women to wear their long locks of hair up. For a woman to wear her hair down in public was a sign that she was not an honourable woman. Mary’s act of extravagant giving seems to have been an uncalculated, spontaneous one. It is a sign of her love and gratitude to Jesus for what he has done for her and her family. Sometimes our hearts are in the right places and we do the right thing out of love, rather than hold back out of fear of what others might think because we may have violated some culturally-conditioned tradition.

A second point of offence was the actual extravagance of Mary’s gift; John tells us that it was a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard. Then, we’re told Judas Iscariot’s complaint that the perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor. Now three hundred denarii were close to one year’s wages for a labourer at that time. Thus Mary’s gift was extravagant alright. Moreover, maybe the perfume was to be saved for the burial anointing of their family members. At any rate, this complaint of Judas is a classic one. Some folks look at life only from a monetary perspective, which blinds them to the proper place for extravagant giving motivated by love. Albert Schweitzer said it well: “If there is something you own that you can’t give away, then you don’t own it, it owns you.” For Mary, extravagant giving based on love goes above and beyond a price tag—indeed, it is priceless.

As we reflect on this story further, there are at least two other noteworthy themes. The first one is the significance of anointing itself. The word Messiah literally means the anointed one. Mary anointing Jesus in public like this may very well, first of all be affirming the truth that Jesus is the true Messiah. “Look,” she may be saying with this action, “the very One I am anointing in front of you right now, this One is God’s Anointed, The Messiah.” That may be one possible meaning of Mary’s anointing of Jesus.

The second significant detail of this anointing is that Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. Why his feet? Well, I think it is for at least two reasons. First of all, it is a foreshadowing of what Jesus himself will do in chapter thirteen, when he washes his disciples’ feet. This is an act of humble service and love, which is exactly what Jesus himself teaches his disciples when he washes their feet. They are to humbly serve and love one another. Mary’s act is foreshadowing that event by anointing the feet of the greatest Loving Servant of them all, Jesus himself. Jesus stressed that the greatest among his disciples are those who humbly love and serve others. Mary’s act of anointing is surely a sign of this humble love and servanthood.

Secondly, the significance of this act of anointing Jesus’ feet is Mary’s way of recognising what is about to happen to Jesus and to prepare him for it. In other words, she realises that Jesus is about to die, and Jesus, in verse seven admits this, when he says in her defence: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in his book The Message: “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honouring the day of my burial.” It may be Mary’s pledge of faithfulness, to be with Jesus as he faces his cruel suffering and death. This too may be the point of the following words in Mark’s version of this story, when Jesus says, in praise of the anointing: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mk 14:9)

The other noteworthy theme in this wonderful story is found in verse three, where John tells us: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” For John, who is a deep thinker and expert in working with symbolic, beneath the surface meanings, this is, I think, a symbol of the beautiful, sweetness of all acts done extravagantly and motivated by loving kindness. John’s readers, including us, can be inspired by this detail to go and do likewise, following Mary’s faithful example. Our extravagant, loving acts as faithful followers of Jesus can add sweetness and quality to the lives of others. Listen to the following beautiful, inspirational story about someone right here in our fair city of Medicine Hat.

When discussing women in history who had a definite impact on our community, many Hatters immediately think of Vera Bracken. Bracken served as an elementary school teacher in the Medicine Hat area for decades, being named citizen of the year in 1985. Her positive outlook on life, her volunteerism and generosity as well as her passion for education and life inspired many.

“Vera Bracken is the only person to have a part of the college (the Vera Bracken Library) named after her without a financial number being attached,” said Shelley Chomistek, Coordinator of the Medicine Hat College Foundation. “If you were to see the way she talked about her students, you would know why the library is named after her. She truly believed in life-long learning. She was affectionate towards her students and tried hard to instill in them her passion for learning and reading.”

Bracken gave each one of her grade one students who eventually enrolled in Medicine Hat College a scholarship cheque for $100. After all of Bracken’s former students had reached college age, she began donating the money to students studying to become teachers.

Sheila Drummond, Reference Librarian at Medicine Hat College said, “Vera was a great supporter of education so it’s very fitting that the college honoured her in this way.”2

As we continue our Lenten journey, moving now closer to Holy Week, may we also move closer to the spirit of Mary’s extravagant, loving act of anointing Jesus. May we, like Mary live out our faith ever grateful for what Jesus has done for us on the cross, and act in ways that inspire others, that they too may come closer to Jesus and his all sufficient love for them. Amen.

 

 

1 John E. Sumwalt, Lectionary Stories Cycle C (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1991), pp. 70-71. John Sumwalt notes: This story was inspired by an article about actress Liv Ullman, which appeared in “The Wisconsin State Journal,” Section 7, page 2, May 3, 1981.

2 Kaylynn Hohensinn, “Celebrating influential Alta. women,” The Medicine Hat News, Saturday, September 30, 2006, p. A3.

Sermon 4 Lent, Yr C

4 Lent Yr C, 18/03/2007

2 Cor 5:16-21

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“The ministry of reconciliation”

 

Reconciliation. In today’s second lesson, the apostle Paul, in one of his most eloquent and beautiful passages, highlights the saving work of God in Christ and its consequences for us. Reconciliation is a gift from God through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. It means, quite literally, to change enemies into friends. It also means going further than that by making us members of God’s family. This is certainly the heart of the Gospel message; a message of God saving love and grace; God’s forgiveness in Christ through his sacrificial, atoning death on the cross; and new life, a new creation through his resurrection.

For the apostle Paul, it is quite clear that it is God’s initiative, God’s work in Jesus Christ that we are reconciled with God. This truth Paul most likely based on his Damascus road encounter with Jesus. Indeed, through that encounter, Paul was changed from an enemy of Christ and his disciples into a friend, apostle and family member of Christ’s body, the Church. Now, in this rather painful second letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses an issue in the congregation. It seems that some of the Corinthians were judging Paul and his ministry as well as one another on the basis of common human standards like their pedigrees, their type of work, their intelligence, their wealth, their accomplishments. Paul says at one time, that is before his encounter with Jesus, we judged one another and even Jesus himself on the basis of such human standards. Now all of that has changed, we no longer judge each other or Christ on the basis of such standards. Now, says Paul, all who are baptized into Christ are a new creation in him, the old has passed away, the new has arrived—thanks to God’s saving, reconciling work in Christ through his death and resurrection.

In response to this action of God in Christ of reconciling the world to himself; Paul goes on to say that Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation, and even gives us a rather honoured job description—saying, “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” How does this take shape in real life for us?

The Rev. Dr. Lois Wilson, a one-time Canadian President of the World Council of Churches, on her visit to Lutheran congregations in Tanzania among the Masai tribe tells how these Christians practice Christ’s love through reconciliation.

Deeply embedded in their tribal culture was the conviction that if one person angered God by taking the life of another, it was the responsibility of the whole community to join in the reconciliation ritual between the families of the victim and the wrongdoer. It was also important to effect reconciliation between the whole community and God. One elder from each of the two families performed the ritual. Each punctured a small hole in his thigh, then each licked the blood from the thigh of the other. A young female baby and a young male baby were exchanged by their mothers and suckled as if they were their own. The babies were never returned to their “natural families.” Since the ritual made them brother and sister, they were not allowed to marry each other. Then the murderer’s family gave forty-nine cows to the victim’s family. The name of the victim was pronounced for the last time, and then prayers for reconciliation, health, fertility, and peace were offered.

Then Rev. Dr. Wilson adds: “I think that people who bring this strong tradition into Christian living have much to teach us about the difficult art of reconciliation.”1

I like the practice here in this act of reconciliation of regarding the two babies as brother and sister—indeed, that is what we all are as members of God’s family having been reconciled in Christ.

Another story of reconciliation. This time, one that involved me. Several years ago, in one of the congregations I was serving, during a choir practice for Easter Sunday, we were singing the hymns for that day. The choir director (I’ll call him Bill, not his real name) and I had a bit of a falling out over hymn #797 “This Is The Three-fold Truth” in the Hymnal Supplement 1991, which I had chosen. Bill protested adamantly and said that he didn’t want to sing this new hymn. I adamantly insisted that we would sing it.

Next evening, prior to the Maundy Thursday service, I walked up to Bill and said: “I forgive you. I hope you forgive me too.” He smiled and said: “Yes, I do,” and we shook hands.

I had decided to compromise somewhat by arranging for a duet (I’ll call them John and Andrew, not their real names) to sing the hymn instead of the choir and congregation. John and Andrew willingly consented and practiced the hymn after the Maundy Thursday service. While they were in the midst of their rehearsal, choir director Bill and a few other congregants were making preparations in the chancel for Good Friday.

After greeting everyone in the narthex, I walked back into the church. John and Andrew had just finished their practice. They told me it went very well. Bill was up the ladder hanging the black shroud over the cross. He was humming the tune to hymn #797!

I listened and recognized the tune, a great smile burst out on my face and I laughed with gratitude inside of myself. However, I have the feeling that the One who laughed last over this was the Lord himself. He, of course, laughs best, whenever we are reconciled.

Something of the holiness of that night filled Bill and me—both of us departed in peace, reconciled with each other.

We are ambassadors for Christ. According to Paul, Jesus’ title as Messiah is a royal title. Thus, Jesus our King of kings has given us a very privileged and important work to do as his ambassadors.

We are ambassadors of reconciliation when we establish creative rather than destructive relationships between nature and human nature, between the goodness of God’s creation and the mess we have made of it…We are ambassadors when we refuse to trash other persons…people whose politics or theology we abhor….Ambassadors of reconciliation…working in local politics, working for fairer tax laws, working for better health care for the poor and for everyone.2 This is our ministry, although not always easy, we can trust that our cross-bearing Saviour is with us, as we follow him. Amen.

1 Lois Wilson, Turning the World Upside Down: a memoir (Toronto: Doubleday Canada Ltd., 1989), pp. 211-212.

2 Robert McAfee Brown, Reclaiming the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 44.

 

 

 

 

Sermon 3 Lent, Yr C, 11/03/2007

3 Lent Yr C, 11/03/2007

Lk 13:1-9

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Another Chance”

 

Cause and effect, everything can be rationally explained and understood, if God is just, then the world ultimately operates on just principles because God made it, you get what you work for and deserve, nothing more, nothing less. Such statements are common creedal-like beliefs of many people. In today’s gospel, Jesus is addressing people who think and live this way. He’s basically telling them they’re wrong.

Jesus is asked about the tragedy of some Galileans who were killed by Pilate while they were sacrificing in the temple. Pilate, that cruel and treacherous tyrant, mixed their blood with those of the sacrifice, thereby asserting Roman authority over the Jews—even in their most holy of places. Jesus asks the audience: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Then he goes on to answer the question: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Without any recorded response from the audience, Jesus goes on to cite another example of tragic, unexpected death in Jerusalem: “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Once again, Jesus repeats the same answer as before, emphasising the importance of his audience to look at themselves honestly and repent today while there is still time to do so, rather than judge those who died a sudden, tragic death.

In other words, Jesus was making the same point as the book of Job made centuries earlier, and Jesus himself makes again elsewhere in the Gospel of John chapter nine, concerning the man born blind. Jesus is saying that his audience is definitely wrong if they think that those murdered Galileans and those eighteen killed by the falling towing of Siloam got what they deserved because God was punishing them for their sins. No! Jesus says that is not the case. Job was not punished for his sins, he was a righteous man. Neither was the man born blind because he or his parents had sinned. No.

Jesus does not embark on any attempt to give an answer in terms of philosophy to the problem of pain any more than he gives us any philosophical arguments for the existence of God. We have to recognise that there are some questions that are ultimately unanswerable because of the limitations of the human mind. Why some should be afflicted with incurable diseases and others not, why some should go through life trouble free and die at a ripe old age peacefully in their beds, while others are untimely snatched from life both in peace and war, to such problems we may one day know the answer, but certainly not in this world.1

However, Jesus rather than giving a philosophical rationale for these events makes a point in the form of both a warning and an invitation to repent. Life can be short and unpredictable. This might be our last day here on earth. Make the most of it while you still have the time and opportunity. Turn away from your sin and return to the LORD your God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

It’s not some superstitious thing you know; it’s not the notion that if I repent, then I’ll be protected from a tragic, unexpected death—although I might, but not due to the repentance so much as to the grace of God providing me with life. Rather, what Jesus is saying here in his warning and invitation to repent, is that what really matters is our relationship with God and one another. When we repent, we return to God, we return to a healthy relationship with God, trusting him, his love, and forgiveness. As a result, we can also return to new and healthier relationships with others too, for now we can love and forgive them too. It’s about relationship, for even if we die suddenly, even if terrible things happen to us, we can be at peace, and yes, die in peace, trusting in God.

Jesus then tells his audience an agricultural parable of a barren fig tree. The parable does indeed lend itself to an allegorical interpretation. The man, i.e. the owner of the fig tree and the vineyard may refer to God. The barren fig tree may refer to each of us as sinners. The vineyard may refer to the Church. The gardener may refer to Jesus. The three years may even refer to the time of Jesus’ ministry here on earth.

At any rate, what we have here is a debate within God’s Self as to whether or not to cut the barren tree down right now after giving it three years to produce fruit and it didn’t or whether to give the tree another chance, another year in which to bear fruit. There seems to be a tension, a conflict within God’s Self whether God’s judgement or God’s grace shall prevail—cut it down, no wait one more year.

Who knows what amazing things can happen if the gardener digs around the tree; fertilizes it with some manure; lets the rain and sunlight do their work—maybe it will produce fruit.

Thomas G. Long tells a story that was told him by Seward Hiltner about the state-run mental hospital where truly hopeless cases were relegated to a back ward. The psychiatrists and other medical staff avoided this ward, making only the bare minimum of calls and writing off the patients there as unsalvageable. Then a women’s group from a local church began, as a matter of compassion, to visit the patients in this hospital. No one bothered to tell them that the patients in the back ward were abandoned cases, so they visited them regularly, bringing flowers, fresh baked cookies, prayer, cheerfulness and mercy. Before long, some of the patients began to respond, a few of them even becoming healthy enough to move to other wards.2 It is amazing what some time well spent with love and grace can accomplish! Another chance, another year, can make all the difference in the world.

Do you remember another chance in your life? Do you remember another chance when perhaps someone saved you in the water when you were drowning and fighting for your life? How grateful you were to that person at the time.

Do you remember another chance when you developed a chronic health problem? The doctor advised surgery and therapy, you agreed, and the congregation remembered you in your prayers. By the grace of God you got through the surgery and therapy and those prayers lifted your spirits, now you are well again.

Do you remember that time when the professor said that’s it, time is up, hand in your paper? Then, after you met with the professor and shared your struggles, she said, “I’ll give you another chance, hand the paper in next week.” You were surprised and delighted, and you passed the course with flying colours.

It is most instructive that in verse eight the gardener employs a Greek word, aphes, loaded with meaning. In English it is translated “let it alone.” However, in Greek, it can also mean: allow, permit, suffer, pardon, and forgive.3 So it is that in Christ, there is forgiveness, even in the midst of our barrenness. Even when we fail to produce fruit, Christ comes to us, nurtures and cares for us, and gently, lovingly awakens new life and new growth in us.

As we journey with Jesus to the cross, we discover how his aphes—his forgiveness, his suffering, his pardon is offered freely in this greatest example of love ever known to humankind. Jesus is the Saviour of another chance. Throughout his public ministry this is one of his major themes. When others write off folks different than themselves with a word of judgement; Jesus comes to them with open arms and gives them another chance—offering grace and forgiveness and new life.

It is interesting that the parable of the fig tree does not end a year later. Rather, it leaves us hanging, wondering. Did the owner of the vineyard agree to leave the fig tree standing for another year or have it cut down? We don’t know. Did the fig tree produce fruit after it was given another chance to do so? We don’t know that either. Why this open-endedness? Well, I believe that it goes back to one of the points Jesus made earlier—namely, don’t judge others. Rather, look honestly and openly at yourself. Then, rejoice in the freedom of Christ’s forgiveness as he provides you with another chance to repent and follow him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. Amen.

 

1 Wm. Neil, What Jesus Really Meant (London & Oxford: Mowbrays, 1975), p. 94.

2 Cited by Thomas G. Long, “Breaking and Entering (Luke 13:1-9)” in The Christian Century, March 7, 2001, p. 11, as posted at <www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2165>.

3 See e.g. Robert Farrar Capon’s, The Parables Of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), pp. 95ff., especially p. 96, for his well articulated, grace-oriented take on this parable.

 

 

Sermon 2 Lent Yr C

2 Lent Yr C, 4/03/2007

Gen 15:1-12, 17-18

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Abraham’s Faith and Ours”

 

One day in July, a farmer sat in front of his shack, smoking his corncob pipe. Along came a stranger who asked, “How’s your cotton coming?”

“Ain’t got none,” was the answer. “Didn’t plant none. ’Fraid of the boll weevil.”

“Well, how’s your corn?”

“Didn’t plant none. ’Fraid o’ drouth.”

“How about your potatoes?”

“Ain’t got none. Scairt o’ tater bugs.”

The stranger finally asked, “Well, what did you plant?”

“Nothin’,” answered the farmer. “I just played it safe.”1

Fear can be a terrible power; it can run our life; it can enslave us; it can rob us of living life in all of its fullness. It can paralyze us and make us believe that there’s nothing we can do, since it would never work out anyways. Over against fear, opposite of fear is the God-given power of faith.

In today’s first lesson from Genesis, we learn once again of Abraham’s fears and faith. In this story, I think we can identify with Abram, since at times we too live with the same ongoing struggle and tug-of-war between fear and faith. In verse one, Abram is given a vision. His first response in God’s Presence is one of fear. God alleviates his fear with words of comfort and promise saying: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be great.” Or as Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut translates this verse: “Have no fear, Abram; I am giving you an abundant reward as a gift.” According to Rabbi Plaut, the Hebrew phrase “I am giving you” can also mean “shield.” In the 18 Benedictions of the Jewish Prayer book, the phrase “Shield of Abraham” is a reference to God.2 I like this translation because I think it captures God’s action and initiative—God promises to protect Abram, and offers him his generous gift of grace.

This is a word of comfort and reassurance, which we all need in times of fear. The image of “I am your shield” is interesting. It implies protection, perhaps, rather ironically, the need for protection in the Holy Presence of God, as tradition had it that no one could see God face-to-face and survive. Now the very God who’s Holy Presence can destroy life here promises to protect Abram and preserve his life. This promise to Abram that he was his shield may also imply that God shall protect Abram from worldly enemies. The second part of the verse is also Good News for Abram. God promises him a very great, an abundant reward or gift. God is most generous. His gifts are endless. We too have been abundantly graced and gifted by God through Jesus’ love for us.

However, Abram, not getting any younger, in fact him and Sarai are beyond childbearing age, is sceptical, doubtful and impatient with God’s promise in verse one. In verse two, Abram says: “O Lord, GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer.” Shall Abram and Sarai ever live to see the birth of their own child? We too, like Abram, can become sceptical, doubtful, and impatient with God when God does not act promptly, in ways that we think are appropriate. Abram had serious doubts, as he arranged for his servant-slave Eliezer to be his heir. Apparently in the ancient East, it was not uncommon for couples without children to adopt slaves or servants and make them their heir, with the understanding that the adopted heir would look after the couple in their old age and honour them with a proper burial when they died. As Christians, we remember that we are slaves set free from sin, death and the powers of evil thanks to the saving work of Jesus accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection. When we were baptized, we were adopted into God’s family, and baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. So, we are the heirs of Christ, we receive forgiveness and new resurrection life through Jesus Christ.

Coming back to Abram, only after the LORD speaks again with words of reassurance and promise, telling Abram that he shall be given a child and heir and that his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars—only then does Abram believe God. We are told: “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abram our ancestor in the faith teaches us to trust in God even at times when we see very little evidence to convince us. Even at times when reason and logic would convince us otherwise. Abram, an old man, Sarai an old woman are going to have a baby. Ya right! Tell me another one! They are going to have descendants as numerous as the stars—where’s the evidence of that? They’re going to move into the Promised Land? What’s so promising about this land anyways? Besides, other people live there, what about them? Sometimes faith seems impossible. And yet, listen to the story of Helen Boardman.

She likes to say that she robbed the cradle when she married her husband, Bill. Bill was just a spry 79-year-old when Helen caught his eye. She was 99-years-old. The two of them have been happily married for the past eight years. At 87 and 107 years of age, Bill and Helen like to go dancing, and they act in plays at their retirement center—plays which Helen frequently writes and directs. At age 90, Helen tried white-water rafting.

Helen claims that she stays vital by learning new things and keeping a positive attitude. As she says, “You can tell I’m an optimist—grateful for everything, every day. The cup is always full. Everything’s good. After reading my memoirs, my nephew asked if there had ever been bad in my life. My answer: “If there was, I forgot it!”3

There certainly is no shortage of bad in life—read the daily newspaper, watch or listen to almost any hourly newscast, there are always downside news reports, full of gloom and doom. And yet, there is also much good in the church and in the world, which the media chooses to ignore. There are many Helens, there are many Abrams and Sarais—people who trust in God and God reckons, God counts their faith as righteousness. People who inspire others with faith too and make a big difference through their thoughts and prayers, their words and actions of love and kindness, however large or small. People who trust in God to deliver and fulfill God’s promises as he did for Abram and Sarai; as he did by raising Jesus from the dead. God is faithful, we can trust in his Word more than our doubts and fears, we can trust God, and he fulfills his promises. Amen.

 

1 James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), pp. 204-205.

2 W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 97.

3 Story told by King Duncan, “A Terrifying Darkness,” at <www.esermons.com>.