August 19, 2007 XII Pentecost (RCL Proper 15C) Is. 5: 1-7; Lk. 12: 49-56
As I think you know, one of my favorite stories is about our famously taciturn President Calvin Coolidge. It became kind of a game he and the White House press corps would play: they would try to pose difficult questions, he would do his best to reply with as much brevity as possible. So, anyway, the President was on vacation at his home in New Hampshire, the story goes, and on Sunday morning he and the First Lady attended services at the local Congregational Church. After the service, they were met by reporters in the churchyard, and one asked: “Mr. President, what was the sermon about this morning?” He paused, then replied, “Sin.” There was a moment of silence, and then another reporter asked, “What did the preacher have to say about sin?” The President smiled: “He was against it.”
In any case, to set that as a frame for reflection this morning on these readings from Isaiah and Luke, and to say in the spirit of our 30th president, these lessons address the topic of sin, and what they have to say about sin is that if we are to live into the fullness of life that God has prepared for us, in this world and for the care of our eternal life in him, then we will need to be against it.
In Isaiah the picture is of the Chosen People as a garden prepared with the good seed of God’s Word and saving presence but bringing forth a harvest not consistent with the intention of the Gardener. Not peace, joy, and faithfulness, piety, good stewardship, justice and mercy, but violence, greed, injustice, hostility, self-centeredness. And what gardeners do, Isaiah says, when the plants are bearing bad fruit, is to pull them up by their roots, and start over.
And then Jesus in Luke. The point here isn’t that Jesus comes to cause brokenness, but rather that in his presence the brokenness of our lives and of our world is revealed with a new clarity.
We’re good at sweeping things under the rug, papering-over our hostilities, masking our greed, undermining those around us with the subtle nuclear weapons of passive-aggressive behavior. There’s a lot of brokenness. In our world, our city, certainly as we live through this time of storms we know even in our church—and we have all of us become pretty skilled in figuring out the other people who are to blame.
The word we don’t want to hear is of course precisely the word Jesus speaks in the next-to-last sentence of this morning’s reading. We don’t want to hear it, because we have this sneaking suspicion as we look into the mirror in the morning that he’s got our number, and that if we hear him, if we don’t assume he’s only talking about those other people, if we let that spotlight reveal what is hiding in the shadowy places of our hearts and minds and lives, then we might just feel like we need to do something about it. Take some responsibility. Roll up our sleeves and begin to make changes. Not changes in other people, in other places, in the institutions of the world out there, though certainly there are plenty of changes that are needed out there, but to begin by looking at the distance between the people we are, the person I am, and who God created me to be, the potential of my life to be a part of God’s goodness, and to accept responsibility for that, to be accountable, and to begin the work of doing something about it.
The job description of the St. Francis Prayer, which would be a place to start on that road, a place to begin to bring forth some good and wholesome fruit in the garden of our lives. Just to think in some practical ways, in terms of the specific relationships of my life, of our lives, what it would be to be about bringing forth love and hope and faith and healing and forgiveness, honesty and reconciliation.
I think about that phrase by the German theologian and martyr Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “costly discipleship.” Which points us in the direction, somehow to figure out how to live without succumbing to the inevitably destructive, catastrophic addiction to the belief that we will be happy if we get our own way. All which points to that powerful simplicity that even surpasses Calvin Coolidge from Acts, “Remember our Lord Jesus Christ, how he said, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Somehow to feel that if we actually could begin to get that in our lives, in our society, in our marriages, in our relationships with family, kids and parents, friends and neighbors, in our church, if we could even begin to get that not as a pious platitude but as a defining character of our deepest identity—well, to think about what kind of fruit that garden would produce.
It’s a messy and imperfect process, as any of us who make efforts at yard work and gardening can confirm. And even if you get things just the way you think they should be, go inside for a glass of water and come out again, and I guarantee you, you’ll notice something. Things change, and it always seems that the more you do, the more you need to do. Though if you have a certain approach to the process, that can be what really makes it fun, creative, satisfying. This evolving life. The point is to keep at it. Not to give up. Not to pretend that by drawing the blinds and not looking out into the garden, that we’re dealing with what we need to be dealing with. But instead to open our eyes and our ears, even if what we see and hear at when we do that seems a little scary at first. To open our minds. To listen. To let go of the need to be right, the need to be in control, the need to win. Our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts. Most of all, our hearts.
As Jesus did for us on the cross, loving us more and more, more than we could ever have expected, certainly more than we deserve. Opening our hearts, that he might live in us and we in him. One step at a time, one small corner of the garden every morning, as we’re able, but doing what we can with love to be ready when fruits of the garden are ready to be gathered in for the banquet table.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.