Today’s Sermon: The Prodigal Son

Here we go…the sermon I’m preaching today.

WHO’S WHO?

READINGS: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (The Prodigal Son)

I wonder how many of you, once you realised what today’s Gospel reading was, thought “Oh, I know this one”, and stopped listening? I know that when I was preparing this sermon, that’s almost what I thought! I know this one. I know how it ends.

I have to admit that it’s actually these well known texts that are often the most difficult to preach on – because it’s all been said before, and you’ve probably heard it all before. So, all I can do is remind you of what other preachers before me have most likely said to you before…

The first thing that so many preachers concentrate on – quite rightly – is the enormity of the love that the Father showed in the story. The father that is, so often, seen to be a picture of God and his abundant, all-encompassing love. In fact, I have heard this story renamed “The Prodigal Father” as the word “prodigal” means extravagant to the point of wastefulness – and this is how he welcomes back the lost son. No thought of the loss of dignity as he runs down the road to greet his son, no thought of cost as he throws a lavish party, killing oxen and inviting the neighbours, no thought of what the lost son did to hurt him, but just an outpouring of joy that he has, at last, come home.

And this, we are so often reminded, is how God reacts when we return to his arms. One commentator writes “The Father is truly the Prodigal – one who loves extravagantly and does not withdraw love in the face of the disrespect, greed, resentfulness and surliness shown by his sons. The God we see mirrored in the prodigious welcome of the father is, in fact, the same God we saw in the extra care offered to the barren fig tree by the gardener”

There are no strings attached to God’s love: all he needs us to do is to take the first step. Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Capital of the World” tells how a father, estranged from his son during the Spanish Civil War, puts a notice in the paper “Paco,” it read. “Meet me on Tuesday at noon in front of the Hotel Montana. All is forgiven. Papa” When the father went to the rendezvous, there were 800 young men all named Paco, all yearning to be reconciled with a father who wrote “All is forgiven.” Not “All will be forgiven if…” but “All IS forgiven”. No strings attached. I love you. Welcome home.

So, if that is the message you need to hear today from this story, then take it. Remember the love that God is boundless; it comes with no strings attached. God is waiting for you. All is forgiven.

But…maybe you’re thinking well, we know this, don’t we? We are reminded every Sunday when we take communion.

And so, another side to the story that preachers often focus on is asking Which of the two sons are you?  Are you the Son who has turned his back on all that his father has to offer him, and gone to live a profligate life in another country? Are you that son, who needs to recognise all that he has lost and needs to come back to the family fold? Or are you the other son – the one that struggles to welcome back the younger son because he feels hard done by. He feels that there is all this rejoicing over the sinner, when he, the one that didn’t go away, the one who stayed and slogged through the daily routine, doesn’t get anything – not even a pesky goat to share with his friends.

And isn’t this often the case – that our desire for a God of “fairness” (or at least, what we see as “fair”) instead of a God of mercy aligns us with the older son, the one who refuses to go to the party, and instead stands outside grumbling about how unfairly he has been treated by his father. It reminds me a little of the story of the workers in the vineyard – those who started later in the day received the same payment as those who had been working all day, and the second group of workers, who had been out in the sun the entire day were not happy about it! We like the fact that God is merciful and just – but it needs to be what we see as justice! We want to make God like us; we want what we see as justice to be his justice – when it should be the other way around.

Often too, in our complaining that “life isn’t fair” we forget to recognise how blessed we actually are. I don’t particularly like the hymn “Count your blessings,” but I do recognise the truth of the lyrics: Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord has done. If we can do this, if we can pause and recognise the many things that God has done, does, and will do, if only we ask, then we too will see and experience our father’s bounty.

And so, sometimes preachers will ask you to think about how you respond to the abundant love of God – like the younger son, who throws himself humbly on his father’s mercy, and receives a welcome like no other, or like the older son, who grumbles and complains, and doesn’t actually recognise that had he only asked his father for that goat to share with his friends, his father would have probably thrown in a case of wine to make the party go with a swing!

But another commentator made a startling suggestion: what if we think of God not as the father in the story, but as the younger son. The son who comes over the horizon, bruised and hurting, filthy and unwelcomed. The son who needs to be welcomed. The son who needs to be washed, and loved, and made to feel human again? The son who needs to be fed, clothed, invited in…

Then the question becomes: who are you? Are you the father who does not see the filth, who does not worry about a loss of dignity, but who opens his arms, and treats this bruised and hurting person as royalty? Or are you the older son, who hangs back and mutters about it not being fair, this person is taking away from me what should be mine…

We are asked this question every day when we see refugees or migrants desperate for support; we are asked this question when we pass by a homeless person, or turn away when someone asks for help; we are asked this question when we don’t say anything as our colleagues talk about scroungers taking what isn’t rightly theirs, or when people are insulted for being Muslim or Jewish. We are asked this question every day: do you see beyond the dirt and the need to a human being needing respect and dignity, or do you see no further than the headlines in the tabloids?

David Henson, the commentator who asks this startling question writes: What if God is the God who comes to us in the disguise of those we despise, those who have hated and killed us, rejected us and abandoned us, those who annoy and frustrate us most, those who are excluded? And if God comes to us like this, how do we respond? As the Father does, subverting social norms and opening his life to the chaos that the Prodigal brings? Or as the brother does, maintaining society’s values, but closing off his life to loving the other?

If we think about the part of the narrative that comes before the story of the Lost Son, we hear the religious leaders of the day, chastising Jesus, complaining that he ate with sinners and prostitutes. This wasn’t a matter of simply transgressing social norms. To the people of the time, the fellowship you kept, who you dined with, determined who you were. To the people of the time, because Jesus supped with the unclean, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the worst of the worst, Jesus, too, was the unclean, the tax collector, the prostitute, the worst of the worst.

Jesus is the prodigal.

He asks us whether we will accept him, even if he reeks of what we think is unwashed sin.

He asks us whether we will embrace him, unclean and unsavoury to our tastes, with the lavish grace of a banquet.

He asks us whether we will run out to meet him when we see him lost, alone, bedraggled, and abused; whether we will be eager and expectant to do the irresponsible thing of living out the Good News.

He asks us whether we, like the father in the story, have the generosity to accept him as he appears; or whether we, like the brother, will demand that God not be so irresponsible and insist that God come to us only in the ways we find acceptable.

And I ask you – and I ask myself – what will you do? How will you respond?

 

 

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40ACTS2019 :: 22 :: Open Invite

PROMPT: Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, a day of celebration but also a difficult reminder of grief for many. Think carefully and creatively about how they might best receive generosity. It could be inviting them to the party, or offering a more low-key and quiet recognition of how they’re feeling.

LINK: HERE

ACTS Green: Give a card to cheer up someone who’s struggling today.

Amber: Have a catch up with a friend who isn’t able to spend time with family, or will find tomorrow a painful day.

Red: Prep a Sunday lunch, and invite as many as you can!

Paul lived for two years in his rented house. He welcomed everyone who came to visit…His door was always open.” (Acts 28:30–31 MSG)

Interestingly, this reflection is anonymous: I wonder if it is written by someone for whom this is indeed a difficult time. If so, I lift them to God in their hurt and pain.

I’ve sent an e-card to a blogging friend for whom this might be a difficult weekend. I’ve also had a catchup with a friend – not that she’ll find tomorrow difficult, but it was nice to spend time with her. I probably won’t do much more for this challenge – it’s a strange one really, which I’ve found a little tricky to fulfil, and I have felt a little uincomfirtable with.

***

On Catching Up with 40 Acts this morning was a busy time…

I made cakes for our neighbours (Act 19) and took them round. Marion was a bit confused as to why I was offering her a plate of cakes, but I explained it was a neighbourly gesture and she seemed satisfied, but still puzzled.

My first efforts at piping with buttercream – a bit shakey but not too awful!

I also made 12 cards – these are for the people who help at Lunch Bunch – our version of Sunday School – (Act 17) to say Thank You for what they do. There are 8 people who escort the children down from school to the Church Offices, and 4 people who actually teach the children. I was lucky enough to find some little scented sachets in Casa, at 2 for the price of 1 and 1 costing 0.49€ which I thought made a lovely gift to slip in with the cards for the escorts, and I had bouht 4 little fridge magnets in Noz as a preparation for 40 Acts at 0.50€ each, so it didn’t cost me very much to thank these people for what they do.

magnets & scented sachets

Little “Thank You” cards for the escorts

Bigger “Thank You”cards for the teachers.

I had bought a Thank You card in Noz ages ago, for 0.75€ which had lots of “Thank You”s on it – which I cut out and used on these cards. Sadly I was one short, which is why one of the cards has a different style of Thank You. Otherwise practically all the paper and embellishments have also come from Noz – so these were cheap to make. I put one of my 40 Acts stickers on the back of each.

I have other 40 Acts to catch up on tomorrow afternoon too, not least researching Open Doors for Act 18, and making some cards to send with letters to persecuted Christians. As my afternoon lessons on Monday have been cancelled (both students away on holiday) I may hold off until then, and catch up with other admin tasks – I’ve got bills to send out and tax declarations to make…AND I’ve also got to try to make sense of the emails I’ve been sent about the catering arrangements for the party for the Bishop next Friday. It seems extremely complicated and I have filed  them away under “Worry About This At A Later Date”. I think the “later date” has arrived!!

I’m off to feed the Poor Cats now.

 

 

 

The original text…

As you might know, I was asked to write a reflection for 40 Acts. I was asked to write about 300-400 words, but as you may also know I am nothing if not a bit wordy at times! So I had to be careful what I wrote! Finally, I decided to write what I wanted to say, and then to pare it down to the correct length. This is the original text:

FROM YOUR SEAT

In November 2017 I was lucky enough to go to a Vocational Discernment weekend in Budapest – the aim of which was to try to discern where God was leading us. It was led by Revd Canon Mark Oakley, who took us through some amazing poetry, and talked about what can help us hear the voice of God. I came away, sure that God was about to call me to face something big – was he going to call me to ordination? Was I going to be asked to take a larger role in my home church? Was it a new job?

At the beginning of December, I discovered what it was God was going to ask me to face: I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I want to state now that I am only able to talk about my cancer, my reactions, my experience. If you are dealing with cancer, or any other disease, your reactions, your emotions may well be very different. And that is OK. We are all deal with things in different ways and I have no right to tell you how you should be feeling.

From the very beginning I decided that I was never going to ask “Why me?” One could just as easily ask “Why not me?” One in eight women suffer from breast cancer – the odds are high. And cancer is, in some bizarre way, natural: it is caused when cells mutate. Mutations happen in nature; that’s how things evolve. If I believe that God created nature in all its wonder and intricacy, then, in some way, my cancer was a part of that creation. Lord knows, I don’t understand it, but I have to trust that fact. That was how I was determined to view this.

I have followed 40 Acts for about three years now and blogged about my failures and my little successes. By the time Lent rolled around in 2018 – very soon after Christmas, it seemed! – I had already had my lumpectomy and had recovered enough for chemotherapy to begin. “Why should I get involved in 40 Acts this year? “I thought. “I’ve just got to be kind to myself. I’m ill…” The first sentences in the first act reminded me why: in the most extraordinary act of generosity the world will ever know, God offered His son, Jesus, as a gift to all. We need only say thank you. 

God is good. God is loving. I believed that before my cancer diagnosis. I believed it no less after it. But how could I repay that generosity to others in my situation – going back and forth to hospital, spending a week in bed and two weeks feeling fairly lousy again before the chemo appointment rolled round?

In a beautiful coincidence, God had given me the verse from Isaiah 41:13: I am the Lord your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says “Do not fear. I will help you” This verse was – and still is – my touchstone. He used this verse throughout my treatment to remind me that he is always there, to hold my hand when I reach for him. And to help me be generous. I learned that being generous can sometimes mean not beating yourself up if you have missed an act: asking God to remind you of the challenge another day is fine – and I can assure you, he won’t forget! Being generous can mean holding others before God, even through your own pain, and being thankful for modern medicine and hospital staff. Being generous can mean placing a hand written, encouraging note in the hospital waiting room for someone to find, or passing on a bar of chocolate to the nurse who comes to change your dressings. Being generous can just mean not focussing on yourself completely and trying to ease others – even if it was only not complaining to the district nurses who found it unbelievably difficult to get any blood out of my veins for the weekly blood test!

Even from your chair, or bed, God will help you to be generous; if nothing else, holding others in prayer when you yourself feel like shit is one of the most generous gifts you can give. And he will honour that.

40ACTS2019 :: 20 & 21 :: CLOSE TO YOUR SEAT (?!)

Although I had a bit of time yesterday morning, I decided not to write a hurried post, but to take a bit more time today to write. Today (Friday) is my work-from-home day: preparing next week’s lessons, admin tasks and so on. Stuff I don’t get paid for, but needs doing anyway; I’d rather do it on a Friday than have it take up my weekend. So I give myself a bit of time to blog as well – hence this post today.

Yesterday’s hiatus wasn’t usual – usually I’m off to Clermont at 8.00 to arrive for a 9.00-10.30 lesson, followed by a 10.30-12.00 lesson, but yesterday was different. Yesterday I went to Roanne to pick up my permanent Titre de Séjour – this gives me the “right” to live and work in France. At the moment, my card is the one that a member of the EU can have; if the catastrophe that begins with B goes ahead I’ll have to exchange it for a different category, but that should be a simpler process than if I didn’t have this Titre de Séjour. So I had about half an hour extra before I went to the Sous Prefecture to queue up with everyone who wanted TdS or other immigration related papers, as the immigration part of the Sous Prefecture is only open (wait for it!) for 1.5 hours on a Thursday! The queue was quite long! (and even longer when I left!)

Sadly, as my photo for this official document was taken half way through chemo, I look terrible on it!!!!

But I’m a happy bunny now!

So…40 ACTS….

ACT 20: CLOSE TO HOME

PROMPT: Today we’re championing local causes. And if we don’t do it, who will? The only people who’ll raise a banner for local causes are locals, so let’s be the ones who’ll rise to that challenge. Imagine if people talked up your neighbourhood as a place where people are kind.

LINK: HERE

ACTS:Green: Start chatting to people in your area, whether that is an isolated elderly person, your next-door neighbour or a homeless person.

Amber: Take part in a volunteer day. You can look up local causes, care homes or schools.

Red: See if you can volunteer frequently for a local cause you love.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37–39 NIV)

This is a difficult one (I seem to keep saying this!!) I am busy: with a (nearly) full time job, and the commitments to church, and the fact I am still, from time to time, feeling the after effects of my treatment, I need to be wary of taking too much on. I already am committed to feeding the “Poor Cats” twice a week too – the feral/ stray cats who live in a colony not far from my house.

So, what else could I do to meet this challenge?

I can chat to people – although I will admit to quite often “not seeing” people I know, so that I can get on with whatever I’m doing. Here in the village there can be a tendency to chat for a long time! So, I could commit to being willing to chat – but that doesn’t sound like too much of a sacrifice! Maybe that’s all I can do – it does, after all, fulfil the Amber brief.

But there is something else niggling, which is a possibility (but I’m making no promises!) The stationery shop set up a little community library, in an old display cabinet. It was outside the shop, but then got moved to outside the Post Office. Last time I noticed it, it was looking rather careworn and tatty. I’m not even sure it’s still there, but if it is, I might go and ask the shop owner if I could try to tart it up a bit and maybe take responsibility for keeping it tidy. That would only take a bit of time, and would add something to the community.

I’m still considering this one….

ACT 21: FROM YOUR SEAT

PROMPT: Sometimes life throws up obstacles that come between our generous intentions and our actions – anything from an overflowing to-do list to a life-changing diagnosis. Even in the toughest times, we always have opportunities to give. How can you be generous today, from right where you sit?

LINK: HERE

ACTS: Green: Offer up your seat or send a positive text.

Sorry, LOL cat, that’s not in the spirit of 40 Acts!

Amber: Use your phone to be generous. Give online to a cause. Encourage some friends on a messaging app. Get on your Stewardship account, and put aside generosity money.

Red: Pray. All day. Whenever you can. Even when you’re hurting, or needing a break, focus on others. It sounds easy, but it’s not.

“For I am the Lord your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, “Do not fear; I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13 NIV)

For regular readers of this blog, the story told in the reflection, and the verse, and possibly the photo, may seem very familiar….Yes, it’s me!!

When 40 Acts contacted me and asked me to write a reflection I was incredibly honoured. After all, every year I seem to fail fairly miserably to complete all the Acts, and I never have any stories of overwhelming generosity or gratifying responses to share. It’s just a bit of a plod to try a do my bit. And last year wasn’t very conducive to completing the Acts… But then, I suppose for almost everyone, the plodding on, the doing-it-anyway, is the norm for 40 Acts. Yes, sometimes we do get the opportunity to do something amazing, and huge, and spectacularly generous and we seize that opportunity with both hands; but more often than not, our generosity just means taking a bit more time to chat (see above!) or offering to run to the scales in the supermarket because someone forgot to weigh-and-label their produce (That was me yesterday!) Little things which mean not much to us, but actually can mean a huge amount to the “recipients”. That’s what I like about my “Ninja Notes” – they don’t take long to prepare, but I hope and pray that the messages will really encourage those who find them. I particularly like slipping one that says

(but in French!) onto a baby changing table. I like to think about a harrassed parent finding it, and realising that actually they’re doing a good job!

My friend Lee, through whom I received the verse I chose for this Act,(See here) sent this email today:

Alison, when I read your contribution and your Act to pray, I  was reminded of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

16 Always rejoice, 17 constantly pray, 18 in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ

It’s worth remembering…!

So, what am I going to do today? I’m going to take a bit of time out of my work at coffee time to send a couple of emails to friends to encourage them and tell them how much their friendship means to me. I’m also going to tell Mr FD that too. He was my rock through my treatment, and I probably don’t tell him enough!

And I’m also going to tell you, my readers, how much I appreciate your comments and support.

40ACTS2019 :: 17, 18, 19 :: CHASING MY TAIL

As usual I’ve not had time to write posts up in the evenings, so here I am chasing my tail…

 

 

Just time for a quickish post today – my 10.15 student is back in town so I need to leave the house in good time to get to Roanne. SO on with the show!!

17: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

PROMPT: Do you know a Christian on mission? Maybe they’re in a far-flung country, or they’re close to home (and worked to the bone). Often, Christians who choose to live on mission take a real hit on their own personal comforts. Think of one you know, and give them the gift of your time, your skills, or your money.

LINK: HERE

ACTS:

Green: Video-call a missionary, or text your youth worker, with no motive beyond encouraging and cheering them on.

Amber: Give a one-off or monthly gift to a missionary, youth worker, or church intern.

Red: Give your services to a missionary. For example, can you help them build a website?

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44–45 NIV)

I’m always surprised how some Acts which I find reasonably appealing are met negatively by some people – and vice versa. Though I shouldn’t be, of course, we’re all different people with different interests, even though we’re in the 40 Acts Family together.

This Act really spoke to some people, especially those who have links to missionaries in some way. I don’t. In fact, I have slightly negative views of “Missionary Work” as it harks back to the days of Empire and “converting the natives” by showing them the errors of their ways and forcing Victorian values onto them. I know that it isn’t at all like this really, but it still makes me feel a little uncomfortable.

I think that the”Look Beyond” is to recognise and applaud the sacrifices that many people make to bring the Gospel to others…At Christ Church we don’t have Sunday School, as there isn’t an appropriate space in the church, but instead on Friday lunchtime, there is what is called “Lunch Bunch”…During the long French school lunch break, those children who wish to come, bring their lunch and are escorted down to the church office, which is near the International school. There they eat together and have Christian education. There is a dedicated group of adults who give up their time to escort the children, to supervise and to teach them… They need thanking.

AND at the beginning of 40 Acts I picked up a handful of fridge magnets in Noz with “Love” written on them.  If I have enough, I think these would make appropriate gifts, with a little card, to thank those who give up their time for Lunch Bunch. I will email Sarah, who is the coordinator, to find out how many people there are involved.

ACT 18: BROTHERS & SISTERS

PROMPT: If the church is a family, we have a lot of brothers and sisters living in desperate need of our help. Persecution is real, and the stories are alarming. It can feel like there’s no way to help, or that these are people beyond hope. But with a God who is powerful, we have access to the most effective, destiny-making help we could bring: contending in prayer

LINK: 

 Green:Read some stories from the persecuted church. Look up Open Doors or Release International – their websites are full of stories that will motivate you to pray.

Orange: Come up with a plan for how you’ll pray for the persecuted, daily, for the next few months.

Red: Look into taking a mission trip with a persecuted church charity.

“We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed – always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8–10 NKJV)

I remember a couple of years ago that a similar challenge came up, with a link to various stories, and how it was possible to support Christians through the ministry of letter writing… I’m much better with cards and letters than with prayer (!!) and so I’ve decided that my way of completing this challenge is to write letters to some of those whose stories are mentioned. There are two sites given, but Sarah, who reads the blog, directed me to another Christian Solidarity Worldwide

SO at the weekend – when I’ve finished this week’s sermon and sent out my bills and done all the other things that need doing!!!! – I’ll sit down, peruse the sites, and choose some names that I feel drawn to. I’ll make cards, write letters and pray while I’m doing it. That seems like a plan…

 

ACT 19: NEXT DOOR

PROMPT: Do you know your neighbours? When you spot them outside their home, as you head back from work or take out the bins, venture beyond the old ‘hey neighbour’ nod. Take the time to get to know them, show a genuine interest in their lives, and decide to help where you can.

LINK: HERE

ACTS: Green: How often do you say hi to your neighbours? Take that moment where you meet and spend time getting to know them a little more.

Amber: Invite a neighbour you don’t know over for coffee or dinner.

Red: Tell them, ‘I’m taking part in this daily generosity challenge called 40acts; is there anything I could help you with this week?’

“…Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39 NIV)

This is one of our neighbours…

and this is the other…

You can see the same yellowy-rendered house in both, to the left of the hotel and the right of the Collège. That’s our house!

The owners of the Hotel-Restaurant moved in last year – the people before were not very friendly – but these are nice. Hard working, and looking permanently exhausted (they have two young children!) but very nice! We don’t often eat there, as it’s quite expensive for what it is, but perhaps I should make a bit more of an effort to do more than just give a cheery “Bonjour!” when we see them.

I fear going and just offering to help – my French isn’t great and it’s just a bit too outside my comfort zone – but I guess I could make some jolly fairy cakes to take to them “pour les enfants…” That would be reasonably easy. I think!! It looks like my weekend is getting fuller by the Act! Tomorrow I’ve got to go down to Roanne to collect my Titre de Sejour (although if Britain crashes out of Europe I’ll need a new one anyway. Sigh.) before going to work, so I’ll try to pop into a supermarket to buy some stuff for baking – cake cases, sprinkles etc and I’ll make some fairy cakes to take round on Saturday. I hope they don’t think I’m too bonkers!

 

Something to ponder

“Life is so short, there isn’t enough time to love. I don’t know where people find time to hate.”

 

Words spoken by an Imam, Sheikh Hamza Mangera, at the funeral of 7 children, killed in a house fire in Canada in February.

Today’s Sermon (but not by me!)

This post includes the sermon preached at Christ Church today…I wasn’t there, as I needed today to rest a little, to recuperate and to think about next Sunday, when I am preaching! Yesterday became a day of cleaning and admin, and this morning was a bit like that too. However, I have managed to cross all but one task off my To Do list, so I’m feeling very pleased with myself!

It was Lee, one of our members, who preached today. It’s a good sermon, and I thought you might like to read it:

 

Lent is about remembering where we are, as we are remined on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  We receive ashes to remind us that we are made for abundant life – and that death is part of the journey toward greater life.  The season of Lent developed as an act of solidarity with those who were preparing to be baptized at the great Easter Vigil, and it became an opportunity for all the faithful to practice returning to the center, and being re-grounded in what is most essential.

Now into the third week of the Season of Lent, our Sunday Gospel prepares us to hear Lent’s call to repentance. Today’s reading is found in the chapters of Luke’s Gospel that describe Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. During this journey, Jesus teaches and heals. He also responds to those who question and challenge his authority and actions. Luke tells us that some among the crowds report to Jesus that there has been a massacre of Galileans by Pilate. The intention of the crowd seems to be to ask Jesus to explain why these people suffered. It was commonplace then, as it still can be now, to view people’s suffering as evidence of their sinfulness.  Jesus challenges this interpretation. Those who were massacred were no more or less sinful than the ones who report the situation to Jesus.  Jesus replies that even a fatal accident, a natural disaster, should not to be interpreted as punishment for sin.

But then Jesus goes on to say, “if you don’t repent, you’re going to die, too.”  Many Christians (and non-Christians) still hear this as a great threat of retribution.  It’s not.  It IS the same reminder that the ashes bear – we’re all terminal, we all come into this world with a more or less fixed span of life, and yes, some of us do depart this life earlier than expected.  What Jesus is saying is that life abundant or eternal life is to be found in turning back to what is most central.  Know that you will die, and live as though this moment is eternally significant.  Love God with all you are and all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus then continues with a parable about a barren fig tree.  In this parable, we find an image of God’s patience and hopefulness as he prepares his Kingdom. God calls us to repent, and yet God is merciful. He delays punishment and tends to us so that we may yet bear fruit.

The fig tree is fruitless.  The owner wants to cut it down – it’s useless.  But the gardener counsels treatment and patience.  He offers to treat the fruitlessness  by digging and fertilizing.  Digging around the tree will prune the roots, and stress the tree.  That stress is a good thing because it creates something of a crisis.  Usually it will reorient the energies of the tree toward bearing fruit rather than just growing more branches and leaves.  Fruit trees and grapevines that aren’t ever pruned don’t produce much good quality fruit – they simply turn “weedy.”  Digging around the tree will get rid of weeds competing for nutrients, and it will open up the soil structure so that water and nutrients can get to those roots.  Adding fertilizer will ensure that the tree gets the nutrients it needs to produce fruit and not just more leaves.

So what might that mean for us?  Digging around our roots means letting go of the unimportant.  What might our roots be growing into?  Are they seeking living water – or emptiness? This tree needs compost.  It’s a reminder that the stuff we try hard to avoid, the messiness of incarnation, is absolutely essential to real life.  We will not bear fruit or find life abundant unless we’re willing to encounter the smelly and the dirty and the lowly around us.

There’s another word for digging, root pruning, and manuring – repenting.  They mean the same thing – letting go of what doesn’t produce fruit, drawing back from what isn’t life-giving, putting our energy into what is life-giving, and turning toward what is fruitful – in direct encounter with the presence of God all around us, and deep within us.   What most of think of when we think repentance is stopping our naughtiness and being sorry so that we may be forgiven our sins.  That isn’t it.  Sin isn’t naughtiness.  Sin really is about distance from God.  Things are sinful in that they increase our distance from God, or, they result from our distance from God.

Repenting and returning is not just about ceasing sin, turning from sinful activity.  Repentance and return happens in seeking, accepting, inhabiting the Kingdom of God proclaimed by God in Jesus.

It is at hand, that Kingdom.   God’s kingdom is not something mythical, not other worldly, not something we need to wait for until the end of days… No.  The kingdom of God is something far more commonplace that that: The kingdom of God is simply how things are supposed to be.  We know how things are supposed to be, we can smell it, we know it when we see it.  See the quiet joy of a mother nursing an infant.  Gaze at a mighty river endlessly coursing or a beautiful sunset or a sea otter floating peacefully in the waves.  We know what is right and good and joyful when we see it.  We know what to do.  We know how to be.  We know to be ourselves as God intended us to be, but goodness, it is hard to stay on that path.

Well, it is for me, anyway.  Besides a small percentage of severely broken people with deep pathologies, we know the difference between right and wrong, truly; we know the difference between good and evil, between what we should do and what we should not do, how we should conduct ourselves in the world and how we should not.  Sure we have lots to learn because much of the world is not as it seems and is not as we have been taught, but in our hearts we know light from dark. We know when we are on the wrong side.  We do.  But if only it were as easy as knowing.  We must repent and return, constantly.

One of the key understandings of repentance and returning is making things as they are supposed to be.  Now that is exceedingly hard to do in the context of a society (if not a civilization) founded on principles directly not in line with the way things are supposed to be, but it is possible.  We can repent and return.  We can take baby steps towards the kingdom, which, brings us back to the matter of compost.

What do we have to discard of ourselves on the compost heap of existence?  What in our lives, our beings do we need to excise and purify in the mighty 150 degree furnace of a good compost system?  This is a way to approach repentance.  This is a way to understand our return to the kingdom of God.

Is this that unlike God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Horeb?  “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters… So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  This is not the way it is supposed to be.  Empire.  Slavery.   The subjugation of a people under harsh taskmasters.  This is not the kingdom of God, and here, God intervenes, and ordains a man; an orphan, a refugee, a survivor, God ordains Moses to go down to Pharaoh and lead God’s people to the promised land.

The trouble is, we don’t go from bondage to the promised land in a single bound.  This is the journey of Lent.  This is the journey of repentance and return.  Because like those Galileans slaughtered in the midst of worship, or the workers killed as the tower of Siloam collapsed, the end often comes unexpectedly.  We have today to work on our relationships with each other and with God.  Repenting and returning is a daily process, a daily reconciliation of the way things are supposed to be.  It is no less than a daily practice of envisioning and realizing the kingdom of God.  We have our work cut out for us.  Dig at those roots and add good compost. Think on God’s Kingdom. Repent and Return.    AMEN.