It's is not just Lent at Zion. It is Lent with redwoods on the ground. Three deaths in three weeks, and Friday's is shaking us all up. I began worship this morning by making sure visitors and longtime members alike felt welcome to grieve and weep during the service. You don't have to know this redwood or this congregation personally - we're all grieving layers of things all the time - but you do need to know that you are all welcome at the table where we will feast with all of the redwoods you've lost. You do need to know that these candles lit are flashlights for the darkness and the Holy Spirit gathered each of us together this morning with something in mind - whether or not we can name that something.
I was too broken to preachy-preach this morning, but I eeked out a letter to Jesus. I stood in the pulpit, where I rarely stand these days, and read it with a shaky voice and watery eyes. I read it to people who wept with open confidence in their doubts. I read it to people who cried for all kinds of things. And it felt damn good. And then, tonight, I added the word "shitty" toward the end because that's just what it was missing.
Sometimes things are not okay. Jesus knows that in Luke 13:1-9 and gets into the thick of it anyway. Thank goodness.
I am having trouble writing a sermon this afternoon, but I am grateful for the reading before us. Your are so feisty – teaching about all kinds of things that make us uncomfortable. Two thousand years later, we still cringe at your criticism and warnings. You don’t water things down or pretend they’re easy…but you don’t give us clear-cut solutions and explanations either.
Still - thank you for going there.
I ache for this crowd gathered around you because we, too, are in the crowd. Both communities have been struck by horrible tragedy – the sudden and shocking death of their own. The Galileans in the temple and Walter* are suddenly gone and we gather around you in shock, too stunned to articulate our questions, but our eyes and tears do the asking anyway.
How could this happen?
And how can we shelter ourselves and his kids and everyone we love from this kind of sorrow? How can we protect ourselves from this kind of suffering?
If you were a political spokesperson, you would mutter, “No more questions”, while pushing your bodyguards into the flash of cameras. But you do not back away from our grief. You do not turn from our broken hearts or our wobbly faith. Instead you lean further into the crowd and show us that you are acutely aware of the pain and injustice that’s piercing our lives.
So thank you for going there.
You hear our fears tangled up with this news of the Galileans and Walter – our fear of the evil in this world and our fear of an unknown and incomplete future. You name another horrific story from the newspaper – the Tower in Siloam fell without warning or reason and killed 18 innocent people.
You bring this up in order to deepen the context – to remind us that bad things happen to good people all the time and we’re never grieving just one thing. Life is filled with layers of sorrow and joy, brokenness and mending. For our sake, you pull the lens back to reveal how complicated and dangerous life is – both then and now.
But you don’t abandon us in the retelling of these disasters. After each story you remind us that no one is to blame. There is no room for the coulda/shoulda/wouldas that sneak into our heads and hearts. The injustice exists and death exists, but these things do not suggest that some people deserve them more than others…OR that some people can handle more hardship than others. They just happen.
And when they do you want us to get outside of ourselves as quickly as possible. You call people together at Walter’s home or a funeral, or a Sunday morning, or through a phone tree, or while you teach the masses. You call us out of our own overanalyzing and stewing and worrying - to be together.
“Repent.” Ugh. But not because we have caused bad things to happen. Not because we are more or less evil than another human being. Not because we are being singled out.
Repent also means to high-tail it into your arms, Jesus. Repent means to touch your cloak and get our hands on the life we have in you. Repent means we move from isolation into community – because in your arms we find each other.
Jesus, that is the only good news I have for the people of Zion today: that you call us to repent. And on a day like today, that doesn’t sound like enough gospel. We are the ones gathered around you in search of answers and explanations and do-overs. When current events, grief and loss, addiction and illness, abuse and unemployment overwhelm us, “repentance” never sounds like enough.
But you say it twice and you mean it. When we run into your arms, we find life and we find each other. You are in the midst of our real stories and our real pain, and you seem to believe that this is something worth saying – something worth trusting and doing.
So thanks for going there.
I think the parable puts me over the edge though. I am standing in the crowd, confused and discouraged – and when you begin telling this story, my spirit soars, confident that this tale can decode the pain of this world and your word of repentance.
But it doesn’t. In fact, the story doesn’t even have a real middle or ending. The gardener proposes a deal to the landowner, but we don’t even know if he takes it – let alone what happens to the tree. We are left grappling once again – in between death and salvation, in between giving up and going all in.
Today I hope that you are the gardener. I hope you understand how vulnerable it is for us to be in this in between place – baptized and named by all the promises to come, but still suffering at the hand of injustice and death. I hope you are the patient one who believes there is something more than all of this – the one who will go to bat for us and surround us with good soil. I hope you are the one who advocates and calls us back to life when no one else sees the point - because you love us so and are really abiding with us. I hope you are caught in this parable without an ending, too.
And if you are, thanks for going there.
Thank you for being the one who gets in the midst of our lives even when there are no easy answers or quick fixes. Thank you for being the one who is willing to be present in faithful and quiet ways when we are out of strength and hope.
Thank you for being the one who calls us to repent – to run back into your arms when we are weary and angry and sad and all alone. When the stories of Galilee and Siloam and Syria and North Korea and SandyHook and Minneapolis wear us down, we have nothing left but questions in our watery eyes.
Your wide arms promise comfort and life and community. I hope that is why you have gathered us here this morning: to hold us in this repentance. To rock us and soothe us and nurture this soil.
These are my prayers for your people at Zion and in Lyndale: That we will be gathered together for grieving and for good things – that we will repent into your arms while you, the gardener, get on your hands and knees digging around us. And, as your holy fingernails fill with shitty manure – the filth and the nutrients of this life – we will rest in your stubborn and everlasting care.
Thanks for going there. Amen.