Sermon – March 24 2019 – Third Sunday in Lent

I know I’ve told some of you this story, but I thought of it this week and want to share it.. I am not making this up.  When I was in the Army, one of my drill sergeant’s names was Sgt. Panty. Now, right away you can see all sorts of problems, can’t you.  Compounding his unfortunate name, Sgt. Panty just barely made it above the Army’s minimum height standards.  Uh huh. And he was a buck sergeant.  Just made his third stripe. So go ahead and imagine his attitude.  Well, one day in the mess hall I spilled my milk on Sgt. Panty’s spit-shined boots. The whole place went silent.  A few whispered, “Oh, no.”  A moment later my tray went flying, food sailed across the room.  Some landed on my face and uniform.  Out the door I went with Sgt. Panty barking at my heels.  It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful relationship. From that day forward Sgt. Panty hounded me, singled me out for extra pushups, guard duty, cleaning.  One day he was tearing me up about the shape of my uniform, which by the way, was absolutely fine considering the circumstances, so I pointed out the shortcomings in one of my fellow soldier’s uniforms.  Big mistake. “You arrogant, little XZ#@)), Private Rasmus have you been promoted to drill sergeant?   You want my job?  Are you Sergeant Panty?!  You take care of your own business, soldier.  You haven’t got the time, the brains or the authorization to worry about anyone else.!!!”  You get the drift.   I managed to survive Sgt. Panty and basic training, and I did learn a little something as he applied his gentle and loving lesson to teach me to stay in my own lane, take care of your own responsibilities.

That’s one way to do it.  Shout you down.  Fill you with fear, put you in a corner and force your behavior.   That’s part of what basic’s all about.

This occurred to me as I was reflecting on our gospel lesson today. Now, I don’t want any of you running to the bishop and telling him I compared Jesus to a drill sergeant.  Just bear with me.  In our story Jesus is admonishing the folks who had come to him with questions about the sinfulness of others. “Hey Jesus, what about those unfortunate folks that Pilate killed?  How about those guys the tower fell on?  Man, they must have been some kind of sinners for God to punish them like that. Really bad folks, huh, to get an ugly end like that?  Am I right, or what?”  Of course the implication was, since I am so much better than those folks, tell me they got theirs.  Make me feel a little better.  Tell me I’m OK.  And Jesus says, “never you mind about those folks.  Worry about your own righteousness, your own behavior, your own relationship with God.”  His call for them to repent was a call to turn a new way and begin living differently. He was refusing to make the distinction they sought, in order to make themselves look good, better than somebody else.  Nope, folks, pay attention to your own stuff.  Don’t go confessing other people’s sins.  Stay in your lane.

In a scene from Clint Eastwood’s wonderful movie, Unforgiven, a young gunslinger is literally shaking in his boots in shock and remorse after having shot a man dead for the first time.  He had been bragging about how he was going to do it, but now that it was done he was shaken.   In a weak attempt to justify himself, the young man says, “Well, I reckon he had it coming.”   To this, the grizzled old gunslinger played by Clint Eastwood replies, “We all got it coming, kid.”   And that’s Jesus’ first point in our gospel lesson today: finger pointing and spending our days coming up with graduated systems by which to rate evil and sinfulness and who has what coming to them just won’t do.   We’ve all got it coming. Sin is sin.   Repentance is repentance is repentance. Grace is grace.

Now, lest we get too caught up in this accusation and judgment, something to which God certainly has the prerogative, let’s be sure we hear the gospel in this.  Jesus is just telling the truth. . Jesus is telling the folks, these people need repentance just like you.  It’s not about falling towers and evil rulers, the issue is your relationship with God, God’s gift of mercy and your refusal to accept it.   Now, God has the prerogative of judgment, but he also has the prerogative of grace and because of Christ, that grace, that gospel has come to us.  And that is that God has found a way, shown us a way to relieve us of that fear of judgment.  That’s what those people were talking about to Jesus.  They feared a God who gives us what we deserve.  Punishes us according to our sinfulness.   But Jesus says, you are all culpable, responsible.  But, he says, I know a way to peace.    He says repent.  Turn towards me.  Your sin is no lesser or no greater than your neighbors.  And to both I offer my complete forgiveness.  You can choose another way, but Jesus is reminding his audience and all of us that he stands for the opportunity for another chance and he will place himself in that gap between our sinfulness and our forgiveness.  He stands waiting for our turning, waiting with new hope, rekindled faith.  For the peace of knowing God’s presence and love.

We all hear the words with fear, “Tear up that tree,” says the owner of the vineyard,  “it isn’t worth it.”  Every heard that?  That hurts. That breaks you down. Ever felt that? That you are not worth it.  We can easily be talked into that because of our shortcomings or the mistakes we’ve made. “Tear him out, turn way. She doesn’t bear fruit.  He isn’t good enough.”   The gardener listens patiently to the accusations and says, “True.  This tree isn’t bearing fruit but let me tend it. Let me feed and nourish it.  Let me give it another chance”   Jesus is saying that under his guidance and care, we can become the people that God intends us to be.  Fruitful, alive, healthy and whole.  Out of darkness and fear.

Jesus says, come, mind your business, because I am offering you the chance for a new start, a new beginning.

Maybe the people had forgotten, maybe we forget that this has always been God’s intention.  The people needed to be reminded that this good news has ever been God’s purpose. That this is the nature of the relationship with God that God brought into being.  That God started.   God that established the covenant, freed the people of slavery in Egypt, gave them the law, promised them the land and delivered.  The people squandered these gifts, and were overcome, exiled.  Even then God did not abandon them.  That is their heritage.  God abides. Isaiah picks put the conversation as the people return from exile in Babylon, beaten, demoralized, empty-handed, feeling worthless.

“Ho.  Come to the table!” shouts the prophet. Speaking to the people of Israel retuning from exile, coming home with nothing, the prophet Isaiah reminds them and all of us that God’s banquet has not diminished.  That his promise is true.  That he has prepared the welcome table and there is a seat for each of us. Come to receive all those things you long for but could never achieve on your own, come and turn again, and I will renew this covenant, come and receive this abundant pardon.  God is extending a mercy beyond our understanding, and he recognizes our temptation to judge it and evaluate it.  He says don’t do that, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.  Don’t be tempted to measure my grace by your standards because that will get you nowhere. That will leave you under judgment because you can only reach the ends of your own imagination and under that you cannot help but be lost.  No, my ways, my thoughts, my mercy, my forgiveness, my love, are beyond your complete understanding.  So let me just give it to you.  Turn to me and receive them.”

In our lives we find occasion to believe that we are not worth it, that we’ve gone too far, been gone too long, failed too many times, are the ones whose sin others love to confess.  Destined to live in exile.   To these Jesus says, turn to me and seek my way and judgment turns to forgiveness and fear to grace, and despair to hope.

Don’t waste your time judging others.  I will make you whole so you can serve them.  Don’t deceive yourself with confessing another’s sin.  I will cleanse your heart so that you can forgive them. Don’t worry about where you stand before God because following me brings you into God’s favor.

Turns out that’s the deal that Jesus offers each of us, one that leads to forgiveness, a new start, a hope that is fleeting but with him.  Gives himself in exchange for us, asking in return not that we fully understand, but just believe, and he will keep his promise.  And I will give myself for you that it may be so.

Jesus does not want us to follow a God who is the great Drill Sergeant in the sky, who demands our allegiance out of fear of retribution and punishment, finally giving us only what we deserve.  No, he is offering himself fully for our sake so that we may know forgiveness and hope.

That may be no way to run an Army, but it is the way of the kingdom.   And to that we can only proclaim, thanks be to God.