I have some questions for God. And, oh boy, I just saw about 50 people go like this in unison. I have some questions for God. I was at my office hours on Wednesday at Cafe Agora and Janet Dobbs was there. And she was telling me about a relative of hers. Someone who had suffered just so much loss in their life, had seen so much suffering from the people they loved, and had lost so many. And when somebody asked this relative about their faith, Janet remembered they had one sentence. I have some questions for God. And don't we all have some questions for God.
The images and the news coming from Ukraine have shaken us, many of us, right down to the very core. What we have seen. What we have heard. How can God let that happen to people? How can a maternity ward be shelled? And how can pregnant woman, so, so pregnant be taken. And we look at that image and we see God, are you seeing what we see? And to hear that she lost that baby. And to hear that after she lost that baby, she said to the doctors, let me die. And to hear that she died. Oh, I have some questions for God.
I think Linda Woodbury summed it up very well in the E-news this week. She was writing about our response to Ukraine and then came this line. Our faith is challenged by these events. And isn't that true? And what kind of a faith would we have? What kind of hearts would we have if we were not challenged by events like this in our world, by news like this, by images like this? We've always been asking God this question. I mean, always. This is the great historical question that people yell up to God. Why? What is wrong with you? Why is this world the way that it is? Why didn't you step in? And we keep on asking it.
And none of the answers that we receive are very satisfactory, are they? We hear well, God wants to give us freedom. And so freedom means a lot of terrible things. And we say, well, what about an earthquake? We didn't do anything to cause an earthquake. And what about that maternity ward in Ukraine? God couldn't have just blown up that one shell about 30 seconds earlier. So it blew up in the sky instead of landing in the middle of that hospital. That wouldn't have stopped anybody from being free from shooting it. God would've just stepped in and taken care of it so that no one was hurt. If God is all powerful and God is all good. How could God not do that? I'm not all good. I'm lousy a lot of the time. I'm certainly not all powerful. But I could tell you if I could have stopped that shell from hitting that hospital, I would've done it. Wouldn't you have done it. Wouldn't you have stopped it from hitting that hospital. Then why didn't God?
This is an age old question. And we're not satisfied by the answers because we keep asking the question?
The Galileans in Jesus' day, they were also asking this question. They asked it of Jesus in our scripture reading this morning. They were asking him about those Galileans, whose blood Pilot mingled in their sacrifices. We're not entirely sure about the historical event here, but from the context and from the history, we can imagine what happened. There were a group of some number of Galileans who were down in Jerusalem to offer religious sacrifices. They were basically in church at prayer. And we've seen this happen in our modern world, somebody came into the place of worship. In this case, it was the state, the Roman Empire, Pilot. And while they were at sacrifice, while they were kneeling down in prayer, he slaughtered them and their blood ran into the blood of their sacrifices. And everyone wanted to know how can God let something like that be done to people at prayer. And what is Jesus' response? It's very interesting response. Repent. Or you will perish the like they did. I don't know about that answer. Is that satisfying to you? Let's try and think about that answer a little bit.
One of the things that Jesus says here, before he tells us all to repent, is he asks them. He says, do you think that they were somehow worse than everybody else? And that's why this happened to them. This was a big worldview in ancient times. That people to whom terrible things had happened, the way you could explain it is those people must have done something to deserve it. Blame the victim. Now I wish I could tell you all that we had evolved out of blame the victim, but if you look at any shooting of an unarmed black man in recent history, we all know that we continue to do this. Well maybe if he had just spoken more respectfully or maybe if he had just gotten in the car like they were asking to do. Maybe if just this, maybe if just that. Maybe if just this, maybe if just that. Maybe. We still blame the victim and Jesus is telling them don't blame the victim. They weren't any worse than you. They didn't do anything more to deserve it. Stop it. That's interesting.
Jesus is turning this back on us a little bit, as we try to turn it towards God. Now we continue to do this, even in more subtle ways. I had a friend recently who lost her sister to COVID-19 And she posted on Facebook about her sister's death, announcing her sister's death and just letting everybody know she died because of COVID. And she had to take the post down. And I bet you can imagine why. I bet you can imagine what that Facebook post became obsessed with. People asking one particular question. Can you imagine what that question was? Was she vaccinated? So sorry to hear this? Oh my gosh, was she vaccinated? Was she vaccinated? And what's it matter? She has died. Why do we need to know at this point, whether she was vaccinated or not. I'll tell you why we want to know, because we want to believe that she did something or didn't do something that got her killed, and that God doesn't let people who do all the right things die of COVID-19. Right?
When we hear about a family who loses somebody unexpectedly, maybe they're a little bit young and they don't say what happened. We all want to know why. Do you know what happened? Do you know what happened? Now in part that's because we're loving and faithful. But in part it is because we want some sort of information that we can latch onto and say, oh, that's why they died. They were addicted. He died of liver failure. Well, how did that happen? We want to know that he was an alcoholic. So then we can say, But I'm not an alcoholic. And therefore tragedy like this, God won't let it happen to me. God won't let that happen to me. It was a tragic car accident. Was he drinking? Yes, he was drinking. Oh, then I know why God let that happen to him. And I know why God won't let it happen to me. And what does Jesus say? Stop it. Stop it. You're not any different. You're not any different from them.
Jesus is asking us to stop blaming people for their suffering, and to stop imagining that we are somehow special or chosen or doing all the right things that we can escape that suffering. We even see this when tragedy strikes and it's a near miss. When the tower falls and there's a hundred people in the tower and one comes out alive. And we all rush to that person after they've been dug out out of the rubble, and we ask them, how did you survive? How did you survive? What does the faithful person say? God saved me. What about the 99? There's an implication there, when we say God saved me. About all the people whose prayer wasn't answered in the same way. It's a way of separating ourselves.
And it's a way of saying that God's salvation, which we should all be talking about and which we should all be thankful for applies to the one who is blessed and healthy, more than it applies to the one who's had a bomb dropped on their maternity hospital. And that's not true. Jesus says, stop looking to God For the answer of why things are bad and turn to yourselves. Repent. Don't separate your selves from that suffering. Don't try to put a wall between you and the people who are getting hurt. And the people who are having towers dropped on them, and the people who are being oppressed, and the people who are being slaughtered at prayer. There is no difference between you and you need to repent to remove that wall. All to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in that pain.
One of the problems here is that we don't understand the word repent anymore. Repent for us is synonymous with feeling really lousy about just how absolutely lousy we are. And there's a reason for that. In the ancient world, I've preached to you about this before, language was different. It was a little bit simpler. There wasn't a big division between the idea of regret and repentance in ancient languages. But in the Greek, when Jesus says repent, the word is metanoia. And that literally means, not feel bad, but change your mind. Change your mind not in some superficial way, but change your mind fundamentally. Change the way you think. Change the way you operate in this world. Change the way you think about that person on the other side of suffering. Change the way you think about yourself when you have escaped suffering. Bring yourselves closer together, turn yourself around, come closer together. Repent.
In the Hebrew, which Jesus would've understood, the word for repent, it means to feel sorry. It means to repent. And it also means to offer comfort to someone. There's no difference here. When Jesus says, repent. He's not saying feel bad because you're lousy. He's saying stop the separation. Don't let that come between you. There is a wall, tear it down, come to them, comfort them. Be with them. In faith, we want to turn the blame on God. And let me be very clear with you. I have some questions for God. I am not saying you're wrong to have questions for God. And one day I'm going to stand before God and I am going to let God know that I have questions, that this isn't easy for me. Just like it's not easy for you.
But here's what I think Jesus is saying to us when Jesus comes to us. Jesus is saying, and it's hard for me to say this, because when you're mourning and when you're hurting and when you're suffering, this is very difficult news to hear. And it should never be separated from the fact that God loves you. That God is with you. That your church is with you. That your church is responding to you. And that the world should be responding to your suffering and your pain, and that we are with you. But what Jesus is saying to us is that your desire to live in a world where God fixes everything, and everything is just nice and hunky dory all the time is infantile. Grow up, Repent.
You see somebody suffering and you turn to God and you say, why isn't the world perfect? It's literally psychologically infantile. And Jesus came to us to say, I do not need spiritual infants. I need spiritually mature people to respond to the suffering in the world. Yes, you have questions. Don't get stuck there. Get back into that world, respond to those people. And remember that you are no different, no more blessed than them. You are your brothers, your sisters, your siblings, you are with them. Repent.
And then Jesus tells us a parable, and parables are wonderful things. And I hope as we close here that you keep this parable in mind this week.
There is a landowner who has a fig tree that he is not happy with. There's no fruit on it. And there is a gardener who says, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, don't cut it down. Let me do some more work. Give me a little more time. Let me dig around the roots. Let me pour the manure down there. And then there's this tree. And I'm not going to tell you that God is the landowner, and Jesus is the gardener, and you're the tree. That is for you to struggle with and to figure out. Are you the gardener? Are you the landowner? In what ways are you the tree? What is your manure? That's for you to work out. But I am going to talk to you about one way of thinking about this parable.
Jesus is asking us to find our fruit. In the face of tragedy, Jesus wants us to produce that fruit. And yes, it's hard. And yes, we have questions. But God Has given us a little more time, a little bit of amazing grace. A little more time to tear down that wall, to turn ourselves around, to be no different than the people who suffer.
I know you have been thinking up real conundrums for me, head scratchers. So this is how it's going to work. If you have a question you'd like to ask, just raise your hand and I will point to you. I'd say you could just pull your mask down so everybody can hear you say your name please so that we all can hear your name and then ask your question. It's ask me anything. Any question is acceptable. There are no boring questions, only boring answers. So hopefully we'll see how I do. And I'm looking at the time because I have to pay attention. Yes, You don't have to stand, say your name.
Thank you, Catherine. So where are some places to turn for comfort in scripture in times of global strife and war? So there are two places that I consistently, this is for me, turn for comfort. And it's totally illogical one of them, because one of the places that I turn for comfort is I turn again and again to the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures. And that is not a place we usually think of as turning for comfort. That's usually the place you think of to turn. When you want somebody to cut you down to size and give you a challenge and say, "Whoa! You are going in the wrong direction. You have to get back on course." But I find incredible comfort in knowing that our God is a God who does not just offer a little bit of peace while the bombs are blowing up all around you.
Our God is a God who sees the whole world and calls all people to justice, to correction, and to holding themselves accountable. And that for me is a source of comfort. Yes, God does offer us comfort when times are hard. And when there's strife, God is that shepherd who lays us down in the valley. And strokes the hair on your head and reminds you that you are a child of God. And there are many places to turn for that in scripture. But I turn to those prophets who say, God is a God who holds the whole world accountable to justice, to mercy, to peace. That for me is where the comfort is. The second place I turn, I turn again and again to the gospels and to Jesus' message, especially the message that is so encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount, blessed it are the peacemakers, blessed it are the meek.
Again, it doesn't seem to make sense. Why are they blessed? Why are the poor blessed? Why are the meek blessed? And it is because Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God is a total reversal of the world that we live in. It's a world of justice and it's a world where the last shall be first. And knowing that is Jesus' vision, and that is God's vision for us, brings me comfort to know that we can work towards that vision and that what we pass through along the way is momentary. And there is suffering and it is hard, but God has a vision for something better. And I find great comfort in that. Thank you, Catherine. Yes. Your name please?
Oh, okay. Five names. Do you know what the five names are? Did you write them down? No. Okay. So Audrey says that and I think I know the question here. She says there are, she has, and going through reading some of our readings, she has found five different names for the large freshwater lake in Israel. And so you're wanting to know why are there so many names or which is the proper name or something like that?
Yeah. So there are a lot of different names. So one of the things we've heard it called is the Sea of Galilee, which is confusing because we think of a sea as a salt water body, but it's actually a fresh water body, but in the ancient world, a sea was any large body of water. So it's called a sea because it is such a large body of water, even though it is a fresh botany water. So we call that a lake.
It's also known as Sea of Galilee, Lake of Gennesaret. Today, it is actually called, I don't even remember what it's called today. It's called something completely different. And the issue was just different people in different places, referred to it in different ways. The interesting thing about Israel is that it is a place all throughout its history where different conquering empires were passing through it. It's an extraordinarily strategic piece of land, right on the Mediterranean, a gateway into the whole middle east. And so from the north, from the south, from the east and from the west, Israel was always being fought over and there were always conquering armies at the border or coming through. And as different people were naming things and carving things up, they called things by different names. And that is why there are so many different names. And there were so many different languages and in every different language people had a different name for it. So that's why that is sometimes recorded in the Greek. And even in the Greek, you read that people are calling it by different names. Yes. Your name please?
Okay. Great question, Jan. So Jan's question is there's all of these different Christian religions and she wants to know specifically about the Eastern Orthodox religion. Where do the Eastern Orthodox churches come in? Where do they fit in? And I think she's especially thinking about the church in Ukraine, as we've been hearing about Ukraine a lot. We're learning that there are some Protestants of some Catholics there, but there's also this Ukrainian church. And what is that? So a long time ago, 1051, oh, somebody will Google me, who's watching online at home. There was something there was used to be just one church, one universal church that spread over the whole world. And in 1051, there was a split called the Great Schism. And the Eastern church broke away from the Western church. Now we live in the west.
So we typically think there are Catholics and there are Protestants. And we forget entirely about everybody from Constantinople east, who did not become Catholic. They broke away from the Roman church and the Roman church broke away from the church of Constantinople. And those churches are known as the Orthodox churches, the Eastern Orthodox churches. And there is an Eastern Orthodox church in Greece, in Russia, in Ukraine, in Egypt, in Ethiopia, in India, all over Eastern Europe, the middle east, the far east and north Africa, you will find the Eastern Orthodox churches. And the Great Schism, it was a power dynamic when Rome fell that sort of created, there was a cultural difference between the two churches and there was a power difference, but there were also some differences in theology.
The Eastern church had different theologies than the Western church. The Western church was all focused on the Pope in Rome and they were sort of wanted to be independent. Today, the Eastern churches are very interesting for us to learn about as Western Christians, because the Eastern vision of Christianity and theology is so different than ours. Now, as a sort of liberal leaning, even if sort of Protestant denomination, sort of theologically liberal, it's very interesting to encounter the Eastern Orthodox tradition because we encounter a tradition that in some ways is more traditional and conservative than our tradition. And in other ways is more liberal in the sense that they have not followed all the traditions of the west and they have their own traditions. For instance, one of the great Eastern Orthodox theologians of our time has written a wonderful book called that all may be saved, which is all about a sort of a Christian vision of universalism that hell is not eternal.
And that in their vision of Christianity, all Christians, all people will eventually be saved. And so there's ways in which the Eastern traditions can really inform us as Western Christians show us a totally different side of Christianity. But sometimes we see these things and we think, well, that's not the way it is. That's not traditional. That's not Orthodox. In fact, these are traditions that date way back that predate us and that predate is some of the ways that we think, and they're beautiful to engage. And I will say this about the Eastern Orthodox churches. They have one of the differences between the Western church and the Eastern church is in the Eastern church, they venerate icons. And so you've probably seen these Eastern Orthodox icons. It is one of the most beautiful art forms in the world, the iconography, and one of the most beautiful spiritual practices in the world for the Orthodox churches these icons are more than art. They're sort of art. Plus it is a direct encounter with God or with a Saint to commune with the image in an icon.
And when you go to an Eastern Orthodox church, you'll see these icons everywhere. And it is an incredibly different way. When you look at this would look like very spare, if you were in an Orthodox church, you walk in and it is a completely different way of engaging with the spirit of God in a visual way. I want to give a chance to see if there is anything since I've hit the 12 minute mark, I believe. And I want to see if there is anything online. If anybody has a question, let's see.
Marsha W. wants us to know that there is an Eastern Orthodox church in Armenia. That's true. I'm not seeing any questions online. Does anybody else have a closer, a real kicker? A stumper? Oh, I know this man will have one. Will you tell us your name, sir?
So wonderful question. John is saying we've got four gospels in our Bible. I have heard according to a rumor of a book on my bedside table, there's a whole bunch of other gospels out there that didn't make it into the Bible. Can you tell me what those are about? And he understands, those are frequently called Gnostic Gospels.
So the first thing to understand is that there are a whole bunch of other gospels that didn't make it into the Bible. When Christianity was young, there was not yet a cannon. There wasn't a set of books of the Bible that everybody agreed on and read. And you remember, I just told you about the Eastern Orthodox churches. There were churches all over the place and the world was a lot bigger then. It took a lot more time to get from Alexandria to Rome, to Constantinople, right?
And so different Christian communities in different places had different books that they were reading. So Matthew was a gospel over here, and John was a gospel over here and Thomas was being used over here. So there were these different gospels. Now, at a certain point in the time of the Roman empire, when Rome became Christian and the emperor became Christian, and there was this sort of desire to create order because there was a lot of division and disagreement. They decided that they were going to determine which gospels were in and which were out. But before that time, there were lots of different books. And then not just gospels, there were hymns, there are Psalms all kinds of writing that were early Christian writing that didn't make it in. Now, the term Gnostic is actually a modern scholarly term. So there wasn't some movement at the time called Gnosticism.
And what happened is that some of the books that didn't make it in, modern scholars wanted to dismiss those books as not sort of worthy of study and modern Christians wanted to dismiss them as not worthy of spiritual engagement and the way they did that was just to put the label Gnostic on all of them and not translate them very well. And just say, these are interesting little tidbits that we don't necessarily need to read. And that's kind of where the term agnostic came from. Some of these gospels have what we would think of as Gnostic tendencies and Gnosticism was this idea in early Christianity. It was one of the ideas in early Christianity that didn't make it into the modern era is not Orthodox that, the God who created the universe was actually a Demi-God and a Fallen God.
And there's actually a higher God. It was a very sort of platonic idea that this world is totally and completely sinful. And there's nothing good about it. This is one of the big Gnostic ideas. And so Jesus himself was not a part of this world. Jesus was not incarnated. He was purely spiritual. And so some of the gospels have this Gnostic tendency. They usually have Gnostic means wisdom. And there's some sort of hidden or secret way in the gospel that you learn the real truth. It's sort of like a conspiracy theory thing, but not all of the gospels are gnostic. And even the ones that do have gnostic tendencies in them, not all Gnosticism is the same. And you could sometimes find little Gnostic hints in the gospels that we read. I think it's incredibly important to read the early gospels that didn't make it into scripture because you learn a lot more about what early Christians were thinking, how diverse they were.
And you learn a lot about how we developed the core theological principles that we hold to as Orthodox Christians. So I have one question for all of you to wrap this up. Did you enjoy hearing me speak off the cuff to your questions? Did I do okay. I did. Okay. Okay, good. So we'll do this every once in a while. It is really nice to have a break from preaching and just to get to directly respond to all of you. So thank you for doing this with me. Amen.
So, Jesus was baptized. The Holy Spirit drives Him out into the wilderness and He doesn't eat or drink for 40 days and 40 nights and the devil shows up to tempt Him. After 40 days and 40 nights of not eating, the devil says, "Hey, look, why don't you turn some of these stones to bread?" Jesus refuses and so, the first big question here in this piece of scripture for us has to be, why? Why is this a temptation? Is there something wrong with bread?
Well, we know that there's not. In a few minutes, later in the service, we'll be praying the prayer that Jesus taught us. What was the prayer that Jesus taught us? Give us this day our daily bread. After that, we're going to be partaking in the sacrament, the meal that Jesus left for us, and 50% of that meal is bread. There's nothing wrong with bread, so why is this a temptation? Why is it a temptation? Jesus says, "One does not live by bread alone." What does that mean? What does that mean to you? One does not live by bread alone.
Some years back, a married couple came to me for some couple's counseling and they'd basically burned themselves out under the pursuit of the great American dream. They had burned themselves out chasing after the big, important positions at work and going after the promotions and the raises. Just the rat race of climbing that ladder and having a really nice home and stretching themselves maybe a little bit more than they could. Getting the private school for the kids and the boarding school for the kids and just working so hard each and every day to keep up.
I said, "Well, maybe that's the problem," and they said, "No, no, it's a problem in our relationship." I said, "Well, maybe it's a problem with what you're doing in your relationship." They said, "I don't think so, this is what everybody we know is doing." I thought that was very insightful. I thought, "Yeah, they're right. This is what we're all doing." We're all running after the material.
So, I decided to break out the social science. I said, "The social science is very clear about this. The more that people test as materialistic, pursuing those material goals and the less they test in the gratitude spectrum of things, the more likely they are to be depressed. The more likely they are to report anxiety. The more likely they to report lower life satisfaction. The less likely they are to have meaningful friendships and relationships. The less likely they are to be involved in community." I said, "The social science is just telling us the spiritual science that Jesus gave us 2,000 years ago, one does not live by bread alone. When you put bread in front of everything else, things can fall apart."
They said, "But we believe. We're here talking to you and not to a therapist because we believe in Jesus." I said, "You believe in Jesus and I know you do, but is your behavior in line with your belief? Are you layering that belief on top of the American dream? Or are you putting the American dream, the pursuit of that material wealth, keeping up and being on top before God?"
I think that what this couple was facing and what Jesus was telling us when He said, "One does not live by bread alone," is the first temptation that we all face in this culture. It is the temptation to feel material value is the most important thing in our lives, the most important thing to pursue. There is a tendency to get a little bit of a narrow focus rather than a broader focus. To just focus in on what I have, what I need, that treadmill of consumption and going for more and more and more rather than broadening our view and saying, "Yeah, I need a little bit of all that, but what does it mean? What is the value of my life outside of the things and the power that I have collected to myself?"
Right now, all of us are very concerned with two things in the news. The war in Ukraine is at the forefront of our minds and just behind that, we're all thinking about inflation. Man, it's been something to see how messing around with the value of the dollar can bring everybody together. Left, right, conservative, liberal, whoever you are, we all agree, we don't like inflation.
Imagine if we could respond with the same energy that we're responding to the devaluation of our dollar, to the devaluation of our ideals and our values. Imagine if we were able to respond and get behind in the same way the devaluation of our dollar, if we could get behind the devaluation of our democracy, of decency in our country, of proper political discourse, isn't that being devalued? Imagine if we could have the same energy for the devaluation of our environment, the continued devaluation of black lives.
I'm not saying that the dollar doesn't matter, the dollar matters. I mean, people, this has real impact on people's lives, but Jesus said, "One does not live by bread alone." Aren't there other things that we value? I think that Jesus probably worries a little bit about a culture that can only agree on the value of the material and doesn't even know how to talk anymore about the value of the things that go beyond the material, the value of the things that really matter to a people, to a democracy, to a faith.
I think what Jesus is telling us when He says, "One does not live by bread alone," is that, if we have all the bread that we could possibly ever need, our needs are satisfied, that is the time that we need to stop working for bread. If we have all the bread that we could possibly need and something else doesn't happen, if there is still some other missing ingredient, then we are not truly alive. One does not live by bread alone.
If you have all the bread you need, and if you have more bread than you need, but you do not have something else, you are not alive. And so, the question of Lent, is not a question of making yourself miserable. The question of Lent is the core vital question of your life, are you truly alive? Are you truly alive? Where does the value of that life lead? Where is it? Lent isn't about making yourself miserable. It's about re-centering ourselves, re-centering ourselves in God, coming truly alive.
If I have all the bread I need, it's time for me to stop working for bread, and it's time for me to start working for something else. For the deepest hungers, not of my body, but the deepest hungers of my mind and my spirit. The deepest hungers and needs of my community. Once I have enough to support myself and I have a little bit of extra energy for something else, that energy does not go into bread, I start working for God.
That's why Jesus is out in the desert, to work for God. He's just been baptized. He is beginning His ministry. He's got to get His head on straight. He goes out to start His work for God. Lent is a season where we follow Jesus's example. We put down our bread and we align ourselves, we align our spirit, we align our hunger, all of our consent, all of our love to God. We don't just layer it on top. We allow God to take the proper position.
Bread is important, but God rules the material world. I have to work for my bread, but bread does not rule me, God rules me. That's what it means to be human from the Christian perspective. I am not ruled by the material world. I do not serve the material world. I serve God. 100% of the consent of my soul goes to my savior.
So, I want you to imagine that you're in a desert and you're surrounded by stones all of which could easily become bread through your work. You have just enough bread to live and be comfortable and be safe. What will you do with your energy? What will you do with your time? Will you spend it turning stones to bread or will you choose something else? How will you respond? How will our church respond stones to bread or something more? One does not live by bread alone.
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
When I moved to Glen Ridge, I had this, all of a sudden coming from Brooklyn, enormous backyard. And I thought, oh man, I am going to just go to my roots like my grandfather before me and I am going to grow tomatoes. I'm going to grow so many tomatoes. And I wasn't going to just plant them in the ground of course. I built a garden bed and I filled it up with only the finest soil. And I got this organic cow manure. Can you imagine that I spent the extra money on making sure that the cow manure was organic? And I filled the bed entirely with this stuff. And I got these beautiful plants and I built these giant cages around them. And I put that bed ... I mean, I calculated the angle of the sun and I wanted to make sure it was going to get lots of sun, but not get too much sun.
And I had the hose going out there so that I could water them every day. And those little plants shot up like weeds. You wouldn't believe it. They grew and they grew and they grew. They surpassed the cages. They were towering above me. And I was just imagining tomatoes the size of grapefruits that I was going, my family was going to be dining on, because nobody knew how to grow tomato plants like I did. And summer just kept progressing and there was nothing on these plants and everybody else had tomatoes that they were trying to give away, they're bringing by the house, "We have so many." And I didn't have nothing. So I asked a gardening expert friend of mine. I said, "Look, I did everything right. How dare these plants not produce any fruit?"
And my gardening expert friend said, "Yeah, that's exactly the problem. You did everything right. You treated them too good. You gave them too many nutrients. You gave them too much water. You gave them just the right amount of sun. I mean, there is no reason for this plant to worry about reproducing, about creating fruit. It just feels like this heyday is going to go on forever and ever and ever. And it just wants to grow bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It doesn't think that summer is ever going to end, because you've made things too perfect. You need to make it less perfect."
And he said, "You've got to stop watering it so much. You've got to cut back. You got to prune these things away. You got to pull these things off. You got to cut back on all this. You got to put some sand on there." And we got a few tomatoes at the very end of the season because I stopped treating them so well and I made them struggle a little bit. And then the squirrels ate all my tomatoes and I didn't get a single one. But that was Glen Ridge at the time. A lot of squirrels that year.
That's an interesting thought for Lent, this idea that we're not going to produce any fruit if we don't have to struggle a little bit, at least. I mean, why do we have to have Lent? Why do we have to come back to it year after year after year? Why do we have to look into the face of sinfulness? And why do we have to look into the ashes and to be told from dust you came and to dust you shall return? Why do we have to go all the way to Holy Week and to the Cross? Why do we have to take that Cross up? Why do we have to deny ourselves? Why? Wouldn't it be better if life was just a heyday, a summer that never ended? Well, my tomato plant says no. And I think Jesus says, no. I think that God says, no. There's got to be a little bit of resistance. There's got to be a little bit of a pull, a little tiny bit of a struggle that causes you to produce your best work, your best life.
I was at my office hours this morning, and the people receiving ashes at Agora cafe. And I got a chance to sit with people and say, Hey, what do you think Lent is bringing to us this year? And it was very interesting to hear what people had to say, because in general, people were feeling like a lot of times, Lent is about turning inward and getting a little bit introspective and praying and maybe quieting down, taking things down a notch, denying ourselves, right? Maybe putting a fence up a little bit with some stimulation and some pleasure. And what people were saying to me is "I don't know if that's that's quite the right feeling for this year." And I had to kind of agree. And I was talking to Amy, one of our members, and I asked her what her feeling was for Lent. And she said, "Well, you know, I feel like I want to get out more. It's almost like a feeling of being a flower opening up." And what we came to together was this idea of blooming, blossoming.
And when I heard her say that, I thought about something that I've been thinking about this Lent. This phrase was in my head "Calmly plotting the resurrection," Calmly plotting the resurrection. Every year, I've got to come up with some sort of theme to just sort of coalesce my preaching around. And that was there. And it didn't really make sense. And that's ... Sometimes it's a good thing because as a minister you can come out, you can say this thing that doesn't make much sense. Then you can explain it. And then you look like you're a really smart guy, right? But I couldn't explain this one. It was just rolling around in there. But when Amy said this Lent was feeling like a blossoming, it made me remember where this quote came from in the first place. And it came from E.B. White, the children's beloved children's book writer, Charlotte's Web and his wife was a world famous gardener who wrote all these books about gardening.
Her name was Katherine Sergeant Angell White. And in one of the last books that she published towards the very end of her life, E.B. White wrote the introduction. And in that introduction, he was reflecting on the fact that his wife didn't have much more time to live and reflecting on her life. And this is what he said about her: "Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katherine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat, much too long for her, put on a little round wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes and proceed to the director's chair. A folding canvas thing that had been placed for her at the edge of the garden plot. There, she would sit hour after hour in the wind and the weather while Henry Allen produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basket full of old ones ready for the intricate interment. As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion. The small hunched over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection."
So I'll leave you with that this evening. Lent maybe a time for us to struggle in the right ways, not to pull everything back. You can't take all the water away. You can't take all the nutrients away. You can't cut the plant all the way down to the ground, but to just find the right little resistance. The place where you are working, the place that you are churning through, and invite God into that resistance, that struggle, that hardship with you. Sitting there at the edge of the garden planting the bulbs. Calmly plotting the resurrection and waiting for something to blossom.
We're here at the tail end of Black History Month. We're here at the tail end of Black History Month, and I decided to expand my horizons a little bit. I was realizing in Black History Month, I was thinking about all of the names who weren't the big names. Not the Martin Luther King Jr and the Rosa Parks and the Malcolm X. Who are some of those other names of people from our black history in our country who are very meaningful to me. And I started listing them all out and they were all ministers, poets, novelists, civil rights folks. And I realized, oh, that's just sort of my lane. That's the lane I ride in. And I thought, I want to learn something about somebody completely outside my wheelhouse. And I got interested in learning more about Muhammad Ali, the greatest. I mean, what an interesting individual he was.
Muhammad Ali was not only one of the greatest boxers of all time. He was just one of the greatest sports personalities of all time, a deeply spiritual person, and what a life. In 1960, he won the gold medal in the Olympics. In 1962, he won the Heavyweight Championship. And by 1967, he had been recruited into the army, drafted in the army to go to Vietnam, he became a conscientious objector. He went to court, he was convicted of being a draft dodger, he was sentenced to five years in prison, he was stripped of his heavyweight titles, he was banned from boxing. Now what an arc that is, and what a personality for it to come from. Muhammad Ali, the greatest. If any personality you could imagine as like a mountain top personality, we're talking about what happened to Jesus on the mountaintop. Just that mountaintop moment is that incredible moment of glory, of power.
Muhammad Ali had that personality. And yet when it came time to make a stand on principle and to make a sacrifice, a real sacrifice in his career and in his freedom, he was absolutely ready to step down from the mountaintop of fame, to step down from the mountaintop of safety and to put himself in harm's way. When we hear our scripture reading this morning about Jesus going up to the mountaintop, it's really easy to think that this is just a piece of scripture about going up to the top of the mountain. Oh, but it's not. It's not. It's really easy to think this is just about what happened up there on the mountain, but it's not. It's about that need, the absolute need to come back down the mountain.
What happened to the disciples up there? They got up there, they were looking around. Here's Moses. Here's Elijah. Jesus, you've got the glory of God shining out of your body. This is all that we need. Peter says, "Hey, let me build a couple of little huts up here. We'll build a couple of little huts up here. We never have to leave. Let's stay here forever." And what does Jesus say? Suddenly God's voice disappears. Suddenly the lights go away. Suddenly the ghosts of Moses and Elijah, they disappear. They're just standing there. And Jesus says, "No, it's time to go back down from the mountain." Back down. Back down.
If we're going to follow Jesus, we have to follow Jesus back down the mountain. And if we're going to follow Jesus, we have to understand Jesus' perspective. What did he say to the disciples on the way down the mountain? Don't even tell anybody what happened down there. It was just the four of us. It stays between us until after everything is accomplished. And what was it that Jesus was going down to accomplish? It was the work of Lent, it was the journey to Jerusalem, it was the journey to the cross, a journey, not of glory, but of blood, and sacrifice, and pain and service. He said, "Follow me. Don't even think about what happened up there anymore. Follow me. We have somewhere to go." This piece of scripture is not about the mountaintop. It's about what happens after the mountaintop. It's about that decision to come down.
Muhammad Ali was somebody who knew that there was no separation between that mountaintop personality and the personality of the one who goes down and sacrifices and serves. Let me give you another example. There's a man from Kenya. His name is Charles Mulli. I don't know if any of you have ever heard of him, but we should have heard of him because there are few people in the world who have done more good than Charles Mulli. Charles Mulli was born in Kenya. At six years old, he was completely abandoned by his parents. He lived as a child on the streets begging for the ability to survive. And at 17 years old, without family, without support of any kind, he walked into a church. He had a mountaintop experience. The power of God came into him. It was that classic born again, salvation story. That wonderful story that we love in the Christian tradition. He was saved, but that wasn't the end of his story.
He went on from there and he became a businessman and he became one of the richest men in Kenya, a multimillionaire with all kinds of different diversified businesses. And yet, and some people would look at that and say, well, that's because he saved. And this is God's favor coming down on Charles Mulli, but that wasn't enough for Charles Mulli. Charles Mulli said here I am on the mountaintop. It's not enough because every day he would walk through the streets of his city and he would see abandoned, orphaned, poverty stricken children, begging for the ability to eat, just like he was when he was a child, and salvation for him, the mountaintop for him, it was not enough.
And so in 1999, Charles Mulli and Esther Mulli, his wife, sold all of their property and all of their businesses and used the proceeds to establish the Mulli Children's Family, an organization that would create orphanages and programs to support the children who are living on the street, abandon in poverty. And since 1999, when they started this program, they have housed and raised more than 23,000 children. They have been recognized around the world as incredible humanitarians, as people who refused to sit on top of the mountain, people who had to come down. Sometimes we think of Christianity that the whole point of us being here, the whole point is to get to the mountaintop. We want to get to salvation. Let's get to salvation. Let's have that moment like Charles Mulli had in that church where the power of God comes into us, we give our heart over to Jesus, we lay our lives bare, we find that forgiveness, we're in good relationship with God and we are destined for Heaven and forget the rest of the world. What does it matter?
But that's where we make a mistake. We think that mountaintop, that salvation moment is the most important moment, but it isn't. It is the most important moment until you have gotten to the top of the mountain. But once you are on that mountaintop, once you know God, and you have laid your soul bare to God, and you have been blessed by God. At some point, you've got to come back to down that mountain just like Jesus did, to serve. And that's what Charles Mulli did. He was saved at 17. He could have just kicked his feet up and waited to die, but that's not what a Christian does. A Christian is one who has been to the mountaintop and refused to dwell there. Just like Jesus did, just like the disciples did. You come back down to that convulsing child and you heal in the riot and the chaos of this world. That is our calling.
I think of a great example of this is one of my favorite people, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a German Christian pastor who was living in New York City at the time of the events of World War II and the rise of the Nazis in Germany. And everybody said to Dietrich, "Dietrich, you're one of the most brilliant German Protestant theologians to ever come. You're one of the most brilliant theologians in the world. We need you here, safe in New York City to speak out against the Nazis. Speak out against the Nazis from here, where you're safe." On the mountaintop of safety. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "No, I'm going home and I'm going to fight. I'm going to put everything at risk. How could a Christian stay in safety when their homeland is at threat and their family is at threat?" So he went back to Germany and when he was there in Germany, he resisted the Nazis as best he could. And it eventually came to a point where Dietrich Bonhoeffer got involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
And Bonhoeffer was an extraordinarily moral, incredible theologian. He understood and he wrestled with the fact that he believed that his salvation would be at risk. He may lose his salvation. Why? Because he was openly plotting to murder someone. And he knew that wasn't right. And yet, as a Christian, as one who was following Christ, he could no longer see a path to avoid it. As one who followed Christ and one who loved God's children, he could see no other path, but to participate in an activity that may rob him of his salvation. And he did it because he understood what it meant to come down the mountain. He understood what salvation meant. He understood that grace and that love. Coming down the mountain.
If you Google the name Kendrick Castillo, I don't know if that name is familiar to you, but you will see a teenage kid, Latino kid, Hispanic American kid. Oh man. The smile on this kid. He's just got a face that draws you in, shining with the glory of God. Kendrick was raised by his parents as a Catholic. He was a good Catholic boy. He deeply identified with his religion and he was involved with the Knight of Columbus. And I think before he was like 17 years old, he had already logged thousands upon thousands of hours of service to people less fortunate than him through Catholic charities and activities. Just the kind of person he was. Somebody loved by his friends, a kid who was on the mountaintop, the precipice of an outstanding future.
And then in 2019, a gunman walked into his classroom at his STEM high school in Colorado and Kendrick who was standing on top of that mountain, had a decision to make. What am I going to do? And he threw himself at that gunman. And one of the reasons you haven't heard about that shooting is because Kendrick was the only one who lost his life. When that shooter intent on killing a lot of people, came into his classroom. How does a 17 year old high school kid make a decision like that to come down the mountain so fast? I believe that he had practiced in little ways. It doesn't always have to be the big sacrifice, the little ways. He had served. He had volunteered. He had given of himself. He understood how to come down the mountain. And when that big moment came, that grand moment came and he had a choice to sacrifice everything for the people he loved tragically and heroically, he was able to make that choice.
Are we practicing to come down the mountain? Are we taking the risks of service to the world that God loves? Or are we clinging to the mountaintop? If you're anything like me, it's a little bit of both, but Jesus is leading us down the mountain. I'd like to just talk to you about one more thing this morning, which is about this little mountaintop right here. The pulpit. There is a way in which I have been very cautious in my preaching with all of you. I have stood at that pulpit most often. And I have had something called a manuscript that I have preached from, I read it. And isn't that a safety device? Oh, yes, it is.
Because when I do that, nothing that you do in this sanctuary has any effect on me. I'm just reading from the paper and oh, it gives me comfort to have those perfectly crafted sentences, that perfectly crafted rhetoric. Rhetoric that Muhammad Ali would've blown his nose on because that guy was a genius. Have you heard some of the things that he said? But pretty good for a minister. But one of the commitments that I'm making this Lent is to come down from the mountaintop and to throw the notes away and to just come into as close as I can to you, and to look you in the eyes and to speak directly to you and to allow what is happening in this room to affect the way I preach and to allow your concerns and your emotions, and even your facial expressions of what I could see of them, to affect the way that I'm going to preach. And this is an invitation to all of you. There's other ways that I'm doing this too. I want to make myself available. I want to come down the mountain as much as I can.
I've been holding office hours. Linda and John came to my first office hours. So did Bonnie. Linda, we had a great conversation, didn't we? It was an amazing conversation. And it was a down from the mountaintop conversation. Eye to eye, heart to heart. We didn't agree on everything, but man, did we make progress? It was just a beautiful natural conversation. And I just love being in that kind of relationship with the community. Bonnie and I are also holding a 15 person limit Friday potluck at our house once a month on the first Friday, the first one is happening on March 4th. And you can sign up to come to that. We want to bring community back together. And the other way I'm going to do it is by coming right down here and talking to you without the notes and looking you in the eye. And there are going to be points in the Lent where I allow you to speak back to me so that you really have a chance to interact and that we can really come together as a community and let magic happen in this space again.
Let us pray. God of the mountaintop, God of Lent. Oh, the glory of your shining. Oh, the glory of your service. Lead us up. Do not let us linger. Lead us down into this world. Lead us down into this church. Lead us down into the love of our neighbors. Amen.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations