Saturday, March 10, 2007

Turning Aside

Here's tomorrow's homily, which I'm posting tonight because tomorrow's going to be a "perfect storm," one of the rare Sundays when I'm preaching two services and doing an assisted-living service in the afternoon and going to the hospital in the evening. And I'll also be losing an hour of sleep because of the early switchover to daylight savings. I hope I can stay on my feet!

Today's bookstore reading was fun, with a fairly good turnout: fifteen or twenty people, which isn't bad for a beautiful Saturday afternoon! There were even a few people I didn't know, although most were friends.

Oh, while I'm on the subject of literary events, Tiel's hosting the poetry carnival Ringing of the Bards, and I'm proud to be included. Great job, Tiel!

After the bookstore gig, I came home and wrote the homily; I'd originally thought I'd be able to do that yesterday, but yesterday turned out to be a perfect storm of meetings, one of which was longer than expected.

Tomorrow's Scripture readings are Exodus 3:1-15 and Luke 13:1-9.

* * *

Today’s readings from Exodus and Luke are both, in different ways, about taking unbeaten paths, about turning aside from the ordinary to listen to, and trust, the unexpected. Both of these passages remind us that God is always inviting us to do a new thing. Those who maintain the status quo, conducting business as usual, risk never perceiving the Kingdom of God.

In Exodus, Moses leads his flock “beyond the wilderness” -- surely a foreshadowing of the greater journey he is about to undertake -- and sees something very strange: a bush that is burning, but is not consumed. “Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’”

These lines suggest that other shepherds have passed by and haven’t turned aside. Maybe they were so preoccupied with their sheep that they didn’t even notice the burning bush. More likely, they saw it, but were so frightened by the fire, and the resulting threat to their flock, that they simply fled, never even noticing that this bush wasn’t burning down to ash.

Having heeded God’s call by turning aside to explore the unusual, Moses finds himself entrusted with a far larger and more terrifying call, the charge to lead God’s people out of Egypt. Like nearly every prophet in the Bible, he at first considers himself unworthy of the task. “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah, and bring the Isrealites out of Egypt?” But because God has chosen him, and has promised to be with him, he does the work he has been given.

Moses’ story makes clear that being chosen by God entails as much struggle as salvation, as much hardship as honor. The flight from Egypt will not be an easy one, and Moses will not even live to finish the journey. And Moses’ story, and the later stories of the New Testament, also make clear that being chosen by God means putting aside business as usual. Shepherds leave their flocks to herd stubborn Israelites through forty years in the desert; fishermen leave their nets to fish for people; tax collectors leave their counting tables to work for an itinerant healer who values the two coins in a poor widow’s purse more than bushels of gold.

Some of Jesus’ audience in Luke have forgotten what it means to be God’s chosen people. Some of them, like some people now, think that being God’s chosen means being comfortable, being safe and protected. Some of them think that as God’s chosen, they can sit in judgment on those who have suffered more than they have, because such suffering must be a sign of God’s displeasure. Some of Jesus’ listeners believe that if they have been allowed to keep practicing business as usual, that means that they are eminently worthy and blameless.

Jesus sharply rebukes these notions. He tells his audience that they are no better than those who have suffered, and that if they do not repent of their own sins -- instead of counting other people’s -- they too will ultimately perish. Being one of God’s chosen doesn’t mean that you’re innocent or blameless: it means that you’ve been given a second chance, and also given the task of offering second chances to other people.

Jesus illustrates this lesson with the parable of the fig tree. The fig tree has borne no fruit for three years. Its owner, evidently adhering to the business-as-usual ethic of “three strikes and you’re out,” wants to cut it down. But the gardener -- whom we are surely meant to read as Jesus himself -- says, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

The fig tree may believe that it’s doing just fine: that because it’s still standing, nothing more is expected of it. If so, it has a real shock coming. It needs to start bearing fruit, or it will be cut down next year. The fig tree hasn’t been doing its job, but the gardener is willing to give it extra love and attention, to give it another chance.

We never hear the owner’s response. Does he say, “Sorry, but that’s not how we do business around here, and this tree has to go”? Or does he turn aside from his usual practice to embrace the gardener’s recommendation of clemency, to have faith that unexpected fruit may still be forthcoming from this unpromising tree?

Last week, my husband and I went to an Irish-music concert at UNR. One of the performers was a singer-songwriter named Tommy Sands who’s also a well-known peace activist in Northern Ireland. He told us a story about performing in another state -- Texas, maybe -- where he was approached by Jill Berryman of the Sierra Arts Foundation, who invited him to Reno to work with juvenile prisoners. Because Sands had helped heal conflicts in Northern Ireland, she thought he might be able to help gang members in Northern Nevada, too.

Sands listened to the call. He turned aside from whatever else he had been planning to do and came to Reno, where he worked with seventeen and eighteen-year-olds at Wittenberg Hall. He taught them to write songs about their lives, and he convinced the juvenile-court judge to accept these songs as testimony at their placement hearings, which would determine whether the young prisoners would be released, sent to treatment centers, or remanded to prison as adults.

Sands didn’t say what happened at the hearings. As in the story of the fig tree, we don’t know the outcome. But we do know that Sands nurtured the young prisoners and taught them to bear new fruit, to produce music instead of violence. And we know that he convinced the judge to turn aside from business-as-usual to accept this new form of testimony.

There is one story about Sands to which we do know the ending. According to an article I read about Sands, in 1990, “Sands started an event called ‘The Music of Healing.’ Musicians from both factions in Northern Ireland -- Catholic and Protestant -- met to play music together.” These sessions ultimately grew into the Citizen’s Assembly, which “looked for new ways of solving conflict and new ways of decision making.” The Citizen's Assembly, in turn, helped bring about the Good Friday Peace Accords, “which remain a source of hope for lasting peace in Ireland despite continuing problems.”

The media were initially “euphoric when the talks leading to the Peace Accords were being set up.” But once the talks were underway, “the media found themselves in the age old quandary -- peace does not make good ink. They began looking for cracks in the talks, interviewing factious extremists and trying to find drama in conflict. It was the kind of reporting that gradually breeds mistrust and polarizes the public.

“Sands knew that what the press needed was a ‘storm.’ So he decided to create one for them.” He wrote a song and taught it to forty children, twenty Protestant and twenty Catholic. “They marched, singing, to the building where the talks were being held.” Sands had written a simple song about peace. When the politicians inside the building heard the children singing outside, they “poured out into the street and joined in the singing. And the press had their storm.”

The politicians turned aside from business as usual to sing a new song. The reporters turned aside from business as usual to report on a new thing. While I’m sure that Tommy Sands would never compare himself to Moses or to Jesus, he is a living reminder of their lessons. Every day of our lives, but especially during Lent, God calls us to repentance and renewal: to turn aside from our old ways, to bear unexpected fruit, and to encourage those around us to do the same.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the nice word on RotB: I hope to see you in future editions!


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