Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

February 2016



We like Jesus. Especially when Jesus talks about love and forgiveness. We like the good stories - The Good Samaritan makes us feel good; the Prodigal Son has a great ending; We love to hear Jesus say “Let the little children come to me”. The beatitudes are beautiful. But sometimes Jesus can make us really uncomfortable; sometimes Jesus can be really harsh. Sometimes we don’t like what Jesus has said. The stories of the rich young ruler who wants to follow Jesus and Jesus sends him home. The story of the man who wants to follow Jesus, but only after he buries his father and Jesus said “Don’t bother to come back.” That Jesus doesn’t fit our picture of the Jesus of love and mercy. Sometimes Jesus says difficult things to us - we the people who just want to follow him; people who just want us to be loved by Jesus; people who just want Jesus to care about us…. sometimes Jesus has stories that challenge us; stories that remind us that Jesus does expect us to get up and do something for him. If we are going to enjoy the happy stories of Jesus, then we do have to struggle with the more difficult passages.

In our last house, Tim and I had a very old peach tree. We had been told by the previous’ owners daughter that at one time the tree had been very productive and had produced lots of peaches. But the first year we were there, the tree only produced 3 peaches. They were good peaches, but there were only three of them. So I asked one of the many farmers that were in my congregations what we could do. The farmer came over to the house with a ladder and a bunch of pruning tools and went to work on the tree. He worked for many hours and there was a lot of tree now cut off and on the ground, but he guaranteed that now the tree would bear a lot of fruit the next season - and it did! We harvested a bushel basket full of large, delicious peaches. I was amazed.
But then it became our turn to keep the tree. We didn’t have a good ladder or the proper tools and we didn’t have a whole lot of time and so we kind of worked on the limbs we could reach and neglected the top of the tree which began to grow a little tall and unwieldy and once again the fruit began to be a little less numerous and a little smaller and eventually we quit working on it at all and the last year we lived there, there were no peaches at all from our tree. Our thought, then, was to just cut this old tree down….
The connection with today's parable of the Fig Tree is evident. Jesus tells us a parable about a man who has a fig tree. The man who had the fig tree comes and checks on the fig tree and there are no figs on it. So he instructs his servant to cut it down. Get rid of it. “Why should I waste my time on a fig tree that won't produce any fruit?”

Time and time again God has shown his impatience with people who do not take advantage of the opportunities he has given them. Time and again God has judged his people and found them falling short. That is the message of today's Epistle Reading - a reading in which Paul reminds us of all the opportunities that God's chosen people missed - and the results. The people of Israel in the Wilderness had seen God's goodness, and had their opportunity to praise and to trust God - but they grumbled and complained instead - and they were struck down. God’s people had been given all that they needed to have by God, they had been given freedom from slavery, but rather than placing their trust in God, they worshipped the golden calf and the success it was supposed to bring - and 120,000 of them died in a single day. None of them were allowed to enter the promised land. These things, Paul writes, occurred as examples to us, that we might not desire the wrong things as they did; that we might not fall into the trap of worshipping something other than our God; that we might not become people whose only desire is to eat and drink and play. That we not become the people who only want the benefits of being followers of Christ with none of the responsibilities.

So in this fig tree story, what Jesus is saying to us is, “What good is a fig tree if it doesn’t bear any fruit?” which means ‘What good is it to be my follower if you are not willing to bear fruit for me?” Jesus actually says in

Matthew “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”. That is scary stuff, don’t you think?
But on a practical level I want you to think of this: The owner of the fig tree doesn't ask anything extraordinary out of the fig tree. He isn't asking the fig tree to become an oak or a redwood. He doesn’t ask the fig tree to

produce bananas. He asks only that it accomplish what fig trees ought to accomplish, bearing figs.
You and I have differing gifts. Some of us have nice singing voices. Some of are good problem solvers. Some are artists. Some are good with numbers; others are good with people, some are powerful prayers. All of us have some natural ability. The secret is to find our natural abilities and give them all we've got. Doesn’t have to be in church either. Regardless of where we are - working, playing, volunteering- we do our best at what we are good at doing.
All Jesus is saying is that we give maximum effort in the area of our lives where he has gifted us. That's it. That's the secret of being fruitful - find what we're naturally good at and give it our best and God will bless that and God will honor that and God will produce fruit through us. But we have to be willing to do whatever God has asked us to do wherever God asks us to do it.
Then we have to go one step further. Before Jesus told the fig story he told another one. Both of these stories happen as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified. For over 2 years, Jesus has been teaching and preaching and now that the end is near, it seems as if Jesus is going into fast mode. He has a lot to say before he leaves and he wants to get it all in. Luke sort of leads into these more difficult lessons by having Jesus say in a round about way, “Are you ready for these new lessons I have for you? These new lessons are not going to be easy……”
And then, suddenly, there is news about a construction accident and a massacre of Jewish worshippers. It appears that Pilate massacred a group of Jewish worshippers while they were sacrificing in the temple. And Jesus recalls the story of 18 construction workers who were killed while they were building a tower.
The first thing Jesus points out is that we are not to think these stories are of God striking down sinners - which was the first Jewish reaction. It was a standard Jewish belief that tragedy was God’s way of punishing sinners. Jesus says - “Do you really think that these people who were killed in these tragedies were worse sinners than any one else in Jerusalem?” “No’, Jesus continued, ‘they were not’. Jesus is separating tragic death from the idea of punishment due to sin. Jesus says, “I bring this up to point out to you the importance of doing what God has asked you to do.” In another words, if we put off doing what God has asked us to do; if we put off using our talents and gifts to allow God to produce fruit for the kingdom - then we have missed out.
Jesus says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” The idea of repentance in this instance is not the idea of stopping whatever sin you have in your life - the word ‘repentance’ means to turn back, or turn around. Turn back to the responsibilities God calls you to. Turn back to putting the things of God first in your life. Return to using God’s gifts to do God’s work.
Jesus says. Just like those people who perished found out, the time for seizing those opportunities is shorter than you expect. You never know when a tower may fall or a tragedy may occur, so don’t wait around to live as the people of God. Don’t wait around til ‘the time is right’ to begin to bear fruit for God.

Understand, however, Jesus is not threatening us in these stories. He is not saying “You better be fruitful or I’m going to throw you in the fire or allow a tower to fall on you!” He is pleading with us - the way God does in every moment of the stories of his people. Jesus is simply and realistically telling us that the course of our lives is shorter than we think and that we would be foolish not to seize the opportunities to enjoy one another, to love one another, to do what we can to make sure there is a little less suffering in the world by the way we live of our lives - while we have the time.
God has given us all gifts and abilities and ways in which we can make this a better world, and we can’t wait around until we think the time is right. We need to start now - because we don’t know what may happen tomorrow.
This Lent, think about yourselves; think about what you are good at doing - and do it!Doesn’t have to be spectacular; you don’t have to save the world; you just have to do what God has gifted you to do - and God will honor that.
But Jesus says don’t put it off. The time is now. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to feel that satisfaction of knowing you are living and giving for God!


Are We People of the Exodus

Are We People of the Exodus?”

For you, what were the ‘good ole days’? We talk about those times in our past when we perceive that times were easier, or better, or better reflected they way we think things ought to be. Whether times were really better is immaterial to the fact that we tend to romanticize those past times and they get better and better the more we think about them. What we do is take those good times and those good feelings and those good memories and we forget the hard times and the difficulties and the struggles. The ‘good ole days’ are really the good portions of the days gone by. We sit and we reminisce and we long for, not so much the actual days, but just the good feelings that we associate with the good times. We say that we’d like to go back to those times, but do you really? Do you really want to go back? If the genie popped out of the bottle right now and said, you could go back to the ‘good ole days’, would you really go? If you knew you could go back but also knew that things would be exactly as they were in those ‘good days’; that you had to take back the bad with the good….

The Hebrew people felt that way. They didn’t care that life really wasn’t all that good back in Egypt, but they were ready to go back. Let’s go back and remember the story. God began his people with Abraham, who had Isaac, who had Jacob. Then Jacob has 12 sons and through a series of events Jacob and his 12 sons and their families end up in Egypt. For about 400 years, the descendants of Jacob lived and flourished in Egypt and by then they were more Egyptian than they were Hebrew. They walked like an Egyptian, they talked, ate and even thought like an Egyptian. They dressed like Egyptian and as we see later in the desert they even became familiar with the Egyptian gods. Culturally they were Egyptian. Their other benefit was that when God established Jacob and his family in Egypt, he gave them the best land there. It was lush and green and the perfect valley to life and thrive. Until time passed and the Egyptians were in need of people to build storage houses for them and they see all these people living in the land of Goshen and the Egyptians seized them and made them slaves; slaves whose job was to build Egypt’s many storage buildings. It was a long hard struggle. They worked during the day and then had to care for themselves - care for their sheep, grow their crops, carry their water at night. Even the women were forced into slavery helping to make the bricks and the mortar while the men build the buildings. Elderly, young, everyone was made to work - 7 days a week of hard, hard work - there was no rest. They cried out to God for help and God sends them Moses, who made Pharaoh angry and that increased the work the Hebrews had to do. Now they had to provide their own straw to make the bricks - growing, harvesting, processing it to be usable. They were building, they are making bricks, they were trying to raise their sheep and their food and carry their own water and now grow and process hay for the bricks. Finally, Moses is able to free them from slavery and they are taken out into the desert where God promises them he is going to take them to a land of ‘milk and honey’ - the promised land.

But the way to the promised land was not easy. They were no longer in the lush valley of Goshen, but in a dry desert. There was no quick access to water or food. Even though they were hardy people from working as slaves, this desert experience was new and they didn’t have a clear vision of where they were going - only that God - a god they didn’t know very well and Moses, a leader they didn’t know very well - kept telling them that this land of milk and honey would be wonderful… And after a while of this new way of life - this life as a nomad, moving, pitching tents, eating this stuff that fell from the sky and depending on water holes that were few and far between…. It is not that they weren’t use to hard work, it is just that this wasn’t the kind of life they had been use to. It was different and they weren’t real fond of the change. Even though here in the desert they truly had everything they needed; everything was provided for them; there were no Egyptian taskmasters whipping them; forcing them to work harder and harder……

But new is hard; change is hard; and having to move in a direction you weren’t planning on is hard; when you are forced into a transition you hadn’t expected - or even a transition you had expected but it wasn’t quite what you wanted it to be, the tendency is to want ‘to go back’. Back to the way things were before; back to what you were comfortable with - even if the way things were wasn’t all that great…. The past just holds this allure of comfort because it is what we were familiar with. Even if this transition is going to take you somewhere better, you are still a little skeptical.

So the Hebrews began to grumble and complain and they ‘wanted to go back’ to their life in Egypt. And as they reminisced it was the enjoyable things they remembered - the fish they ate, the cucumbers and melons, and the onions and the garlic. They remembered pots of meat and sitting around fires…. They had forgotten the lashes from the whip and the hard work from sunup to sundown - and then the extra work to provide for themselves. The good ole days were just the good times - none of the bad. “We want to go back!” They shouted. “We want things the way they use to be….”
Familiar cry for all of us. Change is hard. Moving forward is hard. And yet that is always what God is asking us to do. He is always asking us to move. There is not one story in the bible where people are told to stay put. It is always, ‘pick up and go’; or this is the new covenant; the new way. Paul reminds us that God tells us we have to grow and learn and do new things.

Jesus respected the fact that there were people who wanted things to stay the same; who wanted the status quo; He didn’t think that is what they should do but he respected it. That is why when approaches the cripple at the pool of Siloam Jesus asked him - “Do you want to get well?” Now we think that should be a no-brainer. Of course we would want to get well. Of course we would want to be healed. Or would we. Remember this fella has been a cripple for most of his life. This is all he knows. He lays by the pool; he begs and receives money and food from those he begs from; this is the life he is used to. If he is healed, that will all change. He will have to find employment; people will treat him differently - some will accept him but there will be those who will shun him because they will suspect that it was ‘the evil one’ who did the healing. The Pharisees were most displeased with him because he was evidence of what Jesus could do. Jesus knew that if he is healed, this is going to be a whole new life for him and not necessarily an easy one. So before he heals the paralyzed man Jesus asks - “Do you want to be healed?” Do you want your life to change? Do you want to move in a new direction? The paralyzed man said “Yes” and immediately he was healed, he picked up his bed and walked into this new life. Do we wonder if sometime in the future this healed man is going to say, “I wish I was back there by the pool. All I had to do was lie there and people gave me money and food. I want to go back to being paralyzed….”

Because that is what we are when we get stuck in the ‘now’; when we are afraid of changes, of transitions, of new directions, of following where God is taking us. The Apostle Paul says to us in the passage we read from Philippians - Forget what is behind and move straight toward what is ahead.” Even like the Hebrews when you don’t know what that straight ahead might be, even if the way is difficult, even if like the paralyzed man you don’t know what your life is going to be like - we as the people of God are called to go straight ahead. Without worry, without fear, knowing God is leading us in the way we should go - even if it is new, or hard, or different, or not what we expected.…
Don’t be paralyzed; don’t be like the people of the Exodus who want to go back to ‘the way things use to be’. Just know that no matter what change may lay before you; whatever transition you may face, remember the words of Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plan I have for you” declares the Lord “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”