On tears, feasting and listening in lent...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, March 3, 2013 ~ the Third Sunday in the season of Lent ~ another time when children will remain in worship rather than go to Sunday School.  (We are trying a year of both Sunday School classes mixed with increased time in worship as part of our formation experiment.)  We are also celebrating Eucharist each Sunday through Easter.  If you are in town, please stop in and join the feast at 10:30 am.  This week's message is based on Isaiah 55: 1-3 and Luke 13: 1-9.

Introduction
Sometimes I find myself crying:  they could be tears of joy and happiness when I feel really blessed by God’s love – or when I have some time to spend with those I really love in my family – but sometimes I have tears of sorrow and sadness where I’m weeping for all the pain and cruelty and suffering in the world and some of our lives.  Do you know what I mean?

My hunch is that some of you cry, too right?  I know it isn’t cool to say that out loud – we’re supposed to be tough and not let others get us down – but I bet that when something hurts – or makes you afraid – you still have tears… I think that our tears are one of the ways we pray to the Lord without words:  they speak what we are feeling deep in our hearts – they honor what is most true in our lives – and they open us to God’s grace in ways that we can’t explain.

No wonder the Bible tells us that from time to time Jesus wept:  he wept when some of his friends died, he wept over the city of Jerusalem because many of its people had become so hard-hearted, he had compassion – that is, he was broken hearted – for those who needed healing or food or forgiveness.  And he shed tears of joy in his songs and prayers – in his feasting – and in the love he felt for those who cared for him most deeply.

Jesus came from a long line of God’s servants who understood that tears can be some of our deepest prayers to the Lord.  And I say that out loud today on the third Sunday of Lent because we’re going to talk about how God fills our lives with gifts – blessings – everything we need – and sometimes the only way we can return thanks is with our tears.

Think about this:  have you ever been so happy about something you didn’t know what to say? Have you ever come through a really sad time – or hard time – or even frightening time and find that only your tears could speak for you?

Insights
In this morning’s first lesson from the poet and prophet Isaiah, God’s people had just come through a very hard time called “the exile.”  For 70 years they had been forced to live in Babylon – the land of their enemies in modern day Iraq – and they couldn’t go back to their homes or schools or places of worship.  They became strangers in a strange land – and they were sad, alone and afraid.

So during that time they wrote and spoke a lot of very sad prayers to the Lord – prayers filled with their tears – and they weren’t embarrassed or ashamed to cry out loud to the Lord because they knew that their tears were often their deepest prayers.  I think of two of the Psalms that come from this time:

+  Psalm 137:  By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows* there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ But how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Psalm 126:  May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  And those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying the bounty of their harvest.

 Well, in time, God’s people were allowed to return to their homes in Jerusalem and what do you think they did?  They cried tears of JOY – and through a party – a FEAST – and here’s how the poet Isaiah described what it felt like to be invited by the Lord to a feast after a time of suffering:

Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.

Now there are five special things about God’s love that are mentioned in this prayer of feasting that we would do well to remember – five clues that tell us how much God loves us – especially when we are feeling sad or afraid or all alone.  And that’s one of the reasons we read these prayers and lessons each week in church, right?  They are clues we can use when we’re NOT here but need to be reminded of God’s love.

+  First, the prayer tells us that EVERYONE is invited to the feast:  not some, not just those who deserve a party, not simply the favorites or the rich and cool people, everyone.  And why is that important to remember?  Because it includes YOU – and ME – and everyone else here – and all across the world.  God’s love doesn’t play favorites AND God’s love never gives up.

+  Second, the prayer wants us to know that God’s love can be like water when we’re thirsty or food when we’re hungry.  What do you think that means?  What does it feel like to be really, really thirsty?  And when you get a deep sip of cool, clean water… what does that feel like?  Have you ever been really hungry – aching – where your stomach and head hurt?  God’s love is about refreshing and nourishing us; it is about filling us when we’re empty and strengthening us when we’re weak.

+  Third, this prayer insists that beyond food and water, God’s love is like wine and milk that you don’t have to pay for!  Think about that:  bread and water are essentials – every culture and country throughout the world use bread and water to keep people alive – but what does wine represent in the Bible?  Not the necessities of life… but something special.  Something for a feast and a celebration.  That’s one of the reasons we use wine during Holy Communion:  the bread symbolizes the brokenness of our ordinary lives – the body of Christ – while the cup represents the banquet – the blessings – the joys poured out for us in celebration.  And what about the poet Isaiah’s reference to milk – why milk?  Have you ever had real milk with all the cream and fat in it?  Oh, Lord, it is so rich and creamy and extravagant!  Are you with me?  Here Isaiah is telling us that God’s love goes beyond our needs to love us generously – joyfully – beyond our imaginations and needs.

+  Fourth we’re asked to remember something hard in this prayer:  namely, that sometimes we forget how much we need God’s love and waste on time on things that don’t satisfy.  Can you name some of the ways people forget about God’s love and waste their time?  What are some of the wasteful things that we do in our ordinary day?  We can waste love, we can waste food, we can waste forgiveness and energy and we can even waste peace, right?  This part of the prayer asks us to remember all the different ways we waste God’s love – remember them and then choose another direction – by listening and following the way of love.

+  And that’s the fifth and final thought is this special prayer:  listening to the Lord.  The poet says LISTEN and EAT what is good – what’s going on here?  Listening and learning from God’s word is a way of being nourished, right?  Listening and hearing God’s love is a way to live life at its best.  Do you know the word ABSURD?  It comes from the Latin meaning “deaf.”  Unable to hear – or even unwilling to hear – suggesting that a life without meaning or purpose is one that does not or cannot hear the word of the Lord.

Sometimes when I am sad or afraid I try to remember the wisdom of this prayer by using my hand – each finger represents a promise – and it helps.  Do you every count using your fingers?  Well, you can pray using them, too:  1) God’s love is for everyone – including ME; 2) God’s love fills me with what I need; 3) God’s love gives me more forgiveness than I can imagine; 4) God wants me to learn from my mistakes; and 5) God asks me to listen and then live.

That is what Jesus is getting after in today’s rather odd lesson about the fig tree, too.  Here’s what I think he’s saying to us:

+  A fig tree is an important tree in the Middle East that produces a fruit that many people like to eat.  Americans prefer apples or oranges, but people in the land of Jesus loved figs.  So the tree represents something that nourishes others by the fruit it shares.  It is the job of the tree to share figs – and just to help make my point, let me share with you some… fig newtons!

+  What I think Jesus is saying is that people who listen to God’s word have a job just like the fig tree:  we are to nourish life all around us and help take care of people.  And maybe you can help me name some of the ways we do that – what are some of the ways you help take care of those in your family – or in our community?

Conclusion
Every week when we celebrate Holy Communion I am reminded of how much love God has given to us all – and how much love God asks us to share with the world.  And it often brings a tear to my eye because I get to see ALL of you – each and every one of you – the youngest and the oldest – those who are sad and those who are celebrating – those who are afraid and those who are rejoicing.  And every week that I get to serve you the bread of life broken in Christ’s name, my tears become prayers of thanksgiving because I get to listen to the Lord speaking through your faces and your lives.
 
So I’m going to ask you to try to do something a little different during Eucharist this morning – something that will make this season of coming to the table of the Lord a little more prayerful – a little more about listening for God’s love in our community.

+  And it is a simple thing:  can you practice being still together in community?  Listening and waiting quietly as you come forward and as you return?

The ancient ones used to use their body to help them listen:  when they came forward to receive the bread and the cup, they would treat it like a pilgrimage.  They would place their right hand in their left – palms open to receive a blessing – and they would let the celebrant put the bread of life in their hand.  In other words, they came to the table silently as pilgrims waiting to receive God’s love. And as they returned to their seats, they would walk in silence with hands folded in prayer in front of them as a sign of contemplation.  Reflection.  In this, they came to the table open and vulnerable, and returned filled and grateful. 

Do you grasp what I’m asking?  In this season of Lent we’re being asked to LISTEN and BE NOURISHED: we invited to the FEAST and asked to return to SHARE the blessing with the world by how we live.  And this needs quiet time – so would you try that with me for the next few weeks?  Come in silence with open hands and hearts, and return in the quiet of inward prayer?

Take a moment to see what that might mean to you as we ready our hearts to come to the table of the Lord and feast on God’s never ending love…  

 

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