March 27, 2019
March 24, 2019 Sermon, The Rev. James deBoer
The Capacity to be Called
Preached at the Congregational Church of Salisbury, CT, March 24, 2019 (Third Sunday in Lent)
Rev. James deBoer, United Church of Christ, New Jersey Association
“See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil? The gardener replied, “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.” Amen.
Thank you for inviting me to be here this morning. Thank you for your generosity as a church for your outreach support through the Christian Action Committee. By way of background, I graduated seminary in 2011 and then served as a missionary in Argentina for a year. After that I visited several churches reporting back on what I learned, and I was here in, I believe, early 2013. I served a church in New Jersey for four years, becoming more and more involved in social justice advocacy, until I came to the decision to attend law school. So I am not pastoring a church at this point, and am into the second semester of my first year of law school.
It’s no understatement to say law school has been an eye–opening experience. Maybe one of the bigger surprises that I’ve had is learning that crimes are classified differently depending on the mentality of the perpetrator. In other words, if I do something to someone else intending to do exactly that, it’s treated much more harshly than if it’s an accident or if I just wasn’t paying attention.
The jury is invited to put themselves in the position of the defendant; was what the defendant did reasonable or at least understandable in the circumstances? If so, then the jury usually decides for the defendant. For instance: imagine a car zooming down an arterial at 45 mph in a 35 mph speed zone, missing a stop sign and slamming into another car, killing the other driver. Should the driver be guilty of murder? Manslaughter? But everyone on the jury envisioned times when they drove a little too fast, missed a stop sign in an unfamiliar area, could see themselves doing the exact same thing; and found for the defendant.
Which points to a potential flaw in our justice system: is the behavior that juries are willing to forgive actually less problematic? Or is it just that juries, the public, all of us, are generally more lenient when we can see ourselves doing the exact same thing?
If it’s this – that we put ourselves in other people’s position and find that we could all too easily do exactly the same things, and then for that reason go easy on people– for better or worse – perhaps we have not fully grasped the concept of Lent.
Lent is a time to acknowledge the extent of our own sins. In the words of Alcoholics Anonymous, we conduct a fearless moral inventory. We examine the ways in which we fall short. Like the fig tree in our Gospel reading today, we confront the fact that we have not born any fruit in the past three years and we ask about what the reason is.
During Lent, we dwell not only on our own personal sins, but we also trace out the connections between our own shortcomings and the systems all around us that also perpetuate suffering. The author Ursula Leguin wrote: “For we each us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings; and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved?” It may not be our fault – indeed we might do everything correctly in our own personal lives – and yet collectively, together, we have somehow created a society in which 12 million children face hunger, and 42 million people – that’s 1 in 7 of the U.S. population –receive supplemental nutritional assistance.
The prophet Isaiah insists, in words that are equal parts invitation and reproach, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” and to the comfortable, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
In the wake of the tragedy in New Zealand, I think it’s also appropriate to reflect on the ways in which our own behavior, usually despite our best intentions, reflects the hatred and fear and prejudice that’s unfortunately so prevalent in the world around us. I was certainly raised to treat everyone with respect and not to judge people differently on the basis of their race or background. But I was not immune, and probably am still not immune, to certain pervasive stereotypes in our culture. And I can remember I attended a conference in seminary; and on the first day, on my way in, I passed an older Hispanic gentleman in the hallway. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt, and I had in mind right away that he may have been a staff member. I nodded slightly as we passed and left it at that. Well come to find that same gentleman was a Jesuit Priest, had his PhD, and was one of the presenters! I was embarrassed and chagrined. I was grateful that he wasn’t upset with me – but it occurred to me later on that something like that probably happens to him all the time, so probably unfortunately, he’s learned not to be upset.
Now, you might say, so what? This is not so big a deal. But I would say that like the juries, when they see their own worst selves in the defendants and acquit; when we ourselves allow prejudice to influence our behavior even in a small way, it becomes much easier for us to accept or at least live with the prejudiced behavior of other people. And their actions in turn give license for atmospheres of intolerance and even hatred, such as what makes New Zealand possible. The prophet says: Seek the Lord; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts. Perhaps none of us here is wicked, but we have all been unrighteous, and we have all had thoughts that it’s past time to forsake.
Because while Lent is about pruning out the old stuff, it’s also about receiving the life-giving fertilizer that God has to offer, enabling us to be more fruitful and abundant in our service and witness to God. Discovering we have a need, we turn to God and God meets that need; encountering a hole, God stitches us a patch; acknowledging we are lost, God sends us a guide.
And it is precisely because we have come to terms with our own limitations and have experienced God loving us in spite of ourselves, that we have a message of healing to share with the world. When we become familiar with and acknowledge the depths, the hardships, the despair, the prejudice, the alienation, then when we say there is nevertheless a promise God makes to all of us, that God will restore us to God’s own table, an everlasting covenant, maybe then the people who hear us will believe us. Maybe that is precisely how we shall call nations that we do not know and nations that do not know us shall run to us.
To return to the juries: I found myself thinking, what if juries could go in and evaluate a situation before the crime, not after, and ask, what does this person need in order not to take the unnecessary risk, to be more conscientious, not to make the tragic snap judgment? Then instead, jurors might inquire of themselves, what kind of intervention, what sort of message would I have needed extended to me to prevent me from doing something wrong that I may have done. What would it take to reach out to those in need first – and speak to the disconnect they are experiencing or the brokenness they are feeling and offer up the wholeness that we through our faith are able to share? But indeed, that’s not what juries are for. That’s what churches are for. Thanks be to God. Amen.