Luke 13: 1-9 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Isaiah 55: 1-9 March 24, 2019
“Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist...”
Prayer: Holy One, may we find our strength in you. May we wrap ourselves in your bands of truth. Amen.
The Internet is full of whacky things… crazy videos, unbelievable stories, bizarre pictures. Once in a while, the thoughtfulness and well-meaning intentions of some of our church members will inspire them to send me these whacky sorts of things as email, text, or Instant Messenger. Just the other day, your friend and my friend Jerry Heilner, sent me this amusing picture… maybe you’ve seen it? It had the caption “For fairly obvious reasons, this church in Tampa Bay, Florida, is known as The Church of the Confused Chicken.” Doesn’t that church look like a confused chicken? OMGosh! I quickly wrote back and said, “Yep. I think it should be a UCC church—it’s members would be Utterly Confused Chickens!
Make no mistake though, friends, there is a lot that is confusing in our world today. It’s hard to know what is the truth. Because sometimes we hear that the truth is subject to “someone’s version” of the truth. We heard that from former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani last August when he infamously declared that “the truth isn’t the truth.” It was all due to the question of whether or not the president should testify in the Mueller investigation.
And speaking of the Mueller investigation, politicians and a good portion of John Q. Public want to know the truth. What does the report say about Russia meddling in our 2016 elections and other pertinent topics? We don’t know yet as the report was just released to US Attorney General William P. Barr who may decide to withhold some parts of the it from the public. What’s truth? What isn’t?
There are truths and falsehoods and someone’s version of the truth on our faith journeys, too. There are ideas and opinions out there touted as truths that really aren’t. Do you recall when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? Religious conservatives like Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, Franklin Graham, and Pat Robertson all were convinced that New Orleans was targeted by God because it was a sinful city. When the earthquake hit Haiti, Pat Robertson said that the country was paying with suffering because it made a pact with the devil. All of that—not the truth. But, so often, that’s what people are told to think.
When the fifty Muslim people were shot and killed in Christchurch, New Zealand last week, did it mean that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Christchurch? That question is the same question Jesus asks the people of his day. Jesus point blank challenges what was thought of as truth—that when bad things happen it’s because of sin… like when the Galileans are killed by Pilate as they worshiped… like when the tower of Siloam fell and killed those eighteen people. It was thought those bad things happen because people were sinful, and God is a tyrant, is angry, and is punishing them. Did they die due to sin? Jesus says No, not true!
Instead, Jesus points them and us to the real truth. He knows that death is a fact of life. It comes to everyone. But Jesus says , the real truth is, that death is not as powerful as once thought. And God is not a tyrant, but like a loving parent. By turning to God now—which is repenting—while we live our lives, we can fasten around our waist the truth that God’s grace and love overcome death, even when tragedies strike, both natural and unnatural ones.
And, not just death of the physical body, but any kind of death we experience. Most of the time, transition means the death of one thing and the birth of another. Transitioning to a new job often means the death of the old one. A new relationship usually means effort was made to heal and learn and move on from the old one, right? Jesus says that repenting and turning to God helps us when these kinds of death occur.
It’s not just moments of death, either. It’s actually more about moments of life, especially when life is just plain difficult. It doesn’t matter if, say, your life has gotten derailed a time or two, or three. The belt of truth is, God can set you once again on the right track. It doesn’t matter that maybe some decisions were poor ones. God still can redeem. It doesn’t matter if you hold onto grudges and have a hard time not using the past against others. God can heal you and make you whole and others will, too.
To emphasize this truth, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit. In frustration, the man who planted the tree was ready to uproot it. But the gardener intercedes and negotiates for an additional year of work, cultivating the soil, working in the fertilizer. The gardener has hope! Maybe there’s hope after a little bit of work.
I remember the first time I got fired from a job. It was my first real job when I was a freshman in high school. I worked in a photography studio, filing and sorting photos, sometimes developing new ones. But, sometimes I would show up late. Sometimes I would not complete assigned tasks. I got smudges over the newly developed photos. I was upset when my employer came to me and told me he had to let me go. I wasn’t worth keeping because I was undependable. Ouch! My parents had to go back to the drawing board with me, taking more time to help me learn a better work ethic, working with me to develop more self-discipline. When I applied at the local McDonald’s a year later I was ready—I worked as crew member, then a crew chief, and then a swing manager. Yeah, I was a manager of a Mickey D’s. But that job took me all the way through college.
Sometimes the business world might tell you you’re not worth it if you don’t produce. The world might just fill you with false beliefs about yourself or about others. But, let God work with you for a time, like a year. Whatever amount of time, let Christ, the gardener come and intervene. Because where the world sees waste, God sees potential. Where false beliefs speak of impossibility, God sees possibility. Imagine what God can do with you when you strap on the belt of God’s truths in our lives! That God sees hope in you!
We can come to God and find the life-giving spiritual resources needed. If you’re thirsty for God, come to the waters. Doesn’t matter if you think you can’t pay—because no payment is required! No one needs to pay for God’s love. “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” says Isaiah. “Eat what is good. Delight yourselves in the rich food God offers. Listen, so that you may live.”
If you’re dissatisfied with the lack of spiritual meaning in the world, then why keep trying to find and buy it there? The world doesn’t provide, so turn from all those false beliefs. Because the truth is, God sees you as precious. God knows you as a child of God. God loves you with an everlasting love. Fasten these truths around your heart, friends, as you would fasten a belt around your waist. I hope you find strength in God as you fasten this belt of truth around you, and let it permeate deeply into the center of who you are.
Because the center of who you are affects the outer parts of your life. The truth about ourselves deep within our interior directly influences our choices, commitments, attitudes, and actions on the exterior of our lives. With genuine centered connection to God, we live out the truth of God and God’s love for others, sometimes even in the face of much resistance.
For more than ten years, members of the interfaith humanitarian group called No More Deaths have been placing food, clothing, and jugs of water in the Sonoran Desert,, in a national refugee part of it, to aid migrants who have crossed into Arizona from Mexico. The people from No More Death are mirroring what they believe down deep—that everyone should have access to means of survival; that giving water to the thirsty is an explicit way of following Jesus; that they are serving Jesus himself. Giving water to all those who thirst is a sign of God’s compassion. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” declares Isaiah describing God’s invitation.
During the summer of 2017, four women from No More Deaths entered into vast desert wilderness refuge along the border, left jugs of water and canned food. They were followed by a U.S. Border Patrol officer who arrested them, charging them with entering the refuge without a permit and “abandonment of property.” Last month, the judge convicted the women and sentenced them to six months in prison because they “knowingly broke the law.” And, five more are on trial in the coming months.
Sometimes strapping on the belt of God’s truth deep within your heart and acting on your beliefs can lead to opposition coming from the world that adheres to a different truth. But, God’s truths are higher than all of our law-filled truths, I believe. God’s ways are higher than our ways. So, perhaps the arrests and convictions might lead to political efforts to make adaptations in the law so that generous humane acts for those in need will not be criminalized (“In Search of the Thirsty, Christian Century, February 27, 2019, p. 7).
Have God and God’s love close in your heart, friends—this is the most important thing in life, says Jesus, especially when facing the reality of death and the realities of life. I encourage you to fasten God’s truth around your heart as you would fasten a belt around your waist. I hope you find God’s encouragement and strength as you wear God’s belt of truth. Amen.