3 Great Loves: Love of Neighbor

 

Matthew 22:34-40

Introduction: Windows of Time

One of the most prominent theologians of the past century, Karl Barth, was once asked, “In all your many, many years of intense theological study, what is the most important truth you have learned? His answer was surprising. “Jesus loves me,” he said, “this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Who can argue with that?[i]

So, in concert with the wisdom of Barth, and as we attempt to navigate a complex and often confusing world, we must admit that sometimes simpler is better. And I think the same is true as we consider the nature of our relationship with God. Countless theological books and religious essays have been written over the span of the past 2000 years. The sheer volume of information makes it inaccessible to the average person of faith. So, how do we distill this information down to its purest and most simple form?

Well, I thought about how to illustrate simplicity this week, and came up with something unanticipated; my computer.  Back when home computers first became a thing, they were very difficult to operate.  Who remembers the Commodore 64? Right? You had to learn a special language, basic or cobalt, and then type in the proper commands according to that prescribed language.  Not user friendly. But Microsoft Windows changed all that. With Windows, now all you do is click on the “window” or “icon” corresponding to the function you want and wa-la, it’s done. Even a tech-challenged person like me can do that!

So, let’s apply this same wisdom to theology.  Let’s create some windows of our own; windows, that will allow us to peer into the life and teachings of Jesus in a way that’s understandable.

The Biblical Window

First the Biblical widow. When asked directly, “What is the greatest commandment in the law,” Jesus responds with a simple and straightforward answer; “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.  All the law and prophets depend on these two commands.”

The Matthew Window

Now, the next icon we are invited to click on has a picture of Matthew on it.  The Matthew Window.  In other words, what was going on in Matthew’s world? What was his context? What was it about his community’s mission and ministry that lead him to take these foundational words of Jesus and interpret them in a unique way? What do I mean? Well, there are a couple of details to hash-out here.  Namely, what happened to “strength?” Weren’t we brought up with Jesus saying “heart, soul, strength, and mind?” Four things? Why are there only three here? Well, the fourth element to loving God is found in the other gospels.  I don’t know exactly why Matthew didn’t include it, maybe he considered “strength” as a part of the “soul” or the “heart.”  Perhaps that’s why the Common English Bible translates “soul” as “being” a much broader term. In any case, this demonstrates why we have four accounts of Jesus’ life from four unique perspectives.

The other contextual element to bring up before we move on is this: the text we call the Great Commandment is a small part of a greater whole. And in that “greater whole,” the majority of Matthew’s account, the religious leaders are coming to realize that when Jesus speaks in parable and defies cultural norms, he’s challenging them and their rigid way of viewing the Mosaic Law. So, as you might imagine, they weren’t too pleased with him. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds who were following Jesus because they regarded him as a prophet. But why? Why are they so threatened?

Well, the Pharisees understood the law in terms of keeping the rules. For them it was about purity and holiness above all else. But when Jesus claimed that the whole of law was about love, not rules; about really loving God and one’s neighbor, and not about “figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk;”[ii] that’s when their greatest fear became a reality. The religious leaders of the day saw their whole system being challenged and they didn’t like it.

And this is where we see the connection to Matthew’ world. you see, The Great Commandment for Matthew was about challenging his primarily Jewish/Christian audience to open themselves to loving the gentile converts within their community.  He was asking them to put aside centuries of bigoty and hate, and accept a new way of loving one’s neighbor.  My friends, in Matthew’s community this was astounding. These very few but powerful words of Jesus represented a call to enact a tremendous change in their worldview.  Was it easy, seamless; did it happen overnight? Probably not.  I would guess that this change took time, persistence, and courage on the part of the reformer (Matthew) and the leadership of the community. But, and this is important, it did become a reality.  Love became the bedrock of the faith for Matthew’s community.

The Reformation Window

And that bedrock stood for many years.  Yes, the ebb and tide of culture, struggles for power within and beyond the Church, and the Great Schism (the separation of the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054) reduced love’s importance. A number of times in history love got put on the back burner. But I would argue that love somehow overcame these human shortcomings and continued to find its way back into the foundation of Christianity.  That is until the middle ages.  At some point in time, I can’t tell you exactly when, the Church became more concerned about the institution, and the power and land and wealth that belonged to the institution, than about loving God and neighbor.  That’s as simple as I can state it.

Now, at this point in history we are invited to peer into another window by clicking the icon of an Augustinian Monk named Martin Luther.  Called by God to be an instrument of change, he looked at the injustice and the hypocrisy being perpetrated by the Church in the name of Jesus and he was appalled. So, 500 years ago this week, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther penned what would become known as the “95 thesis;” 95 complaints, 95 ways the Church was not being the Church, and he nailed these complaints to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. And lest you think this didn’t take courage, Luther’s life was immediately in danger because he dared challenge the establishment.

The Emerging Window

Do you see a pattern forming here? Jesus challenged the status quo as did Matthew, as did Luther, as did so many more people across the arc of Christianity.  As a matter of fact, “Every five hundred years, give or take a decade or two,” [the Church] “…goes through a time of enormous upheaval, a time in which essentially every part of it is reconfigured.”[iii]  Church historian and author Phyllis Tickle penned these words in response to a cultural shift that is currently underway. And she, along with folks like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Brian McLaren, just to name a few, fall in line with the great reformers. They’re challenging us to once again look at the institution of the Church and ask if love is at its core.

And this is our final icon. The icon marked “Emerging Christianity.” Now, Emerging Christianity asks some tough questions and challenges us in our responses.  It asks things like, what if we were to put aside all the theological minutia, the political coopting of religion, the false narrative of fear; a narrative that predicts the demise of Christianity at the hands of other religions, namely Islam? What if, instead of wasting time on these distractions, we were to focus on the love of Christ for all people and for all creation?  What if we, amid our current reformation, were to take this opportunity to create a Church that’s even more welcoming, more inclusive, more focused on issues of justice and peace and equality and sustainability?  Might our reformation, this emerging way of being church, as we fall into line with the great reformers of our past who understood change as reclaiming the love of God and neighbor; might this reformation, finally, simply, be about that? Loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves? Might it be that simple?

I would like to leave you today with these words from the wonderful author and theologian Henri Nouwen. “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing,” Nouwen said. “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”[iv] We have been chosen, my friends, in this scared space, at this point in time, to participate in a great change, another great reformation.  A reformation that calls us to take own limited and very conditional love, and make it the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. It’s as simple as that. May it be so. Amen.

 

[i] Rev. Dr. George H. McConnel. The Intensive Care Waiting Room (http://westminsterdayton.org) 2009

[ii] A turn of phrase credited to Thomas Long

[iii] Phyllis Tickle. Emergence Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012) pg. 17

[iv] Kathryn Matthews. God’s Story, Our Stories. (www.ucc.org/gods_story_our_stories)

An Introduction to the 3 Great Loves

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” -Matthew 22:34-40

The United Church of Christ has a vision of a just world for all. In this world all are welcomed, everyone is loved, and justice is inherent. The 3 Great Loves is the denomination’s opportunity to express how our Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation work together to address the inequities in our current world. Beginning at General Synod 2017 and ending at Synod 2019 in Milwaukee, through the lens of the 3 Great Loves, the United Church of Christ in its many settings of ministry will discern and lift-up how we act upon these 3 Great Loves. As we do so, we will tell the story of how we are impacting and transforming the world, as covenantal partners united in common purpose and mission. During these upcoming two years, there will be moments of special invitation to participate in this denomination-wide undertaking. One by one we will focus on each of the 3 Great Loves in service to our communities.

I plan to begin this process by preaching on each of these loves over the course of the next three worship services (October 29, November 5, November 12) encouraging all of us to be mindful of and look for ways to participate in the 3 Great Loves each day as we continue to BE the church in our community and beyond.

Peace and Blessings,

Pastor Phil

Living Messages

I Thessalonians 1:2-9

There was once a couple who were not able to have a child.  So, they went to their priest and asked him to pray for them.   “I’ll tell you what,” said the priest, “I’m about to go on sabbatical to Rome and when I get there I’ll light a candle for you.” Well, five or six years went by and the priest returned from sabbatical and he decided to visit the couple.  And wouldn’t you know it, upon entering their home he was greeted by a pregnant woman who was attending to a toddler and set of triplets. “Glory be!” exclaimed the priest, “where’s your husband? I want to congratulate him!”  “Well,” replied the woman, “he’s not here.  He went to Rome to put that cotton-pick’in candle out!”

In our text for today, Paul begins with thanksgiving. And like the couple in my story, God had blessed this church with an abundance.  Maybe not the abundance they were envisioning, but perhaps an abundance that was much, much more than they could have ever imagined. And perhaps the same is true for our church.  God has blessed us with an abundance, both as individuals and as a congregation. We have the beautiful and comfortable building to call home and we have been blessed with the resources to maintain it.  And on a deeper and more important level, each of us has been chosen by God to be in this place. We are the Church! So, whether you’re a life-long member or joining us for the first time, God has given you the ability, in one way or another, to choose to be here today.

That’s finally what all this “God’s elect” stuff is all about. It isn’t about God deciding before the beginning of time that some are in and others are out. Rather it’s about God choosing to offer us the gift of new life and coming to us in the person of Jesus to show us how to live-into that gift and live it to its fullest. But while the gift is free, we do have some responsibility here.  We must choose to accept the abundance that God is offering and then share that abundance with others.

So, how do we do that? Well, Paul has an answer for us today.  He said to his congregation in Thessalonica, “…because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope;” because of these things he said, “you became an example” for others to see. In other words, the Thessalonians, in Paul’s estimation, became a “Living Message” of faith,  and of God’s love and hope. Your work, your effort, your perseverance, Paul says, stands as a beacon to others.

Now, as I was writing this week, I was struggling to think of an illustration of a person that I would consider a living message.  I mean, you can see the danger here.  To put someone on such a high pedestal, to raise someone to the level as being a living message of faith, love, and hope; that’s a fall waiting to happen. But then I realized that I was looking at this from the wrong perspective.  Being a living message of faith doesn’t mean one must be perfectly faithful all the time, just faithful.  Being a living message of God’s love doesn’t mean you’re going to be completely loving all the time, but rather that striving to be more loving is a never-ending, on-going process. And being a living message doesn’t mean you’re always cheery and hopeful, but rather, that hope, even when it seems like a tiny flicker of light in the distance, still burns. You see? Being a living example of the gospel doesn’t start when you finally become perfect; is starts today, just as you are, right where you are, warts and all.  That’s God’s calling to each of us.  We are challenged to share the abundance, whatever form that abundance has taken in our life, and share it with others.  We are called to be living messages of love, endurance, and hope by living and sharing our faith and, this is vitally important, accepting the faith of others and viewing them as a living message as well.

Which brings me to my illustration.  Jay.  I went to seminary with Jay and like all of us, he was far from perfected.  Serving not one, not two, but three churches as a student pastor, Jay really struggled to find the time to dedicate himself to his studies.  As a result, it took him five years to complete seminary. On top of all that, Jay also lost his mother in our first semester, often questioned his call to ordained ministry and he struggled with addition.  A real mess right?  Well, maybe, but despite all these stumbling blocks, Jay has become one of the most gracious and healing pastors I know. And I think it’s because he’s been there, and perhaps beyond.  He’s known pain and failure and the hopelessness that can dive one to give up. But he didn’t.  Instead, he’s a living message of embedded faith, of God’s love, and of enduring hope. And because of these qualities, Jay has also become one of the best evangelists around. Evangelist not in the sense of a TV snake oil salesman, but as an authentic servant of the Living God sharing the abundance of God’s grace that he received in his life and ministry.

And this is important.  It’s important because for all of us evangelism is an ongoing process. And again, please don’t be scared off by the word.  Evangelism is simply sharing the places where we’ve seen God at work in our lives and in the world with others and then inviting them to join us on our journey of faith. I fear sometimes that political correctness or an awkwardness about sharing our faith has caused us to shy away from inviting others to join us in church.  And perhaps with good reason.  Far too often I think Christians has used a stick instead of carrot to share their faith.  Too often we’ve said you’re welcome here …as long as you become like us; you’re welcome here …as long as you think like us; you’re welcome here …as long as you worship, and pray, and speak of God like we do, you know, the right way.

But that’s not how Paul, as he understood the teachings of Jesus, though evangelism should look like.  Instead, he praised the Thessalonians for their struggle to live the gospel faithfully, day in and day out, in every circumstance. And for Paul, and for us as well, sharing our faith with others is far less about making them become like us and far more about including their experiences of God and their understanding of faith into the mix.  And it’s this shared community; this shared experience that ultimately strengthens the church.

Theologian and historian John Dominic Crossan expresses this idea beautifully when he discusses Paul’s meaning of the word love. ” …the life of the community,” he says, “the assembly, is about a love that is expressed as sharing, but from want to want rather than from plenty to plenty.” And Crossan applies this understanding to us when he adds,”…divinely distributive justice [is] a necessary sharing of God’s stuff.”[i]

A necessary sharing of “God’s stuff.” I like that. Not out of our want, a place of scarcity, but from a condition of abundance. My friends, we as a church, and as the individuals that make up this congregation, have a whole lot to offer.  We are welcoming to all. We are authentic in the work of our faith. We seek to become even more loving in our relationships with God and neighbor and ask God for forgiveness when we fall short. And even when things are tough, we persevere in our struggles because the hope of Christ is alive and well in the place.

So, as you go forth from this service, know that God, through the presence of the Spirit, goes before you.  That my friends, should give all of us the confidence to continue to be “living messages” of God’s love, of God’s compassion and faithfulness, and of the hope that Christ demonstrated through his life, death, resurrection.  May we go forth from this place today, and share the Light of Christ with all whom we encounter. May it be so. Amen.

[i] John Dominic Crossan & Johnathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed the Roman Empire with God’s Kingdom. (Harper One 2005)

The Tree of Life: Part II

Revelation 22:1-5

Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always.

Well, here we are.  The final installment of our journey between the trees; the tree of life in Genesis and in Revelation.  But we’re not out of the woods yet! (pun intended) We still need to connect these two trees.  We’ve hear a reading of the second creation story in Genesis, but how does that fit with the tree in Revelation?

Well, first, we must admit that Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books in the Bible. We don’t use it as often as we do other parts of the New Testament that’s for sure. And we usually don’t dabble in it for leisure and we certainly don’t read it to young children before bedtime! Most of this book is a ferocious mix of images, creatures, battles and symbols. We read about horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much, much more.

Yet despite its bizarre contents, the book of Revelation has had a profound impact on Western culture. It’s one of the most widely illustrated books of the Bible, depicted in architecture, tapestry, paintings, and altar pieces. And many works of literature reflect the pervasive power of this text, for example, the poetry of Dante and the works of John Milton, along with William Blake and T.S. Eliot. The Book of Revelation has also influenced a great deal of music, including Handel’s famous Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.[i]

But why? Why is this “weird book” so pervasive? Well, many assert that it tells of the unveiling of the end times, the apocalypse. And apocalyptic themes permeate popular culture today. Films and television programs regularly portray tales of the end of time, as does Christian fiction such as the Left Behind series and its precursor The Late Great Planet Earth. Really the first book to espouse all this “Rapture” nonsense.  Consumers just can’t seem to get enough of apocalyptic literature.

Timothy Luke Johnson, however, a scholar of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, says that, “Few writings…have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation…Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation…its arcane symbols…have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing.”[ii]

In other words, these misinterpretations, throughout the course of history and still today, have been used in harmful ways. And this, unfortunately, can happen with any sacred text, from any religions. People fashion and mold the holy words to suit their own agenda. Which of course leads to extremism.  And extremists are not just religious; some have a warped sense of nationalism, some extremists are politically motivated, and some are driven simply by a deep and disturbing hate. Friends, bind hate or extremism of any kind, can end with nothing but a disastrous result. 

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  I know the world is a scary place right now, which can fuel plenty of anxiety and stoke apocalyptic imaginations. And sometimes when things seem out of control and there’s a lack of responsible leadership, we as citizens, as Christians, are challenged in our resolve. And apathy, or even extremism, might seem like an appropriate response. But they are not! As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are challenged to stand against extremism and to rise above apathy. Easy? No. But in these scary and difficult times we are called to be faithful, even when it’s not a popular position.

Now, Revelation, written in the late first century, was also a scary time for Christians. So, a man named John, a Christian Bishop in exile on the island of Patmos, offers this letter to his flock in seven churches in the country we now know as Turkey. It was at that time in history when this area of the world was still part of the Roman Empire. And many Romans saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because they refused to worship the emperor. Some were imprisoned, tortured, or even executed. Many Christians, however, succumbed to the temptation simply to accommodate themselves to the prevailing religious and cultural rituals to avoid becoming social outcasts.

And it’s amid this social and political climate that the letter of Revelation was sent.  Sent, not to foretell the end of time, but instead, to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. John wanted to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the religion and social practices of the empire around them.[iii]

And this is where we find ourselves as we encounter our text from Revelation today.  The Bishop of Patmos says in this passage that “The trees leaves are for the healing of the nations” The symbolism here is obvious, isn’t it?  The leaves are symbolic of God’s continuing act of creation; God act of continued healing. And we are a part of this action of healing. As co-creators with our Still-Speaking God, each of us is represented by one of the leaves.  Do you see what I’m driving at here? This letter isn’t about the end, rather, it’s about a beginning.  Like I’ve said many times before, Biblical prophecy isn’t about predicting the future, rather it’s about making changes in the present.  When Jeremiah stood before his people and shook his fist, he wasn’t predicting something what was going to happen thousands of years in the future, he was telling them to straighten up right then and there, or exile would be the result.  He was speaking within the parameters of his own lifetime.

So, if we are symbolically one of these leaves on the tree of life, then it stands to reason that we are called to be participants in the “healing of the nations.” And further, if we are to view Revelation, and especially our text for today, not as an end but rather as a beginning, then our understanding of prophecy would inform us that “the trees’ healing leaves” are also symbolic of God’s on-going healing to all nations. What do I mean by that?

Well, first, there’s the healing of God’s creation.  The environment is something we all share.  It doesn’t matter what nation one is from or what religion one practices; we all share this earth.  And I know, the issues of our environment are huge.  Global climate change, pollution, the over-use of limited resources to name but a few; these things seem like impossible mountains to scale. But apathy isn’t the answer.  It’s not the time to throw up our hands and say, “there’s nothing I can do.” Instead, I would invite you to look at some of the grass roots movements taking place.  Urban and organic farming are on the rise along with the use of solar and wind energy. Recycling, repurposing, reusing have moved beyond mere buzz words and have become a part of our everyday language. And there are so many more examples. But do we have a long way to go? Yes. But despite all the recent obstacles that have been placed in our way, we can get there! This is a calling from God.  We are charged in Genesis to be co-creators with God, to be responsible for God’s wonderful creation by being good stewards of the land, plants and animals, and the air and the water.

But it goes even further than just the environment.  If you’ve been watching the news or been paying attention to social media, then you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the outpouring of prayers and active support for the many, many people struggling in our nation today.  All I need to do is mention the name of the places: Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Miramar, Mexico City, The Sudan, Napa Valley, Las Vegas. In many of these places we hear story after story of neighbor helping neighbor; of volunteers loading up and heading into utterly devastated and sometimes dangerous places. My friends, that’s Revelation’s “healing of the nations” in action.  Is the healing complete? Of course not, but these things, these actions, these instances of loving our neighbor, it’s a beginning.  It’s a beginning.

It’s a beginning to counter-acting apathy and extremism.  Hate can be overcome by love. The debilitating bleakness of “there’s nothing I can do” can be overcome by hope …and by faith. The Rev. David Moyer, one of our former Conference Ministers once said, “Here is one place that all of us can take-on a personal responsibility, both as individuals and as members of our own religious communities, we must do all we can to learn about other religions and cultural groups, to respect diversity and differences and to understand a bit of the history of people whose practices and traditions are different from our own.”[iv]

God’s call on us as Christians, my friends, is to co-exist with people of other faiths and differing cultures. It’s as simple as that.  And when we begin, as the wider Church and as a society to realize that God has placed a great diversity of people on this planet and that we are to attempt to live in peace and harmony with all of them, then healing can begin in earnest. The leaves of the tree, us, we are charged with being a part of the healing of all nations, all faiths, all cultures, and especially, all of God’s beautiful, natural world.

May the continuing testament of a Still-Speaking God enrich our understanding of the Bible, the diversity of cultures, and of each other. May it be so. Amen.

————————————–

[i] Dr. Jan Love. The Grace of the City of God Reflection on Rev. 21:10-22:5 (Day1.org, May 09, 2010)

[ii] Timothy Luke Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament.

[iii] Ibid: Jan Love.

[iv] Rev. Dr. David Moyer in a pastoral letter to the churches of the Wisconsin Conference (UCC) 2012.

Growing Old Ain’t for Sissies

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Wasn’t it great to be a kid? I’ve heard many people say, “times were simpler then.” I agree.  As kids, we were free from adult responsibilities. Heck, the biggest stressor I can remember was which baseball cards to put in the spokes of my bike.  Being a kid was awesome.

But when I was still quite young, I remember seeing a plaque that read: “growing old ain’t for sissies” At the time that didn’t make any sense to me.  What’s so hard about growing up? I thought growing up would be the coolest thing in the world and I couldn’t wait to get there.

Today, however, I look at that plaque from a little different point on the continuum of life.  As the years pass, and gets a little harder to put my socks on in the morning, I can understand the wisdom of that plaque.  In fact, I have come to appreciate that growing old really isn’t a choice.  Growing older, and hopefully wiser, is unavoidable; it’s a part of life.  So, if growing older is a part of life, then it seems to me that our attitude about aging is important.  Do we fight the process with all our might or do we accept that “seasons change” and share the lessons that we have leaned along the way and the wisdom that we have gained with the next generation? In other words, is there an up-side to all these changing seasons of life.

Well, In the first text that was read for us this morning from the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes the author reaffirms for us the natural order of changing seasons.  He says that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” He goes on to catalog for us the various seasons of life, 28 of them in fact, arranged in sharp contrast to one another and yet each as an undeniable part of human existence.

His list rings so true. It begins with what is most fundamentally true–that one day, we are born into this world, then, just as inevitably, our life in this world comes to an end. According to the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the universe unfolds according to its own inner logic and set of seasons. Only God knows why existence is set up this way. In the face of a mysterious world created by a transcendent God, one should not waste energy railing against life; instead, the author advises us to enjoy life and get the most we can out of it.

Now, that’s not to say you should abandon all your responsibilities and do nothing except eat, drink, and be merry. Instead, the point here is that your responsibilities (your family and friends, your job, your church, your civic duties) all these responsibilities are the things that are to be enjoyed.  And in the differing seasons of life, these responsibilities will change, our bodies will change, we will not be able to all that we used to be able to, but, and this is key, we are to enjoy rather than fear these changes. The point behind Ecclesiastes 3 is to encourage us to seek out the positive aspects of growing older rather than lamenting the things we can no longer do.

And I think this is theological advice at its practical best. Since there are so many things over which we have no control, it’s wise to be happy and to look for the blessing regardless of the circumstances.  Which brings us to “The Parable of the Fig Tree.” Luke, like Ecclesiastes, has something to say about the changing seasons of life.

Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves,  you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away. Luke 21: 29-33. (CEB)

First, a cursory reading of these verses in their immediate context reminds us that they come just before the Passion story of Jesus. A story in which we hear Jesus predicting the arrival of terrible times: destruction and war, suffering and persecution. He’s offering words of warning to his followers as he moves toward his crucifixion and death.

But in their historical context, we must remember these words were written 50 to 60 years after the passion story took place, after the Maccabean war, after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and in the aftermath of the political catastrophe that was first-century Palestine. These words were written for a people already molded by the suffering and fear and turmoil which these words predict. Luke describes events that took place after Jesus’ death; but he describes them through the eyes of Jesus, as if he were there–how he would feel, what he would say, what he would do. And thus, Luke gives to us a “God’s-eye” view of how to deal with the changing seasons of life. In fact, what Luke offers us is a big picture view of reality that we can all use as we find ourselves struggling with change; especially the changes that occur as we grow older and life continues to move forward. And that view of reality that Luke gives us is a view from “a perspective of faith.”

Ya know, I had an interesting first-hand experience of a variety of “perspectives on faith” while serving as a student chaplain.  The hospital to which I was assigned was in Davenport Iowa and despite Iowa’s reputation, Davenport is quite a diverse city; a diversity that was reflected in the patients at the hospital.  I encountered folks from a variety of religious backgrounds and faith traditions.  I ministered to people who were Catholic and from all different flavors of the Protestant world, a Jewish woman and Vietnamese man whom I guessed was some sort of Buddhist/Christian blend, and several people from the Fellowship of Baha’i.

The interesting thing, however, was that no matter what faith a person held, there was a certain sense of calm or peace about them, even in the worst of circumstances.  People who believe in something larger then themselves, God, are not as, I don’t know what word to choose here… lost maybe, as people who profess to have no faith at all.

Case in point. I was called to the room of a woman who had just received the news that her cancer was terminal.  As I entered the room and introduced myself as the chaplain, she immediately demanded that I not pray for her.  I could stay and talk and help her to share her diagnosis with her family, but she had given up on God many years before and didn’t want anything to do with faith or religion.  But what I remember most about that encounter was her sense of lost-ness. To her, beyond this life, after she was gone, there was nothing to look forward to, nothing to hope for, and it was apparent that she had no sense of peace.

Now don’t misunderstand me here, as people of faith, as Christians, we too grieve.  We hurt when a loved one dies and we worry when faced with our own mortality.  That’s human nature.  But when we face the most difficult of circumstances, our faith lends us a certain sense of peace.  A peace, from my observations anyway, that is not present when faith is absent. Why?  Well, the Bible teaches us that beyond the end of time; time as we know it anyway, stands God, who has come among us in the person of Jesus.  Those who live faithful lives can live expectantly, filling each day with activity that is meaningful and in line with God’s purposes for human life.

So even as we grow older and the seasons of life continue to change, faith is what carries us through.  And that’s finally the lesson of the fig tree.  When you see the emergence of new leaves in the spring, you know that summer is just around the corner. The same is true of the Reign of God,” Jesus said to his followers, “because of all that is going on around you, all that you have seen, experienced, been a part of…  because of these things you know that the Reign of God is near.”

And that’s where we stand as well.  Because of all that we have seen, experienced, and been a part of, because of our faith, we know that the Reign of God is not only near, but that it’s already here. And the one constant throughout all these seasons of change is the love of God. A love that leads us, as the Apostle Paul would say, “into a peace that surpasses all understanding.”

So, my dear Friends, no matter where you are on the road of life, no matter what season of life you may be currently experiencing, remember that growing mature in days and in wisdom is for everyone; we’re all traveling this road together. And there’s a blessing in all this. As we continue down this road we don’t journey alone. We travel down this path, this path that’s embodied by the Reign of God, illuminated by the Light of God and smoothed over by the Love of God. And it’s a path, my friends, that intersects with many other paths, many other journeys, as we all move as one in the direction of a common goal: Peace.  Peace within our souls and Peace to all the ends of the earth.  May the light of God’s love illuminate your path through this life and on into life eternal! Amen.