A Second Look

Homily for the third Sunday of Lent 2013

[Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9]

Syrian mortar shells fall on the Golan Heights;
a pope resigns;
the sequester becomes reality in the United States;
the Newtown Creek area straddling Brooklyn and Queens is pronounced one of the most polluted in the nation with an underground oil leak bigger than than Exxon Valdez spill;
a sinkhole in Florida like a horror movie takes a man in an instant from home to lost;
Pilate brutally mixes the blood of Galilean Jews with their sacrifices to teach the population a lesson;
eighteen are killed when the tower near the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem unexpectedly collapses.

Good morning! In the midst of all this and so much more, it is very good for us to be here. Throughout the week we as the current human occupants of the planet have just lived, and long before as reflected in the telling of woes with which the Gospel opens today, there is plenty of big bad news around us. And what’s more, take any of the big stories – Syria, sequester, Newtown Creek, Macedonian riots – and poke around just below the surface and you will find the little stories that hurt even more, the tiny human stories of men and women and children and the old and families who are suffering, and who have neither power nor authority to do anything about it.

And then there come the days when this is obvious, too painfully obvious right here at home, as in the tragic loss this past week of Martha Carr Atwater, whose funeral was celebrated here in a packed Grace Church on Friday. The blog this talented woman and beloved wife and mother wrote was subtitled, “Solving the World’s Problems One at a Time.” It seems that “one at a time,” as near-impossible as even that is, is nothing like enough. The world’s problems, near and far, come at us at a much faster rate.

No kidding about it at all. When you dare to take a cold, hard look around, sometimes it can all look cold and hard.

We are here, we choose to come to places like this every week, to take a second look. Like Moses’ attention riveted by the bush that burned but was not consumed, when he stopped his sheep-herding everyday work to say, “I must turn aside and see why this is so.” Like the gardener in the parable Jesus tells this morning asking to take a second look – a yearlong second look – at the fruitless fig tree, so we are here to take a second look at life, another look at people, another look at sorrow, a second look at love and possibility.

The Apostle Paul wrote in the tenth chapter of his first letter to the troubled and troublesome church at Corinth, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” There’s something deep in me that wants to say to that great man: ‘Paul, my brother, that assurance is cold comfort or none at all. Help me instead to take a deeper, a second look. In all the chaos, the striving, the pain; in all the hunger and in all the feeding; in all the violence and in all the peacemaking; in all the despair and in all the determination to hope; in all the sickness and in all the healing; in all the dying and in all the birthing – what is going on here?’

When Moses paused to take that second look, he quickly found that he was, and had been already, standing on holy ground, standing in the presence of God. When the owner of the vineyard appears in Jesus’s parable and orders the non-producing fig tree to be ripped out of the earth and thrown away, we can spontaneously presume that that owner of the vineyard is God, and that by extension he is looking our way out of the corner of his eye as he speaks to the gardener and saying to us, ‘You’d better produce, or you’re a goner too!’

But what if, like Moses, we pause, step closer, and take that second look? What if the vineyard owner is not the figure of God in that story? What if the more proper image of God there is the gardener? Humbling himself, responding to the complaints of this owner – whoever that may be, who is filled with ego and declares his desires loudly like law – what if this Gardener-God reveals here the Motherly and Fatherly understanding for the plight of the tree, for the plight of all who are set-upon and frightened, hungry and alone and unable to accomplish what they would like to do, unable to grow and to bear fruit as they are created to do? What if this second look reveals that we, like Moses, are standing on holy ground? What if, in fact, our closer look helps us realize that we are planted in holy ground, right here, and that by our side in the midst of all the coldness and hardness, the challenges and the losses, the strain and the pain, is God? God who nourishes and feeds and protects and nurtures, stands by faithfully and watches by our side? What if this is the deeper truth? What if this is, at last, the only truth? The one that lasts? The one that dies and rises? The one named Jesus?

The collect for this third Sunday of this amazing season brings both comfort and hard truth. As is often the case, we reach the comfort by accepting the hard truth. The truth is this, in the collect prayer’s words: “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” The power to help us is not in us. But it is as near to us as our own beating heart. There is the comfort: “Almighty God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, defended from all adversity which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” Great Gardener, in your gentle humility and faithfulness, stand by us in your care.

In the midst of this past week, full of all the roar and earthquaking of any earthly seven-day period, I came across in reading a reference to a hymn by the great Charles Wesley. By coincidence the church celebrates Charles and his older brother John on this date, March 3, each year. I looked this hymn up, until now unknown to me, and heard it sung. Written in 1738, the year in which Wesley dated his true conversion to Christ, it is titled “And can it be that I should gain?” Originally Charles called this poem, “Free Grace,” and he shared it with his friend, John Newton whose own hymn of conversion we sing as “Amazing Grace.” Both proclaim and ring out and sing confidently into the storm of life the virtue of that second look which always, always, always, can and will reveal where we are as holy ground, made such by the One who stands with us.

Something about the second verse of this hymn singing of Jesus and his mission knocked me down and set me back up one evening this week:

“He left his Father’s throne above
so free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race!
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for, O my God, it found out me.
Amazing love! how can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

“Emptied himself of all but love.” Life can and will empty us too. In God’s saving grace, God’s amazing love, may life leave us only love.

On a second look at all the coldness and the hardness, may we see only love, feel only love, live only love.

John McGinty
March 3, 2013
Grace Church Brooklyn Heights