Gathered Up in Jesus

Photo by Henri Guu00e9rin on

If It Bears Fruit…

Charlie Brown was having a conversation with a little girl named Patty that went something like this:

Charlie Brown: Boy what a day. Everything I’ve tried to do has gone wrong.

Patty: Don’t be so disturbed Charlie Brown…we all have our bad days.

Charlie Brown: Last year I was the only person I know who had three hundred sixty-five bad days!

Charles Schulz (c) 1959

If you think Charlie Brown had a bad day, you should watch the news. I don’t anymore and part of the reason is it seems like nothing but bad news. If you were an alien thinking of moving to this planet and got a news feed off the array of satellites orbiting our planet, you might be inclined to try another solar system. Yet, people by the millions tune in, login, and scroll through the bad news day in, day out. And for some reason we seem to thrive off it. But why?

Scientists think we look for bad news in the way our most ancient ancestors looked for threats. Bad news is a threat, not necessarily a real threat, a perceived threat, but a threat, nonetheless. Like Charlie Brown, we often feel like we’ve had three hundred sixty-five bad days because all it takes to throw off our sense of joy or happiness is one bad thing. The one thing makes it a bad day. Don’t believe me? Tell me about the best days of your life. How many can you think of? Now, tell me about the worst days of your life. How many can you think of? Not only that, which one has a stronger emotional charge? The bad usually does because the bad is a threat, and the for the sake of advertising dollars, political manipulation, and social control we are fed a steady stream of bad news. 

In the passage today, people have come to Jesus with some bad news. Pilate, the Roman proconsul of the region, had killed some Galileans while they were offering sacrifices. Some versions of the bible say their blood was mixed with that of the sacrifices. One version went,

The story was that there were rumors of an uprising coming to Jerusalem, so Pilate sent undercover soldiers into the temple to find and dispatch the ringleaders, which they proceeded to do with frightening Roman efficiency – right in the courtyards of the temple, spilling human blood to mingle with the animal sacrifices, which immediately profaned all the worship that day and made the temple (the temple, mind you) unclean for a period of days, until the proper rituals could be performed.[1]

And those who brought this story to Jesus were looking for a response, offering unspoken questions: 

Jesus what do you think? 

Is Pilate as evil as we think he is? 

Maybe we should really revolt. Shouldn’t something be done about this?

Are you going to do something about this? 

At the very least, these people were expecting Jesus to commiserate with them over the loss of the Galileans, a region Jesus spent most of his ministry serving, teaching, and healing. There was expectation for Jesus to do something, anything. Perhaps Jesus would declare himself against Pilate. Pilate had been exiled to the backwater of Judea and according to some historians, took his displeasure at that out on the local people. Perhaps he would cower in the face of Roman might. He had to do something, respond some way, right?

He does. Not like they think he will, but he does. He says, “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” He goes to talk about the Tower of Siloam falling on a group of people and responds to that calamity with the same response, “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” From there we get a parable about a non-producing fig tree. Three years the tree sits and doesn’t produce fruit. The owner says cut it down. The gardener, the one who takes care of it day in and day out, says give it another year. If it doesn’t produce fruit, I’ll cut it down. No apparent sympathy from Jesus in this story. Change your heart (the way you think and feel about things) and change your lives (the way you live in response to heart change) or die.

There’s a lot unsaid here and quite a bit said by commentators and theologians. One thing we can say, Jesus wasn’t interested in a political discussion no matter how badly his fellow Galileans wanted one. Jesus stays on point. If you do not change your hearts and change your lives, you cannot live. If you cannot live, you die. I believe Jesus is giving us a here and now directive rather than there and later promise. The people who died, definitively died. Jesus’ question is, are you willing to live, to be something different. Can you change the way you think and feel so the way you live is different? 

Not all change has meaning. Sometimes we try to change the veneer to avoid dealing with the things that make us uncomfortable. In a recent article on church renewal, Philip Amerson wrote,

My friend Noah was a Trappist monk who two decades after the changes in the Roman Catholic Church from Vatican II, shared with me an insight about his disappointment that there was not more renewal in denominational practices, structure, and mission. Speaking of his sadness that positive changes were painfully slow to come, Noah said, “At the monastery, we changed our dress, our leadership patterns, and the arrangement of our furniture in the chapel. We changed our music, our liturgy, and our educational curriculum.” He paused and smiling said, “We tried changing everything… but our hearts.[2]

Philip Amerson

We tried changing everything but our hearts. Does that sound familiar? That sounds like most every church I have ever pastored. That sounds like most every supposed follower of Jesus I have ever known, myself included at times. We are willing to throw up a new coat of paint on walls of cracked plaster and rotted beams. We are willing to scrape the rust off the engine and shine up the valve covers without getting down into the crankcase to see the sludge and corrosion. We are willing to throw a patch over the hole in the knee while the seams come apart. But are not willing to do the one thing necessary to see real change in ourselves and our churches: change our hearts and lives. 

The United Methodist Church is paying for that now. I know, I know people think it’s all about whether we take scripture seriously or whether we seek equality for all. But you know what? That’s a comfortable lie. It’s comfortable because we can just sit back and blame the other side for our lack of true discipleship. It’s a lie because the truth is we put all our cards in the idea of bigger churches, better programs, Sunday school. We created worship that makes us happy and who cares what anyone else thinks. We created lovely little castles to hide in while the world around us moved on to seek the spiritual without us. We made a god of church and worshiped it.

We got selfish. 

We got lazy. 

And now, we’ve got consequences. 

So, what do we do about it? Change. Your. Hearts. And. Lives. Stop putting all this effort into stuff and start putting it into doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly with your God.

Or die.

Your choice.