Monday, February 29, 2016

Listen, so that you may live

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 55: 1-9 and Luke 13: 1-9 Sermon Title: “Listen, so that you may live” Last Wednesday Night I was very excited to hear about the renovation currently under way at Central High School. The principal there, Mr. Roger White, was the speaker last Wednesday, and based on what I heard he seems to be a man who loves his job, who prays for his students, and who is making sure that the classrooms of this new high school will inspire students to maximize their potential. I think it’s a gift to the students to have this kind of a principal, and more than anything else I heard in Roger White’s presentation a desire to better educate all the students of Maury County because he seems to believe that if any student works hard enough and is given the opportunity to learn, then regardless of background or home-life, he or she can go out into the world as a productive citizen. In other words, Principal Roger White can see potential. He hopes that such potential will be harnessed in the brand new science lab, which is to be state of the art, and his description of this science lab reminded me of how important science is, although it’s a subject not always appreciated by the student. Molly Grace DeMoss, a member of our youth group, is always quick to smile and laugh, but as she was telling Marcy Lay and me about the dogfish that she’s been dissecting at Columbia Academy where she goes to school, she was less than enthusiastic. I remember not loving science class a whole lot either. We dissected a frog and a lamb’s eye, and every year we had to participate in the science fair, which I didn’t see too much of a point in. I had no interest in becoming a scientist myself, but what I value now is that regardless of my ambitions, I had to learn the scientific method. Now that’s the part that I know is valuable for everyone. Using the scientific method, you start by forming a hypothesis. And this hypothesis is a conjecture, an assumption, that is then tested through an experiment in which you either prove or disprove the hypothesis. This is a very good tool, not just for scientists but for everyone, and I say so because I have become convinced that too many people are in our world with a hypothesis that has never really been put to the test. The untested hypothesis is a problem, and I see evidence of the problem all over the place. I watch the news, I go to Facebook, I listen to yourself talk, and I notice that there are so many assumptions in my head and out in the world, so many untested hypotheses that I put in use without first putting my assumption to the test. And I am not alone – a lot of people are doing this. For example – watching news coverage of recent events, especially coverage of the Black Lives Matter campaign, you get the impression that many have formed the hypothesis that all police officers are racist. Certainly our Chief of Police here in Columbia, Tennessee deals with this assumption every day and it offends him to no end, because a person only needs to interact with the members of his force to find that this hypothesis is far from fact. But it appears that there are others who live as though all young black men are criminals. And there are plenty who talk and act as though all Democrats are heartless baby killers. Other who form the hypothesis that all Republicans brainless fear mongers. Are these assumptions true? Absolutely not, but go to Facebook or read the opinion page of the newspaper, and you’ll see it right there plain as day – that there are far too many people who need to go back to High School biology so they can learn again that you can’t just go around and expect to make very many friends if you are all the time making assumptions that have no basis in reality. I’m guilty here. I say things all the time that I wish I could take back, and sometimes I’m afraid to take them back. Sometimes I hold onto these assumptions and I think that’s because human nature makes me afraid of having my hypothesis disproven. Let me tell you what I mean: back in 10th grade I started on my science fair project. My hypothesis was that exposing a plant to crude oil would kill the plant, which was a fashionable thing to do at that time because it wasn’t so long after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and I wanted to prove that the spilled oil would hurt the plants, but after 4 or 5 days of watering one set of plants with water, the other with motor oil, oddly enough there was no difference in plant growth, so I just pulled the leaves off the plants that I had been watering with motor oil. I took these pictures and included them on a poster board to add some substance to my presentation, but unfortunately, one of the ripped off leaves was in one of the pictures, and when my teacher (who noticed the evidence of my manipulation of the scientific method), she handed me my report back with a very low grade, and what’s worse is that she wrote across the top, “Now this is just plain tacky.” How much better it would have been for me to just let the research disprove my hypothesis. If the hypothesis is never really put to the test, either by those who manipulate the findings or others who don’t even bother with an experiment, all these assumptions go around our world as though they were facts. This is a problem today and it was a problem 2,000 years ago as well, so you’ll see that in our 2nd Scripture Lesson there is also a hypothesis. When faced with two tragic events – first when a group of Galilean pilgrims were murdered on their way to make a sacrifice at the Temple and then when a tower fell and killed 18 people, the survivors needed answers so they formed their hypothesis: the ones who died were sinners. Another way to say it is, “What goes around comes around.” Or to quote Scripture: “You reap what you sow.” This is not a bad hypothesis because it’s sometimes true. Sometimes the ones who died met their end because of their own misdeeds, but just because it is sometimes true doesn’t mean it is always true, so a hypothesis like this one requires an experiment, investigation, more facts, and thankfully, this group goes to Jesus with their hypothesis. “Here's our assumption Jesus,” they seem to have said, “our hypothesis is that those who died tragically had it coming, what do you think?” I don’t have to tell you how crucial this quest for more information is. All in the news this week has been Coach Butch Jones of the University of Tennessee football team. Is he guilty of covering up a horrible case of abuse? Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but I have a bad feeling that he is going to lose his job over this thing regardless because too many people don’t care about the facts, they’ve already decided. There is danger in not going any deeper than our assumptions, so we must be thankful that this group probably went to Jesus saying, “the ones who died, they were sinners, right?” And Jesus said: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” And then he tells them a story: “Let me tell you what is really going on here. You are like a fig tree who failed to bear fruit. Today you were spared, but you will be cut down if you fail to produce fruit again. If you fail to produce fruit again, if you fail to repent, then you, every one of you will be cut down.” By answering their questions this way, he challenged, not just the hypothesis but the whole premise of the project. They thought they were dissecting a dead frog, they thought they were investigating for the cause of death, and Jesus tells them to start investigating the cause of their life. “You want to know why they died, but I say, how lucky you are to be alive.” That’s what he told them, but what would he tell us? In some ways we are different: we don’t go around today blaming people for dying so often but how many of us subscribe to the Daily Herald just for the obituaries. So we all ask who died and why, which is one question but is not the question that Jesus believes is worth your time, for Jesus asks, “which one of you will bear fruit, which one of you deserves to live?” There’s a man who had a fig tree and he came looking for fruit on it but there was none there, so he said to the gardener (who is Jesus by the way), ‘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?” But the gardener responds, ‘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.’ We started with a hypothesis that attempted to answer the question, “Why did they die?” But now Jesus has turned the tables to ask a very different question, “For what were you spared?” And having been spared, having been saved, will you bear fruit? The point he’s making is significant. He’s saying that there’s more to living than not dying. There’s more to being innocent than not getting caught. And there’s more to today than the fact that you woke up on this side of the grave because today we have a chance to change. I was moved by the funeral for Mrs. Evans which was here yesterday morning. The man who preached was a long-time friend of hers – they met when she was in her 80’s so that means they had 20 years to solidify their relationship. She gave this man instructions for what to say, and so she told him not to make his part in the funeral a eulogy, “don’t talk about me,” she says, “because if they don’t know me by now than they’ve missed their chance. Talk instead about Jesus, because they haven’t missed their chance to get to know him.” If we are all fig trees, fruitless fig trees, we have been spared by the Gardener who can change us. Who sees in us the potential to bear fruit, and desires to fertilize and work our soil so that we might do just that. Now this charge is a gift isn’t it? Why was that science teacher so disgusted in my presentation back in 10th grade? Possibly because she knew I could do better. Why is it a gift that Roger White sees in his students’ potential? Because not everyone does. This week I heard the story of a young man who was arrested some years ago for stealing a sweat shirt. The officer happened to call Chris Poynter of the Boys and Girls Club to come and speak with him, and when the officer asked this young man why he would do something so foolish as to steal, the young man asked, “Why should I care? Why should I care what happens to me? Why should I care if I get arrested? No one ever expected anything out of me. My father left, my mother abuses me, no one cares so why should I?” If ever there was a hypothesis that needed to be put to the test, then this was it. If Jesus were there, he would have looked on that bare fig tree of a young man and told him, “all you need is some nourishment, all you need is a chance, and I am the gardener who can provide it.” Yes, he is and yes you can, and today is the day. Today you have to opportunity to do just that if you will just accept the gardener’s gift of grace. Amen.

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