Sunday November 17, 2019

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2019c

Old Testament - Isaiah 65:17-25

New Testament - Luke 21:5-19

Planting Apple Trees

INTRODUCTION: In that beloved children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, readers get to follow a caterpillar with an insatiable appetite.   


After being hatched on a Sunday, the caterpillar goes on a binge eating all kinds of stuff. He gets started on Monday by eating through an apple, but alas is still hungry. On Tuesday he eats through two pears, on Wednesday three plums, and on Thursday four strawberries all without alleviating any of his hunger.     


Come Friday the little guy eats through five oranges and on Saturday he really gets busy eating through a piece of chocolate cake, an ice-cream cone, a pickle, a slice of Swiss cheese, some salami, a lollipop, some cherry pie, a sausage, a cup cake, and one slice of watermelon! The caterpillar’s doctor, no doubt, would have been appalled by his food intake that day.


Needless to say, with an aching stomach because of all his eating on Saturday, the hungry caterpillar finally decides to eat something a little lighter and on Sunday he chomps his way through a nice green leaf. His hunger finally satisfied, the caterpillar enters his cocoon where he stays for several weeks before being hatched again, this time as a beautiful butterfly.


Well, butterflies, of course, have long been a symbol within the Christian tradition for resurrection and new life. After all, a caterpillar entering a cocoon only to reappear on the other side as a beautiful butterfly obviously fits nicely with our own conviction as people of faith that God is constantly in the process of remaking and renewing life. 


Yes, things die, as we know very well. But death is hardly the last word as far we’re concerned. For even death, as formidable as it is, must also finally yield to God.   


And while it’s Jesus’ own death and resurrection in the New Testament that is the clear source of such a conviction on our parts, we can often forget the Old Testament also likes to assert that remaking and recreating life is one of God’s favorite pastimes.


Or as God famously declares in Isaiah, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy , and its people as a delight.”


Of course, God hardly stops there, right? For God then goes on to describe what Jerusalem will be like after completing his reclamation project. First, it will be a strange place because the sound of people shedding tears will be a thing of the past. Why, that’s like trying to imagine a world without the sound of wind, or birds chirping, right?


And then there are the children. When it comes to them, we won’t have to worry about famous actors in commercials for Feed the Children telling us that for the cost of a cup of coffee a day a starving child can be fed. Because children dying from disease and malnourishment will be a footnote in the history books.


And old people? They’re going to be everywhere because no one will have their lives cut short. All people will live into their golden years. Such-much-so, restaurants will have to do away with early-bird specials, since they won’t be able to meet the demand.


And construction companies? They’re going to be out of business because there won’t be any houses in need of rebuilding due to bombs and cannon fire. My brother-in-law, the rebar manufacturer, will not be happy!   


But last of all, there will be all those animals living like a bunch of hippies on a commune. Prey and predators all snuggled up next to each other chomping on carrot and celery sticks because they’re all gonna be vegetarians.       


No wonder the Book of Isaiah is often referred to as the 5th Gospel and that Bishop Ambrose in the 300s would tell St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians to ever live, that if he wanted to hear the gospel message, he needed to read Isaiah first. 


So the Old Testament really isn’t all that different than the New. For it too likes to describe a God that just loves to recreate, renew, and restore.    


Of course, there is one little hard fact about change and renewal that must be admitted.


While we live with the promise of a world made new and right and just, we must also be honest about one thing. Change, renewal, transformation, well, that all takes a whole lot of work, doesn’t it? For renewal is never easy, right? Especially, since like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, it often requires death. Yep, more often than not, for something new to be born, well, that often requires something else to die first.


And it’s not just individual people and their old selves that don’t like to die. Entire worlds will also put up a fight to avoid God’s transformation and renewal.  “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified,” says Jesus, “for those things must take place first, but the end will not come immediately...Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues…”


Well, kind of a strange way to look at the calamities and troubles of life, don’t you think? We tend to see such things as signs that the world is just falling apart and that God has simply checked out on us. But Jesus? Well, he sees them as signs that God’s new creation is actually busy coming into existence. Wars, and plagues, and famines...those are just signs of the old world refusing to die and to give way to God’s new and unfolding one.


Cause nothing likes to die, after all. And that includes more than just people. It also includes worlds. And this old and worn-out world, well, it’s going to fight and claw and scratch with God’s new and coming world as long as it can. For renewing anything, to expand on someone’s else’s thought, “is like remodeling your house: It takes longer than you hoped, costs more than you planned and makes a bigger mess than you ever thought possible.” 


And so Jesus, interestingly, sees such times of trouble and chaos as opportunities for us to actually proclaim the good news. 


All such happenings, says to Jesus, “will give you an opportunity to testify.” Wars and famines and plagues...well, we’re to simply label them as symptoms of the old world refusing to give way to God’s. God’s great reclamation project is underway, and we are to announce the sooner the old world gets out of the way, the sooner God can finish his rebuilding campaign.


There is a story that Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew the world was coming to an end. “If tomorrow is the Day of Judgment,” Luther reportedly replied, “then today I want to plant an apple tree.”


And so it goes even today. In a world falling apart at the seams, we’re to plant apple trees as a way to testify. Testify to God’s new and coming world. Because the death of the old world just means more room for God’s.


The popular author James Harnish wrote a book a few years ago called You Only Have to Die. At one point he tells of being sent by his bishop to an inner city church that was slowly dying.


Throwing himself into his work, Harnish did all kinds of statistical analysis on the neighborhood. Who were the people around the church? What kind of jobs did they have? How many kids lived in the area? What was the education level of the residents? And so forth and so on.


Developing a long-term strategy, he called the board of the church together one night to present his findings and suggest a plan. “I’ve got some good news for you tonight and some bad news,” Harnish began. “The good news is that despite what anyone thinks, this church can grow. After nine months here with you I can promise that there are some things we can do that will make a difference.”


“What is the bad news?” asked a member of the board. “The bad news,” replied Harnish, “is that we can only be born into a fresh congregation if there is some death. The good news is that there can be growth. The bad news is that it won’t be painless.”                         


And so that is what the congregation did. They set about looking at ways they might need to actually die, so new life might have room to grow. Stale and outdated programs were dropped and new ones started. Rather than simply give money to mission causes, a very 1950s way of doing church, the congregation actually started doing mission work themselves. They engaged the people around them to see what needs they might have. And they worked on being a welcoming and hospitable community of faith.


Some things they had done for years as a church they kept. So they didn’t get rid of everything. But there were others things they did decide to let go of in order to begin new endeavours. And along the way, a funny happened. The church was revived, becoming a vibrant place once again full of life, activity, and yes, people.


CONCLUSION: Well, we look at the world today and it’s easy to wonder if God hasn’t just gone on holiday, leaving us to fend for ourselves.


For dreadful portents and great signs of trouble seem to be just about everywhere.  But if Jesus be right, and I believe he is, such happenings are just the symptoms of the old world refusing to give way to God’s new and unfolding one. For worlds are kinda like people. They too aren’t very hip on dying.


And so as strange as it seems, now is actually the time for us to be planting apple trees. Now is the time to testify to God’s great and ongoing reclamation project through our own deeds of grace, mercy, and love. For the death of the old world, just means more room for God’s.                


O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.