March 24, 2019 3rd Sun in Lent “It’s who you claim not blame”
After a marvelous taste of a sunshiny spring day, many of us living out in rural Ohio start thinking of our farm fields, gardens, and luscious lawns. What is a key ingredient for any of those- fields, gardens, lawns- to be as vibrant and productive and we want them to be? Fertilizer. When you think of fertilizer, what it’s made from, where it comes from, its ironic that that is what you need to bring about abundant verdant growth.
Most fertilizer is made from either dead things, decayed things, or some animal’s excrement! The things we civilized people try to avoid the most are the very things that bring forth abundant life. Today we have words about fertilizer and abundant life. Perhaps you missed the words of abundant life but if you open your bulletin, they’re easy to find.
On page 4 Isaiah 55 verse one and two (wonderful words) “come buy wine and milk without money, …delight yourselves in rich food” describing a heavenly feast for those who come to God for their sustenance rather than their own devious ways. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 63 verse one (found on page 5 of the bulletin) “my soul thirsts for you” and then verse six states “my soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,” Even our second lesson from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as found on page 6 of our bulletin alludes to the fulfilling spiritual food God provides verse 2 “All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the seas and all at the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink”
But then comes the fertilizer- that’s a nice way to say a four letter word. And since I’ve been told Pastor’s aren’t allowed to use four letter words especially from the pulpit and everybody seems to have a different opinion on what is the polite substitute for THE FOUR LETTER WORD, I’ve decide to use the Apostle Paul’s Greek word for it “Skubala!” It’s the word he uses to refer to all his earthly accomplishments when compared to what Christ did for him on the cross. Who I am, what I’ve accomplished is Skubala when compared to Christ riches Philippians 3:8 “I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” The Greek word translated as “rubbish” there is a very sanitized version of what Paul’s referring to…Skubala is the kind of stuff that even dumpster divers, don’t want to dive into, the kind of stuff that even chicken farmers and pig farmers have to get out the hanky to cover their nose. It’s the foulest of foul. So I’m not gonna sanitize it and call it “rubbish”- just gonna call it Skubala.
Our second lesson goes from the abundant life to the skubala of life in nothing flat. And our gospel lesson has Jesus trying to get us from the skubala of life to the abundant life with patient persistence. Go back to that second lesson on page 6 of the bulletin, I Corinthians 10:5 for those with their iPhone bibles. “nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
Isn’t that amazing and the God’s honest truth. You can go from living the abundant “God blessed life” to Skubala in nothing flat!! (repeat) Now sometimes skubala just flows naturally downhill- Paul warns folks: “Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did;…We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did…We must not put Christ to the test…and do not complain as some of them did …so if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
I’ll come back to Paul’s ending of that topic cause it has a good ending. But I just want the smell of the skubala of that text to sink, or should I say stink in! Twenty-three thousand fell in a single day, destroyed by serpents, destroyed by the destroyer…ooooh that reeks!! When the skubala hits the fan it ain’t pretty… thousands upon thousands of folks who thought they were standing, thought they weren’t messing with skubala by complaining, by indulging their inner urges, testing God got wiped out. Splat!!
Now I think I know what you’re thinking….good thing that wasn’t me. I didn’t get zapped like that so I can’t be as all bad as all that. Let me just repeat Paul’s little warning there at the end- in case you don’t think Skubala can flow down hill “so if you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Pride stands tall, and its why it always has a great fall.
The folks in our gospel today were standing tall when they told Jesus about the skubala in other people’s lives, the latest breaking news. Those folks that suffered that skubala of Pilate’s soldiers slaughtering them in the middle of their worship service must of really been bad people right!? Good thing we’re better than they are, right?!
I just gotta do an aside here- we think our news media is worse than its ever been, digging up dirt on everything everywhere, publicizing dirty laundry like its some kind of cure for cancer that everyone needs to know about. Look at this text, folks wallowing in other people’s skubala has been human nature for a millennium. Why is it we have to know the tiniest little skubala on everyone else but then pretend we have none of our own? It’s human nature perhaps the basest of human nature rather than the noblest but its human nature none the less.
Jesus says I know all about skubala, skubala happens all the time “remember the folks that tower fell on last week? You think they were worse sinners than any of you?” No, I tell you but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.” Jesus then tells the parable of the unproductive fig tree and the patient persistent gardener.
How does that go together? People got killed and you want to tell me about a fruit tree?! Jesus tells the parable to point people out of the skubala to the abundant life. The folks who died no longer have a second chance at the abundant life you do. But your life’s end will be just as much a tragic story of skubala as theirs unless you bear fruit.
Jesus’ parable points out that everyday is possibly our last day, just like those folks…what are you going to do with your day? How are you going to make it bear fruit? The folks Paul talks about were surrounded by God’s abundant blessings and chose skubala instead…sexual immorality, complaining, putting God to the test. Some of us are blessed beyond measure and can’t see it. We’ve got the house, the car, the spouse, the career and we just can’t see it as a blessing because we want to wallow in the skubala of sexual immorality- I mean look at the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft what was he thinking- sorry more skubala- what can I say human nature got the best of me.
Anyway, for some of us – today is your warning- get your nose out of the air and smell your own skubala. Today God’s using me as a spokesperson to give you fair warning- You are blessed and you need to start sharing your blessings rather than chasing after more skubala!
However, there are a fair number of us sitting in the pews that unfortunately are in the skubala side of life right now. Health problems mounting, financial difficulties doubling, family conflict erupting. How in all this skubala am I supposed to believe God wants the abundant life for me? To those of you who don’t need me to explain what skubala is because you’re living in it. I want to let you know God has a word of grace for you. Take this little bulletin home and read these texts over this week.
In Isaiah The people who have NOTHING God invites to his banquet. So if you have nothing, feel like a nothing, God has a place at his table set for you, ”come buy win and milk without money and without price why do you spend money for that which is not bread and labor that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food, incline your ear and come to me. listen so that you may live.”
For those of you that feel like life just keeps ganging up on you- Paul in our second lesson has a word of hope for you. “God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” I dislike this version that talks about “your” strength as though its dependent on you alone- the whole idea here is that you and God are going through this together. When your strength fails because you are connected to God, God’s strength can carry you through.
If that’s not enough, to know if we turn to God in our skubala (skubala life moments, those foul stinking filthy times) we can have his aid and strength… for free. All it costs is our faith and trust, yes this means setting aside our pride and instead of standing tall, falling on our knees in prayer. Saying “Help me Jesus”- rather than “Jesus do this cause I said so.” I have a piece of artwork in my office that has a man on his knees in prayer and it says “its hard to stumble when you’re on your knees.” When the skubala comes sometimes the best way to climb out of it, is kneel down in it and ask Help me Jesus. I can’t clean this up myself.”
Yet, if that’s not enough Jesus’ parable tells us the abundant life is always a possibility with God and believe it or not sometimes that abundant life is a direct result of all that extra skubala you’ve been getting. “For three years I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I find none. Cut it down. But he replied, sir let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put some skubala on it. If it bears fruit next year well and good; but if not you can cut it down.” There’s a sense this gardener has used the argument the year before and the year before that.
God the gardener is good and patient and kind and can use the skubala we so detest to bring life and abundance where we saw no chance before. As so many of us make ready to green up our fields, gardens, lawns we see nothing wrong with spreading the skubala around to increase its health and productivity. In life skubala comes, and it can drag you down, overwhelm you, defeat you. Yet if we stop looking for who to blame, who brought the skubala and instead claim who can use the skubala for good we can find the abundant life. God can take the worst in life and bring good out of it. Just look at the terrible symbol of execution and torture we put in the front of our worship space!! That’s what the message of the cross is about redemption even in the midst of life’s skubala.
God can take the skubala of constantly waiting and make it bloom into patience, the skubala of enslaved addiction and turn it into a ministry of freeing other captives. But you and I don’t have the luxury of forever, we need to decide now, today are we going to turn to him, admit our skubala, confess our skubala, release our skubala, kneel in our skubala and say "God help me." The lesson of the folks who died at worship, or when the tower of Siloam fell on them, or complained in the wilderness was they didn’t realize they’d run out of time to turn to God. You still have time, what are you going to do with it.? Are you going to spend it blaming, complaining, and slinging skubala?
Whenever there is a disaster it is a natural human tendency to seek reasons oneself or one’s loved ones would be spared such a fate. “Maybe they deserved it,” for example. Jesus addresses this disastrous skubala thinking in Luke 13:1-5—no, these things didn’t happen because the victims were “worse sinners.” Rather, the potential for an untimely end is “common to everyone” (just like temptation, 1 Cor. 10:13), which gives the call to repent and bear fruit great urgency for all of us. Isaiah 55:9 reminds us that we do not have to understand God’s ways in order to use the time we are given as best we can.
Before I conclude I’d like to invite you to write down one thing you would do—a wrong you would right, an unspoken word you would say, an imagined good deed you would complete—if you had only one more week to live. Challenge yourself to do it in the coming days. What “abundant pardon” from a gracious and tenacious gardener God might you encounter in the process? How might the skubala of your life become the fertilizer that produces godly fruit? Do it now, stop blaming and instead claim Christ and his amazing way of turning skubala into the blessings of the abundant life. Amen.