Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday

Acts 10
We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Spoiler alert! The tomb is empty.

Chances are, you already know the tomb is empty, hence your attendance here today. In fact, so many of you know the tomb is empty, I hardly have to issue a spoiler alert at all.

The newspaper I read (not that one, the other one) is generally very good about issuing a spoiler alert. Done properly, the spoiler alert should appear in the first paragraph of the article, before you get too far into it. It should explain the peril of reading further, and maybe leave a little blank space so your eye doesn’t drift over the content you don’t want to see.

So I’m issuing a low-grade spoiler alert for fans of Downton Abbey. I am being careful to reveal nothing terribly specific, although no one will fault you at this moment if you cover your ears and go “la la la la.”

In Downton Abbey, main characters die. That’s all I will say. You can uncover your ears. And apparently this is a news flash for American fans of the British show. It seems that it never occurred to colonials that a main character in an ensemble drama might suddenly die.

Clearly they were not watching Spooks. Spooks is another British show, somehow renamed MI-5 for North Americans, where main characters die. (Oops, spoiler alert). Think of Spooks as everything you wish 24 could be, with the primary difference being that you know Keifer will never die, whatever peril he encounters. Not so with Spooks.

Another spoiler alert. Bobby didn’t really die at the end of season eight. At the beginning of season ten Pam wakes from a rather vivid season-long dream to discover Bobby in the shower, never really dead after all. Maybe this was the birth of US-style happily-ever-after, but I suspect of began long before. American audiences simply cannot handle the death of main characters.

Which makes our seemingly more religious neighbour to the south even more enigmatic. For you see, Christianity is a religion where the main character dies. There is no getting around it. Dan Brown tries, and even made Jesus and his girlfriend French, but no one was fooled. We follow a religion where the main character dies.

Now, just a week or so ago I gathered a group of intrepid co-learners (they are far from students, since we learn together) to conclude our look at the unique portrayal of Jesus found in John’s Gospel. And I have to confess that I will sometimes try to provoke discussion by making outrageous suggestions, or at least suggestions that will push certain well-known buttons.

Last week it was this: I suggested to the group that Easter Sunday was really just a pleasant add-on to the story of Jesus, and that all we need to be ultimately reconciled to God happened on Good Friday. I was selling, but they weren’t buying. I explained four theories of the atonement, four different ways (all found in John) where the death of Jesus provides for the reconciliation that God promises each of us. I got that slight head shake and narrowing of the eyes frequently associated with doubt. And they were right.

Maybe I got caught up in all the excitement of such a deep look at John, and the knowledge that we were pondering together the very heart of the Gospel found in chapter 15. It came up again this Thursday, Maundy Thursday. Maundy means ‘commandment,’ and the entire day is dedicated the to the commandment found in John 15:

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Love is the ultimate command, and to lay down your life for others is the ultimate act, and when the Son of God lays down his life for every one of us, it would seem we have found the heart of the Christian religion. So I wasn’t all wrong, in spite of the head-shaking and the gentle pushback from a tough group of scholars.

What I forget, and what one should never forget, is Peter, giving perhaps the greatest sermon every delivered, the sermon that Gail preached for us just a few moments ago, the sermon found in the tenth chapter of Acts of the Apostles.

First, he draws them in: He says ‘you know the Good News we have received from God through Jesus,’ and ‘you know what Jesus did throughout Judea, doing good, and casting out demons, and healing every kind of ill.’ He continues: ‘And you know we are witnesses to all he did and said in Judea and Jerusalem.’ And then the conclusion:

You know they put him to death by hanging him on a tree;
but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

The last part holds the key: “chosen by God as witnesses, we who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Now, we won’t have Communion today, since today is dedicated to twins and triplets and little baby Xavier, but if we did we would be doing precisely what Peter describes in his sermon: we would be witnessing to the ongoing presence of Jesus Christ as we eat and drink with him, as we share his body and blood—after he has risen from the dead.

In other words, God’s story has become our story, and each time we break bread and drink wine and welcome friends we do it in Christ’s name. We witness to his presence at our common table but also at every other table where we are nourished by the Maker-of-All. And we must tell the tale, pass on the witness that allows our faith to be transmitted from generation to generation, from disciple to the next disciple, from believer to the next believer.

Tell them we follow a story where the main character dies. He dies, and in his death we are reconciled to God, but there is more: God’s story becomes our story because we are witnesses to all that happened, his death on a cross and an empty tomb and the eating and drinking that follows. We are witnesses to a complete story from life to death to life, and finally the Good News that he is risen! He is risen, indeed! Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

Mark 15.1-5
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Like Pilate, Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor. And though he served some seventy years after Pilate, little had changed in the intervening years. Governors were conservative by nature, intensely loyal to Emperor they served, and chiefly concerned with keeping the peace.

Our interest in Pliny is twofold: he was an active letter-writer, and many of his letters survive, and he was active in the earliest persecution of Christians. Now, you might think this would make him a villain, like Nero or Diocletian, but the opposite is true. Pliny was a moderate in the application of the law, and through his letters we learn about the early church.

He is perhaps most famous for his description of our spiritual forebears, again, a moderate description considering his role. Writing to his Emperor he notes:

They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds [and] not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of a meal--but ordinary and innocent food.

In this he reads like an anthropologist, and while he was no friend of the fledgling church, a hint of respect shines through. Some would make the same argument looking back at Pilate, a hint of respect in the midst of tumultuous events.

Now, expanding empire and a culture dedicated to order meant rules, and in the judicial realm there developed a system known as cognito. In modern terms we might call it a bench trial, trial by judge alone, and it fit the idea of the all-powerful military governor perfectly. And Pliny gives us a description:

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have [been] denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.

The key idea here was the three questions: defendant dragged to court, someone brought a charge, and the magistrate asks the defendant three times to defend themselves. We hear an echo of this in Peter’s denial, the cock crow convicting him in perpetuity, but for today it is Jesus on the stand, with Pilate in the judgement seat:

First question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus: “You say so.” (a non answer)
Second question: Have you answer to these charges?
Jesus: No answer.
Third Question: Do you see how many charges are brought against you?
Jesus: No answer.

Oh yes, in the cognito system, refusing to defend yourself guaranteed a conviction. But there is something else: Pliny saw something in the early church that Pilate saw too.

For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that stubborn refusal to comply with authority and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment.

In other words, believers were a stubborn lot who seemed to answer to some higher authority and therefore deserved to die. So maybe this is the theme for the day: rational men meet obstinate believers and someone must die.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lent 5

John 12
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

The story ends with a man in a tomb.

But before we go there, with two weeks to go, I want to talk about another man on a tomb. This man was found in a tomb near a small town in Somerset, in the southwest of the UK. The town in famous for two things in fact: the man in the tomb and the cheese that was named for the town, Cheddar.

The man in the tomb, given the somewhat unlikely name “Cheddar Man,” was found over a century ago. His bones were gathered up, he was send to the British Museum, and then the long wait for science to develop something truly useful began. First, it was determined that this poor fellow died 9,000 years ago. And finally, in the late 90’s, a researcher named Bryan Sykes tested Cheddar Man’s DNA, the genetic material passed through his family tree.

Next, Dr. Sykes conducted an interesting experiment. He went back to Cheddar, the village next to the cave, and began testing the DNA of the local residents. Imagine his surprize to discover that at least one resident, Adrian Targett, was a direct match. It seems that for 9,000 years now the Targett family of Cheddar have been enjoying English country life and resisting the urge to move.

No doubt someone today will say ‘we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.‘ In fact, Cheddar Man and others prove that the pre-Roman population of the British Isles was quite stable, with Romans, Saxons, Angles, Danes and Normans having very little effect in the local population. So for those of us who can trace our roots back to Britain and Ireland, 80% of us are Celtic. So Sláinte!

Now back to that other tomb. “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” What follows these words is one of the most evocative and oft-quoted passages in John, maybe the Bible, with an act of love followed by confrontation, and then a summary statement about the poor that has come up in conversation in every era since.

But first, nard. It is a familiar scene. Jesus is in this home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary: Jesus and Lazarus are in conversation, Martha serves the meal, and Mary interrupts the conversation to sit at Jesus’ feet, take a pound of nard, and anoint him. As she wipes his feet with her hair, the scent fills the room, and the scene is set for the conversation that follows.

Judas asks the obvious question, the question that any one of us would ask when expensive perfume is used and not sold for the benefit of the poor. 300 denarii is a farm worker’s wage for a year, $20,000 in our terms, and something that I imagine would cause us to gasp as it goes over his feet, and on her hair, and likely on the floor. It is an outrageous act, and one that we struggle to interpret.

Before I go further, I should note that some of the things our little learning cohort has been looking at while discussing John’s Jesus, applies to this passage. Biblical scholars will tell you that when you are trying to interpret a passage of scripture, you might begin by stripping away commentary and explanations that appear, since these are likely later additions to the book.

In this case, we might want to take a second look at everything in brackets in the passage (“Judas, the one who was about to betray him” and “Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it”). Not only is it extraneous to the story, it is slander, and we can be mad at Judas without making him a monster. So we remove the brackets.

Next is an argument about the poor. Do we sell all we have and give it to the poor, the very advice Jesus gave the rich young ruler in Mark 10, Matthew 19 and Luke 18? He also gave the same advice to his disciples in Luke 12, and in Mark 6 he gave the clearest instruction of all on the topic of discipleship and poverty:

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and...he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

In essence, Jesus is creating a new order of Cynics, not the people who take a dim view of things, but the Greek philosophy of austerity, and living simply as nature intended. They famously gave all their wealth away too, and were told to live with no more than a knapsack, a staff and a cloak. Note the key difference here: Jesus says “no bag” to his disciples, only a tunic, a staff and a sensible pair of sandals.

In other words, the disciples are supposed to make the Cynics look extravagant with their fancy knapsacks, and live even simpler lives. So it seems that the “sell the nard and give the money to the poor” argument would not have been an argument at all were it not for love.

Ah, love. You might remember back to the beginning of Epiphany and the most inappropriate baby gift of all time, myrrh? Well, this isn’t myrrh. And in spite of the fact that Jesus says “leave her alone, so she might keep it for the day of my burial,” there is a Dan Brown-style conspiracy happening here, because nard is for love, and not burial. You might even say Jesus ‘doth protest too much,’ since the only other reference to nard in the Bible is in some racy Hebrew poetry, in Song of Songs.

Now that the kids are out of the room, I can read from ‘M for Mature’ book of the Bible to illustrate my point: This is from chapter 4:

You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride;
you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain.
Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
with choice fruits,
with henna and nard,
nard and saffron,
calamus and cinnamon,
with every kind of incense tree.

If you are wooing or courting, or whatever the kids do these days, you can’t go wrong with Song of Songs. I can’t say more without blushing or confusing St. Patrick’s with St. Valentine’s, but I will say that Mary was in love, and she found the best way to show it, with nard.

So it’s not a passage about Judas, and it’s not a passage about the poor, and it’s not about the love sub-theme because Jesus and Mary never “happily ever-aftered,” so what is it about? It seems that all along it was really about the tomb.

First, it begins with a reference to Lazarus, newly escaped from his tomb. Then we have Jesus making a reference to his burial, and even though he might have said it to divert our attention from the love that was being lavished on him, he still mentions his death. So we have a short passage that begins and ends with tomb references, and lots of material in between meant to distract the reader. But we are not to be fooled.

Here, in John 12, the passion of the Christ is set to begin. Next is the triumphant entry, then he predicts his death, then he washes the disciples feet, and then he utters perhaps the most important words he will speak on this long journey up to Jerusalem, found in chapter 14:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

So as we face the tomb of Jesus we try to set aside fear, and understand that something akin to the raising of Lazarus might be possible, and we struggle to understand how. And for this, we might need Patrick and Cheddar Man.

But before we revisit Cheddar: throughout the British Isles and northern Europe, many ‘bog people’ have been discovered, well-preserved ancients, many with some unlikely similarities. Two in Ireland, for example, Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man, were both young men in their twenties, both lacked the scars that would indicate hard labour, and both showed signs of good grooming, including (believe it or not) hair gel. Both, along with our Cheddar Man, showed signs of a quick and violent end, which of course leads to the conclusion that they were victims of human sacrifice.

Cheddar Man was given a tomb, and the others were placed in a bog, some suggesting a link to Druid practice. Nevertheless, we know that when Patrick was a young slave in Ireland he witnessed human sacrifice, something the Romans, including young Patrick, found deeply offensive.

When he returned as a missionary-Bishop, Patrick may have been tempted to condemn the Irish for their ongoing cultic practice, to convince the High Kings of Tara to ban the practice much in the way the Roman Senate banned the practice long before, but instead he found a simple and effective way to end the practice.

Patrick told them that no longer did they need to sacrifice the young and blameless ones to somehow appease the gods, that in fact God’s son gave his life once and for all. God no longer wanted or needed the death of the unblemished, and that a blameless one had set down his life for the sake of this friends, and through this, we gain an end to death. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lent 4

2 Corinthians 5
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

I think I can speak for everyone here when I say we have mixed feelings about Ben Affleck.

We loved him In Good Will Hunting and The Town, we understood the need to do Armageddon and Pearl Harbour, we forgave the whole extended J.Lo episode, but with Argo, it feels like too much.

Sure, fans and critics loved the film. One moment it is a tense action film, then a political drama, then a parody of the Hollywood studio system, all the while purporting to tell a true story of when the CIA managed to be helpful in a time of crisis. This is American history as Americans love to tell it: it feels good, but seldom troubles the audience with the facts.

The real victim of the film is not among those held captive or the Iranian people who are little more than cartoon versions of themselves (thank you Gian Ghomeshi) but Ken Taylor, OC, who actually did many of the things we see Ben Affleck’s character do in the film. In Argo, our ambassador becomes little more than a gracious host, and the Canadian Caper is little more than a misnamed CIA op.

If, however, you ignore the film and focus on the real Ken Taylor, you see the best example of the role of ambassador: protecting citizens and allies, representing the values of your nation, and (even if it seems dangerous) working for peace. If you add to that the judicious use of diplomatic immunity, you see a Canadian icon. And to be fair to Mr. Affleck, we didn’t make the film ourselves, so how can we complain?

I share all this not to discourage you from seeing Argo, or not fully to discourage you from seeing Argo, but to highlight the role of ambassador and to try to understand how this relates to our role as Christ’s ambassadors, as described by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5.

First the letter itself. Paul writes to educate, to encourage, to caution, and all the while reinforce the relationship he forged while living with the community addressed. In this case, he writes again to the believers at Corinth, and it seems likely that by the time of this letter he has moved on once or perhaps twice, and may be living in Philippi or Thessalonica.

And 2 Corinthians 5, like much of Paul’s writing, attempts to create a framework that allows the believer, and particularly the new believer, to understand themselves in the world. You might say the critical verse is 17, which often doubles as an Assurance of Pardon:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

It is understanding ‘the new,’ and living into ‘the new,’ that is at the heart of Paul’s words. Add to this the careful application of metaphor, and you have much of what you need to put your life in Christ in context.

Before I go further, I need to tell you that while you are in Weston at this moment, you are not of Weston. I know, I know, some of you are thinking ‘well of course I’m in Weston but not of Weston, I’m from Mount Dennis, or Etobicoke.‘ And some are from as far as Mississauga, which may make you ‘ambassadors of Hazel.‘ But for today, I want you to reflect on being here, but not from here.

At best, we are dual citizens. We belong to the Kingdom of God, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, and we are residents of Canada. Maybe we have two passports, but I think everyone who is in the enviable position of having two passports will tell you that one always sits atop the other on the nightside table. People who have two passports generally know which one they would give up if pressed, and therefore being dual is is more a luxury that a reality of the heart.

So we are citizens of the heavenly realm, the Kingdom set down for us at the foundation of the world (Mt. 25) and we reach for ways to describe what it means to live in the world God made. Paul suggests ‘ambassadors for Christ,’ so we get to test his metaphor to see if it truly fits.

As Ken Taylor showed us, the first duty is to protect citizens and allies ‘in country.’ There is a note in the front of your second passport—the Canadian one, not the heavenly one—that says that if you need services or protection in a country that does not have a Canadian mission, we can turn to the mission of the United Kingdom instead. And as Argo accurately portrayed, this often extends to historic allies beyond the nations with which we share a Queen.

So how do we extend protection to fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God? Prayer is the first answer, the obligation we have to pray for fellow believers and ourselves, both in other churches and here, that we may be strengthened and upheld. This includes the day-to-day struggles of life on earth, but also the kind of mission we undertake in the world. And it is not just health, although that is where our mind goes first, wishing the best for the ones we love. We also pray for certainty in belief and understanding, that we do not waiver in the knowledge of God’s love and mercy.

And how else do we extend protection within the Kingdom? According to Matthew 25, by protecting ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters,’ the hungry, the sick, the prisoner, we are also protecting Christ. Think of it as offering, under divine auspices, refugee status to those who most need protection from the world. It is the least and last that we are called to serve first, and we do it through our office of ambassador.

What about representing the values of our country? Ken Taylor demonstrated, in the most tangible way, our commitment to freedom, and the rule of law that must exist when nations seek to coexist. In our context, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we represent the values of Matthew 25, just noted, but also the desire for peace. In many ways, the tension we feel as believers is like that of diplomats stationed around the world. The primary goal is to safeguard and promote peace, all the while protecting the rights of the homeland.

There are those who would undermine our belief in God and God’s mission in the world, and we are tempted to name them enemies of God, when in fact, the job of ambassador is to explain and interpret, to describe what we believe and respectfully reject those who deny the transforming power of Jesus Christ in our lives. In many ways, the United Church has the opposite problem. We are so quick to apologize for offending anyone, that we tend to downplay our ambassadorship, or suggest that it is somehow secondary to helping people or just being good.

The final mark of the ambassador is also a favourite among screenwriters and authors: the idea of diplomatic immunity. Think of Mel Gibson taking on the South African baddies who run around Los Angeles making trouble, all the while claiming ‘diplomatic immunity.’

Ignoring Lethal Weapon 2 and all the others, diplomatic immunity is a cornerstone of bilateral relations, whereby trouble between nations is not taken out on that countries representatives. The temptation to throw the ambassador in jail for blocking the sale of softwood lumber, for example, is strong, but diplomatic immunity prevents such a measure. It also means that ambassadors are not subject to local laws that are in conflict with the values of the nation that sends them.

And this perhaps is the most compelling case for being an ambassador for Christ. Paul says, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” In other words, we are not subject to the local laws of quid pro quo, or refusing to forgive. We follow the heavenly law of extending grace to others, and not counting the cost in hope of future return. And we follow the heavenly law of forgiving others when we have the ability and power to do so, even if the world would not.

We are ambassadors for Christ, on a mission of reconciliation and good will, serving the most vulnerable, and representing the values of heaven. May God strengthen us for this mission, now and always, amen.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Lent 3

Luke 13
6Jesus then told them this story:
A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. One day he went out to pick some figs, but he didn't find any. 7So he said to the gardener, "For three years I have come looking for figs on this tree, and I haven't found any yet. Chop it down! Why should it take up space?"
8The gardener answered, "Master, leave it for another year. I'll dig around it and put some manure on it to make it grow. 9Maybe it will have figs on it next year. If it doesn't, you can have it cut down."

Famous people should never make references to time.

“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now...” Well, it seems Sir Paul still has his hair, and at 70 may wish to return to the relative youth of being 64.

Or Pete Townshend who sang “I hope I die before I get old.” Now 67, and very much alive. Apparently in an interview he said he meant to say ‘rich.’ But that doesn’t seem to work either.

And my favourite, 72 year-old Jack Weinberg, maybe the least famous of my three examples, but spoke the best line of the 1960’s: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” His quote went viral before we knew about things going viral, and he will tell you that from the time he turned 30 (in 1970) until now, he has been tormented about his famous quote.

We tend to get caught up in time-trouble all the time. When was the last time you emphatically said “I just did that a year ago” only to discover it’s been five? Or how often have you made that eternal promise to do it next year, only to discover that next year never comes?

Well, to you, head-nodders, I give you the parable of the fig tree: “For three years,” the Master says, “I have come to this so-called fig tree for figs and they never appear. Get the axe, ‘cause right now it’s just taking up space.” Then we meet the gardener: “Sir, give me one more year. Aeration, fertilizer, time: all these things may give us fruit. If all else fails, you can chop it down.”

I wonder if they have this same conversation every year? Or if its been three years, or the three years that is really six or eight? And if it has truly been three years, why didn’t the gardener deal with the no-fig problem last year, or the year before that? And is that any way to speak to the boss?

Maybe we should start there. One of the first and most common approaches to the parables of Jesus is to assume it’s an allegory. An allegory is assigning meaning by identifying who the characters in a story really are. An example: Is the Wizard of Oz a delightful story about witches and flying monkeys? Seemingly not. Some argue it is an allegory, with the scarecrow representing farmers, the tin man industrial workers, and the cowardly lion is William Jennings Bryan, too afraid to run for President to defend the common people (Dorothy) from the evils of the Gold Standard. Seems so obvious, why didn’t I see it before?

So if the gardener in the parable gives us an example of how we should or should not talk to the boss, who is the boss? The first and most obvious approach would be that the Master is God and the gardener is Jesus. For three years we (the fig tree) have been just taking up space, and God is tired of it. Chop down them down, God demands, but Jesus intercedes for us, and manages to get us one more year, the time we might focus our attention to fruit-production.

And as unattractive as this is to the mainline-liberal-Protestant ear, it is not without precedent. In one of my favourite Old Testament passages Moses plays the gardener and God has every right to be mad. I say mad, but the kids have another word for this, still too impolite for church:

7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf.
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord continued, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation instead.”

11 Moses swallowed hard. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘’Maybe he brought them out of Egypt just to kill them.’ Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

You might even argue that Luke 13 is just a clever retelling of Exodus 32, except that the parable seems to conclude with unspoken generosity rather than the manipulation employed by Moses. Using the whole “shamed before other nations” thing and reminding God of the Abrahamic covenant is both clever and effective, since we still able to to trace the ancestry of our faith back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The other interpretation is more Oz-like, with the Master-Vineyard Owner as ‘the world’ and his suggestion to chop down the tree based on ‘the values of this world.’ The gardener, then, is the church, preaching one-more-year in a world that lacks forgiveness and grace. And that would be great if the church had a stirling record of forgiveness and grace, but it does not. From the day that St. Paul wrote “You foolish Galations” to whatever foolish thing the Christian church did last week or last month, this allegory seems too unbelievable.

My final try, and maybe the allegory that works, can be found in the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms. Under the entry for “taking up space” it reads “to fill or occupy space” followed by two examples: “The piano is taking up too much room in our living room” (kinda boring) and “John, you're not being any help at all. You're just taking up space.” Ouch! This dictionary has edge. Kind of makes you wonder who John is, and is he married to the editor of the dictionary? Wouldn’t that smart if you’re thumbing through the dictionary and find yourself under the T for ‘taking up space.”

Based on this helpful—yet embarrassing for John—insight, we are the Master and Jesus is the gardener. Search your heart and think of the times you wonder why all the Johns in your life are just sitting around and why it seems they’re just ‘taking up space’? How many times—fairly or unfairly—have you had the ‘taking up space’ thought when the gentle gardener might have us think again?

In truth, we all need one-more-year: one more year to be more generous in our thinking, one more year to get out of that chair and do something, one more year to find the one-more-year person Jesus would have us be. And Lent would seem the best time to do it, but if you can’t, Lent is just one more year away.