Luke 18: 9-14; Joel 2: 23-32
February 20, 2011
This past week I conducted an informal survey of sorts. Very informal – as in, I asked three people: Shasta, Lynn Rigney in the office, and her daughter Alex. The question I asked was: which would you rather receive: an actual gift or a gift card? The results of this highly scientific survey were 100% in favor of the gift card. And this didn’t surprise me all that much. Gift cards are becoming more and more the norm in the gift-gifting business these days. You can pick them up most anywhere – not just at the store itself, but online or at places like the grocery. It’s about convenience for the giver and choice for the recipient. As high school senior Alex put it, “I’d rather have a gift card to buy something I know I’ll like, than get a gift I might not ever use.”
But gift cards are pretty useless until that point when they are cashed in, right? They’re not much more than a piece of plastic. Much in the same way that clipping coupons is a fairly benign activity unless they are actually taken to the grocery store and given to the checkout clerk. There’s nothing more worth-less than a gift card that lays on the dresser or night stand; a stack of coupons collecting at the bottom of one’s purse. Their value to the owner only comes about when they are put to use. When they are redeemed.
The sermon today is about redemption – but not the kind when you type in a long string of letters and numbers in the itunes store to download your favorite band’s new album. The redemption in today’s sermon is about the individual and the world, and that’s something else entirely. You look the word “redemption” up in the dictionary and you’ll find two meanings. The first sounds familiar to the gift card crowd: the act of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment.
The other meaning for redemption, though, is one we typically think of in religious circles: the act of being saved from sin, evil or error. Our Old Testament passage today talks about this kind of redemption, on a cosmic sort of scale. The scene the prophet paints for us is one where a plague of locusts has descended on Israel and ravaged the countryside. Now it’s hard to imagine anything more traumatic for the Israelites than a huge plague of locusts. See, they were still very much an agrarian society, and they depended heavily on the health of the land to grow crops and sustain commerce and life. Instead, what they find is a barren wasteland – a result of dried-up vegetation and earth scorched by the unforgiving desert sun. And, in the prophet’s mind, it is also symbolic of the people’s spiritual desert too.
Thanks be to God, then, that this is not the end of the story Joel tells. Listen:
O children of Zion, be glad!
For he has given the early rain for your vindication,
He has poured down for you abundant rain,
The early and the later rain, as before.
O Children of Zion, be glad!
What more wonderful thing could befall a barren, dry, locust-devastated wasteland than rain! And not just any rain, but seasonal rains! “Early rains,” roughly October through November on our calendar, and “later rains” in March and April. The two rainy seasons, and the rain falls in abundance in both. All of which lead to threshing floors being full of grain and vats being full of wine and oil. That grain would become bread and fill the stomachs of the hungry people; that wine would be poured into cups and consumed by a thirsty nation; that oil would be used in worship to give praise to a God who provides for the people when the people need it most.
Rebirth. Renewal. Redemption.
I like to think of what happens in the second chapter of Joel as a form of redemption – it’s just a little deeper than simply “being saved from sin.” Because that lingo can be used for something else entirely – misconstrued, much like “being born again” from last week’s sermon. I hear the phrase “being saved from sin” and I can’t help but think of one of those television programs that comes on cable. There’s a stage decorated with lots of white and gold; a Steinway piano rolling arpeggios. And there’s a gentleman in an Armani suit and microphone in hand in the center of it all. He’s facing a line of folks up there, and they all wait eagerly for their turn. One by one they stand before him, they say their peace; and he places his hand on their head and says a prayer, and they burst into tears. Maybe they even pass out! The guy in the suit raises his hands like a quarterback scoring the winning touchdown. And above the stage there’s a digital counter with the title: Souls Saved. And with each person leaving the stage, its number goes up by one.
Okay, so I made up the part about the digital counter. But I didn’t make up the Armani suit or the long line. Or the fact that it’s on television, which says something, I think. When the transformative experience of our Christian faith is reduced to the same medium in which we experience “CSI” or “Monday Night Football,” we have to wonder if we’ve lost touch with something important.
And maybe that’s why I find myself drawn instead to Joel’s vision of redemption. Because it’s not about what makes for good TV. To be honest, it’s not really about a single event, either. For Joel, redemption is a process, a transformation over time. Growth springing forth from what was once barren; life coming out of death. That’s rarely instantaneous. Nor is it solely about what the individual gets out of it, like cashing in on a gift card. It’s about what the whole community of faith experiences together – dry and desolate lands being soaked in rain; nourishment and fellowship for the journey.
That’s not to say that redemption isn’t experienced individually, of course. It is – but not in the way we expect. In Jesus’ parable today, two people are found praying at the temple. One is a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Jesus could not have chosen two greater stereotypes to show up in his little tale. The Pharisee – well-educated, leader of the Hebrew faith, looked upon with respect by all. The tax collector – agent of the hated Roman Empire, viewed as a traitor, maligned and despised. It seems obvious at first who is the redeemed one and who is not.
But, as is often the case with Jesus’ stories, things are rarely as they seem. For we hear the prayers of these two men and we are shocked: from the Pharisee, words of arrogance and entitlement, words that hardly sound like someone who feels they need redemption from anything. And then from the tax collector: words of contrition and angst, words of regret and shame. He won’t even look heavenward as he prays; he beats his chest as one does in a time of mourning. The Pharisee recounts all his good deeds and gives thanks that he is not “one of those other people.” The tax collector admits his guilt and begs God for mercy.
And it is the latter, Jesus says, who is the redeemed one. And why? Humility, we are told – knowing our place in the scheme of things, being honest with ourselves, and admitting when we’re wrong. I’m telling you, humility seems to be sorely lacking in North American Christianity these days. Honestly, we look a whole lot more like the Pharisee at the temple than the tax collector.
Which is why I’m reminded of a story author Don Miller shared in his powerful book, Blue Like Jazz – a story I believe to be about redemption. Listen:
Each year at Reed College in Oregon, they have a festival called Ren Fayre. They shut down the campus so students can party, and party hard. Some of the folks in our campus ministry group wanted to respond in some way. I suggested that we set up a confession booth. I was kidding, of course. But my friend Tony thought it was brilliant. “We are going to build a confession booth!” he proclaimed. Others weren’t as enthusiastic. Nadine noted, “They may very well burn it down.”
But Tony explained. “We are not actually going to accept confessions. We are going to give them. We’re going to confess to these partygoers at Ren Fayre, and we’re going to tell them that, as followers of Jesus, we’ve not been very loving; we’ve been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We’ll apologize for the Crusades, for those televangelists who steal people's money, for neglecting the poor and the lonely. We’ll apologize for all the horrible things done in Jesus’ name and for the things we’ve left undone. And we’ll ask them for their forgiveness.”
Now I want to stop here for a minute, and I want this to soak in a bit. Imagine: a confession booth, where it is the one who comes in who receives the confession, and the one hosting the booth who gives it! Wonder how it went over? Back to the story:
We had barely applied the last coat of paint to the booth, when someone opened up the curtain and walked in, saying they were our first customer.
“What's up, dude?” said a young student named Jake. “So, what is this? I'm supposed to tell you all the crazy stuff I've done at Ren Fayre?”
“No,” I responded sheepishly. I didn’t know what to say – we hadn’t really planned this part out. But I gave it my best shot. So I said, “See, we’re part of a Christian group on campus. And we were thinking about the way Christians have wronged people over time. So what we were wanting to do was confess our sins to you.”
Jake’s face grew serious. “Wait a minute - You are confessing to me! “You're serious.” I told him I was. He looked truly caught off-guard. He asked me what I was confessing, and so I told him.
“Well, there's a lot. I’ll keep it short. Jesus said to feed the poor and heal the sick. I’ve never done very much of that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened. Jesus told us not to judge, lest you be judged. I judge people a lot – in religion, politics, society. I know all of this is wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because of people like me. So I've not been a good follower of Jesus. And I’m sorry about that.”
Very tenderly Jake responded, “It's all right, dude.” His eyes were starting to water. And he said, “I forgive you.” I told him thanks. He paused for a minute and looked at me very seriously and said, “You know, it’s really cool what you guys are doing here. A lot of people need to hear this.”
And much to my amazement, Don said, a lot of people did. As soon as Jake left, another person came in. It went like that for a couple of hours. I talked to about thirty people, and others “gave confession” on a picnic table outside the booth. Many people wanted to hug me when we were done. I got the sense that these people were really being changed through our confession booth. I know I sure was.
Do you see? Do you see what true redemption leads to? It’s not just about one person, it’s about everyone! It’s not a single, television-worthy moment in time – it’s a process. It’s dry lands being saturated in life-giving rain and sustaining our spirits forever.
Someone once wisely said: Redemption has more to it than just clipping coupons or cashing in gift cards. It means that each soul, saved from self-interest by the revelation of Divine Love, is taken and used again for the spreading of that most holy reality. God does God’s most redeeming work in us when we are humble in our faith, and when we acknowledge the wounds in ourselves as we reach out to help heal the wounds in others. And for that, thanks be to God. AMEN.
(Blue Like Jazz by Don Miller, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003, pgs. 116-125.