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Third Sunday in Lent: Grace is Good Enough Third Sunday in Lent: Grace is Good Enough

The Kiwanis Club of Findlay, Ohio held a great big pancake feed every year in the High School Cafeteria. Their fundraiser for the whole year, it was a big deal. The club had great big griddle wheels on which the generous-sized pancakes were poured and cooked till golden on one side and then flipped and cooked until golden on the other. 

Kiwanians in blue aprons ran the event like a well-oiled machine. Some of the old guys had been the pancake flippers for the better part of three decades. Others had their positions as sausage servers, tray cleaners, table clearers, beverage servers, and so on, down pat. For the price of admission, townsfolk lined up in a long queue smelling the delicious smells of pork sausage, hot griddles, maple syrup, and coffee. There were signs posted above the serving line proclaiming, “Your ticket entitles you to two pancakes, two sausage patties or links, one cup of applesauce, and the beverage of your choice.”

After their father and I got our three little ones settled with their trays at the long picnic-style tables, I went back in line for my own pancake supper. Just in front of me in line was a boy, probably eight or nine years old. He didn’t seem to be attached to any particular adult in line at the time, and did seem to be pretty proud of his independence as he grabbed his tray at the beginning of the line, and asserted his preference for sausage links, thank you. I emerged from the serving line just behind him and we stood together at the syrup and beverage station. He was shaking his head and he sighed. We caught each other’s eyes and his welled-up with tears. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Can I help you with anything?”

“It’s not right.” He said. “It’s just not right.”

“What isn’t right?” I asked.

“The sign says we get two pancakes and that man back there gave me three. It’s not right. I’m not supposed to get three.”

I told him, “I think it’s ok. The man wouldn’t have given you three if it wasn’t okay. Think of it as a gift.”

“I don’t get it.” The boy said. “The signs say we get two.”

I told him, “There’s a thing in life that’s called “grace” where sometimes we get something as a gift that we haven’t earned and that has no strings attached.” He looked at me with big, puzzled eyes, and I said, “If you aren’t hungry enough for three pancakes you don’t have to eat them all.”

“Oh! I’m hungry enough!” he assured me.

“So, eat them and enjoy them, and remember that new word I just taught you, “grace.”

The prophet Isaiah proclaims in one of the lectionary texts for today:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live…

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts.” “My ways are not your ways.” 

Buy rich food without money? Buy??? without money? Far as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways.” God’s economics don’t add up the way ours do. God’s justice isn’t weighed the way the world weighs. God operates on a currency of grace. God’s justice is rooted in mercy and pardon and plenty. God’s ethic is all about love.

We know that. We’ve heard that. We say we believe that. But, don’t we sometimes find ourselves like my new young friend at the Kiwanis Pancake dinner, shaking our heads in consternation and saying, “It’s just not right” when we experience grace, or see it extended to others? When we experience mercy or see it extended to others? When we receive pardon and love undeserved, or see it extended to those we kinda think to ourselves are undeserving?

Grace can be unsettling. Life’s may be easier when rules are rules and everyone colors inside the lines and those who don’t, pay the price for their transgressions, and the cost of something is printed clearly on the box, right?

My ways are not your ways, says God, according to Isaiah.

And then, there’s the passage from Luke that comes at this from a different angle. Jesus was teaching crowds of people somewhere in the Galilee when all the tv stations, and newspapers, and websites were full of news about an atrocity there in the Galilee. It had been the top headline for days. Pilot had killed a bunch of people who were at the temple to offer sacrifices in some mad-autocratic evil dictator type-stunt. Folks couldn’t stop talking about it.

What they’d all been talking about before that, was the collapse of the big Siloam tower south of Jerusalem. Eighteen people had been killed when that sucker suddenly came down in a big old cloud of rock and dirt and dust. Eighteen people buried under rubble. Everybody had been talking about it.

Okay -- just a preacher’s aside for a moment -- certainly, there were no tv shows, no websites, maybe there was some form of newspapers, back then, I don’t know, but people then were no different than we are right now. Big tragedies make big news and the news spreads and people make all sorts of observations and voice all sorts of opinions, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. So, when folks excitedly were telling Jesus all about Pilot’s latest atrocity, Jesus called them on it.

So, are you all implying the folks Pilot killed somehow had it coming to them? Are you saying the folks who died under that tower in Siloam a while back, must have done something to deserve their fate? Because that’s what it sounds like you’re implying.

We’ve all heard that sort of talk, haven’t we? After 9/11 there were the tv evangelists who claimed America had been attacked because we’d given up our homophobic ways, and there are those today who are saying things like the Ukrainians had this war coming to them. And, anytime there are tragedies, big or small we hear folks trying to make sense of the tragedies somehow someway. Trying to find some way to be sure that such a tragedy couldn’t befall them, befall us or those we love, some way to gain some control over the fear and grief such tragedies inflict.

When I was a student pastor for three years during seminary in Kentucky, one of my church members was dying of breast cancer. She was a sweetheart of a woman and her husband, a big, burly guy who never came to church but loved God and loved his wife fiercely looked at me one day with his clear blue, sad, sad eyes under deeply hooded lids and said, “I know she’s dying because I haven’t been a good enough man. If I had come to church more, she wouldn’t be dying, would she?”

I said to him, because Jesus said it first, nope. That’s not the way God works. God doesn’t do an eye for an eye, tit for tat, what goes around comes around. God doesn’t work with some twisted vision of karma. This is the truth: Bad things happen to people. All kinds of people. Bad people, good enough people, saintly people. Just like good things happen to all sorts of folks. 

Life isn’t an even-steven kind of deal. Jesus told the crowd that the folks who were killed didn’t die because they deserved it. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pilot was evil and he decided to do an evil thing and innocent people died. Something happened to the structure of the tower and it fell and the people who happened to be right there at the time died. And Jesus said, every single one of you will die. And, that’s not because you’re bad or good, it’s just the way life is. God is not out there, up there, or around the corner orchestrating who lives and who dies. That’s not how God works. My ways are not your ways, says God.

I told the other women in the Friday Bible study that this past week that I was in the shower one morning weeping a little about our Pastor Andrea and praying and I prayed to God demanding to know why she has to have pancreatic cancer. Why can’t Vladimir Putin have pancreatic cancer if someone has to have it?”

My thoughts are not your thoughts, says God. My ways are not your ways. That’s not the way it works. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, said Jesus (Matthew 5:45). God is never the reason people grieve.

The way God works is like this, said Jesus. And then he told a story about a shriveled up, good for nothing fig plant. The vintner wanted his gardener to dig it up. Three years it had been taking up space in the vineyard and for three years it had produced not a single blessed fig. The gardener said, sure, it makes perfect sense to dig it up, but what if I give it a lot of good manure to feed it this year and aerate the soil so it gets good moisture down at its roots? Maybe this year it will give us figs. If not, we can always decide to cut it down next year.

Bear figs or die? Produce or perish? Tit for tat? Eye for an eye? You get what you pay for and nothing more? Nah! Those may be our ways or our inclinations, but God’s ways are ways of saving grace, and patient waiting and tenderly caring, fertilizing and aerating, believing beyond all human reason in our ability to eventually produce some good enough fruit that we might feed each other. 

God’s economics don’t add up the way ours do. God’s justice isn’t weighed the way the world weighs. It doesn’t fit into a neat little box with a bow. God operates on a currency of grace. God’s justice is rooted in mercy, pardon, and plenty. God’s ethic is all about love. The ways God works may not always make the most sense to us, but God’s ways are always good, and they are always enough. Amen?