By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

In the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

Psalm 63:7

It is time to line up to choose teams.  Perhaps it is time to think back to grade school.  Maybe you have been on a varsity club or team, or an adult team.  Wherever it is, when someone chooses you to be on your team, you are excited.  You feel valued.  You feel wanted.  You feel needed.  Do you remember, or can you imagine thinking, “I hope I get picked!”  Some, as the first selections are made, start thinking, “I hope I get to be on that person’s teams cause he’s good and he will help us win!!” Have you ever been that person left at the end, who is the second to last or even the last to be chosen?  If it seems like no one wants you, it can actually affect your playing ability.  You play like you believe your ability is.  When you are chosen last, it often gives a statement to what others believe your ability is.  Many gym teachers and coaches have revised this system today to count off by twos, or however many teams need to be formed, in order to eliminate the defeat of whoever is inevitably chosen last.  This way, everyone feels like an equal on the team, and no one feels better or worse than anyone else, necessarily.  And, lucky for us, God only has to count off by ones because God only creates one team.  God does not form the Methodist team, the Baptist team, the Pentecostal team, and the Congregational team.  That’s us, the people, who choose to create those teams.

Do you feel like you are one of the accepted?  If you are one of the captains, do you accept anyone who comes to you?  In ministry, we can all think of God as the ultimate captain, but because there are so many people, God needs to appoint sub-captains to help him out.  Have you ever been in a large mega-church where there are too many people for the pastor or the elders to make welcome, and they rely on other people who they appoint to welcome people and ask people to join them?  God asks us to be his captains too.  And since we are also captains in ministry, we are called to welcome extravagantly.  In stating that we are a church of extravagant welcome, the UCC writes, “Jesus didn’t turn people away, neither do we.”

In Isaiah, at the end of the prophecy of the return to Jerusalem, we see a message of extravagant welcome: “See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you” (Isa. 55:4-5).  Even when we do not know someone, we welcome them.  We include them.  And even when they do not know our God, or our God in the way that we understand it, we still embrace them and welcome them to be with us.  The prophet continues, “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord” (Isa. 55:7).  The psalmist implies that our own exclusion of them may be preventing them from forsaking their own way.  If someone has sinned, and has found a way other than the way of the Lord, they are not going to change their path if they do not find another wide open for them.  And no, that path is not, “To come here you need to repent here and now.”  The path is, “Come here, and just be.  Check it out.  No pressure.  There are some wonderful people here who would love to meet you.”  It is not our job to push someone away or to judge.  It is just our job to embrace, and to welcome, and to love.

So far this Lent we have touched on two themes.  First, remember what God has done for you.  Remember the moments where God has met you, in trials, in joys, and in your fears.  But when you do find yourself slipping, and you find yourself afraid, we come to the need for our second theme.  Repent of your fears so that you can again place all of your assurances in God.  If you are afraid of the future, if you do not know what is next, place all of your assurances in God.  Third, we need to learn to accept everyone regardless of their race, belief, custom, or background.  We do not need to accept their beliefs or customs, or not hold them accountable for a shady past, but we need to express extravagant welcome.  Whoever comes into our life should feel like we welcomed them.  Acceptance in our case is showing someone God’s love no matter what.

The first challenge in accepting others is to not push the ungodly away.  This is what we heard in Isaiah 55.  It is our job to embrace, and to welcome, and to love.  It is our job to leave open a path for someone to take which will not be filled with people making him or her uncomfortable, but with a couple smiling and understanding souls.  Allow the ungodly to be a part of your life.  Only remove them if they are being toxic to you in some way specifically.

The second challenge is to thirst for God more than anything else, and through that we will grow closer to God’s way.  When we tell God that we seek God, we are working on finding out how to inch closer and closer to having God’s thoughts.  This includes having God’s way of accepting people.  The psalmist in Psalm 63 prays, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).  Do you seek God that much?  Do you seek God like you do for the assistant at Walmart because you need help finding something?  When you do not find them, you just give up and find the item yourself after you walk a few laps around the store.  Or do you seek God like you do the mailman?  You just wait, peering out your window, waiting for him to come to you?  You want him to come, but it does not matter that it happen right this minute.  But if you seek God like your life depends on it, like you are fainting from hunger and thirst wear this is no nourishing water elsewhere, you are seeking God in the right way.  If you are seeking the mailman and the phone rings, you will probably turn your attention away from seeking the mailman.  But if you are fainting from lack of water and you see that source, you are probably not turning away from it in order to go answer the phone.  That is seeking God.  That is thirsting for God more than anything else.  As the psalmist continues, “Your steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3).

As you seek God intentionally, you will learn more things about God.  Perhaps we can read the Bible; we will learn about God’s character.  We can pray and we will learn about God’s compassion.  We can ask others about how to find God, and we will learn about God’s peace.  As we are seeking God, learning more things about God, we will learn about God’s way of accepting others.  People tell us about how God accepted them unconditionally.  God accepted them for who they are.  Jesus went to eat with tax collectors and sinners; it did not matter to him.  Let us too learn about God’s acceptance.  And let us bring that acceptance to everyone we meet.

Third, if someone is not acting like Christ around you, do not just cut them out of your life.  First, try giving them manure.  They may just need a nudge.  When a plant starts wilting, do you let it wilt, or do you give it additional ingredients that might help it grow?  Do the same for people.  Exercise patience.  In our gospel reading today, we hear a parable about a man who told the gardener to cut down a fig tree that had not borne fruit for three years.  The man said, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still, I find none.  Cut it down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?”  The gardener replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put some manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:7-9).  In God’s kingdom, thankfully there is no soil to waste.  We should have patience well more than a year.  We should have patience with this tree and with one another.  Part of our challenge of acceptance is understanding that it may be hard for someone else to see things our way, or it may take a lot of time, or it may never happen.  But that is little reason to cut them down, to give them no opportunity for continued growth at all.  In our book group, especially when we were reading the book Whisper, by Mark Batterson, I recommended that when we pray to God, we leave a moment of silence.  That moment is often when God’s voice can come through.  But even if we haven’t heard God’s voice in fifty moments of silence, what do we gain by giving up?  Absolutely nothing.  We would lose much more than we would gain.  Lead the horse to water fifty times, even if it does not drink.  One time, it just might.  And once it tastes that water, it may never want to stop.

I called this sermon “The Shadow.”  This is because as we are doing this business of accepting others, we are doing so under the shadow of God’s wings.  We do it because God has done it for us.  We are following God’s example; we are in God’s shadow.  We also do it knowing that God is watching over us, feeling his shadow, and we want to do things right.  We know that we will be held accountable for what we do here.  And we also do it because God’s shadow is so large that we know that it cannot cover us alone.  Psalm 63:7 states, “For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.”  If God has accepted you and has patience and grace with you, don’t you owe it to your neighbor?  What reason would you have for not paying it forward?

 In God’s shadow, we do likewise as God does, and as God has shown for us.  We do as God does and we do as God teaches.  Though just as we stand under God’s shadow, do you ever wonder who is in your shadow?  Who follows your moves, watches what you do, and tries to do likewise?  What you teach now can change the world’s future; it can make the world a better place.  It can turn our current trends of declining Christianity around.  It can make the future world God’s world again.  It can embrace God’s kingdom.  May all glory and honor be to God!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 55:1-9
55:1 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.
55:2 Why 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.
55:3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
55:4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
55:5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
55:6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
55:7 let 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.
55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Psalm 63:1-8
63:1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
63:2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
63:3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
63:4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
63:5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
63:6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
63:7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
63:8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Luke 13:1-9
13:1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
13:2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
13:3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
13:4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
13:5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
13:6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.
13:7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’
13:8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.
13:9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

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