March 24, 2019, “Change Your Hearts and Lives”, Rev. Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson

Luke 13:1-9, Isaiah 55: 1-3, 6-9


Having done some emptying out, we are now ready to listen for, receive and be filled with God’s word and the good news of God’s love which is for all of us.

Our first Reading comes from Luke chapter 13 verses 1 to 9.

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Our second reading comes from Isaiah chapter 55 verses 1-3 and 6-9. We hear from the Message Interpretation.

“Hey there! All who are thirsty, come to the water!

Are you penniless? Come anyway—buy and eat!

Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk. Buy without money—everything’s free!

Why do you spend your money on junk food, your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?

Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best, fill yourself with only the finest.

Pay attention, come close now, listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.

I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you,

    the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.

Seek God while God is here to be found, pray to God while God is close at hand.

Let the wicked abandon their way of life and the evil their way of thinking.

Let them come back to God, who is merciful, come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness.

“I do not think the way you think. The way you work is not the way I work.” God’s Decree. “For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think.”

The words of God for the people of God.

May God open our hearts to hear the good news.

Will you pray with me?

Holy God, you open our eyes. You open our ears.

This morning, we ask that you also open our minds. Awaken our imaginations to the possibility of the beloved community to which you call us -- a community in which there is enough for all. And now, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all of our minds be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It seems appropriate this morning, with my mother here, to tell you one of her stories. This particular story comes out of her book, “The Learning Spirit” -- the book is on the table in the narthex with some other books on spirituality and Christian practice. My mom is an amazing story-teller, so I’ve done very little to change the story. Come with me now, to rural South Africa where my parents serve as ministers.

The rains have finally stopped, and the South African sun shines brilliantly. Uprooted trees lie across our road. Leaves torn from their stems litter the ground. What an irony that in the midst of this destruction we have a service of thanksgiving.

I greet the people at the church door -- Mrs Shandu who lost her bedroom in the flood, Mrs Ngema who lost her kitchen, Mr. Mkwanazi who lost everything but the clothes and the blanket he wears today. Twenty-five of us gather to give thanks to God that the torrential rains have passed and that everyone in our community is safe. We gather to receive emergency relief money that has come from the church to supplement the insufficient government relief funds.

I glance at our worship table and the stack of envelopes containing the relief money. Money to help our families rebuild and re-furnish their mud and pole homes that were washed away. Money to buy new seed to replant ruined crops.

I open the service with prayer. We read from Genesis of the end of the flood. Prayers and songs arise from the congregation as each person receives a plain white envelope containing two hundred rands, about $80, more money than any of my congregants would usually see at one time. Each twenty-rand note is as much as any one person might have in a month.

Someone reminds me that it is time for the offering. We do not pass the basket, but it sits instead on the central table to enable each person to truly “bring” their offering of thanks to the Lord. Joyfully, even tearfully, each person comes forward stepping to the rhythm of a song. I sit. And, a bit awestruck, I watch. I hear the coins clink against one another in the basket. Then Nokukhanya Dludla, a widow and mother of eight, approaches the table.

I recollect my recent visit to MaDludla’s home -- pieces of metal roofing covering the holes in the mud walls, one piece held in place by a battered and water-swollen trunk; heaps of wrinkled clothes and rusting cooking utensils salvaged from the two rooms that had been destroyed; mounds of caked mud on the floor where the rain had washed down the walls.

When Ma Dludla brought the list of those whose homes had suffered damage from the heavy rains, her own name had been missing. “Ma, your name’s not here. You had two rooms washed away,” I had said. “Umfundisi, others need the money more than I do,” she had responded. I added her name to the list.

Ma Dludla pauses before the offering basket. From her dress pocket pokes the handkerchief that contains her coins. But rather than reach for a coin she opens her envelope and pulls out a twenty-rand note, a tithe, enough money to feed her family for a week, enough  money to buy candles for five months, enough money for ten visits to the doctor. As a congregation we have discussed tithing as a way to show God our thanks. But I have been speaking more to the well-to-do, not to the poor.

Ma Dludla folds the money carefully. I start to reach out to stop her, to tell her that a coin is sufficient, to say that her tithe is too much, to say that she who has so little should not be so generous. But something stops me.

“I do not think the way you think. The way you work is not the way I work.” God’s Decree. “For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think.”

So we hear from Isaiah -- a passage in which all are invited to drink and eat what is good, a passage in which everyone has access to the finest nourishment, because it is all free. This reading from Isaiah describes a world in which everyone has enough.

I do not think the way you think. The way you work is not the way I work.

Ma Dludla seems to understand this implicitly. My thinking is that she is poor, close to destitute by my western middle-class standards. My thinking is that the two hundred rands she received will make a difference, yes, but it is not nearly enough. But not Ma Dludla. She understands that God’s thinking is not our thinking, not the thinking of individualism in which we are out for our own best interests, not the thinking of competition in which I can only win if someone else loses, not the thinking of capitalism which desires growth, growth and more growth, gain, gain and more gain. I look and see that she does not have enough, not near enough. She looks and sees that she has more than enough. She has been listening to God’s life-giving, life-nourishing words.

For Ma Dludla, tithing from this that she has received is an expression of thanksgiving and joy. She is living into the world that Isaiah describes. This is God’s economy, not ours! An economy in which we understand and recognize that all we have, all that we are, comes from God! An economy in which there is enough for all.

I watch Ma Dludla place her tithe in the offering basket. Twenty rands. And my eyes are opened. My mind is opened. Where I had seen a poor widow, a destitute mother of eight, I see a woman rich in understanding, a woman filled with the joy of gratitude and generosity, I see a woman who has much to teach me about God, about faith about what it means to have enough.

Now, I do not want to romanticize poverty. That is dangerous, and indeed serves no purpose apart from assuaging the guilt of those of us who are not poor. But I want to point us to the wisdom of Ma Dludla -- that we all have something to give. That we can joyfully practice generosity beyond what is easy or comfortable. That the good news for all of us is that in God’s economy, in God’s beloved community, there IS enough for all of us. That when we share, there is enough to go around.

Change your hearts and lives, Jesus tells those gathered around him -- change your hearts and lives. In some translations of this story, Jesus tells the people to repent. And indeed, repentance is the work of changing our hearts and our lives, of turning away from the messages of scarcity, personal inadequacy, competition, fear, and hatred and turning instead to God whose message is one of love, one of enough, one of welcome and forgiveness, comfort and presence, gratitude, generosity and joy. I have come, Jesus tells us, so that you may have life and have it abundantly. Change your hearts and lives. Follow me. 

Let us pray.

Holy one: open our minds. Change our hearts and lives that we may see that we have enough, more than enough, when we rest in you. Open our minds that we may experience the abundance and plenty of your beloved community. That we may experience the joy of gratitude and generosity. Open our minds, O God. And change our hearts and lives. Amen.