Softening Hearts

Luke 16:19-31

The vacant lot has potential.  Every time the woman passes it on her way to work she thinks: “I could plant something here, I could take this lot, with its spare bits of trash and I could make it beautiful.”  In her mind’s eye, she could picture an extravagant garden that would cover the debris filled yellow sunflowers, bright red beebalm and multi-colored zinnias.  Yes, the woman decides, I will beautify that lot.  After furtively filling her pockets with seeds, the woman leaves for work, stopping at the abandoned lot to put seed on the ground.  As she tosses the seed, the woman notices how the seeds stay on the hard, dry ground, ready to be baked by the sun.  Without any tools, the woman begins to pound the dirt with her first, trying to soften it, to make a space for the seeds.  She coughs as the dust flies up and finds herself exhausted by the task. The ground is just too hard.  “Well, I have done what I can,” the woman thinks as she leaves and continues on her way.

“These people have potential,” Jesus thinks.  As Jesus walks through the region, people ask for healing and ponder the wonders of God.  These moments fill Jesus with hope. Other times, though, Jesus’ efforts feel futile, like throwing seed on hard ground.  Sometimes it feels like no one cares and today is one of those days as Jesus tells a parable about a steward who prioritizes possessions over people and the crowd hardens their hearts.

So Jesus tells another story, because Jesus is not done planting, because Jesus sees the potential of those in front of Jesus, even those with hard hearts.

Jesus tells the story of a rich person who eats lots of food, dresses fancy, and never shares what they have … not even with the beggar who lives outside their gates.

Jesus then tells the first-century equivalent of a pearly white gate story about what happens when Lazarus and the rich person die.  This parable is not an accurate account of the afterlife but rather a story where each character has to face the truth about themselves.

Lazarus dies first and finds himself being carried to the beloved company of Sarah and Abraham.  The text literally tells us that Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.  It’s the same word as when, at the last supper, we are told that the disciple Jesus’ loved most reclines on Jesus’ bosom.  It’s an image of intimacy, of being held by our kindred and our God.

Next, the rich person dies and finds themselves face-to-face with the reality that their me-first, hoarding and dehumanizing practices ultimately lead to disconnection and dis-ease.  It creates a chasm.  Relegating Lazarus to a servant, the person asks Sarah and Abraham to send Lazarus to comfort him and they respond that it is not possible because there is a chasm. Lazarus cannot bring the rich person life if that is not the choice they make for themselves.

The rich person has potential, do they see it?

Do we?

No matter how badly we ache for the rich person’s healing we cannot force them to cross the chasm.  Jesus tells this story to a crowd with hardened hearts, knowing first-hand how exhausting it can be to confront attitudes of indifference.

This is a truth experienced first-hand by pastor Samuel Wells, who tells the story of his first pastorate at a 15-person church as they were making Christmas plans.  The church made these leaflets with the service times for Christmas and Wells had insisted that the include a midnight communion.  It had been the highlight of his Christmas growing up. No one in his church had ever been to one, but still Wells thought it was a great idea.  A Christmas communion that started at 11:30 p.m on December 24.

They’d organized.  They distributed three thousand leaflets to the entire neighborhood.

11 p.m. came … no one there

11:15 …still no one.

11:25 … still just Wells and the bread and the wine.

11:30 … Wells tried hard, so hard, to stop a tear beginning to roll down his eyelashes.

I image that every person in this room knows what that tear feels like.  When your waves of care break upon chasms of indifference and no amount of energy and effort from you seems able to bridge the gap.  When you put your head in your hands, separating out two kinds of feelings.

The first is failure – the sense that if you had only been a better person or tried harder things would have turned out different.  Failure allows us to preserve the notion that we have control, that we have the power to make things right.

The other feeling is rejection.  Rejection often comes in the form of indifference.

Wells tells the story of growing up in England and hearing the question, “Tea or coffee?”  to which people would respond, “I’m not bothered,” meaning that they were equally glad for either because what they were really enjoying was the pleasure of your company.

When Wells relocated to another part of England, when people asked “Tea or coffee?” and responded, “I’m not bothered” they meant: “I don’t want either” and you take it as a sign that they wanted to end the conversation as soon as possible.

This second expression of “I’m not bothered” conveys the notion of indifference.  It hides our exhaustion or hurt.  It provides escape from direct attention to death, regret, fragility or even love.  In other words, it builds a chasm between us and reality, between us and a God who wants nothing more than to have tea with us and enjoy our company.

This response of indifferent is one that God gets from us, all of us, and if we are going to be about God’s work, it is a response that we need to get used to.

Jesus warns the disciples of this when Jesus sends them out, saying: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace upon this house!’  If the people live peaceably these, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will come back to you … If the people of any town don’t welcome you, you go into its streets and say, ‘We shake the dust of this town from our feet.”

That’s the life of a Jesus follower. Lots of dust shaking.

The truth that Jesus knew is that sometimes you offer people your peace and they don’t want it. Sometimes they are not bothered.  In those cases, Jesus tells us take it back. Shake the dust off.

Because it’s not failure, it’s rejection, and that’s different.

In the words of Taylor Swift: Shake, shake, shake it off.

Otherwise we find ourselves like the woman in the opening story, pounding against hard soil without the right tools, coming up exhausted.  Or like Lazarus, striving to cross a chasm that is not his to cross.  Maybe it is not our work to soften those hard hearts, to beat ourselves up against shut doors and stony walls.

If people say to you, “I’m not bothered,” don’t make assumptions that it’s about you, that you need to try harder or be cleverer.  Shake it off.  Don’t carry that dust everywhere you go, embittering relationships, sapping energy, leaking hope.  Shake it off. Don’t take your anger out on people when you don’t know what it is that is keeping them where they are.

Shake the dust off, shake, shake, shake.

What then? Leave that one to God.  But what happens to the grief and the sadness, the loss and the pain?  As we walk away, the job is not done.

Well, what happens in the Gospel?  In the text, Sarah and Abraham warn that those with hard hearts may not believe when someone is raised from the dead.  Is that what happens?  In the Gospel of Luke, the women show up at the tomb, discover the resurrection and run back to share the good news.  At their return, they are met with indifference. The disciples deride the News as nonsense.

New life, can it really be possible?

“No,” the disciples scoff bitterly.  They cannot make the leap across that chasm.

Then something happens.

A stranger shows up as two disciples walk home to Emmaus and try to make sense of what has happened – the death of their teacher Jesus, rumors of resurrection.  As this stranger walks with them, their hearts soften and in the intimate moment the stranger shares bread and wine with them, their eyes fly open and they see that the Stranger is Christ.  They see that even if they could not leap across that chasm, God can.  God can soften, heal and transform what they cannot.

God makes that leap. For the disciples. For the rich person. For the crowd. And for us.

For God is like a master gardener who gazes at an abandoned lot and thinks, “that has potential.”  Walking on to the lot, God bends down, picks up the soil, tastes it, and rolls it in God’s hand to determine exactly what will flourish there.  The next day, before work, God carefully constructs seed bombs, putting together all the nutrients and soil the seeds need to grow and God tosses these flower bombs into the vacant lot, scattered them with abandon and with generosity.  Some of these flower bombs land near the seed of the woman and covers the seed and protects them from the sun and the birds.  After the first big rain fall, the ground softens, the soil flattens down and the flowers begin to bloom in the desert.  There are zinnias and marigolds, sure, but there are also golden rod, purple thistles and queen anne’s lace and flowers that take naturally to their wild setting, making a way for the other plants.

And in this place of desolation, a garden grows, the soil softens and something new takes root amid the dust.  Perhaps the woman could not soften the soil, but God could.  God works as we rest and care for our souls and realize that what we done for this day, this moment, this week is enough.  We prepare the way for Love, dust off our sandals and continue on the way. For our dust shaking is itself a prayer, a prayer that God will do a miracle by making beauty come from the dust of the earth.

As pastor Samuel Wells sat in church that Christmas eve, his face in his hands, a tear rolling down his cheek, he heard a rustling noise.

It was 11:32.

A door opened and a man and woman walked in.

“Is it just us?” they asked.

“I’m afraid it is,” Wells replied dejectedly.

“Oh good,” the woman said, “We waited to see if anyone else would come, and when we thought we’d be the only ones, we walked in.”

“What do you mean?” Wells asked.

“Well,” she said, “I guess you should know that Dave and I used to be married to other people until recently. There’s a lot of folk unhappy about us being together. We moved out here because we didn’t feel we could go to any of the downtown churches. In fact, we haven’t been to church at all for over a year. We were frightened to come tonight, but when we saw we’d be the only ones, we got the courage to walk through the door. Our lives are a mixture of love and shame. We feel we’re in the dust. We want to begin again.”

Wells stared at them in silence, his thoughts of failure and rejection evaporating.  All he could see was dust, dust softening, making way for the seed.

Well said to them, “Remember you are dust.  This where God’s work of creation and redemption begins. Right here. Right now.”

And there, two minutes earlier, he had cursing hard hearts.  And there was God, planting a garden, crossing chasms, creating something new.

Shake the dust. Shake, shake, shake. And see what the glory of God can do.

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