Stepping Stones: Turn
The Stepping Stones series is an online space where we dive deeper into the Way of Love practices, one at a time. Today we diving into the practice Turn, sharing a sermon written by the Rev. Dr. Linda Brown, a deacon at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway, Diocese of Arkansas.
To Live or to Perish...
“I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish…." (Luke 13:3)
It's hard to let God be God. We long to explain things only God can know. We human beings have spent centuries trying to find cause and effect patterns for every good and every evil. Yet we can each tell stories of terrible tragedies that have happened to good and faithful people. Maybe they happened to you. We want to make sense of things that make no sense, so we put words into God's mouth that are our own rather than God's.
William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a well-known American clergyman and social activist, was at one time the senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City. His sermon preached a week after his son was tragically killed in an automobile accident dealt with our temptation to speak God's mind. Alex was driving in a terrible storm; he lost control of his car and careened into the waters of Boston Harbor. The following Sunday, this minister preached about his son's death. He thanked all the people for their messages of condolence, for food brought to their home, for an arm around his shoulder when no words would do. But he also raged; he raged about well-meaning folks who had hinted that Alex's death was God's will. "I knew the anger would do me good," he said. Then he went on:
"Do you think it was God's will that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper... that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm? Do you think it was God's will that there are no street lights along that stretch of the road and no guard rail separating the road and Boston Harbor? The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, 'It is the will of God.' We don’t know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break."
It's hard to let God be God. Jesus anticipated our questions in today's Gospel reading. Two terrible tragedies had happened in Jerusalem: one in the Temple, the other near the pool of Siloam. In the first instance, Pilate, the Roman governor, had killed some Galileans who were making sacrifices at the temple and then he mixed their blood with the sacrifices. No doubt this was a warning to other Jews to remember that Rome was in charge. In the other incident, a tower fell on people near the pool of Siloam, killing 18 people who simply happened to be there. How can such things be explained?
What if you called me and said, “Linda, I really need to meet with you.” We arrange a time and you tell me, “My spouse and I are getting a divorce;” or “My son has leukemia”, or “We are going to lose our home.” And I say, “Unless you repent, you will all perish.” This is what Jesus said to the crowd and disciples.
Have you noticed that whenever and however we are faced with the reality that life is fragile, unpredictable, and tragic, we are often quick, too quick, to seek and offer easy explanations? “God has a plan.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “He’s in a better place.” “There’s a lesson to be learned here.” “This was God’s will.” “Someday, when we get to heaven, we’ll know why.”
“Unless you repent….” I suspect that’s not what the people wanted or expected to hear from Jesus when they told him how Pilate killed the Galilean worshippers. I can’t imagine that Jesus’ story about the 18 killed when the tower of Siloam fell and his words, “Unless you repent,” made things any better.
So, Jesus is asking rhetorical questions about these events. They were events anyone hearing him would have known all about.
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (Luke 13:2) In other words, “Did the Galileans bring their fate upon themselves?” “Did they deserve to die because they were trouble-makers?” “Should they have known better than to get into it with the Romans?” According to Jesus, the answer is “No.”
And what about those people who were crushed by that falling tower? “Do you think they had it coming to them?” “Was their number up because they deserved something the rest of the city didn’t?” “Was God waiting for those 18 people to be in the right place at the wrong time so that they could be struck down for their sins?” Again, according to Jesus, the answer is “No.”
Can’t we all relate to this? What about all of the tragedies, killings, natural disasters, cancers, abused children, lost addicts? What about all of the struggles that are sitting right here beside us today? At some point – and in instances so close to home – the rhetorical questions Jesus asks are hard to swallow – and maybe even a little offensive.
But that’s how Jesus gets our attention and assures us of something powerful!
Jesus is acknowledging that bad stuff happens and, even though he’s Jesus, he doesn’t try to explain it or rationalize it or pretend we can avoid it. What Jesus does is hold it up before our eyes and remind us that the gift of our lives is fragile and our lives come to their end – or at least encounter all kinds of struggle and sadness and disappointment along the way – without warning, without notice, without preparation.
The reality is good and bad things happen to both good and bad people.
In this season of Lent, we are often reminded of repentance. Repentance is not a dirty word. It comes from the Greek word metanoia, which is more than just remorse or sorrow or a change of mind. It’s a change of heart.
Repentance isn’t setting off in a direction and slowing down and hitting the brakes from time to time. Repentance is stopping the car, making a U-turn and driving in the opposite direction.
So, when Jesus says, “Repent or perish,” it isn’t a threat. It’s simply reality. We either turn away from what causes death in our lives or we are already perishing.
If our lives are controlled by our urges, appetites, and desires, we are perishing. Our addictions can result in death; death to our integrity and death in our relationships with God and one another.
If my life is governed by my own selfish ambition and I become blind to the needs of others, I am perishing. If I cannot control that part of me that judges others because they don’t dress like I think they should, or worship the God I worship, or love people I don’t accept, or will always be out of step with society’s norms and I criticize them for that, I am not living; I am perishing.
If we cannot make peace with the pains of our past but keep rehearsing them in our minds over and over again, we are not living; we are perishing.
The owner who plants the fig tree is exasperated when, after three years, the tree has yet to produce any fruit. He orders it to be cut down. Anyone identify with the owner? The gardener, however, says to give it more time. Is that the voice of Jesus? It’s so easy to give up on others and even ourselves, but Jesus says, “Wait. Hold on. Give me more time. I’m still working on this one. I’ve got more caring and tending and nurturing to do.”
So, with this simple parable, Jesus reminds us that “God’s will” is really all about second chances. God, like the owner of the vineyard, gives us another year, or another day, or another minute to try again. To repent. To turn over new leaves. To live new lives, in spite of ourselves.
So, think about this: Repentance means to change our ways; to be turned around; is it possible that repentance might also mean we let ourselves be changed by the struggles of others? That we open ourselves to the hardships that surround us? That we change our lives in order to make a difference in the lives of others?
Can I repent by being more generous? Can I repent by doing with less? Can you and I repent by living more humbly? By confessing our sins and meaning it? By receiving forgiveness and offering it up in ways that matter?
Can we repent by acknowledging that our lives – however long or short they may turn out to be – are blessed, generous, grace-filled gifts from God?
Jesus the gardener has our back, like a gardener tending to a less-than-fruitful fig tree, until we begin to turn things around, until we begin to live with that kind of repentance.
As we continue our journey to the cross, we continue to draw close to this Jesus who doesn’t deny that evil exists, who doesn’t deny that death will come, who doesn’t pretend that this life of faith is an easy one.
So, is today’s Gospel one of judgment or one of repentance, or one of second chances? Maybe it is all of those topics.
Tragedies in life and the world will continue to happen. Our charge is to examine the fig tree of our lives. Where is our life bearing fruit? Where is it not? Where do we need to spend time, care, and energy nurturing life and relationships? What are our priorities, and do they need adjusting? Are we growing or are we wasting the soil in which we have been planted?
We are right to hear urgency and necessity in Jesus’ words. This is not because God is vindictive, but because life is short, precious, and sacred. Jesus is more concerned with why I do not fully live than he is with explaining why all round me, people die. Everyone dies but not all truly live.
Mary Oliver, who died in January 2019, was a very popular American poet and a Pulitzer Prize winner among other recognitions. She states this beautifully in the last lines of her poem, The Summer Day:
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Oliver’s question is at the heart of Luke’s Gospel today. Her question underlies and guides our Lenten journey. Repentance is the means to reclaiming the “one wild and precious life” entrusted to us. Repentance is the way of becoming most authentically who we are and who, at the deepest level, we long to be. So, choose, and if you find you have made a wrong choice, choose again. It is never too late. “One more year,” the gardener told the owner. That is not about time, but about forgiveness, grace, love, and second chances.
So, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”