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Going the Distance

A message preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on Sunday February 28, 2016.

Text: Luke 13:1-9

Going the Distance

This is the third Sunday of Lent. Congratulations!  We’re halfway there: halfway through Lent, halfway to Easter. If Lent were a glass of water, our glass is now either half-full or half-empty–depending on your disposition.

As most of us are hopefully aware, Church is home to people of either disposition—all dispositions for that matter: sunny and stormy; positive and negative; uptight and laid-back; liberals, conservatives, moderates …

And so it was on that day Jesus was walking and talking among the multitude. Some that day were buzzing about a local incident: “Pilate is at it again” they inform Jesus. “He slaughtered some of our brothers while they were preparing the sacrifices for worship. …”

I imagine Jesus taking a moment to look them in the eye–then another moment to scan the faces in the vast crowd surrounding him. It sounds like a simple report about something of concern to their community. But in those days nothing brought to Jesus could be considered simple.

Crowds are following him now. His enemies are as interested in what he has to say as his followers are. His reaction to this incident matters. The air is rife with expectations of Jesus. Some want Jesus to lead an uprising against Pilate and Rome. Some want Jesus to at least criticize Pilate publicly—and here’s the perfect opportunity—so that Jesus would bring the heavy hand of Rome down upon his own head. And of course I suppose there are some people who truly want to hear Jesus’ reaction to this senseless act of violence inflicted upon God’s chosen people.

The prevailing wisdom among his fellow Jews was that whenever anyone died suddenly or tragically, it was because they did something to offend God. But those men Pilate slaughtered were engaged in a sacred ritual. They were not offending God–they were serving God the moment they were slain.

So you think those men were murdered because God was angry at them?  NO!”  Jesus says.  He refutes that old religious notion on the spot. Then he takes it even further “And those eighteen people who died when that building collapsed: You think God did that too? Because of their sin?

“NO!”   Jesus says, emphatically.  NO!

Jesus clearly rejects simplistic religious answers to complex questions. Which must have struck some in the crowd that day like a lightning bolt. Flawed theology though it may be on their part, it was their working theology—providing a sense of order and stability. What Jesus does is effectively disorient, knock the support pins out from under many “religious” people.  If God does not bring calamity upon us, as Jesus claims, why do these things happen? Unfortunately, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t try to make sense of things that cannot be adequately explained or excused.[1] Instead, Jesus keeps the focus on our relationship with God

He suggests we make a habit of getting right with God. Pilate’s violence and the awful building collapse provide urgency.  Jesus and the people all see that in this life things happen — tragedy, injustice, sudden death; all beyond our control.  It seems to me Jesus keeps the focus on something we do have some measure of control over: our relationship with God.

Jesus utters a word we usually only hear in church-especially during this season of Lent. That word is REPENT (hey that rhymes!)

Repent is one of those churchy words that can bring conversation to a screeching halt. Try working it into a conversation with a friend or relative, or during lunch.  It’s just not a word we use outside these walls.  Repent along with Salvation and Judgment are important theological terms to be sure, but they’ve become archaic and abstract to post-modern ears such that their usefulness and significance is lost without some translation, without some conversation, some creative substitute words to explain what is and is not meant, and why it’s important. We can no longer assume a shared understanding (or acceptance) of church vocabulary.

If Jesus walked among our multitudes today, he’d still talk about these same ideas, of course, but, he’d choose his words carefully.  He’d call upon images and experiences familiar to us, telling stories to help us understand and accept these important ideas, just like he does with the people in the Gospels.  Clearly, Jesus is a creative communicator!

We must be also. We need to reclaim and reframe words like “repent” and “salvation” and “judgment”.  Over time such terminology has contributed to a distortion of God as a God who is out to getcha: “don’t do anything wrong or God’s gonna getcha.”  Many people in Jesus’ day and still today subscribe to this harmful distortion.  But Jesus creatively and consistently opposes this distorted view of God.  The story about the fig tree is a good example.  The distortion is on full display:“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?’”

GOTCHA!  There it is: the “Gotcha god” distortion …

There’s also a gardener who says more time is needed, another year; this gardener offers to do what it takes to nurture that tree to produce fruit. Notice: God’s patience, God’s willingness to help have the last word.

Suzanne Guthrie is a gifted theologian and blogger.[2] She gives great insight into this story.  She knows a thing or two about gardening—and I know next to nothing, so I found this fascinating.  Guthrie says that there is one uncompromising rule of gardening: ruthlessness: “… pruning, chopping, weeding, deadheading, dividing, removing …  Out go the plants that don’t produce fruit or function as a helpful neighbor to another plant. Out go plants that do not offer beauty or scent or pleasure or visual interest.  … So, she continues, the land owner in Jesus’ story reasonably orders the unfruitful tree yanked from the ground. It makes sense from that perspective.

But then there’s the gardener’s perspective.  It’s different.  The gardener sees it as a challenge, an opportunity.  It is perhaps an audacious suggestion that the owner give the fig another year (after three years has already passed).  The gardener seems to know what’s needed: “break up the hard earth, aerate the ground around it so the roots can breathe and drink and take in nourishment … put manure around it.  Guthrie notes that the gardener describes changing the very soil nurturing the fig tree.

O what blessed good news, Guthrie declares! “Not only do [we] have a reprieve, but in that time [we] will be loved, nurtured, brought back to a life of creative regeneration. The mercy of God may not … reflect good gardening practice, but it’s good news for late bloomers.”

Guthrie notes that in the parable mercy has an expiration date. Remember the context in which Jesus tells this parable.  Life is filled with uncertainty—calamity even.  You don’t know when some tyrant or madman will take your life, or even when some building will fall on you as you walk by (Luke 13:1-5). Every day, people get yanked from the ground.  NOW is the time to get right with God … to, um, “repent” — untangle ourselves from the weeds that tie us up. Now is the time to nurture and grow our relationship with God and one another—seek the Lord while He may be found (Isaiah 55).

And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.

I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self

And wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help

and patience, and a certain difficult repentance,

long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself

from the endless repetition of the mistake

which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

— D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), “Healing” quoted in The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: A Poetry Anthology, edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, Harper, 1992, p.113

Lawrence mentions “a long, difficult repentance” lest we fall into the trap of endlessly repeating the same mistakes.  Look, in our culture and world, making the same mistake over and over isn’t the end of the world–you might even take pride in it or be praised (“sanctified”) beyond these walls.  Meanwhile, in here we learn the harm and the cost of such ignorance. In here we have a place and a community of support and practice, seeking the “healing of our souls.”

It’s one of the easiest things in the world to put off.  Life has a way of diverting our attention with garden-variety busyness. But also because, it’s uncomfortable, elusive, difficult. To repent, to me, means to cease doing harm—to anyone and everyone, to the earth, and especially ourselves. It’s not something we can do on our own power.  We need help. We need … a gardener.

Given the uncertainties of life in this world, and the certainty of God’s claim upon us, to delay another day is to suffer.  Lent gives us a great excuse and a great alternative to the world’s claim upon us. Don’t worry if Lent is passing you by, it’s the half-way point—there’s still time: it’s never too late to start. Lent gives us a great excuse to practice this strange ritual of repentance. Lent is the time to invite and allow Jesus to aerate the soil we’re planted in, to allow Him to use the manure we accumulate in this life to nurture a deeper spiritual growth and maturity.  Guthrie describes Lent as a time to take care of our life, confident that God will take care of us along the way.

To me, life in Christ is not a race to be won or a fight to the death. Jesus doesn’t lead an armed revolt against Roman occupation. He didn’t jump down from the cross, and throw Pilate up there to be crucified instead. That would be a best-seller or a killer screenplay—vengeance has huge market share.

But that’s not the way it goes in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus doesn’t promise to overpower our problems, or obliterate our illness, or our enemies or even our sin. Jesus wants us to invite him into our problems, into our illness, into our conflict, into our sin … there to die with him and to experience Resurrection with him.  What Jesus promises is to BE WITH US all the way to the end, every plodding step.

So it’s not about winning or dominating, it’s about going the distance with Jesus … all the way to the end. Because with Him we have LIFE-even in the midst of pain and suffering and sin and death.  Without Him, that stuff only beats us down, beats the hope and the spirit and the faith and the life out of us.

That’s why we stick with Jesus.  Not only because of that Easter thing at the end of the road, or in three more weeks, but because between now and then, his presence helps us go the distances we must.

[1] “… such was the urgency of the gospel for Jesus that he himself gave no answer: he waved aside even so vast an issue as the meaning of pain.”  Luke The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, p.240 (Abington:1952).
[2] Suzanne Guthrie, Soulwork toward Sunday: At the Edge of the Enclosure, 2013 (www.edgeofenclosure.org/)