[This was shared this morning during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]
Priest and novelist Andrew Greeley tells one of those stories that isn’t true but tells the truth. It’s about a couple who win a two week trip to Ireland. They were excited, but it was spring and they had until June 1 of the following year to claim their prize. They couldn’t go that summer, they decided, because it would interfere with their usual trip to the lake. September was out because the kids would be going back to school. They didn’t want to be away from home over the holidays; they decided to forgo the trip until after the first of the year. They learned though, that the weather wasn’t good in Ireland during January and February. So, they finally decided to go in May. Then the husband had a gall bladder attack and needed surgery. The doctors said he would be able to travel…by the middle of June.
Life is unpredictable. Many things can interrupt our agendas. Sometimes, tragically, death itself interferes. All of which leads to a very serious question: What would we do if we knew for certain when our lives were coming to an end?
My guess is that most of us would have some thoughts about how we would live differently from the way we live right now.
This question is suggested by today’s Gospel lesson. In the first part of it, Jesus talks about two terrible incidents that the crowd surrounding Him was talking about. If they’d had cable news back then, these are two events they might have been discussing. One was a massacre of Galileans ordered by the Roman governor, Pilate. (They were massacred while they worshiped!) The other incident is one Jesus Himself brings up: The collapse of a tower at the famous pool at Siloam. There, eighteen people died. (Siloam was a place to which people went, believing that the pool's water had healing properties.)
Many people, when they confront such inexplicable tragedies so need to make sense of them or feel such a need to feel morally superior, that they accept explanations which really defame God. They convince themselves and others that God is punishing people for their sins. Jesus will have none of such explanations for life’s tragedies. Nor should we.
Back in the 1980s, a new disease of which none of us had heard before began killing, at first, only gay men. AIDS took thousands of lives immediately and consigned thousands more to certain death. One Sunday, I told the people of my former parish that, contrary to what some were telling us, I did not believe that God was punishing gay men for their homosexuality. If God killed people because of their sins, we all would be dying horrible, premature deaths. The Bible teaches that none of us is sinless and that God sent Christ to die and rise so that sinners like us who repent and trust in Him will live with God forever, no matter how long our lives on earth may be.
After the service at which I'd preached this, a woman approached me. “Pastor,” she asked, “do you mean to say you don’t think that God is punishing these men?” “No, I don’t,” I said. Her reaction surprised me: “I’m relieved to hear you say that. I was beginning to think that maybe I’d misunderstood God all these years. These preachers who say that God was punishing these men seemed so certain of themselves. But the God they talked about didn’t sound like the God I know in Jesus.” She was right.
But how do we explain tragedy? When Jesus cites the two tragedies in our Gospel lesson--one perpetrated by a tyrant, the other an accident, He doesn’t try to explain them.
And He specifically rejects any attempt to paint the victims of the tragedies as being worse sinners than anyone else.
As Jesus puts it elsewhere, in this imperfect world, the sun shines and the clouds rain on the evil and the good. More important than trying to figure out why bad things happen to good and bad people, is learning to let God love us every day and to strive to follow God faithfully each moment of our lives!
Jesus says that unless we repent, we all will die. The death He’s talking about is the death of eternal separation from God, eternal separation from human fellowship, an eternity of regret that we chose to go it alone, rather than relying on Christ for life.
To repent, as we’ve said before, is to repudiate sin and to walk toward Christ. No one can do that perfectly. But God isn’t looking for perfection in us. As the Old Testament tells us, God remembers that we’re dust.
I remember when our two kids were learning to walk. Whenever they showed an interest in walking toward us, we held out our arms and praised them for every imperfect step they took, even when they fell on their seats. We wouldn’t have thought of criticizing them or punishing them because they didn’t do it precisely correctly.
The person living repentantly is taking baby steps toward Christ and even though we may sometimes fall or fail, as long as we keep walking toward our Savior, the cheers coming from God’s throne are so loud that if we were privileged to hear them, we’d have to cover our ears!
If I knew the date of my death, I hope that I would be walking repentantly, moving toward Jesus.
But, there’s a second thing I hope that I would be doing if I knew exactly how long I had to live. Jesus talks about that in the second part of our lesson, in a parable--or a story--He tells that same crowd: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 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?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’"
The owners of vineyards in Jesus’ home country didn’t waste precious water on young trees. Nor did they have patience for trees that occupied space and didn’t bear fruit. They simply couldn’t afford any sentimental attachments to a barren tree. So, according to the practices of the time and the scarcity of acreage and water, the landowner in Jesus' parable was right to order that the fruitless tree be cut down. But then, the unexpected happens: The gardener begs the landowner to give the tree one more year. It’s a gift of life. If the tree doesn’t take advantage of that gift, the tree will be cut down.
You and I are that tree in the vineyard. Every day, God allows us to occupy space, to live. He’s sent His Son to give all who trust in Him new life and sent His Spirit to help us grow strong in faith, in love, in courage. God also gives us spiritual gifts by which we can play our part in His Church and His mission in the world.
But often we take all of God's gifts and then live lives that look just like that of the spiritually disconnected person who lives next door. Christ died and rose for you and me to do more than just exist. Even here, in this imperfect world, He’s pumping the life, love, and power of eternity into us. But, I suspect that you wouldn’t know it by looking at the lives of many Christians.
No matter how much time I have left on this earth, I hope not only that to live repentantly, but to also be bearing fruit, displaying evidence that I really have been saved from sin and death by Jesus, that I relish being God’s child.
I’ve told you the story before of an important conversation that Jimmy Carter had with his sister, the evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton. It happened after Carter lost his first bid at becoming governor of Georgia to a notorious racist, Lester Maddox. In addition to feeling badly about losing an election, Carter also couldn't understand how God could have let someone like Maddox win their election race.
His sister told Carter that his being governor of Georgia wasn’t as important to God as whether Carter was walking with God. By that time in his life, Jimmy Carter had already spent decades teaching Sunday School and going on mission trips in which he went door-to-door leading people to faith in Jesus Christ.
Talking cold turkey with her brother, Stapleton wondered who Jimmy Carter had done all of that for. Then she asked him, “Jimmy, if it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
That question changed Jimmy Carter’s life. What his sister was really asking him was, “Are you leading a repentant life, a life in which you’re walking toward Christ? Are you bearing the fruits of that repentance? Can people see Jesus working in your life even though you’re imperfect like the rest of the human race?”
Those are good questions for all of us to be asking about ourselves, I think.
I hate to tell you that in fact, there are many days when I hang my head in shame over the answers which honesty compels me to give to those questions as I look at my own life. But thank God, we follow a gracious God Who gives repentant people more second chances than we deserve, opportunities to so open ourselves to Him and His love that we walk confidently in that love and let the whole world see what a great, open-hearted God we follow!
Today, this week, I invite you to offer two simple prayers: Ask Jesus to help you walk toward Him. And, ask Jesus to let the investment He’s made in you--the investment of His life on a cross--show in something you say, you do, or you think this week.
Don’t put it off. Pray those two things: Ask God to help you walk toward Christ and to let Christ live in you.
Whether you and I have one day, one year, or fifty years left to live, we can’t go wrong if we keep asking God to answer those two prayers each and every day.