Number Your Days…One More Year
Welcome to the third Sunday of Lent, when we are thinking about the very frail nature of our human lives, what gift and opportunity we’ve been given, and the responsibility we have to, as the Psalmist directs us in Psalm 90, “number our days”…to make them count! The first week of Lent we talked about minding the distraction that permeates our living in this world—making sure we are living with intention. Last week we talked about purpose—finding a purpose and meaning in our lives.
Today’s Lenten Gospel passage gives us the opportunity to swim around in some tricky theological waters and to think about a concept we may prefer to avoid: repentance. Today, I’d like to invite you to open your Bibles to Luke’s passage you heard just a minute ago—it’s found on page 848 of your pew Bibles. This is a tough passage, and I figure if I have to preach a sermon about this, then you guys have to really think hard along with me!
I think everybody here, except for maybe some of the members of the youth group, can remember where they were on September 11, 2001. It was a Tuesday morning, and I was at work in the church office at my former church in New Orleans where I was one of the associate past
ors. Early that morning we started to get telephone calls that something terrible had happened, and we wheeled in the television from the media closet to watch the news reports along with everyone else in the entire world.
As my colleagues and I sat around wordless with horror, it began to gradually dawn on us that we were going to have to craft some kind of response for the people of the congregation.
Seminary does not prepare you for a lot of things about this job: fire alarms going off in worship, church attendees in super hero costumes, and also, how to help a community respond to tragedy. My colleagues and I didn’t know exactly how a church was expected to respond in this sort of situation. The only thing we were sure of was the fact that people would want to come to church.
And they did come to church, a lot of people in our congregation and a lot of people we had never seen in church before that week.
This trend was not unique to my congregation. Groups that survey Americans found significant increases in church and synagogue attendance immediately after 9/11. They found:
- Attendance at worship services increased by 25%.
- People reported an increase in daily prayer.
- The percentage of Americans who said religion was very important to them increased from 57% to 64%.
What does this mean?
Well, it means what we think it means but we probably don’t want to admit. When bad things happen in this world, we’re desperate for an explanation. And one of the easiest, most natural ways to explain suffering is to put it on God—someone responsible, who keeps a divine tally and hands out punishment or blessing as the situation demands.
You know what I mean. We come up with explanations for tragedy or pain that are outlandish, like recent attributions of the tragedy at Sandy Hook to gay marriage, or we do it in more staid ways (think of your grandmother’s off-hand comment upon an unexpected success—“You must be living right!”), but however we do it, we all like to think about our lives that way. Why? Because thinking about what we cannot understand in that way gives us some illusion of control, some sense that we can appease or understand this God who controls the universe and rains down blessing or curse in measured, predictable ways. It’s a tempting equation that solves a lot of problems for us. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “(1) It answers the riddle of why bad things happen to good people: they don’t. Bad things only happen to bad people. (2) It punishes sinners right out in the open as a warning to everyone. (3) It gives us a God who obeys the laws of physics. For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.”
See? Nice and clean, very straightforward.
Of course, we’re not the first ones to take that approach to understanding our human experience. All throughout our Bibles there are suggestions of this cause and effect interaction with God—remember the book of Job, when Job’s friends came to him insisting that he had sinned somehow, as evidenced by all the bad things that were happening to him?
And joining the chorus are the folks in today’s Gospel passage, who I imagine were standing around the town square gossiping about a recent local tragedy—apparently some Galileans had been killed by the Roman ruler Pilate in cold blood.
While the crowd was trying to make sense of this, along came Jesus, who by now had gained a reputation as an up and coming young rabbi—a religious teacher. How timely! They’d just go ahead and ask the new rabbi to give them the answer to universal human question of suffering. They already knew what he was going to say, anyway: those Galileans must have done something REALLY bad for God to punish them with that terrible tragedy!
But Jesus, as he always, always seems to do, takes this opportunity to turn their common understanding of God completely on its head. He tells the crowd that, nope…those Galileans weren’t any worse sinners than all of you.
Silence…or maybe some gasps in the crowd.
Jesus went on. And what about the eighteen people who were killed when a tower in Siloam randomly fell on them—remember that? Yeah, they weren’t being punished because they were worse sinners than everybody else, either.
Jesus didn’t answer their question like they thought he would. He didn’t say these tragic events were the result of sin. He didn’t put responsibility for the tragedies back on God. And he didn’t bring out their oft-used cause and effect theology.
Instead, Jesus preferred to upset the apple cart, to challenge the standard interpretation of life as they (and we) know it. Jesus wouldn’t place easy blame or offer a tidy explanation. No, he wanted to talk about something else altogether…he wanted to talk about repentance.
Jesus looked at the crowd and said to them all, “Nobody is exempt from punishment, people who have towers fall on them or people who get away scot free. All of you—ALL of you—need to repent.”
Then, as he often did, Jesus went on to tell a parable. In this parable there was a man who used some of the farming land in his vineyard to plant a fig tree—not for looks or shade or anything other than he hoped to have some FIGS! But it had been three years since he’d planted it, and that fig tree had not produced one single fig. The landowner was thinking it was time to cut the tree down and stop wasting soil that he could be using for something that was actually producing fruit.
Then, as the story goes, a gardener appears, the guy who is responsible for tending the vineyard, and he asks the landowner to just give him a little more time. Let him care for the tree a little more, fertilize it, make sure it has enough water and sunlight. Give it ONE MORE YEAR, he asks the owner. And if it’s still not producing figs after that, we’ll go ahead and cut it down.
Oh, Luke, what were you trying to tell us by placing these two little passages together? And what could Jesus possibly have meant?
It’s tempting for us to read this parable and assign obvious correlations: God is the vineyard owner who is impatient with us because we’re not living right. Jesus is the gardener who comes to advocate on our behalf, etc. But I want to caution against this kind of interpretation. I don’t think Jesus, or Luke in his retelling, were making any point other than this: we are all human and flawed. All of us. We need to repent.
Like the crowd gathered, gossiping about tragic news, we would have preferred that Jesus affirm a nice, easy cause and effect understanding of God. You see, when we can understand tragedy in this way, we feel special—separate—better—safe. Nothing bad has happened to ME lately, so I must be living right. The people in New Jersey whose homes were destroyed during Sandy? Well, I wonder how they’d been living?
But in today’s Gospel passage Jesus won’t let us go there. It’s too easy; it’s too exclusive.
Instead, he wants us to understand that the pain and brokenness of our lives and of this whole world calls for repentance—not just for those who seem to be particularly flagrant sinners, but for all of us. And he wants to remind us that there will be a reckoning someday—here in this world or in the world beyond—when we will have to answer for our failures to live lives that reflect God’s best hopes for the world. All of us.
All of us.
Make you uncomfortable?
Yeah, me too.
But, as we know, Jesus has a way of making us uncomfortable. And perhaps that is just what we need on this journey through Lent: a bit of discomfort by which we are called on the carpet for how we’re living, all of us, with the words of Jesus’ gardener ringing in our ears: “one more year…give that tree one more year to turn things around and start producing fruit.”
We need the discomfort because our lives are fleeting and brief. We don’t have all the time in the world to get things right. Jesus is trying to say that the time is short and we need—we need—to repent. We need to live lives in which God’s grace and goodness, justice and peace are cultivated carefully and intentionally. We need to live lives that result in fruit, real, tangible evidence of God’s love for the whole world.
9/11 was not unique in temporarily altering church attendance figures with a big bump up. The fact is, anytime something terrible and inexplicable happens in our world, business picks up around here.
But, as we saw after 9/11, it doesn’t take too long for church attendance to return to normal. Without the immediate, pressing need to explain in neat and easy ways why suffering happens in our world, we’re more than happy to just go back to life as it was, to keep living day in and day out with our fingers crossed behind our backs for luck, hoping we’re not doing anything that will make God mad enough that something bad will happen to us.
But, it’s Lent, and in honor of this time of internal and intentional reflection, I’d like to here say that this mindless way of living is no kind of living at all. Our human compulsion to grasp at a cause and effect understanding of how God works in the world is like taking an aspirin to relieve a headache—it’s immediate comfort for an occasional pain. But when faith—the intentional and regular practice of following in the way of Jesus—becomes a regular part of our lives, it is like taking a daily vitamin that strengthens us to whole lives of meaning and depth.
And so, seeking to walk in the way of Jesus this day and all the days of our lives, we will hear his hard words from the Gospel of Luke and remember that we are not any different than anyone else in this whole big wide world. We, all of us, need to repent, to turn around from the ways in which we live that hurt and hinder and fail to produce fruit by which the world can see God active and working and real in this world.
Because, our lives are short, and our opportunities are limited, and who can say whether we have fifty years left to cultivate lives that matter…or whether all we have is just…one more year?