I had one of those weeks where I started to get a bit worried about my sermon for today. It started off great. Robin brought me the orders of worship on Monday for today, and I knew right what I thought the message we needed to hear this week was. But as the week went along, I began to doubt that sermon was the correct one. I lacked the important illustration or practical application. Those are important as they are often the difference in preaching to you (and to me) and preaching at you. I had quite a number of conversations with people this week, and then late last night, after I had imposed far too much on the grace of St. Paul’s Durant, I caught the Hail Mary.
I will have to skip some details of the conversation. My hope, ultimately, is that the family in question will find their way back to a church, and I hope it is our church that they try. So, in the interest of keeping you and them on the same relational level, you will have to learn some details from them, if they ever show up, and if they ever feel close enough to you to share.
Anyway, as I was unloading my stuff last night before heading home, he asked for a moment of my time. This Lent has been like that, and I knew him from AA. He wanted privacy, so we headed into my office. He proceeded to tell me he had experienced the worst week in his life. Earlier in the week, he thought he was losing his daughter. The thought rightly terrified him. She needed help and there was nothing he could do. He was utterly powerless to care for the daughter he loved. Never, he said, had he felt so impotent. Now, as I said, I do not want to share every detail, and our conversation lasted some 35 minutes., so in the words of Inigo Montoya, “There is too much. Let me sum up!”
The nub of our conversation centered around the fact that here it was a few days later, and he could still feel his heart beating in his chest powerless to do anything for his daughter. What made no sense to him is the fact that she seems to be doing just fine. Doctors were really unable to diagnose her problem, and they seemed a little too unconcerned to make him happy. It’s my daughter. I don’t want to lose her. In that brief statement, of course, he revealed his real impotence. Against death, no matter how much he loved and cared for his daughter, he was ultimately powerless. There was nothing he could do, nothing at all that he could do, if she would have died earlier this week or, alternative, was revisited by the symptoms and were to die suddenly last night. With this reading weighing on my mind all week, I was well prepared for this conversation.
The difficulty with such a conversation is that he is only “in orbit” of us. He’s not a member of our church. The blunt conversations that you and I can have, I have to work at gently and pastorally with those not formally part of the Body. Where to one of you I might say “Why is it you are so afraid of death?” and cause you to re-examine your relationship with God, such an approach would probably fail miserably with him. Mind you, I would expect every one of you to be worried if one of your sons or daughters were sick unto the point of death. What I am talking about with this gentleman was that sense of hopelessness in the face of death that every non-believer and every believer must confront eventually. It took a while, but eventually, he realized that the pounding of the heart that he was not sure what would happen to his daughter were she to die. I don’t even know if she knows “Jesus loves me,” --that’s how uninvolved in church we have been. Sadly, but not uncommonly, he equated being around church with knowing and loving God. Like many in AA, a relationship with Christ had been replaced by the help of a “higher power.” Meetings had become his view of church, even though they did nothing to further his relationship with God. Worse, because he perceived himself as “in,” he assumed he could presume on God’s grace, that there was no accountability on the part of his adult daughter. I’m a failure as a father, aren’t I? If my daughter died not knowing God loves her, I was to blame because I never took her to learn or taught her that myself. It was a terrible self-evaluation, but it was accurate. To this point in the raising of his daughter, he had failed in the most important task he has as a dad. Put in starker terms, if we as parents do not teach our children about God and His saving love of us or take them to people who will for us, to what kind of future are we likely condemning them? The Holy Spirit can reach anybody at any time, but it is our chief responsibility as Christians to tell the generations that follow us of the saving works He has done and of our need for His saving grace in our lives.
Our reading in Luke this week has Jesus teaching us to focus on the importance of our relationship with Him and the consequence of our sins, our mortality, our ever present dance with death. Our reading this week skips back a few chapters in Luke from last week. Jesus has been teaching about the settling of accounts. The upshot of the teaching is that we can never repay our debts to our Father in heaven for all our sins. Someone in the audience, who wishes to compare himself to others and look good by comparison, asks the question about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with the sacrifices in the temple. To put this in modern terms, imagine the conversations about us were somebody to bust in here right after I had blessed the wine and the bread, killed us all and then thrown the chalice and patten, scattering and mingling Christ’s flesh and blood with our own broken bodies. That would be a horrible scene, wouldn’t it? Can you imagine the conversations about us? They only pretended to be fighting slavery. They must have been doing some nasty things for God to let that happen.
It would only be natural for people to think that, right? If God is all-powerful and all-good, He would never allow His people and HIs offering to be so defiled and Himself to be blasphemed, right? Jesus’ answer, though, changes the focus of the crowd and of us. Sin is sin. It’s consequence is death. There are no degrees of sin in God’s economy. There no sense that He died more for some than for others. There is only righteousness and sin. Period. And because there is sin, there is death. Death is the ultimate curse of all our sins. We were not supposed to experience death when He created us. And Jesus reminds His audience and us that our focus should not be on the manner of death but rather on death itself. In seeking to assign meaning to particular deaths, we and they forget that the real punishment is the fact that we die. And every single one of us, barring His return, will one day face it.
Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding, Jesus includes natural disasters in this discussion. Jesus asks if the audience thinks that the 18 people who were killed when the tower fell on them were the only sinners in Jerusalem. Of course not, all were sinners. In modern times we might express this when we wonder why a tornado skips this house and hammers that house or why the earth opens up and swallows a man alive or why a country such as Haiti gets nailed by earthquakes. But how often do we do that? How often do we wonder about whether those afflicted by natural disasters deserved it? How often do we preach karma and lose our focus on the real curse? Part of Jesus’ point is that we miss the fact that we have to deal with death in the first place when we spend time wondering about the manner of death.
I say part because Jesus also wants us to focus on the fact that life is very fragile. None of us knows when we are going to meet our Maker. One of the dangers that confronts us is that we can take God’s patience for granted. Jesus expresses that danger through the use of the parable of the fig tree. For three years the owner has waited for the tree to bear fruit. He is done. The gardener intervenes and begs another year. He promises to till and fertilize the tree. If it bears fruit, great. If not, the owner of the land can cut it down. Too many of us approach our relationship with God in that way. We are not alone. St. Augustine in one of his famous works claims that his prayer was often “Please save me, Lord, just not today.” Augustine liked his life of parties and hanging out with women of ill repute. He knew God loved him. He knew God wanted to save him. Augustine just wanted to wait until he had finished “having fun.” Not coincidentally, he knew all that because of the faithful prayers of his mother; still, he wanted to live life as he measured “fun” and not how God intended.
How many of us are like him? How many of us promise year after year that “next year, I’ll get serious about my faith,” or “next year, I’ll get serious on my relationship with God”? Worse, how many of our friends, families, co-workers, neighbors, and others in our lives take our “not yet” attitude and apply it to themselves? How many our like the father from last night who promise “next Easter / next Christmas, I’ll think about hitting church”? We take for granted that attitude because God does not seem to be quick to punish. We seem to think that we have all the time in the world to repent of our sins and get serious about our faith in God. Would that it were so!
The tragic reminder of His stories is the reality of our lives and of the human condition. Each of us can face death at any time. We have idiots who race through the four way stop sign out in front of church. One of them can take out one of us in an instant. A seminarian friend dealt with the death of a toddler this week from a gun accident. Annette is sitting with her sister Barbara who, just when she seemed to be getting much in her life in order, found out she had cancer and would likely not live to see her children grow into teenagers, is close to leaving this world for the next. There is absolutely no guarantee that you or I or anyone else will have the opportunity for that “deathbed confession” upon which so many count. Tragically, our lives can be snuffed out by an accident, a disease, a natural disaster, or a military action in the blink of an eye.
The real question, of course, is where we stand with God knowing that death stalks us unwaveringly. Knowing that death is the punishment for all our transgressions, what have you to offer by way of repayment for your sins?
Were the story and this sermon to end now, there would be no Good News. Were it up to you and to me to make restitution for our sins, there would be no way for us to “get out of debt.” All of us, when confronted with the truth of our lives, are sinners. Each one of us has fallen far short of the glory He intended for each one of us when He created us. We have marred and distorted His image within us. We are all bad fathers, bad mothers, bad sons, bad daughters, bad neighbors, bad employees when measured against the righteousness He demands. Were restitution up to us, we would be utterly without hope, indeed.
Yet, notice Jesus’ instruction. What can save us? Twice in our reading today He reminds us that unless we repent, we will perish as well. The cost of our redemption will be paid in full by our Lord, but we must grasp that offering. We must turn from our selfish ways, our ways that lead away from the saving, loving embrace of our Father, and turn to embrace His will. Notice, repentance is far more than an “I’m sorry.” Repentance is a commitment to re-orient ourselves to our God. No longer do we determine our own reality, no longer do we allow our perceptions to lead us from His will in our lives. Instead, we ask Him for the grace to begin a new creation in us. We ask for the grace to perceive what He sees, to see events for what they really are, to see people how He sees them, to love others as He first loved us.
It sounds simple, brothers and sisters. And the truth is that the hard work of our redemption was born that Friday. But our work is humbling, our work is tough, our work is described by our Lord as our cross. You and I, in humble thanksgiving and unbounded joy, must embrace a new mindset. As servants of the Risen Christ, you and I are called to live as a redeemed people, a people fully cognizant of our shortcomings, our failings, and our own impotence and still to do those things He has given us to do fully expectant that His grace will empower us to accomplish His will in spite of ourselves, in spite, even, of our own mortality. And to begin to do all of that, we must first acknowledge our status before God. We must, in prayerful discernment, agree with Him that we are going astray in thought, word, and deed, and then commit to follow Him.
Brothers and sisters, it has been three weeks since I called us all to a Holy Lent. Three weeks ago I challenged each one of us to give up one of those behaviors which tempted us to fall away from our Lord and to embrace a discipline which would help us walk closer to our Lord. If we have treated that call to a Holy Lent like we do our New Year’s resolutions, chances are we have forgotten the new disciplines and reverted back to the old habits. Our reading and teaching today, however, will not allow us to remain the “same old selves.” The tragedies described by our Lord and, hopefully, by me, should remind us that we are, far too often, easily distracted. We confuse long life with a sign that we are favored by God just as we confuse our willingness to repent “one day” with a sign that we are judged as good by God. Brothers and sisters, where do you stand? Do you stand as one who has been washed in the body and blood of our Lord, as one whose debts have been paid in full, as one of the redeemed? Or do you, instead, try to sand on the sandy foundation of your own making? Are you one who produces good fruit, worthy of the redemption that has been purchased for you? Or are you more like the barren fig described in this morning’s parables? I ask these questions not as one who would condemn you, but as one who would remind you of His calling on your life. The truth is only you, deep in discerning prayer, can answer that question accurately. Only you know whom you serve.
What if you have been walking apart? What if you have been living your life apart from that offer of grace that He extends? What if you have treated Lenten disciplines as New Year resolutions? What then? Then it is my job to remind you that it still is not too late. So long as you draw breath, so long as the Gardener is at work tending your patch of earth, it is not too late. All that He requires, all that He asks, is that you repent and embrace Him and His offer of grace, the grace which brings light into darkness, which turns bad fathers and bad mothers into outstanding moms and dads, which conquers death and leads to eternal life.