Sunday, February 28, 2016

Seizing Grace -- Third Sunday of Lent

Luke 13:1-9
February 28, 2016

            Carpe Diem. “Seize the day.” I know I learned that phrase before I saw the movie, Dead Poet’s Society, but I don’t remember if I gave much thought to what it meant other than the literal translation. But the scene in the movie where this phrase was first used both inspired me and scared me. Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, was an unconventional, free thinking literature teacher who had returned to teach at his alma mater, an elite prep school for boys. It was 1959, and on his first day of class, Keating takes his young charges out to a main hallway lined with glass cases. The cases held trophies and class pictures; pictures that featured young men from many decades past. Mr. Keating had the boys lean in and look closely at those pictures.
            “Look at them,” he told them. “Their faces, their eyes are filled with hope and expectation, just like yours. They had their whole lives before them, just like you do. But all of them are now food for worms, lads.” While the boys leaned in even closer, Mr. Keating encouraged them to listen. Then he whispered, “Carpe diem. Make your lives extraordinary.”
            Carpe diem. We all know we’re going to die. So how will we seize the day while we’re alive?
            I do not think Jesus was giving a lesson on carpe diem to the people gathered around him in this passage. But I do think that he was pushing the people in his presence to approach their lives with a sense of urgency; their need to repent was now, not later.
            In the first verse, some of the people with him gave him an account of a gruesome act by Pilate. Pilate killed some Galileans, and then mingled their blood with their blood of their sacrifices. Although the people’s thoughts about this event are not stated explicitly, they are implied by the questions Jesus asks of them.
            “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
            Then Jesus refers to another tragedy. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
            Jesus answers both of his questions with the same response. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
            Luke is our only source for these two tragedies, but we can assume from the text that these were current events for the folks in this passage. The first is a grim foreshadowing of Pilate’s cruelty, which will soon be wielded against Jesus. The second sounds like a natural disaster – a random event that killed people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although we do not have any more specifics than these, it isn’t too hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those gathered around Jesus. I suspect that they wanted to know why. Why did this happen to the Galileans? Why did this happen to the people at the Siloam tower? Was it a consequence of their sin? Did they bring it on themselves? Was it divine or cosmic retribution for terrible deeds they had committed? They wanted to know, they needed to know, because, like us, when terrible things happen we want to know why them and not us.
            Random tragedy is a hard thing for us to swallow, isn’t it? It must have been equally challenging to the people in this account. Surely, they did something to make this occur? It can’t be just happenstance. But Jesus would not answer their why. Jesus would not give the people reasons, nor would he give them false assurances. What he did tell them was the people who were killed in both circumstances were no worse than they were. The survivors were not survivors because of special blessings from God. It could have been any one of them. So what do they need to do? Repent.
            Jesus’ response is confusing, isn’t it? At first he says that the tragedies that took the lives of those people were random. They were not singled out because of sin. However he then adds, but if the others don’t repent, they will perish in the same way. If sin doesn’t bring tragedy, why repent? Is repentance just a way of keeping God’s general wrath at bay? Does repentance prevent God’s divine foot from stomping them into the ground like dust?
            The parable that Jesus told seemed to reinforce this understanding of repentance. Jesus told them about a man who owned a vineyard. In that vineyard there was a fig tree that was barren. It wouldn’t or couldn’t bear fruit. The man went looking for fruit from the fig tree, and when he found none he told his gardener to cut it down. In fact the man had been looking for fruit for three years, only to be disappointed every year. So chop it down! Get rid of it! It’s taking up space and wasting soil. But the gardener asked for more time.
            “Sir, let it alone for one 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.”
            Just one more year, pleaded the gardener. Luke doesn’t tell us what the vineyard owner’s response was, but I believe that the extra time was granted. The man gave that fig tree just one more year to bear fruit. In the gospels, repentance and bearing fruit walk hand-in-hand. Repent and bear the fruit of that repentance. This begs two questions. First, what is repentance really? And what kind of fruit are we talking about?
            I’ve been asking people what comes to their minds when they hear the word repentance. The answer I’ve received most often has been remorse. To repent means to feel remorseful and sorry about something that they have done.  This is not a bad or wrong answer. But in scripture, repentance is more than just feeling badly about something. Metanoia, the Greek word for repentance, means “to turn.” To repent is not only to turn 180° from one direction to its opposite. Repentance is a reorientation. To repent means to reorient and realign and reprioritize your entire life back to God. I think of orienteering. When we spent a summer at a camp, one of the other camp staff sent her kids out into the woods with a map. Now, find your way back to the main camp. Orienteering is about getting lost and learning how to find your way back to the path. When we repent, we acknowledge that we are lost. When we repent, we acknowledge that we have been found. We seek to reorient ourselves back to the path God has called us to follow.
            So what was Jesus trying to get across to the people who wanted to know why? What lesson was he trying to teach them about repentance? It seems to me that he was urging them to repent not because God would smack them down if they didn’t, but because life is fleeting. Was Jesus there just to instruct them on the wonderful life they would have after this one? Or did Jesus come not only to vanquish death but to also give life – now. So when he exhorted them, urged them to repent, I don’t believe that it was merely about avoiding divine wrath. I think it was to find life. Our physical bodies only live for so long. We have no idea when or how death may come. So please, repent. You’ve been lost, but know that you’re found. Live as people who are found.
            What about his parable? How often have I heard it interpreted allegorically? God is the man who owned the vineyard. Jesus is the gardener. We’re the fig trees who don’t bear good fruit. God wants to chop us down, but Jesus holds this vengeful God at bay. Just one more year.
            But what if God is the gardener? What if God is the one who seeks to care for us, to tend to us, to help us? Jesus makes it clear over and over again, that he came from God to give us life. He came from God to teach us love. He came from God to help us bear fruit. We who have been so lost have been found. Yet life is fleeting. God’s grace is abundant, but we only have so long to seize that grace. We only have so long to turn back toward God, and reorient our entire lives.
            So repent. Now! Seize grace while we can. Every moment is precious. Every moment is gone without return. So repent and bear the fruits of repentance: a life filled with love, compassion, mercy, kindness, service, tenderness, joyfulness. So repent. Seize grace. Seize it now in this precious moment, in this precious life. Amen.

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