“Second and Third Chances”
March 24, 2019 – Lent 3 – Year C
Have you ever noticed basketball enthusiasts who practice their ball handling skills by bouncing the ball? But it isn’t just any ordinary kind of dribbling. They’d walk a ways, bouncing, and then they’d quickly pivot. Then they’d run in the other direction, bouncing the ball, pivot, and pose as if shooting a basket. I assume the person is practicing “turns”. But – it holds an image of repentance. Practicing our turns. Getting better and better in our orientation to God and God’s people.
The Gospel lection begins with a theological ethical puzzle for Jesus to solve. Did the Galileans who suffered a particularly bloody fate under Pilate, deserve what happened to them? Jesus answers that these Galileans were no worse than other people, and then Jesus shifts the focus back to his audience’s own lives. Those who think that suffering is the direct result of some sinful act on the part of the sufferer miss the point. Unless you repent, you too will perish. Jesus reiterates his point with the example of the tower of Siloam that fell and killed 18 men.
It has been speculated that the 18 were working on Pilates aqueduct when part of it fell on them. Pilate took money from the temple treasury to build his aqueduct, much to the horror of the Jews. And so, if some masonry had fallen on Jews who were paid to build the aqueduct, the countryside would conclude that it was the judgement of God on those who compromised themselves with the enemy.
Jesus disputes the theological assumption that these men died because they were more sinful than other people living in Jerusalem. Jesus then repeats the central message of his ministry. Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
Repentance! Repentance is an act – a seeking, a forsaking, a returning – a responding to God who is near and “may be found.” This God is merciful and forgiving. In fact, this God is abundantly pardoning, beyond anything that human beings can imagine or enact.
To repent is to become productive, just like the fig tree! True gardeners know the saying “first year sleep, 2nd year creep, 3rd year leap.” Perhaps it was this saying coming to reality in the case of the fig tree in Jesus illustration.
In the story of the fig tree, God is portrayed as a gardener who is patient way beyond the patience of the landowner. God looks beyond the present moment to the potential within the fig tree. God will actively nurture and fertilize the tree so that it will yet bear fruit. We celebrate God’s patience and trust in our potential and seek spiritual nurture during this season, that we may also bear good fruit.
Almost all movements that struggle against unrighteousness end up adopting the position that “we are the angels and they are the devils.” However, blessed is the movement that is willing to listen to a courageous voice quietly insisting, “there are devils among us and angels among us.”
Judgment and mercy are held together. Both can be seen as parts of a simultaneous act. We stand before God’s judgment and admit the reality of our waywardness – that is, our distrust, our false pride, our worship of false God’s. At the same time, we cling to God’s forgiving message of radical love.
At the heart of Christianity is the reality of human suffering. Jesus is at his most human, at one with us most fully, when he experiences suffering. In the Easter story God suffers with us and promises that suffering is not the final word. This is the cost of love.
When tragedy strikes, people still ask, “What did I do to deserve this?” Perhaps Jesus’ audience posed the wrong question. They asked “Why did this horrible thing happen?” A better question might be, “When I encounter suffering, how shall I interpret it? How shall I handle it?
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a fabulous book in the 1980’s entitled, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In it he explores his Jewish roots in trying to understand his son’s death. He concludes that God is not the cause of pain, trouble, or evil. Instead, Kushner understands that sometimes awful stuff happens that is out of God’s power and control. Hurricanes happen and sometimes deaths occur. Cancer happens and sometimes death occurs. Accidents happen and sometimes death occurs. In all of this and more, we know that God does not cause it. All tragedies are out of God’s power. However, with equal certainty, we are assured that God offers love, compassion and consolation in the midst of trauma – revealed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
So, how shall we handle tragedy? With prayer, confident that God is grieving along with us. With honesty, trusting that God loves our vulnerability. The Russian film “Repentance” has a scene with people lined up at the prison gate to get letters from relatives, and often on many of these letters are scribbled the words, “Left No Forwarding Address.” The theatre-goers would look knowingly at each other. For they all knew what that meant, and they wept.
In another scene, the women are shown in a muddy timber yard, desperately pickling up logs one by one and examining the ends of them. One woman finds her husband’s name carved in the log, and weeps as she caresses it – almost as if she’s caressing her husband’s face.
The reviewer said that he commented to a Russian friend, “I suppose this was some kind of surrealistic statement. But the friend replied, “no, it isn’t. It isn’t a statement. It isn’t a dream. It was reality. For, (during the Stalinist era) it was common for people to search for names on the end of logs because the prisoners who worked in the forests would carve their names and the last date as a sign that until at least that date, they were still alive.”
So, in the film, a woman’s unrelenting search for her husband in a muddy timber yard, is a powerful parable of a Russian’s search for God in a muddy society. In the middle of a devasting and unrelenting horror, torture, and death they continued to look for God – and found God – even though their search was officially forbidden.
Our Lenten journey is in week 3. Repentance is not something to be done yearly at Lent, nor weekly during our worship time. Rather, it is a way of life brought about by a constant awareness of our human frailty and fallibility. May the remaining 3 weeks of Lent and the week we call Holy Week be a time of great reflection. May we use our Lenten Meditation booklets well, drawing ever close to our God.
Let us look and find God in every person we encounter. Let us live as God’s beloved people. Amen.