Sunday, March 07, 2010

Demanding grace

Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree, Alexey Pismenny, 2008.

Isaiah 55: 1-9; Luke 13: 1-9
******** United Church of Christ
March 7, 2010

There have been some recent deaths that have us praying our grief and shaking our heads. Earlier this week two young people of this town, brother and sister, PJ and A. were killed in a car accident after heading home after a family gathering for a baptism. And the week before, BS, G’s son and R’s brother, thirty years old, married to M., father of D. and C., died at home. A friend of my husband, JL, a fellow Habitat volunteer and a member of ****** Congregational Church, 59 years old, died recently of a heart attack, after coming home from his regular jogging routine. Every one of them, too young, we say. And the question nags at us, gnaws in our bellies, catches in the back of our throats: “Why?” And no answer will satisfy.

In the gospel lesson from Luke there are some folks, with the same urgency, wondering the same question about some fellow Galileans who were executed, whose blood Pilate mingled with the blood sacrifices in the temple. This constituted suffering because the combined blood of the dead and the blood of sacrifice were now considered unclean and worthless. It would be like taking the cremated ashes of a beloved friend and dumping them in the fireplace.

Jesus asks their question for them, even going so far as to provide an example of a recent tragic, accidental death, so he can answer their question but not with the expected response. In the time of Jesus and long before, it was thought that if one suffered, then one did something to deserve it, that there is a cause and effect order to the universe, that is, sin and punishment.

"Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are good person is like expecting a lion not to eat you because you're a vegetarian." --Howard Tullman

Jesus sounds like he is on the same track. Repent or perish. Truth or consequences. But then he goes and tells a parable that sounds as if it has a bit of grace in it. The fig tree that’s not producing any fruit gets another year to prove itself.

This is going to sound prosaic and cliché but nonetheless it still has power: what if you had only another year to turn your life in another direction, to be fruitful, what would you do? We think we have all the time in the world to do what needs to be done, to make a good life and to serve God, and so we spend our money on that which is not bread and labor many of our days in ways which do not satisfy.

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, Van Gogh, 1886.

Lent is the forty days of the Christian year where we practice dying in order that we might know how to live the other 325. To fast, to refrain from excess is how we die a little every day, we deny ourselves and pick up our cross. Those of the Quaker tradition believe that it does no good to do without for forty days and then pick up right where we left off on Easter. Every day is a day to remember Christ’s birth, death and resurrection; every day is a day to live modestly and mindfully.

Each Lent I try to do without a behavior that is sinful while also taking on a behavior that connects me more deeply to life. This year I am striving to give up snarky driving: judging other drivers, making snide comments and swearing. Instead I try to remember that I’ve done my share of speeding and wrong turns for reasons that really didn’t matter as much as I thought they did. So I’m trying to smile and bless them on their way.

I’m also endeavoring to write every day in a book designed to elicit a mother’s life story for her children. I don’t like to think about my own death, but should anything happen to me, my girls and my husband will have this testament of my life. But then again, perhaps if I thought more about my death, thought about my regrets and shortcomings, how I’ve failed the people I love, then maybe I’d figure out how I want to live and live more fruitfully.

The lectionary has been leading us through the first three of twelve steps for the past few weeks; now we’ve finally come face to face with step four, taking that fearless and moral inventory of ourselves. This is exactly what repent or perish means. Those of us who have actually done a fourth step and the steps that follow it know that without the fourth step, there is no recovery, there is no changed life, and that in some way we will die if we continue living the same life. God’s grace is always there for us, but it has no power to change us if we are not willing to turn. Or think that we’re one of the ones that doesn’t have to turn.

Grace is no easy thing. Though God loves us unconditionally, God’s forgiveness is not carte blanche to get away with everything. Dietrich Bonheoffer called this ‘cheap grace’. Grace without repentance is grace without the cross, salvation without servanthood. He wrote: “To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

Originally, the Way of Jesus did not focus on the crucifixion and resurrection. It was part of the “Two Ways” tradition of teaching, common to Judaism and many other faith traditions. There is the wise way and the foolish way, the path of least resistance and the road less traveled. One leads to life, the other to death.[1] But, we say, Jesus lived the wise, narrow way and walked the road least traveled and still it lead to death. But it was not a death that comes from the excesses of sin but one that comes from living a life of extravagant love.

Death will come for all of us. We are dust and to dust we shall return. There is nothing we can do to avoid it. The question is how do we want to live? The other half of repent or perish is grace and life. And an extravagant love; a love that accepts us just the way we are and loves us so much as to not leave us that way.

What are some the excesses in our lives that we can do without? What are some practices that connect us more deeply to life that we need to take on? How might we live more modestly and mindfully? In what ways do we as people of faith and citizens of this nation participate in the path that leads to death? What do you as a church need to do in the coming year in order that you might produce good fruit?

God’s grace is amazing but it is also demanding that it might be transforming that we might be saved that our lives would be changed. Thanks be to God.


1. Marcus Borg. Preface to The Lost Gospel Q. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 1996, 1999, pp. 17-18.

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