Pay attention: there will be a quiz toward the end of this sermon, and I will ask for your input. In case everyone just got a case of test anxiety, here’s the quiz question that you can be pondering if your mind strays from the sermon: What helps you to center your life in God? Take a moment and think of at least one thing, maybe jot it down.
There’s an old “Far Side” cartoon where God is pictured as an old man with the flowing white beard and the robe. He is looking at his computer screen, on which there appears an image of a guy walking along the sidewalk with a piano hanging from a rope over his head, and God has a finger poised, ready to hit the “Smite” button.
We find this idea of God smiting people in the Old Testament, and I can also think of one instance of it in the book of Acts; there may be others. This is the idea that you mess up and God just wipes you out. This is the underside of what we might now call the prosperity gospel, which says that if you follow all the rules, bring your sacrifice to the altar, God will bless you with health, wealth, many children, good crops, etc. It you do not follow the rules and stray from God, God will smite you and it will be your own fault. There is also smiting in slow motion: people who are ill or poor or otherwise not thriving—God is punishing them, and we don’t have to help them because they have brought this on themselves.
What do you think of this theology? Jesus says it is a lot of bunk, and he brings up two examples that are apparently fresh out of the local news.
The first example: Some Galileans made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice at the temple (the only place where one could make sacrificial offerings). So they’ve walked, I don’t know, maybe 100 miles to do this. But Pilate apparently thought they posed a danger, so he killed them as they were in the process of making their offering; hence the reference to their blood being mingled with their sacrifices. This massacre, by the way, foreshadows Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem, where his blood will become the ultimate sacrifice at Pilate’s hands. Just noticing that we are on the trip to Jerusalem….
The second example that Jesus mentions is when the tower of Siloam falls and kills 18 people—tragic. Was this God smiting people? Were they especially bad? Jesus says no. It just happened. They were just people like you and me.
But then Jesus goes on. He says the similarity between those people who died and the rest of us is most likely that we’re not as close to God as we could be. Those killed did not have time to tie up loose ends. They didn’t have any more time to work on their relationship with God, to get closer to the divine, to center their lives in that divine presence. We do have that time. Jesus says unless we make that effort to center our lives in God, when we die, we will be as distant from God as those who were cut down unexpectedly. Don’t waste any time, Jesus says, because you never know when the next tower might fall or some other disaster will cut your life short. Do not expect to live forever. Do not expect that there will be loads of time for you to get your act together later.
Imagine that you were at the Tower of Siloam when it fell, and it just missed you. Or, to make this more current, imagine that you were in that mosque in New Zealand just over a week ago, and you got out. Or that you were in the Twin Towers on 9/11, and you got out. Or you came through some bomb cyclone or hurricane or flood or wildfire or other disaster.
In addition to the grief for all those who died, and in addition to the survivor’s guilt, that you are here and they’re not, you might also have a new sense of purpose, a new urgency to use the time given to you well.
Many years ago, in the mid-1980s, my dad was in a freak car accident. He was sitting at a stoplight in the left-hand turn lane, waiting at the red light. The driver opposite him, also in the left-hand turn lane, stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake, shot across the intersection, plowed into my dad’s car, pushed it backwards across two lanes of traffic and up a retaining wall. My dad’s little white Toyota Corolla crumpled like an accordion. But it did exactly what cars are designed to do: the front and back of the car absorbed the impact, and the box where the passengers sit was relatively okay. My dad walked away with bumps and bruises. And I can’t remember whether he thought this, but I certainly thought that everything about his life from that point forward was a gift. He could easily have been killed by that random freak accident. But he was given more time. He got a second chance.
After talking about the Galileans slain at the altar and the victims of the falling tower of Siloam, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that is not bearing fruit. The gardener gives it a second chance: massage some manure around the roots, make sure it gets enough water.
I preached about my peach tree some years ago. It wasn’t doing well. It produced just a couple of peaches, and they tasted bland. The leaves had leaf curl and dropped off early. I was tempted to cut it down. Instead, I read up on organic, safe treatments for leaf curl, and for several years I got out there on a ladder with my safety goggles, etc., and sprayed the heck out of this tree. Helped a little, but it never did thrive or produce edible peaches. Last summer, as I was fixing up my house and yard to sell, here was this scraggly, sickly tree. I cut it down. I had given it my best efforts, and it was literally time to move on. Sad, but it never did thrive. So now there’s an open spot in that garden. Maybe something else will thrive in that space for the new owner.
God is like that gardener, the one who wants to give the fig tree another chance. Give it a little manure, make sure it’s getting enough water, give it every opportunity to thrive and produce. Then if it doesn’t produce, chop it down.
If we’re thinking of ourselves as the fig tree, it seems a little harsh to think of getting chopped down if we don’t produce. Kind of like smiting. Rather than see that as a threat, I invite us to consider it as an invitation to start being our best selves now instead of someday. What does your best self look like? Maybe you’re already living into that best self. Or maybe you have been thinking, Well, someday when I really get my act together, I’ll be like this, or I’ll do this, or I’ll stop doing that. What if that someday is today? Jesus is saying, Don’t wait. Start bearing fruit.
God gives us tons of second chances. And God also invites us to make the best use of the time we are given. When we bring today’s reading from Isaiah alongside this reading from Luke, we see God saying that everyone is invited to God’s abundant feast, regardless of our ability to pay. And God asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Stop wasting time on those things that do not feed us, body and soul. Why do we wander off to do things that are not centered in loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves? Nothing else is nearly as important. Remember the covenant of God’s everlasting love, and live in that space.
Perhaps by now you have figured out why these readings come along in Lent. They are all about centering our lives on what is important, which is our relationship with God. Which is about living in that radiant love and sharing that good news with everyone. Drop the distractions and make this relationship your primary focus.
What are we doing with our time, the gift of this life? God knows how to throw a good party: Are we feasting from God’s abundant table? Are we centering ourselves in God’s covenant of everlasting love? Or are we wasting time and energy on things that do not feed our body and soul?
God is not interested in smiting us. God is interested in loving us, in seeing us reach our full potential as whole beings who live in joy and serve others with great love.
So here’s the quiz: What helps you to center your life in God? Turn to one or two people near you and share, and then when I sound the chime we’ll hear a few of the responses in the full group. [Pause of several minutes, then chime.]
What were some of the things you thought of that center your life in God? [People share.] How many of you think you could do one of those things today? Or this week? And if not, what is getting in your way?
This is what Jesus is asking us to think about: God’s abundant offer of good food and water for our soul, if we will but choose to take it. Feed your soul. And out of that abundance, share God’s goodness, God’s second chances, God’s manure around the roots, God’s steadfast love with all the world. Start today. Amen.