05 March 2007

fate

Luke 13:1-9, “At that very time there were some present who told him . . .”

So just when you thought spring had sprung, it gets chilly again. The week before this past one the temperature was in the mid 70s to 80s. It was nice. And it wasn’t cold in the mornings. That is what I notice most anyway . . . is how cold it is when I walk down the driveway to get the newspaper . . . or how cold it is when I go for my run or to the gym in the mornings.

But when we lived in Rincon, I could tell the temperature by whether the garage door opened on the first try . . . or not! Yep, that’s right. That garage door opener was a pretty good predictor of how cold it is on any given morning. Let me say that it is not exactly a precise instrument for measuring the air temperature, but what my wife and I figured out is that if the temperature is below about 40 degrees, that garage door would not open on the first try.

You would have to press that button again and again and again and eventually, well most of the time, that motor will start pulling the door up. On a warm day, it is no problem. But all through this winter, especially on the cold days, we stand at the back door leading into the garage, pressing that button over and over just hoping that on the next try . . . maybe then . . . maybe if I say the right words . . . or sometimes if I say the wrong words, that door will finally open.

Why it did this, I do not know. Why it worked when it did, I do not know either.

We do wonder sometimes why things happen the way that they do. Or why things don’t happen in a certain way. Is there meaning to it? Why does the garage door sometimes open like it is supposed to and sometimes I have to open it by hand? I don’t know.

Of could we are glad in those times when some event happens as we believe it should.

Several years ago I worked with a hospice patient I will call Jimmy. Jimmy was in hospice but he was also a resident of a homeless shelter in Savannah. He was a fellow that we thought had absolutely no family whatsoever. I even called the coroner’s office when he died so that somebody could pick him up . . . there wasn’t anyone we could find who would be able to bury him.

Jimmy stayed at that shelter until about 24 hours before he died, that was when we brought him into Hospice House. I called the only number I had for someone that we had listed as the next of kin. I asked the guy how he knew our patient; he said that he was just an old friend. No family, so we thought.

A few days later we organized a memorial service to be held at the chapel at the shelter where Jimmy had lived. I arrived there on Tuesday to meet the chaplain who had organized the service. Mica greeted me and said, “Have you heard what happened?” I hadn’t.

Then she told me about a woman who happened to be at Union Mission that day. She was scheduled to take a test for a new landscaping education program they were starting. When this woman arrived, she started asking around about Jimmy, this patient; she knew that he had been there before.

Well it wasn’t long before all of the pieces were put together and she told us about Jimmy’s family in a town nearby. She talked about how he had lived there most summers; how he had raised several step-children, had had a common-law wife there, had been a part of that community the same way that he had been a part of the community at the shelter.

This woman just happened to be there that day, at just the right time that she could be there at the memorial service, to hear so many residents and staff tell about how Jimmy had taught them something, about how he had cared for them as they cared for him. And because she happened to be there that day, she was able to take that story back to his family. Many of us made the comment that day that this was just one of those situations where God pulled some people together at just the right time, for just the right reason.

And you know, that is a pretty easy thing to say when something good happens in our lives. It is harder to say when something bad happens.

And there were some bad things that had happened in this portion of the Gospel of Luke . . . and Jesus is being asked about those bad things.

First there was an incident where Pilate had ordered some Galileans, people from around the sea of Galilee, Pilate had ordered them killed while they were worshipping in the temple. This is what is meant by their blood being “mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” These worshippers had come to offer their gifts to God . . . and instead what they were murdered. And then Jesus reminds them of a tragedy that happened in a place called Siloam where a tower fell on the people and killed eighteen of them. The first tragedy is a human-driven, a man-made tragedy . . . the second one seems so random. Bad things do happen.

And we know this in a way. We know that bad things can happen to us too, things that we do not expect, things that are the result of other people’s actions, events that happen with no reasonable explanation. Bad things do happen.

And in this situation, Jesus does what Jesus is good at: he names what these people are really asking. Jesus gives words to the question behind the question.

Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans died because they were worse than other Galileans?” Is it because these who died were worse sinners? Is it because you who live are somehow better than them?

And we think that too sometimes . . . that if we make the right decisions, if we do the right thing, if we are good people, then nothing bad will happen to us. But still, sometimes, it does.

And Jesus is pointing out that the potential for pain, the potential for tragedy, the potential for death is all around us. It is not that these Galileans were killed because they were bad. It is not that this tower fell because those people were evil. Bad things do happen.

But Jesus doesn’t exactly let them or us off of the hook. Jesus says that these events were not the fault of these people, but unless you change, unless you repent, unless you do something different than what you are doing now, you may suffer the same fate. Even though we can be comforted that it is not our merit that affects whether God love us or not . . . and that is comforting, Jesus also reminds us that bad things can still happen to us.

And then Jesus tells us a story.

It is about a man who planted a fig tree on his land. He planted a fig tree in hopes of enjoying the fruit of that tree. And later when the man returned, expecting to find that the tree had grown, that it had nice ripe figs hanging from its branches, the man walked up to it and it was a scrawny thing; that tree that he had planted a while ago was still small . . . and it had borne no fruit.

So the man calls for the gardener and points to the tree and says to that gardener, “I have been coming out here for three years. For three years I have come back to this spot, again and again, I have come hoping to have a sweet, soft, delicious fig from this tree. But no! For three years I have been waiting and there is still no fruit! That’s it! I’m done with it! Cut it down! Why in the world should I be letting this pitiful tree suck the nutrients and water from my soil? Cut it down!”

And the gardener looks at the man and says, “Let’s try it for one more year. Let me dig around it a bit, and put some manure, some fertilizer on it. Let’s try one more time. And then, if it bears fruit, we’ll keep it. If not, we’ll cut it down.”

Let’s try one more time.

I don’t know about you, but I am grateful that our God gives us second chances. Today is another day that we can try again in our relationships with others, in our marriages, in our families, with our children, with our worries and hopes.

Today we get to try again.

Jesus is like that gardener, providing us with what we need to grow, to bear fruit. Jesus is willing to plant us in some of the richest soil you can imagine. But we are also acutely aware that the choices that we make in life, the chances we get, these opportunities do not always stick around forever. Jesus is trying to tell the people through this parable that they have a wonderful opportunity, another chance, a time to embrace what God can do for them in their lives, in their homes, in their relationships . . . and sometimes we even have to try again with garage door openers.

You see, sometimes that garage door back in Rincon would open on the fourth try. Psychologists tell us that that is operant conditioning! It worked just enough so that I kept trying.

But then sometimes too, as in the case of this hospice patient named Jimmy, we get a chance to share with a complete stranger what their loved one meant to us.

And then there is the now, right now. And this is a time when we can again feel Jesus saying, “Let’s try one more time.” We again get the chance to be people of faith, to embrace the work of Christ in our lives in such a way as to change us, to change the world, to bear fruit for everyone.

It is my prayer that we take that opportunity before it is gone.

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