We like to think that the gospel we just read is about our questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did Pilate murder those Galileans? Why did the tower of Siloam fall on 18 people? Why were 50 Muslims murdered at prayer in Christchurch? Why did they bomb the cathedral in the Philippines, killing 20 last Sunday?
They're all good questions. It’s good to hear Jesus affirm that horrific events have nothing to do with sin or divine judgement – but that’s not really what today’s gospel is about. Today’s gospel is about the urgency of repentance. The urgent need for our eyes to be opened to the reality of God. Because unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Back in the 90s, there was a book and then a movie called “Dead Man Walking”. It was the story of a nun who became a spiritual advisor to a death row convict. The phrase “dead man walking” is the term used in US prisons for death row convicts. As they made their way to their execution, other prisoners would call out “dead man walking”. Though they walked, they were as good as dead.
That’s pretty much what Jesus calls us in today’s gospel. You are dead men walking; you will all perish – unless – unless you repent. It’s a bit chilling, but that’s the message, and it’s the message we’ve been given throughout the gospel, and by the prophets before that. When John the Baptist appears in the wilderness he proclaims a baptism of repentance. When Jesus inaugurates his public ministry he proclaims:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent!”
The Kingdom of God has drawn near, it is in our midst and yet we know that it is not yet fully realized. That’s one of the tensions, it’s one of the great frustrations of our faith. We believe that in Jesus, in the incarnation, in his death and resurrection, that God was doing something new, that this was the beginning of the great movement by which God would restore humanity and make things right with creation.
And yet we look around us and we see that things are not right. If we needed a reminder of the brokenness of this world and of humanity, surely the past two weeks have been that reminder. The great restoration has begun and yet it is not complete. We live in in-between times. Why the delay? If God has promised to wipe every tear away, why hasn’t this been done yet? Does this in-between time have a purpose?
Yes. The purpose is repentance. Every day that you and I wake up in this imperfect world, we are being given another chance, a second chance with a purpose. And that purpose is repentance.
So maybe we should talk about what repentance is. And what it is not.
Today’s gospel actually drops us right into the middle of that conversation, into a cascade of images of what repentance is and is not that begins in Chapter 12. Most of the images are of people who just don’t get it.
There is a rich man, who, when his land produces an abundance of crops, he realizes that he has no place to store it all. And so he decides to tear down his barns and to build bigger barns, so that he can store enough grain for many years to come. But that very night, he loses his life, and God says to him “you fool!”
There is the home owner who is complacent, who falls asleep, so that when the thief comes in the middle of the night, the house is broken into.
There is the slave whose master goes away, who then takes advantage of his master’s absence to beat the other slaves and to take all the food and drink of the household. But when the master does return, he destroys that slave.
There is the woman who has a dispute with another, who refuses to resolve the disagreement and reconcile with her neighbour before the matter goes to court. But when the dispute does end up in court, she gets thrown into prison.
Just like each one of us, each of these four people live in in-between times. But they’re blind. They don’t realize the urgency of the time that they live in, they don’t perceive the kingdom of God in their midst, they seem to have no awareness of the way of life that God is calling us to, and they all seem to be caught by surprise when their time is up.
Jesus tells us these stories because he doesn’t want us to be blind. And he doesn’t want us to be caught by surprise. In fact he says to the crowd,
“When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” We know how to read the weather, we get out our umbrellas, but we’re blissfully unaware of what we are to do with the time that God has given us.
The purpose of the present time is to repent. And what is repentance? Repentance is a change in perspective, a re-orientation, a turning. Is it a change in what we do? Yes, but before that, repentance is a change in how we see. Repentance is about opening our eyes to the reality of God, to the ways of God, to that movement that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, to what Archbishop Michael Curry likes to call the way of love. Can you see it? The kingdom of God has drawn near, it’s in our midst. Can you see it? The way of love came to us in embodied form, Jesus came as a human being to show us what God’s ways look like. Can you see it? The whole purpose of our lives in this in-between time is to re-orient ourselves so that we can see God’s movement and get on board. Because when we get on board, when we become part of God’s movement, when we walk with God, then our doing changes and our lives will bear fruit. Because when we see properly we will know that the abundant gifts that we receive from God are to be shared with those in need, not to be hoarded for our own security. Because when we see properly we will know that it is more important to be reconciled with our neighbours than to judge who is right and who is wrong. Because when we see properly we will know that we are to use whatever power we have to serve others, not to exploit them or build ourselves up. Because when we are complacent, when we start sleepwalking our way through life, we need to wake up and smell the coffee!
Which is why Jesus says to us, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Wake up! That’s a warning. It sounds ominous. It’s meant to get our attention. But there is good news. We don’t have to do this all on our own.
Like the fig tree, we have been given more time. Like the fig tree, we have a God who intercedes for us, who cares about us, who digs around us, who nourishes us, who wants us to bear fruit. Because that's what life is for. We were made to bear fruit.
So repent! Come to life. In our gospel, Jesus says it as a word of warning. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah says much the same thing, but he says it as words of comfort and consolation. So let me end with what Isaiah has to say about repentance:
“Ho, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters,
and you that have no money, come and eat!
Why do you spend your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, incline your ear and come to me, so that you may live.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
Call upon him while he is near.
Return to the Lord, for he will abundantly pardon.
You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace,
The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song.”
Come, and live. Every day that you wake up, you have been given a second chance, a second chance with a purpose. And that purpose is repentance.
Homily. Yr C Lent 3, March 24 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 55.1-9; Ps 63.1-8; 1 Cor 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9
Image by Faith Kashefska Lefever, Creative Commons