Title: The Time Is Now
Date: March 7, 2010 (3rd Sunday of Lent)
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9
Author: Monica Schmucker
The passages this week got me thinking, what is it that motivates people to change? What sparks repentance? It strikes me that Jesus issues a warning to repent and Isaiah an invitation to repent. I realize that I preach repentance, in a way, every day in my job as a nurse practitioner. Now I don’t want to be flippant in comparing my efforts to get patients to give up sweet tea and start an exercise regimen with repenting of sin. But well, that’s the “repentance” I preach –with considerable hypocrisy, I must admit. There are lots of buzz-words and theories like “stages of change” and “motivational interviewing” that get tossed around in my profession.
Still, the question remains, is it more effective to focus on the positives, “You’ve lost five pounds and now your blood pressure is much better. You can do it! Just twenty more to go,” or issue the dire warnings, “If we don’t get these blood sugars under control, you could go blind, have a heart attack, end up on dialysis, and have a leg cut off. Oh, and did I mention the potential detriments to your love life?!” (That last one always gets their attention.) A colleague of mine contends, “People don’t change because they see the light. They change because they feel the heat.” Looking at my own life, my own failed attempts and small successes at following the health advice I believe to be true, I know that it’s much more complicated. In the end, what I say probably isn’t going to be the deciding factor, but it doesn’t stop me from trying.
In Luke 13, Jesus is told about the slaughter of some fellow Galileans while they were offering their sacrifices. “Do you think because they suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” And he goes on to offer another example of sudden disaster and again warns us to repent or perish. I really didn’t like reading this. Jesus sounds too much like John the Baptist here. But then Thursday, at the end of a long day at work, I had an experience that helped me read this warning a little differently.
Despite my unfinished charts, I hung out at the lab in the center of the clinic for a few minutes. This is the informal gathering place for the nurses, medical assistants, and lab tech. When everything has quieted down for the evening, they chat for a while or tell jokes or gossip or recount the stand-out moments of the day. I like to listen. It’s nice to connect with what’s going on outside the closed doors of my exam rooms. Thursday it was our nurse, Me’Shall, recalling a patient who is drowning in alcohol and his health is rapidly deteriorating. His doctor told Me’Shall, “I’ve been telling him, but he’s not hearing it. Go in there and lay it all out for him.”
And that’s what she did. She offered a few moments of small talk and then, “I’m tellin’ you, you’ll be dead in a year, the way you’re goin’. You got a wife? She can start plannin’ your funeral. You got kids? They’re gonna grow up without a father. That’s terrible, but that’s how it is.” Me’Shall recalled how she watched his face, the beads of sweat that broke out on his forehead and the tears he was blinking back. “I guess no one ever told it to him like that before,” she said.
Me’Shall is one of several strong, black women I’m privileged to work with. All of them have this ability to offer up tough love, to go places and say things that I can’t. Me’Shall doesn’t try to soften the blow with words like “could” or “might.” She doesn’t make the warning easier to swallow. But when she delivers it, something in her voice or her body language says, “I care what happens to you.” There’s something fierce and maternal in her way that shakes you by the shoulders.
I read Jesus’ words again with Me’Shall in mind. And this time I heard them as if I were that man in the exam room—the tough, fierce love underneath. “I’m telling you this because I care what happens to you.” There’s an urgency about repentance. Stop deluding yourself. The time is now.
After issuing the warning to repent, Jesus tells a parable. Now, if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s don’t try to explain the parables. So I won’t try to explain it, but instead invite you to puzzle over it with me. The owner of the vineyard comes looking for fruit on his fig tree. It’s borne no fruit in 3 years, so he orders the gardener to cut it down. There’s no sense having it waste the soil any longer. But the gardener doesn’t go running for the axe. Instead he argues with the owner for a stay of execution. “Give it another year. Let me nurture it a little more,” he says. “If it bears fruit, well and good! If not, you can cut it down.” Did you catch that? “You can cut it down.” Now, maybe I’m reading a little more insubordination into this than is intended, but I get the feeling the gardener would never relish destroying the tree even if it continued to be barren.
So, I wonder, is God the gardener? Is God the one who sees the potential for life, the One who isn’t willing to give up hope? Where do we read ourselves into this story? Are we the fig-less fig tree needing someone to advocate for us, to encourage us to grow into our purpose, to be who we are created to be? But what if we look at the story differently? How do we respond to people or situations that fall short of our expectations? Are we inclined to take the attitude of the owner or the gardener?
Isaiah 55 calls out a wonderful invitation to come and satisfy our hunger and thirst at a banquet. This isn’t leftovers and stale bread, it is a rich feast, freely given. I heard recently about a soup kitchen in DC where the main cook is a master chef. He works with homeless men to turn out wonderful food from the donations the center receives. It’s an example of the kind of extravagant banquet that Isaiah says is meant for us to enjoy. This banquet is real soul food.
“Listen, that your soul may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” The poet calls for repentance in light of the reality of God’s love. “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them return to the LORD that he may have mercy on them, and to our God for he will abundantly pardon.”
Turn away from the things that are life-destroying. Stop spending your energies to maintain illusions that won’t satisfy you anyway. There’s something here for you that will fill your deepest needs. Lent is a season for examining our desires. Do we hunger and thirst for the life God offers us? Do we feel our need for it and our need for forgiveness?
When is repentance possible? What does it take to face our sins, to acknowledge who we have become? Where can we stand “with our dirty pockets turned inside out,” as Meghan described it a few weeks ago. I think we can’t repent without something else to turn to. We need to know that the final verdict on us is not the worst things we have done or become. It’s that stuff of God—love, mercy, grace, forgiveness—whatever angle we use to describe it, that gives us the courage to face up to the truth. Without that, without something else to grab on to, how could we let go of the justifications and lies we need to be acceptable in our own eyes?
A few weeks ago I went a performance of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. I’m still mulling over the father’s suicide that marks the end of the story. (Sorry to spoil it for anyone). For years he’d clung fiercely to the belief that while his actions were wrong, his intentions were right. He didn’t really think what he’d done would result in the deaths of 21 pilots. He was sure the flawed engine parts he’d shipped out would be noticed before they were installed. His only concern was saving the business he’d spent his life building so that he could pass it on to his beloved sons. “My family, right or wrong,” seemed to be his motto. He would stand by his sons no matter what. But when he realizes that his outlook was wrong, that “they were all my sons,” he puts a gun to his head. And I wonder, is it because he can’t bear to see himself as a murderer or is it because he can’t bear the thought that his sons cannot forgive him for it?
My neighbor, Joy, is a recovering alcoholic. She once told me, “Recovering addicts are the most honest people. They have to be—their life depends on it. Other people can get by pretending or denying what’s going on. An addict can’t do that and live.” In the end, though, neither can any of the rest of us. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just easier to point out how alcohol or drugs are wreaking havoc on someone’s health and relationships. I can’t tell you exactly what it was that gave Joy the courage to face her addiction and chose the daily struggle of sobriety. I do know she stays involved in AA and she tells me she prays a lot and these things help her and have taught her so much.
Repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand. It’s not just “repent and you’ll be forgiven,” but “repent because you are forgiven.” It’s okay to admit the ugliness of our sin because God already knows it and God, in Christ, has already done everything to overcome it. In taking the fearful plunge of repentance, we can land in the deep assurance of God’s unchanging love for us. No one is out of the reach of God’s love. God is infinitely more forgiving of us than we are of ourselves. God is infinitely more inclined to offer grace to others than we are. Our passage from Isaiah ends like this, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So the time for repentance is now. What are we waiting for?