St Bartholomew’s, Granite City—Luke 13:1-9
In many churches, Lenten worship, at one time or another involves a prayer text called the Great Litany. Whenever I pray the Great Litany, it seems like a different petition glows more brightly for me than any of the others. Most recently, it’s been, “From dying suddenly and unprepared: Good Lord, deliver us.” We all have to die; that much we know. But there are, I think most of us would agree, good ways to die and not-so-good ways to die. We all know our mortality—in our minds, at least—and many of us are at relative peace with the idea of having died. It’s actually dying—the process of dying, the act of dying—that we’re not so sure about, because there are various ways of getting to that destination, and a lot of those ways are particularly more frightening than the others, “suddenly and unprepared” being one of them.
If I were to describe what I consider the ideal death, a holy death, it would look something like this: It takes place at home, not in a hospital or other facility. There’s plenty of warning—several weeks, at least, if not a few months—and, of course, it’s happening at a ripe, old age and after a full and productive life. There’s no pain involved, just a quiet and dignified slipping away. The person is mentally lucid, and verbal, until the very final moments, and is surrounded by loved ones, and a priest is there, offering the last rites of the church, and giving final Holy Communion—food for the journey. There are no regrets anywhere in the room, no unresolved issues. Everything that needs to be said has been said.
Doesn’t that sound like the ideal way to go? But how often do you suppose that actually happens? Not very. In fact, I think it’s safe to say, hardly ever. In reality, death very often comes quite suddenly. By eavesdropping on a conversation between Jesus and some of his followers, recorded for us in St Luke’s gospel, we can see what some of the headline news of the day was. Apparently the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (with whom Jesus would soon have an encounter of his own), had attempted to bolster his power by making an example—a particularly bloody and horrific example—of some Galileans whom he believed had defied him in some way. And, “in other news,” a construction accident in the community of Siloam had claimed eighteen lives when a tower collapsed, taking all the workers down with it. With a little effort and access to a local newspaper, we could easily pull similar headlines from our own recent experience.
But sometimes, of course, as we know all too well, death comes slowly or painfully or slowly and painfully. We may leave this world in a mental fog induced by pain-killing drugs. We may leave this world too soon. And the definition of “too soon” keeps changing. I heard an interview with the author Studs Terkel some years ago on the occasion of his 90th birthday. The reporter, somewhat insensitively, observed that many people think to themselves, when they’re young, “Who wants to live to be 90, anyway?” to which Mr Terkel replied, “Most everybody who’s 89!” We may leave this world with more than our share of regrets and unfinished business, feeling like we’ve accomplished way too little in the time that has been allotted to us. In many ways, we may feel like the fig tree in the parable Jesus tells right after the news about the massacre of Galileans and the construction accident in Siloam. After several years, well past the time when it should have been producing some fruit, the tree is still barren. So the grower says to his field hand, “Chop it down. I’m not going to sink any more money and energy into it. I need the space for something else.”
So, whether we die suddenly and unprepared, or slowly and unprepared, or slowly and prepared—or, in what is probably the rarest circumstance, suddenly and prepared—the result is the same. Our journey through this world is ended, and we are on our way to, as the saying goes, “meet our Maker.” And none of us know when that final trip down the hall will begin. So, what this liturgy for the Third Sunday in Lent this year reminds us of is that every extra year, every new day, every moment, every nanosecond of life is a precious gift from God. Each of these gifts represents an opportunity to become either more prepared, or less prepared, for our passage from this world into the world to come. Each one of us has the freedom to use this resource—this resource of time—wisely and well, or foolishly and poorly. Will we be good stewards of what we have been given, or will we squander it?
The fact that God actually spares us from one day to the next is a sign of his loving mercy. We usually take our own being for granted, do we not? We act as though our “default mode” is to be alive and kicking, and something extraordinary has to happen in order to cause our death. In reality, though, it’s the other way around. Our default mode is to turn to dust. We began this Lenten season with a tangible sign that it is from dust that we were made, and it is to dust that we will return. Dust is our default mode, and something extraordinary has to happen to keep us alive from one moment to the next. The field hand in our Lord’s parable is a figure for Jesus himself. He intercedes with the grower on behalf of the fig tree. He says, “Boss, give me one more year, OK? I think I know some things that might work. If not, then we’ll chop it down.”
Jesus continues to intercede for us. He intercedes for us even through this very Eucharist that we are in the process of offering. He is at this moment pleading on our behalf before the Father, and the Father’s merciful response presents us with an opportunity—an opportunity to take steps such that we will leave this world having no regrets—no regrets either with respect to coming into the nearer presence of God, and no regrets with respect to being separated from an immediate relation to the people in our lives, those whom we have come to love. We give thanks to God for this moment, when we can be here together and be reminded of the wonderful gift we have been given. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.