Third Sunday in Lent

St Bartholomew’s, Granite CityLuke 13:1-9, I Corinthians 10:1-13


For most of my adult life, I have been an avid student of human motivation.  What makes people do the things they do?  It’s quite an industry.  People have gotten rich writing books about it, and some have gotten even richer giving seminars and providing consulting services.  But no matter how sophisticated it all gets, it’s hard to top an old expression that comes, presumably, from those who have tried to train rabbits.  There are basically only two motivational tools: the carrot and the stick.  You can motivate people positively, by holding out something desirable and attractive in front of them, or you can motivate people negatively, by creating fear of pain or other unpleasantness.  The carrot …   and the stick.

Jesus, arguably among the top “motivational speakers” of all time, was not above using both of these tried and true techniques. One of his great concerns during the days he walked this earth was to lead his followers to something called “repentance.” I’m not talking about just feeling sorry for some wrong that you’ve done. Repentance is much more profound than that. Repentance is conversion: conversion of mind, conversion of heart, conversion of will, conversion of action. It is deep personal change, from top to bottom, stem to stern. Repentance is a major overhaul, and a follower of Jesus, a “Christian,” is called to be in a continuous state of repentance. One day, the headline on the Jerusalem Post read: “Eighteen die as tower collapses,” and Jesus saw an opportunity to do some more motivational speaking about repentance, and he decides, in this case, to use a stick rather than a carrot. “Take those eighteen people who got killed in a construction accident,” Jesus says to his followers. “Do you suppose they deserved it?  Do you suppose they were any more sinful than everyone else who didn’t die there?”  Now that may sound like a no-brainer to us, but to the Jewish way of thinking at that time, it was a good question.  They were used to thinking in terms of specific disasters being a punishment for specific sins. But before they can get a word in, Jesus gives them the answer, and the answer is “No.”  The survivors are just as guilty, just as sinful, as the victims. It isn’t that the victims got what they deserved, but that the survivors did not get what they deserved. The survivors have another opportunity for repentance, another opportunity to escape the very undesirable fate of dying suddenly and unprepared.

Jesus apparently felt the need to jolt some of his followers out of a false sense of complacency. They felt they had no need for repentance. St Paul, another great motivational speaker, had a similar concern for the Christians in Corinth, and we hear today an excerpt from a letter expressing his concern. He reminds them of the children of Israel, who had experienced the grace of deliverance from slavery, and who were blessed with the Old Testament equivalents of the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist.  Yet most of them fell away from God, and suffered very unfortunate consequences. Christians may rest absolutely secure in the love of God, and in the sufficiency of the grace available in Christ.  But we cannot give up repentance until that work of salvation is brought to completion, until we have been fully made over into the image and likeness of Christ. As long as we have free wills, and as long as those free wills are tainted by sin, there is the possibility of falling away. Spiritual complacency is a hazard to our souls.

It’s not much of a secret that I am a virtually lifelong fan of the Chicago Cubs.  I’ve even integrated my attachment to the Cubs into my theology. For instance, why was there an earthquake in San Francisco in 1989, during the World Series? It’s because the Cubs, and not the Giants, were supposed to be in the series against the Oakland Athletics! 1989 was a painful year for Cubs fans. Of course, so were 1984 and 2003 and 2006 and 2007. But all of these wounds are trivial in comparison with the continuing open sore of 1969.  1969 happened to be the year that I graduated from high school and started college. At the beginning of September, when I boarded a plane in Chicago, bound for college in Santa Barbara, the Cubs enjoyed an eight game lead in the Eastern Division of the National League. Eight games, by most standards, is a comfortable lead for the first of September, virtually a done deal. But if you research the statistics, you will find no mention of the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs or World Series of 1969. Did they become too complacent? Did they depend on their eight game lead to save them, rather than their continual “repentance,” continual turning away from distractions and toward the race that is being run?  I don’t know, but the possibility certainly makes a good illustration of the need to guard against falling asleep spiritually. The consequences are horrendous. The consequences of spiritual complacency are not only that we are exposed to sudden and unprepared death from falling masonry. Spiritual complacency also exposes us to facing a number of hazards suddenly and unprepared: moral and ethical dilemmas, intellectual crises, the stress of poor health, and the crushing pain of grief.  These events don’t always come with any warning, and our very souls are at risk if they catch us with our spiritual armor and weapons scattered all over the ground. And how can we ensure that we can weather these storms when they arise?  Through repentance.  Through conversion.  Through following Christ.

If the consequences of falling asleep spiritually are a motivational stick, and that stick persuades you to change your ways, then thanks be to God! But if you’re the type who responds better to carrots than to sticks, well, God has one of those too. A line from our Psalm this morning expresses it beautifully: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy; slow to anger, and of great kindness.” Jesus tells a parable about a fig grower. One of the trees in the orchard is particularly unproductive, and the grower tells his employee to cut it down and chop it up for firewood. The employee has a soft spot for that fig tree and he says, “Boss, just give me one more year with it. There are some tricks I haven’t tried yet.  Maybe I can get it to grow decent figs. If not, then we can cut it down next year.”  The boss was persuaded, and that tree is us: us as individuals, St Bartholomew’s as a parish, us as the Diocese of Springfield, us as the Episcopal Church, and us as the church throughout the world. We are unproductive fig trees, and the economics of farming suggest that we should be cut down. But the Lord is full of compassion and mercy; slow to anger, and of great kindness.

From time to time I meet someone who seems genuinely aware of his own need for repentance, but remains unmotivated to make a change. What’s the use?  I’m too far gone. God couldn’t possibly forgive what I’ve done. I really need to repent, so much so that there’s no way I can even think about doing it. If the 1969 Chicago Cubs are a metaphorical image for spiritual complacency, then the New York Mets of that year are an image of not surrendering to spiritual despair. On the first of September, they were the team that was eight games behind the Cubs. At that point, the temptation to, if not give up in despair, at least to slack off, is almost irresistible. But baseball fans remember 1969 as the year of the “miracle Mets,” who went on to win not only the National League pennant, but the World Series. I’m sure it was the unknowable sovereign will of God, rather than any intrinsic moral virtue on their part, that enabled the Mets to persevere. Nevertheless, they are a sign of refusing to accept the notion that it’s too late to repent, that conversion is of no use when one is eight games out on the first of September. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy; slow to anger, and of great kindness. For the 1969 Mets to have given up would have been a mistake. But for a human being to give up on God’s love, to give up on the chance for repentance and conversion, is a monumental blunder! To be so near the kingdom; indeed, to be actually inside the gate by means of the sacrament of baptism, and then to slip away through despair, is an unspeakable tragedy.

Have we not become a bit too casual about the fact that this parish, and every parish, has “lapsed” members? What is a “lapsed” member? If we lose an arm or a leg to accident or disease, do we call that arm or leg a lapsed member? No, we call it a horrible tragedy. A lapsed member of the church is a scandal! A lapsed member of the church is one who has turned aside from the freshest, juiciest carrot in the universe in favor of a fake carrot made of plastic and orange paint.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  Oh, let us not forget that blessed fact!

It is so difficult, sometimes, to keep our perspective. It is so easy to see only what’s immediately in front of us, and to hear only what is closest to our ears, to be caught up in the conditions of the moment. A great many women, in the midst of labor pains, have made their husbands swear never to let them go through that experience again. They are, understandably, caught up in the conditions of the moment. Yet, see how many families there are with more than one child! When the pain subsides, they’re able to regain perspective. The divine perspective on our lives enables us to see, first, that we all need to repent, to be continuously converting disciples of Christ; and, second, that it is never too late to repent, because the Lord is full of compassion and mercy; slow to anger, and of great kindness. God offers us abundant opportunity for repentance. That opportunity is available to us even right here and right now. What motivates you, the carrot or the stick, or perhaps a combination? Whatever it is, God has the tools, and he’s ready to use them!  It is a wholesome practice to approach the altar with a specific intention for the grace that is dispensed there in Holy Communion. I invite you to form your intention as the elements are prepared during the offertory hymn. Call on Jesus the motivational speaker to move your stubborn heart and will to repentance, by whatever means are necessary. Amen.

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