St Thomas’, Salem—Luke 13:1-9
“Wait ‘til next year!” That was the perennial rallying cry of Brooklyn Dodgers’ fans in the 1940s and ‘50s as they watched their team come “Oh so close” many times during those years, but only once come home with a World Series victory. Of course, as the devoted follower of a baseball team that has only even appeared in the World Series once during my lifetime, and that only recently, I have uttered those words a few times myself—Wait ‘til next year!
It’s comforting—is it not?—to think that there will always be a “next year,” that there will still be time for obligations to be met, for hatchets to be buried, for apologies to be made, for long-delayed projects to be completed—and, most of all, time to get on solid ground in our relationship with God. We think and act as though there will always be a “next year,” there will always be “one more chance” to say, “Lord, I’m sorry, please forgive me, this time I’m serious about turning things around.” To think otherwise—to think that, somewhere out there, an actual deadline exists—is distasteful to us, because it confronts us with our own mortality. There is nothing quite so certain for us as the prospect of death.
Yet, we spend most of our lives in functional denial of this inescapable reality. To be sure, as we get older, that denial tends to soften. But it’s always there. Facing death is always difficult. I know of a seminary professor who required his students, during the course of the semester, to read the Prayer Book burial liturgy once a week, and insert their own name in the blank spots in the prayers for the dead. That would probably give most of us the creeps, but it’s no doubt a spiritually worthwhile exercise. To give in to our denial impulse, to live as though there is an infinite number of “next years,” that the game will proceed indefinitely into extra innings, that the show will always go on—this is risky behavior. It’s playing “chicken” with Eternity. It puts us at risk, quite simply, of waiting too long, of putting off the important work of repentance and amendment of life and growth in holiness until it’s too late, and we’re no longer able to do it.
It happens all the time, of course, on a smaller and less consequential scale. People put off getting married, not because they have made a conscious decision to remain single, or can’t find the right person to marry, but just to keep their options open, and avoid the finality of a commitment. Couples put off having children, not because they have consciously decided to remain childless, or lack either the emotional or financial resources to be good parents, but—once again—to assert their right of free choice, to avoid the finality of commitment. Then, one day, they find that they are either too set in their ways, or too old, to get married or have children. Life has passed them by. They held on to their options so long that their options disappeared. They safeguarded their right to choose until there was no longer a choice to make.
Yet, it’s one thing to squander, through procrastination, our shot at marriage and family life. It’s quite another to squander, through procrastination, our opportunity for profound joy and eternal happiness in communion with a God who made us and loves us and became one of us to save us, and who knows our needs before we ask. When it comes to repentance and reconciliation with God, “wait ‘til next year” is not a helpful slogan.
We don’t have to pay attention to the news—however we get our news—for very long without being reminded of the shortness and uncertainly of life. There seems to be a mass shooting every few months, with innocent lives lost, but it doesn’t have to be anything that dramatic. As you know, I do a lot of driving on Illinois highways, and every now and then there’ll be a lighted sign over the road that says how many traffic fatalities there have been so far this year. Each of those was a sudden death, completely unanticipated by somebody who got up in the morning feeling fine and got dressed and had breakfast and went about their day until … in an instant, it was all over.
And it’s not unique to our time and place, either. In St Luke’s gospel, Jesus refers to two tragic events that must have been in the headlines at the time, but which we know nothing more about: the murder of an unspecified number of Galileans by Pontius Pilate, who then further disgraced their memories by mingling their blood with that of the animals offered as sacrifices in the temple; and an equally deadly, though purely accidental, collapse of a tower in the town of Siloam, which killed 18 people. Sudden loss of innocent human life on an attention-getting scale— this is a mystery, to be sure. We simply don’t have an entirely satisfying explanation as to why God allows such things to happen. But it’s more than just a mystery; it’s also a warning. Jesus’s point in citing these two tragic events is that, if we’re smart, we will see in them a wake-up call, a goad that pushes us out of our complacency and denial, an alarm that invites us to consider whether “next year” might indeed be here already, and that there may not be another.
Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a fig tree that was unproductive, so the grower wanted to cut it down and make room for another tree that might give him a return on his investment. But the caretaker of the orchard doesn’t believe that all is yet lost. He asks the grower for one more year, during which time he will give it special attention—extra manure, expert pruning. Then, if it is still not productive, it will have to be cut down. So, what element in this parable do you think represents us? You’re right—it’s the fig tree. We are unproductive fig trees, but, sooner or later, we need to start bearing fruit. We need to sincerely repent of the things we have done which we ought not to have done, and the things we have left undone which we ought to have done. We need to develop and manifest the fruits of the Spirit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We need to not only ask, “What would Jesus do?” we need to do what Jesus did!
Now, we serve a loving and generous God, who supplies us with the resources we need to accomplish this work. As we read in the Psalms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This is the season of the Lord’s favor. This is when we have “room” to repent, space in which to make the 180° turn that is the essential movement of repentance. It may not always be so. There is such a thing as “too late.” It’s not that there are limits to God’s love—personally, I don’t know that it’s God who ever defines “too late.” We do it to ourselves. Every time we say, “Wait ‘till next year,” every time we procrastinate in our intent to examine our lives and make a break with those habits of mind, body, and heart that fall short of God’s glorious purpose for us, every time we delay our repentance, the very thing we need to do becomes more difficult. Eventually, as a result of thousands of little decisions made—either overtly or by default—over many years, the very thing that is the most necessary for us becomes the least possible. We are contracted, turned in on ourselves, cut off from our true humanity, and therefore also cut off from the love of God.=
But we’re not there yet. None of us is there yet. There is still space to repent, and grace to make it happen. It is not yet too late. If we will only grant our permission, the Caretaker of the garden stands ready to fertilize us and water us and prune us until we bear the kind of fruit which is the fulfillment of our deepest nature. To a large extent, this is what the season of Lent is for—to encourage us to take an honest look at ourselves, calculate where we’re headed if we stay on the same course, and figure out what we need to do to either get on the right course or stay on the right course. As the Lord says through the Psalmist, “Today, if you would hear my voice, harden not your hearts.” This is the day of salvation. This is the season of the Lord’s favor. This is “next year.” There may not be another.