Read the headline news, listen to the stories behind the names and circumstances on our prayer list, observe life and you will quickly be reminded of what you already knew. Siloam’s was not the last tower to fall and Pilate was not the last to hurt or kill another person. Tyrants and towers are a reality of this world and our lives. They come in all sorts of events, ways, and circumstances. Sometimes it’s intentional, other times it’s accidental. Sometimes it’s of human origin, other times it’s the way of nature. Accidents, disease, crime, divorce, famine, poverty, war, earthquakes, tornados, and tsunamis. Those are but a few of the tyrants and towers in this world.
Whenever and wherever tyrants act and towers fall we are faced with the reality that life is fragile, unpredictable, and often tragic. In those moments we are often quick, too quick, to seek and offer easy explanations. “They got what they deserved.” “God has a plan.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “He’s in a better place.” “There’s a lesson to be learned here.” “This was God’s will.” “Someday when we get to heaven we’ll know why.”
Jesus has heard something like these explanations from the people who tell him about the Galileans whose blood pilate mingled with their sacrifices. It sounds a lot like they are saying that something bad happened because they were bad people. To this kind of thinking and all the other simplistic, trite, and unhelpful responses in the face of tragedy Jesus says, “No, I tell you.”
That is not who God is or how God acts. The reality is actions and choices have natural consequences. Sometimes they are tragedy and suffering. Other times they are prosperity and joy. The reality is good things happen to both good and bad people. The reality is bad things happen to both good and bad people. Tyrants, towers, and God show no partiality. That is more than clear in Jesus statement, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
“Unless you repent….” I suspect that’s not what the people wanted or expected to hear from Jesus when they told him how Pilate killed the Galilean worshippers. I can’t imagine that Jesus’ story about the eighteen killed when the tower of Siloam fell and then his words, “Unless you repent,” made things any better.
Imagine that one day you call or come by the office to tell me that you son is getting a divorce, that your best friend has just been diagnosed with cancer, that you mom has died, or your husband just lost his job. You would not be happy if my response was, “Unless you repent….” Your next phone call or visit would probably be with Bishop Lillibridge. “Can you believe what he said? How could he say that to me? What are you going to do about this?”
Let’s just be honest about this. Jesus’ words are not all that helpful. They offer no consolation, explanation, or comfort. “Unless you repent…” is not we want to hear. Sometimes, however, it is what we need to hear. Today’s gospel is not about pastoral care. Jesus, to state the obvious, is not acting as a pastor. He is being pure prophet.
Prophets speak hard truths, truths we often do not want to hear. Jesus is looking with insight into the condition of our lives, making a diagnosis, and offering a corrective. Prophetic words challenge us. Sometimes they scare us. Other times they make us feel guilty or angry. Always, they grab our attention and show the way to new life.
“Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Tyrants act and towers fall. Now is the time to examine the fig tree of our life. Where is our life bearing fruit? Where is it not? Where do we need to spend time, care, and energy nurturing life and relationships? What are our priorities and do they need adjusting? Who or what orients our life? Are we growing or are we “wasting the soil” in which we have been planted?
We are right to hear urgency and necessity in Jesus’ words. This is not because God is vindictive but because life is short, precious, and sacred. Jesus is more concerned with why people do not fully live than he is with explaining why people die, tyrants act, or towers fall. Everyone dies but not all truly live.
The poet, Mary Oliver, states this beautifully in the last lines of “The Summer Day.”
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Oliver’s question is at the heart of Jesus’ call to repentance. Her question underlies and guides our Lenten journey. Repentance is the means to reclaiming the “one wild and precious life” entrusted to us. Repentance is the way to life, the way of becoming most authentically who we are and who, at the deepest level, we long to be. What might repentance look like in your life? Ultimately, repentance is about choosing to live and live fully. So choose, and if you find you have made a wrong choice, choose again.
It is never too late. “One more year,” the gardener told the owner. That is not about time but about forgiveness, grace, love, and second chances. So, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
This sermon is for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, and is based on Luke 13:1-9.