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Sermon: Perishing

March 5, 2010

Luke 13:1-9

I would not call myself a control freak.  Anyone who has ever lived with me, however, would definitely label me a control freak.

I like things exactly the way I like them, and I never want them to change.  I want the dishes and the glasses and the silverware to be put away exactly in the right places.  I never want any piece of furniture moved even one inch from where God has ordained from the beginning of Creation that it should be placed.  I expect that my children should do exactly as I say without deviating from my instructions or questioning me.  The food on my plate should always be eaten in the exact same order—first salad, then vegetable, then starch, then meat.

That is how, in God’s immutable wisdom, life should be lived.  My family and the rest of the world, however, have other ideas.  If I want a quiet afternoon at home, my children inevitably choose that moment to invite their friends over.  I am cold, wearing a sweater and bundled up in blankets, and my wife wants the windows open.  Even my own body betrays me.  I want to play basketball, and my legs say to me, quite sternly, “You’re staying home tonight.”

“We live in a world in which we are not in control” (Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 231.).  We are not in control.  Things happen to surprise us, to shock us, that turn our lives inside out.  Jesus made that clear in his remarks at the beginning of our scripture lesson today.  The Galileans were murdered by Pilate while doing their duty in the Temple.  Eighteen people were killed in Jerusalem when a tower fell on their heads.

When things like this happen—to others and to ourselves—we try to make some sense of the events.  If I can establish why the murder happened, why the tower fell, why the levies broke open, why the disease invaded the body, then I can develop a measure of control.  All I have to do is avoid the behaviors that caused the terrible to occur, and I’ll be safe.

One common strategy is to blame the victims.  When we do that, it’s not usually because we are being cruel.  It is our way of protecting ourselves by erecting a psychic barrier to feel safer.  I can’t suffer the same fate because I behave differently—I am a different kind of person—than the ones who were devastated by misfortune.

Because we want this to be a perfectly fair world, we sometimes believe that disaster is punishment for sin.  These people who died must have committed some terrible act.  Hasty words like these always come out after a major disaster.  The Haiti earthquake was punishment for a pact with the devil, Hurricane Katrina the punishment for immoral New Orleans living, and 9-11 a punishment for abortion and giving rights to gay and lesbian citizens.  We live in a world in which we are not in control, and so we desperately attempt to construct a narrative that makes us feel as if we really do have control.

Jesus addressed this issue when some people came to him and said that some Galileans had been killed by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate while they offered sacrifices to God.  Jesus said, “What, do you think those poor folk died because they were worse sinners than anyone else in Galilee?  Of course not.  And what about those 18 people who were killed in Jerusalem when the tower of Siloam fell on them?  Were they worse sinners than anyone else living in Jerusalem?  Is that why those people were killed, because they were sinners?

“No, but if you do not repent, then you will perish just as they did.”

*     *     *     *     *

In the 1992 film Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood played an aging gunslinger in the old West.  He had been a bad man in his day, and he was trying to atone for his sins and gain a measure of self-respect by bringing justice to a gang of men who had viciously attacked a prostitute.  A very young man—practically still an adolescent—was riding with Eastwood while they hunted down the outlaws.

Eastwood and the kid tracked one of the men to an outhouse on a ranch.  The young man crept up to the outhouse, flung the door open and fired three shots into the outlaw, who died in agony.

That night at the campfire, the young man trembled in fear and horror at the reality that he had actually killed a man.  Yet, with Eastwood sitting across from him, he tried to appear strong and tough.

Finally, still looking into the fire, the kid said, “Well, he had it coming, didn’t he?”

Eastwood said, “Kid, we all have it coming.”

We all have it coming.  Were those killed by Pilate any worse sinners than anyone else in Galilee?  No, everybody in Galilee was a sinner.  Were the ones the tower toppled onto worse sinners than anyone else in Jerusalem?  No, everybody in Jerusalem was a sinner.  Were the ones in New Orleans who died or who lost their homes worse sinners than any other Americans?  No, all Americans are sinners.  We all have it coming.  If you don’t repent, then you’ll perish just like those Galileans and Jerusalemites.

Clearly, of course, Jesus cannot mean that we will perish in some natural disaster or man-made evil as punishment for sin.  He has just said that those events are not punishment for sin.  They are just things that happen in this life.  So what does Jesus mean?

Here’s what I think.  As we have already established, we are not in control of this life.  Disasters and disease happen.  Acts of human evil claim innocent victims.  We are not in control, and we do not know how much time we have on this earth.  For all that any of us know, it could all end tomorrow.  We have a limited time, and it could be five years, ten years, twenty years, or twenty minutes.  You just never know.

We have this limited, unknown time during which to live and bear fruit.  The gardener dug the soil and put manure all around our roots so we can live and bear fruit.  That’s the gospel life.  As we repent, we turn toward, we orient ourselves toward that way of real living, and we bear fruit—love and care for one another, selfless action, a life of gratitude and joy.

The other option is to perish.  There is either living and bearing fruit or perishing.  Just as to live is an ongoing process, so is perishing.  So if we do not repent, we do not orient ourselves toward the gospel.  If we do not orient ourselves to the gospel, we are perishing.  We are not bearing fruit.  Our branches become lifeless and useless.

Of course, we have the option to repent at any time.  You and I could choose to live our entire lives moving away from the gospel, and then repent and move in the gospel direction on our deathbeds, if we wish.  I could live a selfish life, a foolish life, a life of perishing, and wait it out, to change direction at the very end.

But Jesus may be telling us today that that sort of life is a waste.  Why not choose to live today—right now—and so have the rest of my life, no matter how long or short it is, to live?  Why shouldn’t I stop perishing now and start living?  There is no need for any of us to wait.  We only hurt ourselves if we do.

We have already established that life is contingent.  It is fragile.  It is out of our control and could end at any moment.  So why wait?  I have two choices: live or perish.  I think Jesus is saying to us that we have these two choices, and so it makes sense for us to enter into the life of the kingdom now rather than later because there might not be a later.

The good news is that Jesus lived his short life for us.  He chose to let it slip away before his time, so that we do not need to perish.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Because of Jesus, we can choose true life.

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