Sermon preached March 3, 2013
Text: Luke 13:1-9
How many of you watched the Oscars, the Academy Awards this past Sunday? That is something I typically enjoy watching, and something that our family has often enjoyed watching together. Last Sunday, Sarah and Beth got together in the Twin Cities to watch. I was in the Twin Cities as well, changing planes. My flight was supposed to leave Minneapolis for Nashville about the time the Oscars started and if everything went well, I might be in my hotel for the final awards.
Everything did not go well. We got on the plane just fine, and at the right time. Then we sat, and sat, and sat. Apparently the first officer, the co-pilot, had not arrived. He was supposed to have been there by now, but there was a full airport search going on. We waited, and waited some more. They never did find the first co-pilot, but eventually located a substitute. The plane took off two hours late, and with the two hour flight to Nashville, I missed the entire broadcast.
I have had the chance to catch some highlights. I watched Ben Affleck’s acceptance speech for Best Picture – “Argo” and could not help but notice a very dapper looking Abe Diaz handing out Oscar statues. In his speech, Ben Affleck spoke about how he had been there fifteen years ago, and about learning a lot in that time. You have to work harder than you think you possibly can. He went on to say: It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life because that’s going to happen. All that matters is that you gotta get up.
Now I do wonder how far is it you get knocked down when you are still making movies with Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones and when you get married to Jennifer Garner? Nevertheless, I think Ben Affleck is right. What matters is getting up.
Listening to that speech, I could not help but think of something else I once heard someone say. The speaker is not nearly as well-known as Ben Affleck, though he is a Noble Prize winner for literature. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney gave a poetry reading at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1996, a year after winning the Noble Prize. I heard it on MPR and recorded it on tape. During his Guthrie presentation, Heaney read a poem of his entitled “Keeping Going” from his book The Spirit Level. The poem shared scenes from Heaney’s life, and from his brother’s – his brother who continues to farm near where they grew up – Catholic in Protestant Northern Ireland. “My dear brother, you have good stamina.” Heaney admires his brother for “keeping going.” When he finished to poem Heaney told the Guthrie audience: Keeping going in art and in life is what it’s about – getting started, keeping going, getting started again.
The parable Jesus tells in Luke is a parable about getting up, getting started and keeping going. It is the story of a man with a vineyard and a fig tree in it. The fig tree was not bearing fruit. He speaks to his gardener. “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener responds. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down."
The gardener is patient and persistent. Perhaps not enough has yet been done with this fig tree to see if it is genuinely capable of bearing fruit. Perhaps it is a late bloomer and needs a little digging, and a little manure. This is a hopeful story that addresses our lives where we are. If we are feeling a little down, a little discouraged about the trajectory of our lives, maybe we need to see how we can turn the soil over a little. Perhaps there is some spiritual nurture that we have yet to feed on. If we are feeling stuck in our relationship with God, in neutral in our following of Jesus, maybe we just have not been at our particular spiritual practice long enough yet. Maybe we need to get started, keep going, and get started again. Persistence can be a pathway to God.
If the parable has this hopeful word for our lives, what about the rather cryptic and ominous first part of the passage. Two tragedies are presented to Jesus, one an act of political violence perpetrated by the ruling empire, and one a tragic accident – a building collapse. Jesus responds curtly and harshly. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Is Jesus inviting awful deaths for his unsuspecting listeners? I don’t think so.
If a pathway to God is our persistence in the way of Jesus, our patience with spiritual practices, our perseverance in doing justice, acting with kindness and love, then we lose our way if we get diverted. And there are a number of diversions.
We can lose our focus, lose our steam, forget about keeping going by paying too much attention to all that jostles for our attention in the world around us. I want to be careful here, because I believe we have work to do in the world around us. The world needs people committed to God’s dream for the world, a dream of justice, beauty, righteousness, peace and compassion. We need to know something about our world to do something good in it. Yet news can also function as a diversion. “Look, Jesus. Look at all the awful things that are happening in the world. Let’s talk about that.” Instead Jesus asks his listeners to also pay attention to their own hearts and lives. The journey with Jesus is always both an inner and an outer journey, and too much focus on either and we lose our way as we seek to keep going.
We can lose our focus, lose our way as we seek to keep going by spending too much time comparing ourselves with others. You know what, it is always easy to find someone who is not doing as well as you. That message of repentance, that message that we need to look at our lives and see where we might be wasting the soil, that message must be meant for people who are really doing awful stuff. Right? “Look, Jesus. See what happened to those Galileans. They must have been pretty bad people for something like that to happen to them. What about those people killed by the falling tower? They must have been pretty awful for that to happen.” Again, Jesus turns his listeners inward. “Why do you suppose they were so awful? Bad things happen to good people. What are you doing with your life?’ We are the ones who need to keep going, and not grow apathetic.
We lose our focus, lose our way in keeping going, when we get too much into our heads. I love theology. I love discussing, debating, thinking about, writing about tough theological conundrums. Why do bad things happen to good people? Who is God in such a world? Where is God in such a world? The questions are good ones and they matter. But if I am not at the same time I am asking such questions also asking questions about my own life, my heart, my soul, whether I am producing peace, justice, beauty, love, then my theology can become little more than a head game.
Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – that’s a pathway to God. In the midst of the messiness of life, keep going in your journey with Jesus. To know the benefits of prayer, worship, spiritual reading, self-examination, one needs to keep going. Even when we don’t have it all figured out philosophically or theologically, we need to keep going.
Till the soil of your soul. Turn the soil over from time to time – and the word “repent” is the word for turning. Turn the soil over. Find richer nourishment. Keeping going is a pathway to God. In a phrase I encountered last Lent in one of my disciplines, Joan Chittister writes: “All the way to God is the Way” (The Breath of the Soul, 18). Often our task is to keep going.
One of my favorite passages about keeping going is a passage from a letter the poet Rilke wrote to a younger poet. You will find it on your bulletin insert. Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language…. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Letter Four)
Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – the spiritual life. We do that knowing that the God of Jesus Christ is like the patient gardener, willing to dig a little deeper with us, willing to find more nourishment for the soil of our souls. That’s God’s grace, and still another pathway to God is simply to remember and give thanks for God’s persistence in our lives. Amen.