Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
Stories shape our lives—our stories and the stories of others. They form how we think, how we act, how we see ourselves, and how we see the world. I am reminded of this truth each time Nora asks me to tell her a story about when she was little. I can remember, as a child, pleading with my grandmother to tell me stories about my father when he was a child. My grandmother was a great storyteller. She had a very distinct method of storytelling and later in life I would learn that her method of storytelling actually had a name, or several names. Experts in storytelling might say that she “developed” the story; or “embellished” the story; or even “created” the story. I can say for certain that every story she told began with some truth and/or fact. But with each telling, the story would grow or expand.
For example, one of the tales that my sister and I loved to hear our grandmother recite was a story about when she and my grandfather went to the drive-in movies on a rainy, stormy night. The punch line of the story had to do with thunder and my grandmother taking off the bumpers of several cars as she tired to leave in the middle of the thunderstorm. Over the years, the number of cars she hit that night trying to leave the drive-in movies in a thunderstorm—that, as she recalled, was “raining sheets”—increased from three to seven. Each time our grandmother would tell us that story we would ask, “Grandma, how many cars did you really hit?” To the question, she would simply laugh and my grandfather, although he had to have each of the cars repaired and knew exactly how many cars were involved, never denied nor corroborated her numbers. And it really didn’t matter because my grandmother had a way of taking an ordinary tale and turning it into an exciting, extraordinary drama, which entertained her grandchildren. I loved that about her. And both the stories she told and her way of telling them shaped me.
Now, when Nora asks me to tell her a story about when she was little I try to stick to the facts. But often a bit of my grandmother will get inside me and I can’t help but “develop” the story a bit. Often in a sermon, I will tell a story that has shaped me in some significant way. Mostly though, I try to stick to the facts. Today, the story I tell is true—no developing, no embellishing, and no creating. It is, however, a story that has shaped my life in a significant way.
It is a story from my seminary days and as many of those stories do, this particular story involves Bob Poerschke. For those of you who don’t know, Bob was one of my major professors, a member of this church, and for half of my seminary experience I served as his grader. Bob was and still is an amazing theologian and teacher. You may recall the story I have told before of getting my first paper back from him and the only comment on my entire paper was, “Who is this zapping God you serve? I would like to introduce you a loving and compassionate God.” Well, if that didn’t get my attention, it wasn’t long after that that I received a paper back from him in which I wasn’t pleased with my grade. I decided I would go talk with him about his evaluation of my work and try to convince him that I deserved an “A” instead of the “B” he had given me. At the end of my discourse, in which I thought I had made a pretty good argument for a grade change, Bob looked at me and said, “Nancy, you are welcome to rewrite your paper and incorporate my suggestions and I will re-evaluate your paper. As a matter of fact, you can do that as many times as you want until you get the grade you want. But you have to earn the grade you want.” I stood there thinking, “Is this man for real? He will actually give me a second or third or fourth chance to get the grade I desire if I am willing to work for it?” A second or third or fourth chance to get it right—to work toward being my best—that was a new approach to life for me. For whatever the reason or reasons, I had grown up believing that I had to get it right the first time—whatever “it” happened to be. Growing up, I didn’t feel that there were many second chances afforded. And even now, it seems that we live in a society where second chances are not often granted—except maybe on Wall Street.
I thought of this story when I read the parable of the fig tree in Luke’s gospel. But before I get to the parable and second chances, I want to say a word about the verses that precede it. There are a couple of things to note about Luke’s gospel as we consider these verses. First, all that happens in Luke’s gospel is ultimately a part of God’s redemptive plan for the salvation of all humanity. Second, and perhaps most dramatic is Luke’s perception that Jesus announced salvation for all people alike. Although Jesus’ initiatives toward all persons regardless of their social standing are a common feature of all the Gospels, no other Gospel is so clear and emphatic on this point as Luke.
For sure, the verses that set the backdrop to the fig tree story highlights the tension between judgment and mercy—a good and timely word for us to hear. In verses 1-5, Luke raises several age-old theological questions that have to do with the warnings of God’s judgment and the promises of God’s mercy. You will recognize them, maybe as your own questions. He begins:
- Is our suffering—the tragedies and calamities we experience—a result of our sin?
- Are the tragedies we experience in this world God’s doing?
- And last, are some of us worse sinners than others?
For the writer of Luke, the answer to each is a clear and decisive NO. God does not heap suffering upon us. Nor is our suffering a result of our sin. Yes, there is good news for all of us today and it is this: whatever pain or suffering or tragedy you are enduring, it is not God’s doing. And furthermore, you are no worse a sinner than the person sitting beside you and you are no better in God’s eyes than the person you are sitting beside. The truth is this—for all have sinned…and all stand in need of forgiveness.
Luke reminds us that each of us is accountable for what we do and don’t do—for our sins of commission and omission. And we can believe or not believe that judgment will come later; and maybe it will or maybe it won’t. But I choose to believe that such accountability is about the here and now. Luke reminds us, that for the good of our world and for the good of humanity—here and now—we are a people who would do well to consider for what we need to repent—that from which we need to turn and thus that toward which we need to turn. That is what repentance is all about—turning from all things that cause harm and hurt and hate; and turning toward all that creates forgiveness and reconciliation, love and compassion. W. H. Auden once wrote: “We would rather be ruined than changed; we would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.” Jesus reminds us that there is an option to Auden’s words. And it is repentance.
But what about the fig tree? What is it that Jesus is trying to tell us with this story? Consider this: In a “throw away” and impatient society Jesus is reminding us that we serve a God who is a second chance God. Maybe even a third and fourth chance God. And beyond that, Jesus is inviting us to consider the gift of another year of life as an act of God’s mercy. Yes, the lesson of the fig tree is a challenge—a challenge for us to live each day as a gift from God believing that God’s mercy is far greater than God’s judgment.
It is the words of the prophet Isaiah that give us a clue as to how to face this challenge—how to live more fully into God’s mercy rather than God’s judgment. Listen to these words that Isaiah attributes to God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” Our second and third and fourth chance often comes not from how we think things should be or what we want things to be but rather in the surprising and unconventional ways of the spirit. The question for us this Lenten season is whether or not we might consider a different way—a way that requires us to step outside our well-formed beliefs and egos and thinking and consider what might be possible if we truly believed in a second chance God. What might we do with another year if we believed that God is indeed a second chance God? What stories of God’s mercy will we allow to shape us this year?