Sermon: Sunday, March 7, 2010

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9  •  Psalm 63:1-8  •  1 Corinthians 10:1-13  •  Luke 13:1-9


What do you have to show for your life?

If you were to die this afternoon, on your way home from church, or as you lay sleeping this night, what would your life have meant?

How do you know if the life you are living is the life God is trying to live in you?

I received an email about two weeks ago from a friend I have known since we were five years old. This person is highly educated, extremely hard-working, professionally successful, personally charismatic and attractive, and lost. At least that was the title of the email I received: “lost.”

It began,

“I am feeling so lost of late and I am not sure how to deal with it.  I have been struggling for a little while now.  I think that I believed that it would just get better and I would manage, like I always have in the past.  It doesn’t seem to be going that way this time.  I can’t really figure out what my problem is.  I think the base of the problem is my schedule.  It screws with me so much that I am tired all of the time.  I am tired when I do try and go out with friends or meet new people.  I think that what is most frustrating is that I really cannot find a solution to it.  There is nothing I can do in my current job to make my schedule any better.  I feel like it keeps getting worse with no hope.”

I sat on that email for almost a week before I figured out how to reply because of those words, “I really cannot find a solution to it.” I was afraid of writing something pithy that didn’t address the real pain in that situation, and I was afraid of writing something that attempted to be profound because I knew I had no solutions to offer.

And I thought about my own life, and so many of yours. I thought about conversations we have had about the struggles of being freshly out of college and at the beginning of our careers and wondering if life is just moving from one expectation to the next: school, marriage, career, kids. I thought about stories you have shared with me and with one another over coffee or in one of our small groups about the fears we carry, that we are getting older, that we are becoming middle aged, that we look at our lives and we realize this isn’t what we thought they would look like at this point. I thought about the transitions we go through as we get older, as children and grandchildren leave the house and start their own families and become more and more distant. People who once fit on your laps are now scattered across the city or the country and live lives very different from yours, and you hear from them perhaps less often than you’d like. I thought about the names and faces of the people in the 35th anniversary yearbook Kyle found while cleaning the music library last year, and how most of us wouldn’t recognize a single name in that book. How life can be so long, but so brief, and how little we leave behind to be remembered by.

What do you have to show for your life?

If you were to die this day, what would your life have meant?

How do you know if the life you are living is the life God is trying to live in you?

These are the questions that lurk in my mind as I hear the prophet Isaiah ask his own set of questions, posed to the people in this morning’s reading. He asks,

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

Why do you spend your money on things that cannot feed you, and your time on things that cannot sustain you? Listen to me closely, let your life be filled with those people and pursuits that bring you closer to each other, closer to God. Listen to me closely, so that your life might come truly alive.

That is what we are longing for, I think, that our lives might come truly alive. And I think we only know that we have this longing because we have sensed its fulfillment, we have experienced it in fits and starts. We have had those moments in the classroom where hours of preparation came to fruition in a single moment seen in the eyes of a student who finally understands and is delighted with herself, and we think, “ah, it was worth it.”

We have had those moments where months, or maybe years, spent in classrooms and libraries reading and writing come to fruition as our theses are turned in and read and commented upon, and our mentors report back, “that’s really fine work, you’ve helped me see this in a new way,” and we think, “it has all been worth it.”

We have had those moments when a child who struggled to take responsibility for his or her life, who we worried might not make the transition from childhood to adulthood, finally takes hold of some job or some path or some commitment to something outside his or herself, who maybe even gains some insight into the labor you put into raising him or her, calls you on the phone or pulls you aside while grandchildren are unwrapping Christmas gifts and says, “I never knew how hard it was. Thank you for putting up with me.”

And, in that moment of fruition, life comes truly alive, and we can tell who we are, and where we have been, and we can remember for just a second that we have not been lost, but that we found ourselves as we devoted ourselves to people and pursuits that brought us closer to each other, and therefore to God.

And then the mundane comes crashing in as we are interrupted by another student who isn’t paying attention, or news that a manuscript has been rejected, or a child’s relapse into irresponsibility, or a schedule that gets posted that will require us to spend even more of our precious time on that which does not feed us, and we feel lost once again. We begin to ask ourselves:

What do I have to show for my life?

If I were to die this day, what would my life have meant?

How do I know if the life I am living is the life God is trying to live in me?

The fear that our lives are being wasted on something less than living comes to the fore particularly at moments of death. A friend or a spouse who dies too soon fills us with grief, but later leaves us with questions, “why him? Why so early? He had his whole life in front of him. He could have been so much…”

But how do you answer those sorts of questions. As with my friend’s email, I worry about trying to say too much. Why are some lives longer and some lives shorter? Why do some of us get decade after decade to discover the meaning of our lives, to experience those transcendent moments of insight, those experiences of fruition when all our labor finally seems to mean something – but others do not? Is this some kind of divine punishment or reward?

That’s what the people ask Jesus. Why did God allow Pilate to slaughter the Galilean Jews as they came to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices in the temple? Was it a sign of God’s disfavor? Why did God allow the tower of Siloam to fall on those eighteen people? Was it a punishment for something they or one of their ancestors did? Why does God allow those with power to stand in the way of people trying to offer their gifts to the church?
Is it punishment for the way they live their lives? Why did God allow those earthquakes to kill so many people in Haiti or Chile? Was it a sign of displeasure with those people?

But really, why does God allow us to die when we are still just learning how to live?

That’s it then, isn’t it? Why does God require us to die at all, when we spend so much of our lives not understanding what the point is, what we’re supposed to be doing or learning, what we’re supposed to be accomplishing, what we’re supposed to be able to show for ourselves.

Jesus says, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

We know that we are all going to die, it is the price of living. But Jesus holds out hope that there is some other way of living that gives purpose and meaning, and that it has something to do with repentance. He tells this parable:

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the 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?’ He replied, ‘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.’”

What does this mean?

My friend has grown impatient, even despairing, that the life that took so many years to build may not be the one that will bear fruit, or at least not the fruits that are desired – partnership, fulfillment, joy. Life come alive. We understand that despair. We enter the gardens of our lives like inspectors, like landowners, looking for an accounting of what is growing in the soil of our souls with questions like,

What do you have to show for your life?

If you were to die this day, what would your life have meant?

How do you know if the life you are living is the life God is trying to live in you?

We shake the branches of our lives, looking for evidence of fruit, and when we do not find what we had hoped for, or not enough of what we had hoped for, we grow angry or we begin to despair. “Cut it down, let me start over. This is a waste of time, of energy, of my life. Cut it down!”

But God, who has been tending gardens much longer than we have, who remembers the order of the days of creation and who placed the first people in a paradise of plenty, intercedes on our behalf – holding us back from our own self-destructive impulses. “let it be, just a while longer. Let me dig around the roots and put some more fertilizer down. There is still hope for this tree. There is still time. Come back next year. Make your decision then.”

I think God plays that game with the landowner, with our tyrannical superegos, every year around this time. I think the cycle of Lent, the season of repentance and renewal, which was traditionally a time of preparation for baptism, exists to remind us that God is still watering our souls. God is still nourishing our roots. God is still pruning our branches. God is still taking care of us in ways that are both visible and invisible.

The tree that is the life God is trying to live in us is growing in its own time. It needs sunlight and rain, it needs soil and fertilizer. It experiences cycles of summer growth and winter rest and, right about now, it prepares for a dazzling re-emergence.

Are we consumed with questions about death because we have so few answers to questions about life? What makes a good life? What counts as success? When do I have enough? When have I done enough? What will I be remembered for?

Jesus responds to our anxieties about death with words of comfort and reassurance. God is not eager to cut us down, but to build us up. God’s stays the executioner’s hand, our own self-destructive impulses, so that we might have more time to grow in God’s loving care. Repentance then, perhaps, is the life-long project of answering a different set of questions, less “what do you have to show for your life?” and maybe more “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” God, the good gardener, is not waiting to judge you on the basis of your achievements – but is calling you home, pleading for your life, asking to feed you with the bread and the water and the fertilizer that can truly nourish you. That can make life come alive.

I think that’s what I wanted to tell my friend. Examine your calendar and your checkbook. Are you giving your life and your assets to those things that make you come alive? But I was afraid that it would sound like I was giving advice, which I’m in no position to give, since I struggle with the very same questions. I thought about what I know I myself need to hear, “be patient with yourself and all that God is doing in you. Don’t cut the tree down just yet, give it another year.”

In the end I did something pithy. Rather than drowning her in words, I went to the iTunes store and bought her a song. I sent her Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and hoped it would convey the depth of the connection we have had since we were five. For all the rest, she’ll just have to read the sermon once it’s online.


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