The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child's name and room number and talked briefly with the child's regular class teacher. "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now," the regular teacher said, "and I'd be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn't fall too far behind."
The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much.
But the next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. "You don't know what I mean. We've been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live."
Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?"
Bits & Pieces, July 1991
The world is a dying boy, disfigured by sin and suffering, injustice and death. One need only read the front page of the papers or access the internet one way or another to be confronted by this hard reality of the world in which we live – in which we are dying. Most recently we have seen it in the devastation in Haiti and Chile. But it is everywhere and always with us however much we might try to ignore or avoid it. In this morning’s gospel lesson from Luke 13, we hear Jesus responding to the hot-off-the-press news of the outrageous violence and blasphemy of Pilate mingling the blood of Jews with their sacrifice and the tragic accident of a collapsing tower that killed 18 people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Human history and the daily news are full of acts of violence and random accidents, of tyranny and torture. One might easily conclude that our situation is hopeless.
Indeed, many have in fact reached just that conclusion. In his novel, Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut has an important book come to light. It is titled "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?" The chief character is anxious to read it. But when he does, he finds that it doesn't take long. The whole book consists of one word: "Nothing."
Even our collect this morning reminds us that in ourselves we have no power to help ourselves. We are dying boys and girls. But the God we know is not a God of the dead but the God of Life and, though we are helpless, he has not left us hopeless. God comes to our help.
God came to the help of the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt. God reveals his name to Moses – I AM or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. And who is this I AM, this God complete and consistent unto himself? This is the God who observes misery, who hears the cry of the people, who knows our suffering. And not just observing, hearing, and knowing in some abstract and detached sublimity. Observing, hearing, and knowing our distress; God comes to deliver. God came to the deliverance of the Hebrew people from their bondage. God led them through the desert – and in spite of their own obstinacies – to the Promised Land. The God we know in the history of Israel is a God who sees, hears, and knows suffering and comes to deliver.
This same God comes most particularly in Jesus who is the way the truth and the LIFE. Jesus calls us to turn, to change the way we think and live, to reorient ourselves toward the way of God, the way of truth the way of life. That is repentance.
Jesus does not give us any neat and tidy answer to the questions we ask about suffering. But, he does rule out two common attempts to deal with death and suffering. One is to blame the victim. Jesus, in no uncertain terms rejects the notion that particular incidents of suffering are God’s punishment for particular sins. But, Jesus also avoids a simple acceptance of suffering and death. There is no sentimental idea that death is to be welcomed as a release from this dying world of suffering and death. Rather, he states the obvious that we all live in a world in which death still has a sort of dominion. He warns us to turn while we can and live into the way of his life and commit to unlearning the ways of death and collaborating with the way of death.
Like the tutor sent to the dying boy, Jesus comes to teach us a new grammar. To repent is to unlearn the grammar of violence and death and learn the grammar of peace and life, to unlearn the language of greed and accumulation and learn the language of generosity, to unlearn the grammar of division and learn the grammar of reconciliation, to unlearn the language of defensive selfishness and learn the language of hospitality and love. To repent is to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. To repent is to turn to Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and Lord of Life and accept him as Savior.
St. Paul warns us in this morning’s epistle that this is not a once-off thing. While we rejoice in the gift of faith, trust in the efficacy of our baptism, and give thanks for ongoing nourishment of the heavenly food of the Eucharist; we are still subject to temptation. Our ancestors in the faith who succumbed to temptation in the desert serve as a warning to us. We are still subject to the allure of evil and of idolatry. The Russian philosopher and poet, Vladimir Soloviev wrote, “Death and time have dominion on earth but you must refrain from calling them lords” and one way or another, idolatry is just that. Do not be complacent, Paul warns. Do not presume that you stand, lest you fall.
But, along with his warning, Paul offers assurance. Though it might at times feel like you are being tested beyond your endurance, know that you are not alone. God remains faithful. And this is what Jesus is saying in the parable of the unfruitful olive tree. The olive tree is way past the time of bearing fruit. The landlord wants to cut his losses by cutting down the offending tree. But the gardener encourages patience. Let us be clear here. What we have here is not an angry and impatient landlord-God who is coaxed out of destroying the tree by the gentle gardener. Many of us were taught, at one time or another, this image of a fundamentally angry God who gentle Jesus seeks to appease. But God is not opposed to himself. The “landlord” might rather be the religious leaders who were quick to judge and condemn. Or Satan, who is always ready to accuse. But the God we know – the God who is I AM – is the same God who has come in Jesus to deliver. And so, as a gardener he comes to help us – we who are unable in ourselves to help ourselves. He offers to dig around our roots to prepare for the radical change we need and desire. He offers to put manure around those roots. And this is a good thing. This is not manure as in “manure happens.” It is life giving, nourishing fertilizer. It is, ultimately, his own life given for the life of the world. The call to repent is a call to let the Gardener have his way with us that we might live his way and bear the fruit of his Spirit. It is a promise that we are not left helpless and hopeless. We need not be the dying boy. We need not be the dying girl. Sin and death need not have the final word. We can be changed.
And God desires that we be changed and live. In 2 Peter 3:9, we read, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” In this morning’s New York Times Magazine, there is an interview with one of my heroes, Desmond Tutu who was the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa during the last years of Apartheid. In the interview, he talks poignantly of his son, Trevor:
He’s a very gifted person, but you see a little bit how God must feel about us because he has really undermined his own life by his abuse of alcohol. When he’s not under the influence, he’s incredibly wonderful, he really is, and it makes you weep to see how he then is almost intent on destroying himself.
God feels about us the way Desmond Tutu feels for his son. We are addicted to the ways of sin and death. We need an intervention. Jesus is that intervention.
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? Ezekiel 18:23