Saturday, March 06, 2010

Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So 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?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

Time for an old joke:

Preacher is getting warmed up and declares to the congregation: “One day, everyone in this parish, will die.” In the front row a man chuckles. The preacher is puzzled, so he says it again: “One day, everyone, in this parish, will die.” The man laughs out loud. Now the preacher is upset: “One day, everyone, in this parish, will die!” The man laughs louder. On the way out of church, the preacher stops the man and says, “Sir, I stated an obvious truth, that someday everyone in this parish will die, and yet you laugh!” The man smiles, “Well, you see Father, I’m not from this parish.”

Luke 13 begins with the biblical version of the six o’clock news: tyrannical governor commits another atrocity and a tower collapse kills 18. Then the people lean in for some insight or understanding to explain all this suffering, and Jesus says: “One day, everyone in this parish, will die.”

But no one is laughing. Instead, we think of Katrina and Haiti and Chile and we struggle to understand. We demand to understand, and the world does it’s best to help us understand, but in the end, and without wanting to seem redundant, “One day, everyone in this parish, will die.”

We live in an instant age. Twitter first came to international attention in 2008 when it was noted that people began “tweeting” about the earthquake in Sichuan province while the earth was still moving. People thousands of miles distant learned about this newsworthy event before it concluded, with the typical duration measured in seconds. The cynical question, of course, is does Twitter improve the quality of news gathering and reporting, of does it simply add to the din?

I don’t have the answer, but Twitter seems to be one of those love/hate places on the internet where people get really excited or the want to throw their new iPad across the room. Instant or no, the pattern is the same. News breaks, with a pattern or image that denotes something unique or momentous. “We have breaking news” still jolts us, even when some news outlets have abused it with ex-jocks in Broncos in low-speed car chases.

The first hours are spent learning the scope of a disaster. Real news is scarce, and pundits are engaged in mostly comparison to previous disasters. Pictures begin to arrive, and the first “on the ground” tell the story while reminding us that they are the first on the ground.

Maybe I’m illustrating nothing more than the fact that I consume far too much news, but I think you can see the pattern. There is an arc to every story, and within a few days it fades from our mind and until some future date when we say, “oh yeah, Sichuan province, I forgot about that.”

Luke 13, though, concerns the middle of the news cycle. Pilate’s misdeeds and the tower collapse are still fresh in the minds of Jesus’ audience, and they ask the “why” question that always appears at the mid-point between breaking news and the fade from view. This is the moment in time when Pat Robertson will say something truly stupid, or the first conspiracy theory is floated. In the Gospel, Jesus is using a rhetorical technique when he says “do you think these people were worse sinners than everyone else?” Then he answers his own question, “No, they weren’t.” But then there is a semi-colon, maybe the most important part of the passage, and then he says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Two things. First, there is a semi-colon, and you know what that means: “closely-related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction.” Say that ten times fast. That was from Wikipedia; something they didn’t teach in Ontario schools in the seventies. So we would map it out thus:

Rhetorical question regarding deserved suffering.
Jesus says “no.”
Conclusion as warning: no one escapes death.

The semi-colon is the most important thing in the passage, because they are closely-related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction. It wasn’t “no, but you better watch out” it was “no.” And then he said, “One day, everyone, in this parish, will die!”

Since time began we have demanded to know why. Mere months after learning how to speak we begin to demand to know why. Toddlers stack their whys, and we barely evolve through life demanding an answer to the very same question. There is nothing as unsatisfying as “we don’t know” or “I wish I knew” or “maybe someday we will know the answer.” So we make stuff up, or postulate a theory, or we learn to live with not knowing. The last one is the toughest of all.


A few years ago I heard Mark Epstein give a lecture, the author of the wonderfully titled book “Going to Pieces without Falling Apart.” Epstein is a Jewish scholar, with expertise in study of Buddhism. Of you might say a Buddhist scholar, who was raised a Jew. Either way, his work involves a synthesis of these two great religions, and in doing so, casts light on what it means to be human.

He told the story of an epic journey, to the outer reaches of a far-flung place, to visit and gain wisdom from a very famous and very reclusive teacher of the four-fold path of Buddhism. The journey is long, and they are welcomed with a glass of water and the warm smile of the great teacher. Teacher, they say, we have traveled far to see you and hope that you can impart some insight or secret worthy of your great reputation as a teacher and guide. The teacher nods, and lifting his water glass he says, “my friends, this glass is already broken.” He says no more.

Like the work of all great teachers, you have to go away and think about it before the real value is clear. I like that fact that you can remind yourself every time you lift a water glass, unless you are drinking from a plastic bottle, then you’re into a whole other sermon.

Every November I go to the Ashley sale. I can’t remember when I started, but it was long enough ago that I used to be the only man in the place, feeling a little out of place, but happy knowing that I could do most of my Christmas shopping in one fell swoop. I have a thing, you see, for china. I like the feel of it, the strength of such a thin cup or plate, the designs, the imprint underneath, the gold on the lip or edge. In short, life is too short to eat off anything but china. Here endeth the lesson.

No, that’s not the lesson. The lesson is that one by one, every dish and every cup will break. The gold wears off, the edges chip, the tile on the floor is no cushion, and one by one these wonderful pieces break. It is the way off all flesh. But life is too short to eat off anything but china. Now, I could get a china cabinet, they sell those at the Ashley Sale too, but what would be the point of putting them under glass if I don’t get the daily pleasure of eating and drinking from these little bits of art?

So my Royal Grafton coffee mug with January printed inside the rim is already broken. I’m using it, I’m enjoying it each day, but I Iive with the knowledge that someday it will be no more. I will be sad for a while, and I may try to replace it, but even if I did, the new one would break too. Bittersweet may be the only word that fits here, bittersweet being the “middle path” between the pleasure of enjoying something in the full knowledge that someday it will be no more.


A parable is meant to be an emotional roller coaster. Bad tree, no fruit, cut it down! One more year, a little manure, let it be. Still no fruit, bad tree, then cut it down. You see the emotional highs and lows?

The Leafs suck!
Yeah, the Leafs suck!
But we’ve got Phaneuf!
Yeah, we like Phaneuf. Okay, one more year!

The answer is, we live in the ‘one more year.’ It is our only theme, unless you happened to get caught under that tower in Siloam. And that is exactly the point. Some are tragically taken away, but the rest of us have one more year, then another, then another, until we go to Siloam too. And this is not one of those “repent or die” messages, not even a “you’re gonna die so why not repent?”

This is a message about a water glass that is already broken and a tree that always has one more year. And God is always the same: I gave you the glass to enjoy on a temporary basis, because like everything, it is already broken. You are my tree, and next year’s dialogue will be an updated version of this year’s dialogue, because with God it’s always ‘one more year, one more year.”

“One day, everyone, in this parish, will die!” Meanwhile, live well, enjoy the people around you, and try to be good.”


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