Third Sunday in Lent, Year C
20 March 2022
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
A number of years ago I attended a funeral for a relative. Actually, it wasn’t a funeral, it was a celebration of life, held in the “club house” of the complex where she and her husband had lived during their retirement years. I had met them only once before when they had been among our wedding guests, perhaps 20 years earlier. For this celebration of life a few relatives, friends, and neighbours had gathered and those who spoke said nice things about her. But I remember that the essence of what was being said wasn’t that she and her husband had raised two children, that she gave the shirt of her back or that sort of thing, but that her favourite times were travelling to Reno and Vegas and playing at the casinos there.
It stayed with me because it seemed so immaterial, if not meaningless. I don’t object to people having a good time at a casino if that’s what they enjoy, but it shouldn’t be the essence for what they are remembered, there ought to be more.
A life that can be summed up in having liked to go to Reno and Las Vegas confuses fun for joy and entertainment for fulfillment. It seems to know nothing outside of itself and its own pursuits.
To be fair to this relative: Her daughter was adopted. And when the daughter’s husband asked her if she wanted to find out who her biological parents were, she said she didn’t need to, for her adoptive parents were her parents and that’s all she needed to know. So there must have been more than going to Reno and Vegas.
I am telling you this to make it clear that this story is not about this relative but about living a meaningful life.
Living a meaningful life is, I think what we all seek. I mean, we have to pay our bills, and we hope to be able to use the talents God has given us, and we seek happiness, but at the end of the day, we would like to have made a difference, however small.
In my sermon preparation this past week I came upon a sermon by Bryan Stevenson, not a preacher but a lawyer and the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Perhaps you have read the book or seen the movie that was released in 2020.
In his sermon1 Stevenson talks about how, after he had graduated, he had moved to Montgomery (Alabama) and talks about how when he first arrived in Montgomery he received a phone call from Johnnie Carr, the organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But this was many years later. One day Rosa Parks came to town and Carr invited Stevenson to be with them at Virginia Durr’s house who was a friend and whose husband had represented Dr King. He tells of the conversation. But he also tells how theses three women were not talking about what they had done which would have been so easy for them to do, but what they were yet planning to do, and what they were still hoping to change; and they were all in their eighties.
Of course, not everyone can be a civil rights leader but everyone can seek to live out their convictions, and everyone can put their life to the service of others and of their community.
In our Gospel reading we join a conversation about the meaning of tragedies. What about those who were murdered while they worshiped, what about those who perished in the collapsing apartment building? Or what about those who died in the theatre in Mariupol? Is there any meaning in these tragedies?
People have always wanted to find meaning in tragedy because somehow we think that knowing why something happens may make the tragedy easier to bear. But there is no explanation that could give tragedies meaning. Something good may happen later, like “Grant’s Law”2 that requires gasoline to be paid for prior to pumping it so that in this Province Grant De Patie would be the last person dragged to his death by a gasoline thief, but this is merely what we owe to each other, it does not take away the grief of those who mourn the young man.
And so we find that Jesus does not say that the death of those murdered in worship, or the death of those killed by a collapsing building has meaning to it. Instead he says, “repent, because you too will die, and you do not know when.”
I am not sure how that went over. Luke doesn’t tell us. It wasn’t the answer they had sought and most of us don’t like thinking about the fact that we will die. I have tried to be more diplomatic. What I learned was that in sensitive situations, and this may be one, you only talk about what your conversational partner wants to talk about. And generally that’s good practice because it prevents me from imposing my agenda and it is respectful of you.
But we also know that that is not how conversations in families unfold. Parents may have all the power when it comes to legal authority and finances, but conversations are often determined by their children, and the conversations are not always comfortable. And while families may struggle with that, parents also want a climate of openness where nothing is taboo, and truthfulness is more important than control, and truthfulness and responsiveness build trust.
We often call the church a family.
I think that Jesus was more concerned about being truthful than about etiquette and so Jesus reminds the questioners of their finitude and calls them to repent.
When I looked at our readings at the beginning of the week, I was stuck. The questions Jesus was asked did not resonate with me, except for a rather abstract treatment of them, and that is no sermon. Jesus’ answer also did not resonate with me. It seemed too stereotypical of Lent. Yes I know, I thought, Lent is a penitential season.
Eventually God blessed me with the thoughts of others on this text.
The theologian and preacher Fred Craddock used this text for a sermon after 9/11. A bold decision but Craddock was a bold preacher. Craddock talks about the tragedies he doesn’t see and the things he is ashamed of, and then he speaks of the grace given to the fig tree.3 This is at a time when most were calling for revenge.
And Baptist pastor Kyle Childress tells of one of his mentors and heroes, about Browning Ware, long-time pastor of the First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas. He was tall, angular, and ruggedly handsome with a crusty voice that could put the fear of the Lord into pompous religionists or share the love of God with an overworked, under-rested, discouraged waitress at an all-night coffee shop. One day an old, rattle-trap pickup drove up to the downtown First Baptist Church and two men got out dressed in work clothes. The older man was on crutches and was being helped by the younger man as they made their way into the church office and demanded to see Browning Ware.
Without an appointment, the receptionist hesitated about what to do but Browning happened to pass by and see them. Warm and loud words of greetings were exchanged; apparently the two men were father and son and members of a rural church Browning had served many years before as a student pastor, and they all went back to Browning’s study. The older man on crutches pulled up his split pants leg to expose an awful smelling, bandaged-wrapped leg. He explained that he had gangrene and the doctors were warning of dire consequences. He said, “Browning, when you were my pastor you always told the truth. Now tell me the truth. Am I going to die?” And the rest of the afternoon these three friends, father and son and pastor, spoke of the truth of life, death, and God.4
I am not sure that Johnnie Carr, Rosa Parks, and Virginia Durr were thinking about their own death when in their eighties they were talking about the things they still wanted to change, though they may have. But they knew that their lives mattered. The folks who asked Jesus about the sins of those who were murdered while they worshiped, of those who died under the rubble of the collapsing tower, needed to remember their mortality and needed to remember that their lives mattered, so they would do something with their lives. Jesus says, repent, do something meaningful.
May our speech be truthful, may our lives give shape to our convictions, and may we live knowing the grace given to the fig tree.
3 The Collected Sermons of Fred Craddock, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox 2011, pp. 165-169
4 Sooner or Later, Lent 3, Ekklesia Project, 5 March 2010