Friday, February 26, 2016

Grace Period

Faith Lutheran Church, Miltona, MN
February 28, 2016/Lent 3
Luke 13:1-9

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

How quickly everything can change.

Two weeks ago a 79-year-old man was found dead in a bed on a ranch down in Texas.   It’s the kind of thing that happens about 300,000 times every year in America:  an elderly person with cardiovascular disease dies at home or wherever he or she happens to be.

But this particular man, Antonin Scalia, wasn’t just any 79-year-old man.  He was the longest-serving justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.  When his heart stopped beating the campaign for president of the United States took a new sharp turn, just like that. 

News-hungry cable TV networks suddenly had a juicy story-line to pursue:  what would happen when the current president, a Democrat, appointed a replacement for Justice Scalia?   Would the Republican-controlled Senate confirm such an appointment before a new president takes office?

How quickly everything can change.

One line in a news story about Justice Scalia’s death caught my attention, though.   In an article exploring the question of whether an autopsy should have been performed on Mr. Scalia’s body, a physician said (and I quote):  “If you are over 60 and are found dead in bed, most medical examiners’ offices don’t do an autopsy unless there is some obvious trauma.”[1]

What grabbed me in that quote is that I am over 60.   This physician was referring to persons like me!  He was saying that what happened to Justice Scalia could happen to me.  Along with everyone else age 60 or older, I’m “in the zone,” the sudden death zone.

Life is fragile and fleeting.  We simply don’t know when death could catch up to us!

Yes, of course, that’s true….but for you and me gathered together here at Faith Lutheran this morning—February 28, 2016—that did NOT happen.   We didn’t die this past week.   We lived to see another Sunday morning, thanks be to God.

We’re still all here--still alive and kicking.

Why?  Why do you suppose that is?  Why didn’t you die this past week?
Maybe you’re just plain careful.  You always dress for the weather, you don’t smoke, you never drink and drive. 

Or maybe the reason you’re still alive is that you avoid heights, excessive speeds, hang-gliding, alligator-wrestling, the San Andreas fault and sharp objects. 
 Why are you still alive ... and here…on February 28, 2016?

Perhaps it’s due to all the ways you take good care of yourself: watching your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol…eating a high-fiber, low-fat, low-carbohydrate, low-taste diet…exercising vigorously at least three times a week.

Why aren’t you dead yet?

Is it just that “your number isn’t up?”--as if we were all standing around the J.C. Penney service counter waiting for the clerk to call out the number on that slip in our hot little hands.

I ask you: Why is your body still occupying space and time?  Why are you still alive?

Our gospel lesson from Luke 13 offers a striking response to this provocative question.    Jesus declares here that if you’re still alive it’s solely because the One who made you and to whom you’ll someday return has decided to give you some extra time to live. 

God has granted you and me a totally-undeserved reprieve—some bonus time to repent, be renewed by God’s grace and be of use to our neighbors.

This scene in Luke 13 opens with one of those “ain’t it awful” discussions we’ve all been part of—whenever we hash over the latest natural disaster or outbreak of senseless violence.

“Ain’t it awful about those poor Galilean worshipers, up in Jerusalem for the high holy days?    The gall of that murdering tyrant Pilate!--not just killing them, but mixing their blood with their sacrifices--and right in the temple, no less?”

 “And what about that shocking construction accident?  I hear that that new tower over in Siloam simply collapsed without warning, squashing those bystanders like ants.  The body count stands at eighteen right now, but they’re still sifting through the rubble.  Ain’t it awful?  What’s this world coming to?  Why do such things happen?”

On just about any weekday morning you can overhear conversations just like these in the next booth at the café where you go for coffee and conversation.

“Ain’t it awful about those six persons killed at random last weekend by that crazy shooter in Kalamazoo, Michigan?  Isn’t it shocking—those three folks gunned down at that manufacturing plant down in Kansas?  What’s this world coming to?”

Although we’d probably not say it out loud, we might even wonder why these sorts of tragedies strike those “other people.”  We might wonder (at least, to ourselves) what they might have done or said to bring down such calamity upon themselves?

According to Jesus that’s the very last question that should be on our minds!  “Do you think that (they) were worse sinners than all the others?  I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

Tragedies that always seem to strike “somebody else” are not occasions for armchair speculation or Monday-morning quarterbacking. 

They are, rather, opportunities for us to sit up straight and take stock of our lives:  our lives that could be could be cut off just as suddenly, just as shockingly, just as tragically. 

When sudden deaths or other disasters strike, we should ask NOT “Why them?” but rather, “Why not me?”

What am I still doing here--alive and kicking?  For what reason am I still encumbering the earth?

In response to that question, Jesus spins a yarn about a fig tree in a vineyard–a fig tree that proved to be utterly unproductive--not just for one or even two years, but over a span of three consecutive growing seasons.

“Cut it down!” the hard-nosed, profit-minded owner of the vineyard commands.  “It’s just sapping up water and soil nutrients, while producing absolutely zilch.  At least we might recoup some of our losses if we turned that barren fig tree into kindling!”

“Not so fast,” his vinedresser responds.  “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I still see some potential in that barren tree.  As ridiculous as it sounds I’d like to have one more chance to mulch, cultivate and fertilize it.  Then, 365 days from today--if my hunch is right--you’ll have figs coming out of your ears.  And if I’m wrong, you can still sharpen your axe and turn it into firewood.”

What are you still doing here?  Why are you still alive and kicking on this February 28, 2016?

From the perspective of this parable it doesn’t have nearly as much to do with your luck, your carefulness, your exercise program or your genes ... as it has to do with the mercy of the Almighty One ... who, like that patiently hopeful vinedresser in the parable, seems to think that giving you and me a little more time might do some good.

What are we still doing here?

Enjoying a reprieve, another crack at repentance, a grace period, offering us  another chance to sort out the trivial from the essential, to turn away from whatever it is that stands between us and our Maker, one more – it could even be one last – time to hear the promise of freedom, hope and a future without end in Jesus Christ.

 Why aren’t you dead yet?  Because as my late father-in-law liked to say: “The devil doesn’t want you, and the Lord doesn’t need you.”

God wants you here a little longer.  God has opened up for us all a grace period in which we might continue living our lives here on this good earth.

God would like to try his hand at cultivating, mulching and fertilizing you in order to see what new and exciting fruit you might still bear. 

God wants you to have at least one additional day to trust in him, look after your neighbor, and tend your little corner of the earth. 

God wants you to ponder the Cross and Empty Tomb of his beloved Son a little longer. 

God wants you to know one more time that you belong to him – dead or alive.

That’s why your funeral has been postponed.  That’s why I am still residing at 1228 Seventeenth Street North in Moorhead, MN.

And if by some miracle we should all survive another week and gather here seven days from now wondering:  Why aren’t we dead yet?  Why are we here?… 

...The answer will still be the same:  Because this life that we have isn’t ours to possess. It is God’s to give, each and every day.

This life that we’ve been blessed with is a grace period.    In spite of our unfruitfulness, our Creator—for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ--God has granted us all an extension, some more time, an undeserved grace period, so that we might live out the full measure of all the days God graciously bestows upon us. 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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