THE RELIGION OF SECOND CHANCES
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
March 24, 2019
Third Sunday in Lent
It was thirteen years ago that four women at St. John’s — two staff members and two parishioners — got sick within a two-year period, all diagnosed with breast cancer.
The first died in 2014 at age 55; the second in 2015, at 59; the third in 2017 at 48. I am the fourth of the four.
I have asked myself hundreds of time, why, so far, was I the one given the extended second chance, the temporary reprieve. I was the oldest of the group, my children grown, twice divorced, and I’ve been known to have a Diet Coke. Maybe there’s some survivor guilt but I think that’s too easy an answer.
The fact is there is no answer, but all of us who have survived something when others have not whether an accident, an illness, a problem with a child, a mental health issue, an addiction, a divorce, who remember that overwhelming relief when we almost but didn’t fall down the stairs, or hit another car on a patch of ice, we remember being shaken to the core and exhaling, “Oh my God that was close.”
For all of us who have been given a second chance of any kind (and that’s pretty much everybody), there are daunting questions to be asked: Why must some people suffer while others are spared? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? Is it the same God who serves up a plate full of love and compassion and then dishes out a gigantic portion of pain and suffering?
Today’s Gospel from Luke addresses these questions, first about the causes of suffering, and secondly about the question of second chances.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, was known as particularly bloodthirsty, brutal and ruthless. At random, it seemed, his soldiers slaughtered a group of Galileans as they came to the temple in Jerusalem to make sacrifices – and then mixed the blood of the sacrificed animals with the blood of the Jews, profaning the holy place of worship in a particularly grotesque way. It’s as if the Charlottesville shooter had mixed the blood of the fallen at Mother Emanuel Church with the Communion wine waiting on the altar. It was that unthinkable to the Jews.
Jesus is asked if he thought the Galileans murdered by Pilate in the Temple were worse sinners than other Galileans, and also if those 18 people killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed were guiltier than those who had escaped.
These are not surprising questions, because at this time most people assumed that suffering was correlated with, if not directly caused by, sinfulness. The Presbyterian Robert Dunham says, “We still wonder what we did wrong when something bad happens. We scrutinize our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our family history, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause because then we can eliminate randomness which is the most frightening of all.” (1) We breathe easier when we hear this statement on the news, “It is believed that the victim knew her attacker.”
But Jesus says that sins are not ranked. Towers fall over by accident on the just and the unjust alike. People can be at the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no logical pattern here of cause and effect, or sin and punishment. However, Jesus say, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
What does it mean to repent?
There are two components: regret and change. It’s not enough just to be sorry; you must also be willing to change.
So, individually and collectively, of what things must we repent? How do these things account for the suffering in the world?
One cause is ourselves and our refusal or inability to change (repent of) our behavior, our habits, our addictions, our toxic relationships with people or things: the smoking that enslaves us; the sugar that seduces us; the drugs or alcohol that momentarily dull the pain; the pornography of violence that has to be escalated to satisfy us; the excess screen time that takes us away from flesh and blood people in our lives. So repentance might begin with thinking critically about our lives. The writer Barbara Lundblad says, “Dare to so look at your life and to ask the hard questions such as am I stingy in my love for others? Am I withholding forgiveness for old wrongs?” (3) To this list, I think we could add these: Do I defer looking at the big questions until a crisis comes? Am I always setting the table for the same people? Do decisions my family and I make about time reflect our deepest values? Is unwarranted fear restricting our generosity?
Secondly, people can inflict great pain on others in the context of a family or relationship, or by targeting a person or group of people for bullying or worse. Today the reason is often race or difference; the vast majority of terrorist acts are caused by male, white supremacists.
Yet those in authority are often guilty as well: from Pilate to Herod to Hitler, from abusers hiding behind the stained glass of the the Catholic Church, to Wall Street Ponzi criminals to many of today’s politicians at the highest levels who lack any moral compass and are cluelessly-insistent on remaining ensconced in their ignorance, refusing to be swayed by advisors, studies, experts, statistics, history, or even pleas from other countries. Ignorance, fear and greed on the part of the Romans and their lackeys such as Pilate and Herod are the very things that put Jesus on the Cross. This should give us pause….
Suffering also comes from nature: tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods, fires, although many of these disasters are set in motion directly or indirectly by humans. There is a perverse term in the insurance industry that refers to these things as “acts of God,” defined legally as “a natural catastrophe which no one can prevent such as an earthquake, tidal wave, volcanic eruption.” The theology here is interesting, suggesting that it is God who wills these disasters to happen or at least allows them. Many insurance policies don’t cover damage caused by these “acts of God”. (2) Maybe “acts of nature” would be a better term.
While many of our leaders refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming agreement of the scientific community (97%) on the immediate threats to our air, water, and animal species, especially since so much of it is caused by human actions, more scientists point out that there will be a point when it will be too late to correct the problems we’re causing. I know my heart was broken this week hearing that a great whale had died with 88 pounds of plastic ingested from the ocean waters.
After the discussion of suffering, Jesus goes on to tell his listeners a grim but urgent little parable with a tender, surprise ending.
In the story, a gardener pleads with a landowner to give a fruitless fig tree one more year. Space in the garden is limited and if this tree won’t produce, it has to go. The gardener offers to fertilize it and cultivate it, help it along. The fig tree is a metaphor Jesus uses for Israel. but it also could be our country, our world, or our individual lives. You get a second chance but there is an expiration date; the gardener agrees that the fig tree gets a specified second chance—one more year.
How do we use our second chances?
Second chances depend on a changed perspective (repentance). If Scrooge hadn’t been changed by the visits of the three spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future in “A Christmas Carol” he would have remained the unhappy miser he had been for so long, oblivious to the needs and blessings surrounding him.
In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” if George Bailey hadn’t been open to hearing what a difference he had made in the town of Bedford Falls, he may have just jumped off the bridge out of a deep sense of failure and insignificance, rejecting the second chance he is offered for his life.
Christianity is at its very core a religion of second chances. Even after death is the promise of new life, which we want to believe so desperately and can find so difficult, especially if we need logical proof. However, we can get hints about this from how second chances have worked in our own lives.
As for me, I’ve learned some things, like about …. feet. In early and mid-adulthood, I was strictly a high-heels girl and this slowed me down not a whit. I trotted around Blake in my red leather pumps, sailed down the aisle at St. John the Baptist in my black patent leather Easter heels, and wore two-inch wedge sandals to the swimming pool with the kids. Loved them. Grieve for them. Miss them… Sadly, I ran out of time here…
I have the family history for foot problems: My dad’s side of the family had such wretched feet (bunions, corns, and all matter of deformities) that my brother and I would ask our aunts and uncle to take off their shoes so we could be run out of the room, screaming. Every family has its rituals…
So I’ve had foot surgery and then some neuropathy in my feet from chemotherapy. I’m going to talk about these two things together.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, immediately I went to my spiritual advisor (who is now the Bishop of Washington D.C). She was encouraging but gave me only one piece of advice; “Pay really close attention.”
Her words echoed those of Barbara Brown Taylor about this very parable; “While Jesus does not honor the illusion of his listeners that they can protect themselves in this life (by being good), he does seem to honor the vulnerability that their fright has opened up in them, it is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives. It is not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark, not if it makes them turn toward the light. That torn place that fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. This is the kind of hurt that can lead to life.” (4)
So I paid attention as well as I could. After my foot surgery, when I couldn’t drive for a month I learned what it was like to depend on Metro Mobility to get to work. They get there as soon as they can yet this is a challenge for time-obsessed people like me; you often drive around picking up other people and dropping them off and you get to your destination —- when you get there. It’s relaxing, and if you drive yourself most of the time, you get to see things, notice things on the way. But it was a difficult loss of freedom.
I found out what it was like to wear a big boot instead of a strappy sandal and be here four weeks at St. John’s in a wheelchair (the ramp by the offices is really steep; it’s fun to come down this ramp with no brakes and no hands, especially seeing the faces of the people watching this pretty minor athletic feat.
During and after chemotherapy, I marveled at the support of my communities even the funny comments after church like, “Is this your real hair?” yank yank… “ouch ouch ouch….That would be yes,” but it hadn’t always been. I lost my hair so I learned how it feels to wear a wig, about the discomfort of going into a store to buy one and worrying that it will get crooked on my head.
I learned about escapism: I read constantly to escape. Sister Joan Chittiser writes about having polio as a child, “I began to read myself into a world of beauty in the hope that beauty would sustain me through the ugliness of of loss, and that exhaustion would turn into energy, and it did.” (5)
And I learned that not everything is about words. A woman who had been through chemotherapy gave me this advice: “Look for the angel in the room.” And I did. There was always an extraordinary nurse, or a stream of sunshine pouring into the room, or a phone call at just the right moment.
But when I tried to pass this advice onto another person, she asked, understandably, “What does that mean?” I couldn’t really say, because you can’t make an experience into an argument. That is one thing that is so hard about preaching. About living. It’s like travel; sometimes you have to be there to get it. At the end of the amazing novel Gilead are words I continue to love: “It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.”
I’ve had a lot of second chances: two marriages; two divorces followed by chances to rebuild a good life; two amazing children; two grandchildren; two jobs – in a school and a church; two religions — Lutheran and Episcopal – and God knows how many other second chances gracefully embedded into each and every day, month, year.
The thing about this particular parable is that Jesus points to a time limit; he reminds us of our mortality and that there is an expectation of fruitfulness for all of us. Martin Luther King called it “the fierce urgency of now.” I think that most suffering comes from this one fact: we run out of time.
But then again, we practice a religion of eternal second chances, powered by the Creator’s unending love for us, and our love for each other and for our beautiful world.
- Robert Dunham, “Beyond What’s Fair,” Day 1, March 7, 2010.
- Barbara Lundblad, “Could This Be the Year for Figs?” Day 1, March 18, 2001.
- U.S. Legal Definitions, “Act of God,” Internet source.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, “Life-Giving Fear,” Home by Another Way,1999.
- Joan Chittitser, Scarred by Struggle, 1989.
- Marilyn Robinson, Gilead, 2004.