"Who Is Alive And Who Is Not?"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 3/15/1998

Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9

     The question posed by the sermon title may imply that today we are going to clarify who among us is spiritually alive and who is not. Let me assure you this is not the case. The Church for too long has engaged in such a practice as if it had the power to forecast accurately the destiny of individual lives. The Church does not have that power. However, within its long heritage, the Church has often responded to people as if it had such authority over human life.

     Nevertheless, the issue looms that some of us are alive and thriving with loving energy, some of us try to survive by "hanging in there" one day at a time, and there are others who believe that nothing ever works for them. They may even dread the dawn of each new day.

     "Who is alive and who is not?" is a question we need to use as a yard stick to measure ourselves and no one else. And we should know that we have the power to change the answer, if the one we get is not one to our liking. When we are honest, few of us know anyone who would deliberately choose mere survival over growth. Why then are there always two camps -- those who struggle most of their lives and those who grow?

     There is a parable in our Gospel lesson this morning that may provide some insight for us. The focus of the parable was a fig tree growing in a vineyard. The owner told his gardener that the tree had experienced three growing cycles and had produced nothing. He wanted the tree cut down. But the gardener said, "Let's give it one more year. I'll dig around the root system, feed it and we'll see. If it doesn't produce by next year, we'll cut it down."

     In this parable Jesus provided a description of a tree that was taking precious nutrients from the soil while producing nothing. Yet, we well understand that Jesus was not talking about a tree. He was talking about people. While we are grateful that the owner gave the tree a second chance, it still had to produce or be cut down. This thought can be disturbing. In fact, it may cause us to look more critically at what we are producing.

     We know from Jesus' teaching on forgiveness that we have more than a second chance. He taught that we can forgive and be forgiven forever, "70 times 7." God would not invite us to acquire a skill that God does not also have. So in truth, we have an infinite number of chances to change our thinking and to alter how we process life's events. We have an infinite number of opportunities to produce quality fruit.

     So many of us link our thinking about such fruit with the qualities of joy, happiness, and peace. In fact, our society worships the belief that such states-of-mind are sustainable. They are not. As we walk through Lent, once again we visit with Jesus the number of challenges that he faced. Jesus was not bubbling with enthusiasm as he walked to Calvary knowing that very soon nails were going to fasten his body to a cross for crimes he never committed.

     A number of years ago, a man was seated across from me in my office detailing a number of events that were impacting his life. His wife had fallen in love with her athletic trainer and she moved out of their home without much warning. His father's home had burned and he had to take a leave of absence from his job to help with his dad's circumstances. This leave of absence was coming at a time when his company was engaged in reducing the number of people in his division. It was a most difficult time for him.

     As we talked about this chapter of his life, my mind raced to numerous illustrations of people who had been successful during dramatic times of change. I recalled the time when a Hebrew boy was sold into slavery by his half brothers to a group of Ishmaelites who were traveling by caravan from Gilead to Egypt. There was Job, in all his innocence, who lost his vast herds, his real estate, and members of his family. Then he developed boils all over his body while his friends came challenging his continued faith in God. "Why don't you just curse God and die?" they asked. And there was Paul whose litany of beatings, imprisonments and shipwrecks rivals any story of personal tragedy found in the Bible.

     Have you ever noticed that hearing stories of how others have conquered life's unwanted events seldom brings us comfort? When we experience a major upset, it is because some event has hurt us personally. It does not help to know that we are not alone. It does not help to realize that we are not the first persons to experience this. It does not help to learn that we are like a chunk of coal that will eventually become a diamond because of all the heat and pressure. And it does not help to hear from the Scriptures that God rains love on the just and unjust alike. When we are numb and lack direction, common sense and knowledge do not serve to rally our inner resources.

     The challenge to our faith, however, comes at this very point. Disciples are asked to produce fruit even during times of trial. In essence, Jesus said that fair weather people are a dime a dozen. He taught, "Who of us cannot be loving when others are loving toward us. Even tax collectors and others sinners do as much."

     What is the thread of faith that ties the responses of Joseph, Job, and Paul together? In the parable of the fig tree the gardener said, "I will dig around the roots and put in some fertilizer." This course of action was designed to make the tree grow. The same is true for each of us. The difference between us and the tree is that the tree has no choice. We do.

     During a long road trip a number of years ago, I had my radio tuned to a talk show. I remember this particular interview because it illustrated an excellent point. At the microphone was a psychiatrist who had a large practice in the Los Angeles area. He was talking about a recently published book he had written. During the interview, he described an experience he had while at a convention.

     While participating on a panel of experts, he met a female colleague. Their meeting produced love at first sight. They appeared drawn to each other because of their shared level of understanding and wisdom. She had read his book and he had read a number of articles she had published. Before the convention concluded, each felt they had found their "soul mate."

     They began to date. I remembered this interview because of what he said about their relationship. He said that both of them had considerable skills in helping others achieve insight into their life issues. As their dating became more serious he said this, "More of our own personal stuff began to surface and we discovered that we could not grow in our relationship until we dealt with it. And for us it was the same stuff, the same conflicts, we had failed to negotiate in both our previous marriages."

     The thread that held Joseph, Job, and Paul together in their responses was that the three of them had learned that what was coming up for them was exactly what they needed to face. As each of them did, they succeeded. Our understanding of this spiritual principle can be very useful for each of us.

     When life remains a constant struggle, often it is due to the same patterns repeating themselves over and over again and we don't understand why. We change jobs. We change mates. Yet, the same power struggles surface in our relationships. It is as if we can run but we can not hide from what must be faced before growth is achieved. Getting better and growing means leaving the old patterns behind.

     This is how Joseph rose to be second in command of Egypt. This is how Job had everything restored to him. This is how Paul could travel on three missionary journeys and remain on fire for the Kingdom of God. It did not matter what form their struggles assumed, they had learned that each circumstance was the forum where their trust in God could be demonstrated.

     So often when we ask God to help us grow, we are really asking God to help us feel better about ourselves and about what is happening in our lives. Yet, we may not know how to get there. If we find ourselves not bearing fruit during a number of growing cycles, we must trust that the gardener will dig around our roots and fertilize us with opportunities. We are given a new book to read. Someone invites us to church. We are asked to work with youth and we have our eyes opened. The gardener may be quite busy in our lives.

     When we recognize that what is coming up for us is the next rung in the ladder, we will continue our climb with confidence. If we lack this understanding, we can easily create all kinds of conclusions, "Life is difficult. Nothing works for me. I'll never find love in my life. The church never asks me to do anything, so I guess I'll sit here and know that I am being ignored. My children are too busy and they never call. I am not going to be more loving until I see some changes around here." Our excuses for being miserable are as many as we see fit to create.

     So once again, the gardener will dig around our roots, irrigate us and add more fertilizer. As long as we think that what stands in front of us is there to make us lonely, to sabotage our life, or to make us feel insecure, a fourth and fifth growing cycle will come and go without our bearing any fruit. Who is alive and who is not? We are the only one who can supply the answer to that, and we do every day of our lives.

     If we don't like what appears to be confronting us or making demands of us, consider the possibility of changing our thoughts about it. Whatever form the challenging circumstance has taken, it stands there requiring the use of a skill that obviously we do not have. That is why we are so bothered by it. Think about this. What other method could possibly be more useful to us in helping us realize the mountains we have left to climb? But, too often we choose to radiate unloving attitudes toward our mate, our job, and our circumstances. We become irritated, frustrated, and angry. While these responses are honest, they do nothing to produce growth.

     The answer for all of us is that we need to produce. We need to demonstrate that being a disciple of Jesus Christ has made an incredible difference in our lives. We have to stop demanding from the soil that it constantly feed us. We must begin to bear fruit instead of placing the burden for our happiness on our relationships.

     If our most commonly used skill is how to communicate our neediness, we become like the tree that knows only how to take from the soil. And we wonder why we feel cut down. We wonder why people walk out of our lives. We wonder why we feel forsaken by our church. Again, these are all honest feelings and responses, but they will not produce any fruit.

     Jesus was abandoned by his closest friends in the garden. He was alone while hanging on that cross, but he never spiraled or gave in to self-defeating thoughts. Look at all that he did from that cross. He asked John to care for his mother. He spoke words of encouragement to the thieves who hung beside him. And he asked God to hold no one accountable for what they had done to him. That display of love during those circumstances is the fruit upon which many in the world have dined for the last 2,000 years.

     Many believers think that Jesus' death on the cross was some great mystery. They wonder why God seemingly required such a painful death. There is no mystery at all. All Jesus did was continue to bloom where his circumstances had planted him. And Jesus taught that each of us can do the same.


     O God, what peace comes when we truly understand that you love us just as we are. We are much like sheep in your pasture. We are like students who have come to the Master carpenter to learn how to build a life. We thank you for inspiration. We thank you for giving us the ability to refine our skills. We thank you for horizons toward which to walk. We pray that the day will never dawn when we will become satisfied with whom we have become. Encourage us to remember how each day is a gift, how each relationship holds opportunities for growth, and how each challenge is our moment to make visible your gift of love. Use us as channels for your peace. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.


     Gracious and loving God, we thank you for the remembrances that come to mind during our pilgrimage through Lent.

     As we watch Jesus' walk toward the cross, we recognize that there are times when each of us must face circumstances that force us to examine who we are. People leave us. Friendships dissolve for reasons that escape our grasp. We experience turmoil in our homes and feel the mixture of emotions as to where and how we might touch to bring healing. And there are times when we feel betrayed, forsaken, and misunderstood and we question the role of our faith, particularly when we want it to sustain us and it does not.

     We long for the peace that passes all understanding. We search for the place to stand so that our view point might be fair and our responses might be helpful. Lord, during these Lenten days, lead us to such a place. Lead us to place our confidence so completely in your love of us, that we remain convinced that what we face at the moment is for our greatest growth.

     Help us to sense the challenge instead of feeling the sorrow. Help us to experience our destiny instead of always fearing the worst. Inspire us to shoulder our burdens with confidence instead of longing for greener pastures. Help us understand that it took the cross for Jesus to experience the empty tomb.

     We pray these thoughts through Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .