"Our Need of Second Chances"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 18, 2001

Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9


     In this morning's Gospel lesson, Jesus is engaging in some "fire and brimstone" preaching. He has put a bite into his message. There could be no greater warning to humanity then verse 5. Jesus said, "I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die." What did he mean by this? If we take his words at face value, we could easily assume that if we turn away from our sins, we will never die. Since all of us do die, we must assume Jesus' words had a much different meaning.

     We need to understand that Jesus did not intend to make people fearful; his words of warning were to help people wake-up. We have all encountered individuals who simply refuse to change. They refuse to outgrow attitudes that poison the work environment. They refuse to assume responsibility for their lives. They chase after relationships that promise salvation from their perception that no one loves them. They make one choice after another that sabotages the productive nature of their lives.

     Have you ever tried to change someone's life-style, character or attitudes? Not every invitation to change is greeted with enthusiasm. As teenagers, we generally rolled our eyes when Mom told us to straighten up our bedrooms. We tended to react that way because, at the time, we did not hear the words as coming from a spirit that wanted only the best for us.

     Many years ago, I used to work for the Agency for International Development. As college students, we were hired as GS-7 interns. One of us either did not bathe regularly, or she seldom washed her clothes. The young woman was the topic of conversation throughout the office. The situation was awkward for the staff. Highly offensive body odor is not a subject that we Americans can tactfully discuss with each other. It is equally frustrating if we have to speak to those who regularly bathe in heavy cologne or perfume before they go to work. Some of what we wear literally overpowers our senses.

     One morning I was summoned to see our Division Chief. His secretary ushered me into his spacious office and invited me to sit down. My heart was pounding through my shirt. It was like being in the presence of senior White House staff. They are just people, but when you are young and inexperienced, they can represent a formidable presence. This man looked up from his desk and said, "Mr. Stetler! You have come highly recommended for a particular task that needs delicate handling."

     Just where the conversation was going escaped me. I had not put two and two together. He went on to tell me about the woman the Agency had hired who was causing a problem with her body odor. Suddenly, I understood. He continued, "She is one of our interns whom I believe you know. The staff is finding it difficult to work around her. We would like you to handle this situation for us immediately and diplomatically. Thank you for your time." That was it! I was excused.

     I invited the intern to have lunch with me. When I began to discuss this sensitive issue, she was emotionally unprepared to receive what I was saying. She was devastated. Before I could continue my "well-rehearsed words of compassion," she left the table and I never saw her again. She did not return to work. I have gone over that moment many times through the years trying to second-guess what I might have done differently. I have concluded that there was no easy way but to tell her the truth as painful as it was to hear.

     What does such an episode have to do with sinning and dying? Some behavior patterns produce life and some of them produce death. When we engage in a behavior that drives people away from us, or isolates us socially, spiritually, and emotionally, we paint ourselves into the corner of our social group. We pay a price. Many people forever remain trapped in a prison of their own creation.

     The problem is that few of us enjoy being judged. Who we are is absolutely no one else's business. We frequently become hurt or angered when someone offers their insights on how we might change our appearance or behavior. "What is it to them anyway?" we ask. "Let me live my life the way I want to, okay?" Yet, caring people cannot stand by and watch someone they love self-destruct without warning them. There are so many people in trouble today because they will not consider changing and growing.

     Recently we read or heard about the FBI agent who routinely sold our country's secrets to the Russians. He violated the trust everyone placed in him. He will be isolated from much that he values, and he has made it impossible to communicate through his role as father, husband, neighbor, and a valued, trusted employee. No one made him do this. His choices have severely sabotaged the rest of his life. This can mean death! Would he have changed if someone had warned him?

     The word "sin" is an archery term that means "to miss the mark." Jesus' words to his listeners concerned the quality of their lives on earth. Obviously all of us eventually die a physical death. Yet there are a lot of other ways we can die long before we leave our physical bodies. It was Jesus' intent to warn people to turn away from thoughts and activities that produce death while we yet live.

     If we have not refined our social skills, some of us do not attract others with our spirit and personality. We become an absent witness to all that life offers. If we have not learned to refine our thinking, we can destroy ourselves internally with feelings of anger and resentment, with believing that everyone is against us, or with blaming God for everything that does not reinforce what we value. We die slowly because of our refusal to change our thinking. Helping one another grow is the challenge, a challenge that Jesus readily accepted.

     After delivering his consequence-oriented message, Jesus offered the compassionate, ever-patient image of the gardener. He told a story of a man who ordered his gardener to get rid of an unproductive fig tree. The gardener responded, "Please reconsider your decision for one more year. I will dig around the tree and fertilize it. Then if it bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you can have it removed." The gardener wanted to give the tree a second chance. This was Jesus' point for telling the story.

     We all need to know that God gives us that second chance. The truth is that God gives us as many chances as we need. God leaves the entrance to abundant life wide open and has put a permanent doorstop in place so that it will never close. However, the one thing God will not do is make our choices for us. We have to want life over death, and that was Jesus' point.

     During my days on Capitol Hill, I constantly met people whom society characterized as "losers." Their greatest skill was hanging out with others like themselves. They would take your money when it was offered. They would allow you to buy them lunch. They always had a well-honed story that was heart-wrenching. Their stories always justified why they were standing in front of you with nothing to offer. Whenever we tell stories that blame others for who we are, we are building our prison one recital at a time.

     Among the "street people" was a very uncomplicated young man whom his friends had nicknamed, "Wheezie." He would come by the office and talk. And now and again I would give him five or ten dollars to take care of some of his personal needs. I could not get him to take that first step that would help him communicate more of who he was. When we constantly need to receive from others, that is the signal we send everyday. We communicate neediness and dependency. This is another form of death! We are here to create and bear fruit.

     One day I said, "Everyone always complains about the cleanliness of rest rooms in gasoline stations. Why don't you volunteer to clean the restrooms at the Exxon station across the street? Make those lavatories shine! Then get a broom and cleanup the place. Empty the trash. This will give you something to do with your time." He said he would try it.

     I did not see him for quite some time. Then one day, my office administrator said through the intercom, "The Wheeze is down here. Can I send him up? Wait until you see him; you won't believe it." When he entered my office he was wearing his own official Exxon work shirt. The most important thing was that his real name, "Lionel," was embroidered on the shirt.

     He beamed with joy! He had discovered a different identity as the result of providing service to that gas station and its customers. He said with pride, "I am being paid. Every week I get a check. Rev. Dick this is the best day of my life." I was so happy for him.

     The last time I was on the Hill, Lionel was still there. I saw him checking the oil of someone's car. He was making a difference because he had changed his thinking. He started giving and had stopped expecting. And as he gave, he began to expand into the person he never thought he could become.

     I have to believe that Jesus loved people so much that he never wasted an opportunity to point them toward a more productive life pattern. He said to the woman caught in the act of adultery, "I am giving you another chance at life. Don't waste any more of it being intimate with men who do not love you." He saw the tax collector, Zacchaeus, and said, "Let's do lunch." And from that lunch, Zacchaeus decided to return four times the amount of money he had overcharged people.

     We all need a second chance. What we have to understand is that God will give us as many opportunities as we have days to live. When we have made decisions that do not work for us, we know it immediately. Likewise, when our lives create productive results, just like that fig tree in Jesus' story, we learn that there is no need for death to consume the days and years we have left. We all need second chances, and God freely gives us as many as we need until we are able to see and understand.

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Loving God, so frequently we attend worship unaware of what to expect. We confess that it is we who frequently fail to show up even though our bodies are here. We confess that it is we who fault our worship experience for not feeding us. Enable us to be still and remember why we are here. Make silent our thoughts about decisions we must make, about tasks we have yet to do, and about relationships we need to mend. Ease the pain of our frustrations. Bring peace to our confusion over life's competing values. And heal the emptiness of our losses. As we now desire to dip our cups into the stream that longs to quench our thirst, inspire us to drink. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Thank you, God, for these moments. They offer us the opportunity to review the direction of our lives. We realize that we can always improve on the quality of our communication with each other. Sometimes what we learn in church helps us recognize the emotional drivers in our lives, drivers that we have labeled as "unmet needs," and how such thoughts often send us down one blind alley after another.

     Enable us, O God, to learn character from our failures. And as we travel from one experience to another, enable us to discover an identity that allows us to create and produce. May we learn to give ourselves away rather than nurture our desire to receive. May we understand our doubts as necessary steps toward a stronger faith. May we learn that walls and barriers are nothing more than opportunities to refine our ability to climb. And may we greet strangers as if they are friends we have just met.

     Inspire our confidence to reflect your nature everywhere and to everyone. Help us remember that we are always on stage so that we remain forever vigilant in standing forth with a spirit that helps others to find friendship, safety and acceptance. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .