"Seizing Our Second Chance"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 11, 2007

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

     A number of years ago, someone sent me a cartoon.  We were approaching Stewardship Sunday at the church I was serving and he thought his cartoon offered an appropriate sermon topic.   A couple was approaching the church on Sunday morning when they noticed the sermon title that was posted on the outside bulletin board.  The man said to his wife, “I guess our pastor is not going to mince many words this morning.”  The sermon title was, Give or Die. 

    Some of us can smile at this, but in a real sense “Give or Die” has a truth with which we can resonate. In fact, the header in my Good News Bible for the 13th chapter of Luke is, “Turn from Your Sins or Die.”  The words appear harsh and unforgiving leading some people to think, “If God has no more mercy than that, I don’t want God in my life.”  However, as much as we credit God with many activities, our learning to give can never be one of them.  That is our decision.           

     John Wesley, the parent of Methodism, wrote words that are familiar to many of us, “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.”  A much shorter version that holds the same kernel of truth is “Bloom where you are planted.”  How is it that so many people in our world have missed this timeless truth?  Why is it that scores of people still judge the quality of their lives by what they receive?           

     The words every counselor hears from clients more than any others are these, “I am not happy anymore.”  Counselors are often tempted to ask, “What would you like me to do about that?”  The failure with expert counseling and therapy sessions is that no one can instantly give people the skills to recognize that happiness is a by product of the way each of us is choosing to live and it has very little to do with our relationships, our work culture or how much wealth we have.           

     This morning, we are going to examine one of Jesus’ parables, a parable that is infinitely practical and useful to everyone in the world regardless of their spiritual orientation.  What Jesus was illustrating with this parable has nothing to do with specific beliefs.  His message goes to the core of what it means to be human.  We are not here to take up space.  We are here to grow and to use our inner skills to create what will benefit the rest of the world.   

     Every life form on earth instinctively knows this, but some of us sit around and say, “I am not happy.”  As long as we bear the bitter fruit created by such thought patterns, no medication will help.  We have to look at what our thoughts are producing.  Lent is a good time to do this. 

     One day the owner of a vineyard came to a fig tree.  He became frustrated because for three years the tree had not born any figs.  He told the gardener to cut it down and said, “Why should it go on using up the soil?”  The gardener said, “Let’s give it one more year.  I’ll pay more attention to it.  I’ll dig around the root system, put some fertilizer on it and if next year at this time it still has no figs, you can cut it down.”   

     I find it interesting that the gardener did not want to take responsibility for killing the tree.  He said, “You can cut it down.”  This tree received a second chance because of the thoughtfulness of the gardener.  The lesson Jesus was teaching his listeners was clear and understood by them.  To make visible our purpose for being here, we have to be growing and producing.  If we are not, we are merely taking up space.             

     Most of us understand that we live in a society that has taught us to expect the best from the associates with whom we work, from the products we buy and from businesses like our utility company.  When the power is out for days as it was recently during the ice storm, we expect and we wonder why BG&E is taking so long to get our power restored. We write letters when we are unhappy.  Our expectations drive many of our responses.            

     An example of this happened to one of our church members.  He was brought in from the outside to take a senior position in a government agency.  He knew there could be resentment among some employees because management did not choose someone from within their division.           

     He started his first day on the job with brewing Starbucks coffee for everyone, replete with assorted sweeteners and Half & Half.  His acceptance by the others was overwhelming.  Some weeks later someone made a request.  It would be nice if we had some doughnuts to go along with the coffee.  So he brought in doughnuts.   

     As the months went on, someone else said, “Do you think it would be possible to get some doughnuts that are cream filled?”  Of course, he complied even though he was paying for these creature comforts himself.  What gives him great pleasure is watching people being people.  The question is who is growing, the one giving and not counting the cost or the ones whose requests were fueled by their expectations?    

    This illustration is like pastors who receive a call when someone’s marriage needs a little tweaking in the area of communication skills.  The person calling will say, “Could we see you some evening because both of us work?”  Some of us are tempted to say, “Sure, because we don’t until someone like you gives us something to do.”  Clearly our culture has encouraged us to expect to receive the best from others.             

     The lesson for today is not one that says, “You had better shape up.  If you don’t you will be paying for it throughout all of eternity.  One day your tree will be cut down.”  I suspect some people who do not know God very well think like that, but there is nothing creative about watching someone slowly dying inside.  People stay spiritually asleep because they fail to recognize that God is constantly around them offering guidance.     

     When we find ourselves unhappy, do we ever think what that response symbolizes? Unhappiness is a form of guidance.  Pain is a form of guidance.  Resentment and frustration are forms of guidance.  Some of you may think this conclusion is insane, but look at these responses again through more perceptive eyes.  

     We are banging our heads against the wall each time we produce such responses.  What makes these thoughts even more damaging is that we feel entitled to these feelings because of what we are experiencing.   All Jesus was saying is, “The world is what it is, but you were made by God to bear fruit, not produce responses that stop your growth.”           

     We have all found people in our lives that have not learned to produce what makes the world a better place.  When we think about them, we cannot remember the last time we saw them smile let alone laugh.  Their stories are always about their pains and how they have been betrayed or mistreated.  They hurt because they are the objects of office gossip. Why do some people continue to blame the world instead of examining more closely what kind of fruit they are growing?  It has become their own thoughts that have poisoned their well.   

     The gardener said, “Let’s give this tree a second chance.  I’ll dig around the root system.  I’ll use some fertilizer and we’ll see if it will produce figs next year.”   Everything in creation is set up to help us learn this lesson.  God has filled our world with countless second chances.           

     Some of you have detected a limp when I walk.  Your perception is accurate.  All the cartilage in my right hip is gone.  A surgeon recently showed me high resolution x-rays and he said, “Your hip ball and socket is bone on bone.”  My pain was communicating a truth I had not recognized.  For years I was running six miles a day.  At one time I was in far better shape than I am now.           

     However, I am slightly bow-legged.   As my feet were striking the pavement, they landed in such a fashion that ever so slowly they were causing changes to my hip joint.  As President Ford's doctor once remarked,  “Today's runners are tomorrow's arthritics.”   I am one of those.  Sometime in the near future I am going to have that hip replaced.  My point is that pain was offering guidance that something needed my immediate attention.  Because of the strides made in hip replacement technology, I will receive a second chance that will change the quality of my future.  

     We grow or we remain stubborn by refusing to acknowledge the presence of the Gardener who supplies nourishment for our lives in many different forms.  Every day God’s love surrounds all of us.  God has no favorites.  Everything that God created points to God’s love if we have the eyes to understand our experiences from this frame of reference. 

     One of the Gnostic texts is known as the Gospel of Thomas.  At the end of that gospel, Jesus’ disciples ask, “When will the Kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’  Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”  

     We have not come to the earth to take up space or to put in our time until we die.  Some time we need to ask ourselves what legacy our species intends to leave.  I would like to think that part of that legacy would be communities where people of diverse backgrounds have finally learned to live together in peace.  Like the song says, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with everyone else.”  No, it does not say that.  It says, “and let it begin with me.”           

     Each of us must examine what it is we are growing.  How happy are we?  How at peace are we?  How magnetic is our personality?  Is our emphasis more on the beauty of our bodies than on the quality of the spirit we radiate?  These are very important questions because the world is like an impersonal garden. It is what it is for everyone.  We grow by sprouting what is within our seed, not because we have searched for and found the ideal topsoil in which to grow. 

     I had been at St. Matthew’s less than a year when I was asked to perform a wedding for a man who was going down the aisle for the fourth time.  During our session, I asked the obvious question.  What is different now about your relationship that makes you believe that this marriage will work?             

     He said that he and Susan had experienced a very bitter exchange months earlier.  She had used some very strong and direct language:  “I am not going to be woman number four,” she said.  “You’re problem, Dennis, is that you never learned to love anyone.  You became an expert at being loved.   Who can’t do that?  But love?  You haven’t a clue.  When women did not suit you, you made it impossible for them to stay.  I am not hanging around for that.  Stop and look in the mirror.  What made your marriages so complicated were not your wives, it was the person looking back at you.”             

     That exchange had taken place 8 months before they came to my office.  No woman had ever walked out of his life.  The pain caused by her words offered guidance that caused him to question the kind of fruit his life had been growing.  One of the qualities he most admired about her was her sound, firm and insightful judgment.  However, she had never before directed it toward him.     

     Women had always loved him.  He was handsome and well mannered.  He was an artist with his sincerity and words.  He enjoyed a stable profession with a remarkable salary.  As strange as it appears, he had never learned how to love.  Ignorance was every bit as real for Dennis as my ignorance was of what my running was doing to my hip.   

     Susan had to coach him.  Love is a learned response.  It does not come naturally to human beings.  Self-interest does.  Susan was wise enough to realize that somewhere in life, he had missed learning how to express love.  He is not alone in facing this dilemma.  Susan gave him another chance and they were married.  They have since settled in California.                

     God has built into creation many second changes.  Forgiveness is automatic for God.  It cannot be earned. That has never been the issue.  What takes a radical change on our part is to seize those second chances.   When we change how we think, we become more intentional in growing our own fruit, rather than finding our meaning from the fruit that others grow.  God always gives us second changes.  Are we wise enough to seize them? 


     Ever-present God, we come together this morning to thank you for surrounding us with so many opportunities to find healing for our spiritual blindness.  Thank you for teaching us about your nature through your Son.  Jesus taught us how to let go, to rise above life’s challenges and to forgive seventy times seven.  In so doing, we rid ourselves of thoughts that cannot serve anyone.  Jesus taught us more wholesome ways to think.  He offered us guidance for providing encouragement to others rather than criticism.   He invited us to live inspired lives rather than practicing our version of perfection.  As we strive to become more peaceful in our attitudes, enable us to share with others the wealth of discipleship. Amen