Redeeming Relationships (a sermon from Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9)

When Jesus said that loving God and loving neighbor constitute the essence of God’s will, he clearly tied together the relationships we have with one another with our relationship to God. These two areas of relationship – with God and with each other – are so interlaced, so intricately woven together they cannot be separated. Of course, there are many folks who are not aware of this connection, but for those of us who are how we think about, imagine, and relate to God has a huge impact on how we relate to others.   

Our passage in Luke 13 begins by pointing out that bad things happen all the time which God does not cause to happen. God is not poised over a zap button waiting for us to mess up. And yet Jesus warns, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as the unfortunate folks who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time due to no fault of their own.”

Before I talk about what that means, first I want to say something about what it doesn’t mean. There are some who read this to mean: You better amend your ways, you better change while there is still time, because God is running out of patience and there will be a day when God does indeed push the zap button. I flatly reject that image of God, because that is not the God Jesus frequently describes and talks about in the Gospels, and in Luke’s Gospel in particular.

My image of God is Luke 15, where God never runs out of patience. God seeks the lost until God finds the lost. God never gives up on the lost and God never closes the door that leads home. My image of God is the Father in Luke 15 running to embrace the returning son and pleading with the resentful and angry son to join the party.

When Dennis Linn, writer and spiritual retreat leader, was a priest, a woman approached him because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told Dennis that he was involved in prostitution, had been involved in using and selling drugs, and that he had committed murder. She ended by saying that he wanted nothing to do with God.  She wanted to know what would happen to her son if he committed suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God. 

Dennis asked her, “What do you think?”  She said (here just repeats what she had been taught), “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Then she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would send him to hell.”

Dennis then said to her, “I want you to close your eyes. Imagine that you are setting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. He has just arrived at the judgment seat of God.” Then he told her to squeeze his hand when she could imagine this scene.  

It seemed like several minutes transpired before she squeezed his hand. Then he asked her, “How does your son feel?”  She said, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” Then he asked her what she wanted to do.  She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.”  She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined holding her son tightly. 

Finally, when she stopped crying Dennis asked her to look into God’s eyes and imagine what God wanted to do. She imagined God stepping down from his throne embracing her son. Then the three of them cried together and held one another.

Dennis says that he was quite stunned by this experience and realized that God loves us at least as much as this woman loved her son. Isn’t this common sense sisters and brothers? Surely God at the very least loves each of us as much as the person who loves us the most. (Good Goats, pp. 8-11). Would we ever give up on a daughter or son? So why would we think God would?

So what does this mean: “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” If it doesn’t have anything to do with God running out of patience and slamming the door shut what does it mean?

I suspect that Jesus is speaking to his fellow Jews as a people under oppression. Jesus knows that if they continue to stage uprisings and revolts, if they continue to respond to the violence of Rome with violence, Rome will come down hard and crush them. And this is what Luke 21 is about. Some of this was written after the fact by Jesus’ followers, but there Jesus warns of what will happen when Jerusalem is surrounded by the Roman army. He says, “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” What he is saying here in Luke 13 is that unless you repent, unless you change the way you are thinking about and reacting to your oppressors you will perish. They will destroy you.” And they did in 70 C.E. And I suspect that on one level this is what the parable of the gardener is about in Luke 13. You have some time to change your ways, but time is running out and if you don’t, Rome will destroy you.

Jesus gave them (as well as all of us) a strategy for changing their ways, for responding to the oppressor in a way that gives peace a chance and that reflects the very character of God. In Luke 6 Jesus instructs them (and us) to love our enemies, to pray for them and do good by them. In Matthew’s version, Jesus even offers some specific examples of nonviolent protest, like standing up to an oppressor by turning the other cheek or by carrying a soldier’s bag an extra mile even though the soldier may be saying put the bag down because to enlist an occupied person to go the second mile was against Roman law. Ghandi and King built on this a whole strategy of nonviolent resistence. All of Jesus’ teachings and warnings fell on deaf ears. They continued to react aggressively and even violently and eventually the Romans crushed them and many perished.

Sisters and brothers, if you don’t hear anything else please hear this: We don’t need to be saved from God; we need to be saved from ourselves and this is why we need God.
In order to be freed from our life-diminishing attitudes, habits, and behaviors; in order to healed and liberated from our prejudices, from our bitterness, anger, and propensity toward violence we need divine enablement. Redemption is a cooperative venture and we can’t do it without God’s help. Anyone who has found help through a twelve step program knows this.

Repentance is not just for Jesus’ generation, it’s a need we all have and is critical to developing redeeming relationships with God and each other. The Greek word for repent literally means, “to go beyond the mind one has,” that is, the mind we are socialized into with all its prejudices and fears and defense mechanisms to protect the ego. To repent means to acquire a new mind-set, a new way of seeing that issues forth in a new way of living.  

In Luke 3 John the Baptist tells those coming out to be baptized to bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. Then he gives them some specific examples. He says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells tax collectors to be honest and collect no more than the amount prescribed. He tells soldiers (apparently some Roman soldiers came to be baptized) not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and to be satisfied with their wages. Repentance is a new way of seeing and a new way of living. And it doesn’t matter which comes first. Sometimes it’s new ways of acting/doing that bring about new ways of seeing.  

Now, if this is not something we cannot do on our own, if we need God’s help and we do, then how then does God bring this about in our lives? How does God gain access to our repressed fears and insecurities? How can God save us from entrenched habits and negative reactions?

Sometimes experiences of suffering break down our defenses allowing God access to our life in ways that grow us and change us. Sometimes great experiences of love can do it. I love the story about the Virginia mountaineer who had a reputation of being easily provoked and was known to be a kind of troublemaker and get in lots of fights. He worked as a plumber and one day he was called into the elementary school in town to do some work. He met a young lady who was a teacher. He fell for her big time and it took him a long time to get enough courage to share his feelings. He prepared himself for rejection. He didn’t expect a teacher would be drawn to the likes of him, but love can be a funny thing and surprisingly she returned his love. Everyone in town noticed how he changed. He told his best man on his wedding day, “I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.” Great experiences of love, as well as suffering can give God an opening. They can serve to expose hidden fears and ego driven responses allowing God to nurture new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing life.  

* * * * * * *
The passage in Isaiah 55 highlights the beauty and power of a healing and redemptive relationship with God. The symbolism in the text is rich. We are invited to partake of food that is available without cost. In other words, it’s not for sale. It’s freely given to the one who hungers for it and it is abundantly enriching and fulfilling.

The prophet says, “Incline your ear, come to me; listen, so that you may live.” It’s an invitation into life, into the kind of relationship with God and with others that is life enhancing and life-giving. We all know about dysfunctional relationships. Isaiah invites us into a relationship with God that is not only functional, it is transformational. According to the prophet this covenant relationship is “everlasting” – it cannot be altered or thwarted for it is grounded in “God’s steadfast, sure love.” The only way out of the relationship is if we choose to get out of it. But then, God never stops caring or inviting us back in. Israel’s covenant relationship with God in the Hebrew Bible (our OT) depicts this beautifully.

The prophet invites the wicked, those who have done evil and practiced injustice to “return” to the Lord so that the Lord can exercise mercy and abundantly pardon. There is no need to fear retribution or condemnation. This takes faith, it takes trust because abundant mercy and forgiveness is not all that common. In reality, it’s uncommon; it’s unconventional. Mercy and forgiveness is not what we expect from human courts of law, from human judges and magistrates, or even from friends or family we may have deeply offended and hurt. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, says the prophet, and God’s ways are much higher than our ways.

The prophet cries out, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” When I was a kid my family made several trips to visit relatives in Florida in, of all times August, which was scheduled after baseball season and before the beginning of school. There were ponds close to their house, which I walked to and fished in everyday just about all day. And one thing I distinctly remember besides catching a bunch of bass, is being thirsty. I stayed thirsty in the Florida heat.   

The living water of God’s abundant grace and forgiveness, a healing and redeeming relationship with God that can bring healing to all our relationships is available to all who thirst for it. So I guess the question is: Am I thirty for it. And if not, why not? Have the circumstances of my life left me numb? Have things done to me or things I have done to others left me with the feeling that I cannot change? There are any number of reasons why I may not be thirsty and so I need to ask what can I do to incite this thirst?

I can choose to be around loving people and learn from them; maybe I will catch their thirst for life. I can develop relationships that require something of me and move me beyond my own wants or interests and therefore nurture a thirst for something that is larger than my little world. I can pray and ask God to create in me a thirst for the kind of relationships that make a difference, not just in my life but also in the lives of others.

Now is the time. The prophet says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” While God never gives up on us, we can miss opportunities to nurture a healing and life-giving relationship with God and with others right now that we will never get back. As the parable of the gardener In Luke 13 teaches there comes a time when the tree is cut down and the opportunity to bear fruit is gone. Israel missed their opportunity to change and avoid destruction by the Romans. We too, can miss opportunities to change our course and nurture healing, forgiving, grace-inspiring relationships.

If we choose we can plunge deeper into fear, deeper into prejudice, hate, and violence stifling all thirst for redeeming relationships. We can become absorbed in greed or in the need for retaliation for some offense done to us. We can be completely caught up in our own selfish agenda and curtail all thirst to be part of something much larger. Or we decide to break out of these destructive patterns and cycles that quench our spiritual thirst. As the Psalmist says, “Today is the day of salvation.” Today is the day for healing and hope and forgiveness to begin. So why not start right now – for the first time or the hundredth time. God’s grace is freely given to all no matter where you are on life’s journey.

O God, may we be quick to avail ourselves of your abundant grace and inner power that can free us from our destructive ways. Create in us a thirst for the water of life, a hunger for the food that will nourish the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we thirst for the kind of relationship with you that will heal and renew all our relationships. Give us the grace, the will and resolve to break cycles of resentment and anger and pursue life and peace. Amen. 


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