The Rev. Adele K. Langworthy, preaching
It can be difficult to change our ways, to decline from sin and incline to virtue, as the choir just sang. We can want to change, but putting our wants into action is a whole other ball game.
In their Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn report on [the] worldwide slavery [in sex trafficking], telling stories of girls who had been kidnapped or taken from their families on a ruse and then sold as sex slaves. These girls, many under ten years of age, are drugged, beaten, raped, and forced to sell their bodies night after night. It is a slavery even more horrifying than the slavery colonial America practiced, and the numbers are beyond imagination.
Kristof reports that it is far more effective to crack down on the perpetrators than to try to rescue the victims. That is because rescuing the girls from external slavery is the “easy part,” but rescuing them from the beast within, such as the drug addictions that cause them to return or the shame they feel, is enormously challenging. They keep returning to their abusers.
Kristof tells of rescuing Momm, a Cambodian teen who had been enslaved for five years. Momm was on the edge of a breakdown—sobbing one moment, laughing hysterically the next. She seized the chance to escape, promising she’d never return. When Kristof drove Momm back to her village, Momm saw her aunt, squealed with joy, and leapt out of the moving car.
A moment later, it seemed as if everybody in the village was shrieking and running up to Momm. Momm’s mother was at her stall in the market a mile away when a child ran up to tell her that Momm had returned. Her mother started sprinting back to the village, tears streaming down her cheeks …. It was ninety minutes before the shouting died away and the eyes dried, and then there was an impromptu feast.
Truly it was a great rescue—and there was singing and dancing and celebrating. … The celebration didn’t last long. Early one morning Momm left her father and her mother without a word and returned to her pimp in Poipet. Like many girls in sex slavery, she had been given methamphetamine to keep her compliant. The craving had overwhelmed her. No doubt she thought, I just have to have this or I can’t go on. Perhaps she imagined she’d be able to escape after she got it, but even if she didn’t, she thought, I have to have this. [Dee Brestin, Idol Lies (Worthy, 2012), pp. 88-89 ]
As much as Momm was loved and welcomed home, as much as she was happy to be there, she couldn’t overcome the darkness in her soul. She chose not to take the second chance she had been given and returned to a life in sex trafficking.
Our scripture passage this morning is a tough one to hear. On one hand, it is encouraging that second chances are given by God. On the other hand, it reminds us that we can limit our chances with God like Momm.
Let’s look at the passage a little closer:
The fig tree parable is preceded by a call from Jesus to repent. At the very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you (says Jesus); unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
What is being referred to in this passage is a terrible street rumble. Pilate, a political leader at the time, knew that the water supply needed to be updated. He proposed financing it from temple monies. You can imagine how upset the Jews were with this plan. The monies collected at the temple had no reason to be used in updating the water supply, except that they were monies Pilate knew existed. Pilate chose to infiltrate the angry mob gathered in the streets. He had his soldiers cover their battle dress with common clothes so no one in the mob would notice them, and then when a signal was given, the soldiers could take care of the mob for Pilate. Needless to say, just as we see in our day and age, mob scenes can easily get out of hand. The violence that broke out between Pilate’s soldiers and Judean Jews, spilled over and involved the Galilean Jews, as well. Some Galileans took the lives of others, some saw their own blood shed, and still others just got caught up in the anger of the moment.
What Jesus is warning here, is that there can not really be any finger pointing or claims that the Galileans who fought were worse than those who didn’t. There was enough sin to go around. Everyone needed to look at their own actions and repent—to turn from their earthly ways and turn to the ways of God — or die. They were being given a chance to redeem themselves and grow closer to God. It was their choice to welcome the ‘second chance’ or not.
Continuing in Luke, Or those 18 who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
In this example that Jesus shared, it is thought that perhaps the 18 killed had been hired to work on the new water system for Pilate. The money that they earned was temple money and was due God. Popular belief was that they were killed by the falling tower because they hadn’t given their wages back to God. One doesn’t know for sure the details of the situation, but the message from Jesus is clear—everyone sins, so worry about yourself. Repent and embrace the second chance you are given by God.
Luke then records Jesus telling a parable (an earthly story about a fig tree with a heavenly meaning about second chances with God). A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’
Look at the picture on the front of the bulletin. This is a typical fig tree in Israel. It’s roots don’t go deeply in the ground. It can grow in many places. It normally takes three years to reach maturity.
In the parable, it was natural for the owner to want to have the gardener cut the fig tree down. It was taking up room in his vineyard and using soil that could be used by another tree or plant. But the gardener didn’t want to give up on the tree. He wanted some more time to nurture the tree, giving it a second chance at yielding fruit. If just one more year of nurturing and care wouldn’t yield fruit, then he would remove the tree.
Just as the gardener didn’t want to give up on the fig tree, God doesn’t want to give up on you or me. Even though we can limit our own chances for repentance as Momm did, from God’s side there is no limit to the chances he wants to give us. God knows we need second chances, and we may even need a third, fourth or fifth chance.
Just as the gardener wanted more time to help the tree yield good fruit, so too God wants more time to nurture us with divine love, feed us with Holy Scripture, and water us with life giving waters of the Spirit. What we do with the ‘second chance’ and God’s desire for us is then on us. It is on us to make the right choices when we see that we are doing wrong. When we caught up in ‘the drama’, it is up to us to choose to remove ourselves from the drama. When we get caught up in actions that aren’t pleasing to God, it is up to us to choose to change our ways and get back on the right path. When we realize that we are not yielding good fruit through our actions, it is up to us to choose to do good.
The warning that Jesus gives is clear. As William Barclay writes, “The parable makes it quite clear that there is a final chance. If we refuse chance after chance, if God’s appeal and challenge comes again and again in vain, the day finally comes, not when God has shut us out, but when we by deliberate choice have shut ourselves out.”
So, the bad news is we can limit our chances with God. But, the good news is that if we take advantage of the chances God gives us, we don’t have to do it perfectly or courageously—we just have to act on the chance given us.
One night before Christmas, Clay and Velma Lykins of Jefferson County, Kentucky, stepped onto their porch to turn off the Christmas lights and saw a large object wrapped in plastic, sitting at the end of their driveway. Under the plastic was the wicker chair that had been stolen from their front porch 18 years earlier, along with a note: To whom it may concern: Approximately 13 to 17 years ago my husband stole this wicker rocking chair from the porch of this house. I am ashamed of his behavior and am returning this stolen item. I have since been divorced from my husband and have since been “born again.” My life has completely changed and I want to undo any wrongdoing to the best of my ability. I know this chair is not in the same condition as when it was stolen and I apologize. I now live in another state, Tennessee, and am rarely in this vicinity. I realize the cowardly fashion in which I am returning this, but the reason is obvious. I will not bother you again. Please forgive us. Sincerely.
The rocker was placed in the bedroom along with the letter where it became a treasured keepsake.
The woman whose husband took the rocker didn’t fulfill her repentance perfectly but God gave her an extra chance to right a wrong after 17 years and she took it.
Let us take a chance with God. Come, come before the Lamb of God.