“Lopping and Thinning”

This sermon is inspired by Kevin Vetiac at the Boston University School of Theology; by Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan; and by the members of my Lenten small group.

At NASA, Adam Steltzner is known as the “rock and roll” engineer. He has pierced ears, wears snakeskin boots and has an Elvis haircut. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Adam worked on several flight projects including Galileo, Cassini, Mars Pathfinder, and the Mars Rover. But those who knew him when he was younger would have said that NASA was as far from being in Adam’s future as a trip outside the Milky Way. Adam struggled in school and he failed high school geometry. Instead, he “sort of” studied a combination of extreme risk taking and minimal consciousness—and mostly he led a rock and roll lifestyle. He played bass and drums in a band and ended up dropping out of college after his first semester. This led him to a stint at an organic market and he became an occasional pot grower. He had few skills and fewer prospects. In the meantime, his friends completed their college degrees and went on with their lives. One night on his way home from a gig, he looked up and was suddenly fascinated with the stars, especially the constellation Orion. The fact that Orion was in a different position in the sky from where it was only a few hours earlier led to an insatiable curiosity about the laws that govern the universe. He enrolled in a physics course at UW Madison where he had a revelation: that nature could be understood and predicted. Over the next several years he earned a PhD. His doctoral thesis was called “Input Force Estimation, Inverse Structural Systems and the Inverse Structural Filter.” Not bad for a guy who struggled with high school geometry. This led him to where he is today. Steltzner is the chief engineer of the Mars 2020 project, which will launch a rover to Mars next year. The mission will take Martian surface and rock core samples for a potential return to Earth by a later mission. He has written several books and has been named one of the ten most important scientists in the world.

“Repent or perish!”—this is the title that many bibles give the first half of today’s text from Luke. In it, Jesus sounds like a hardcore evangelical. I suspect that this language sends shivers down many of our spines. So many of us have come from church backgrounds where shame and fear were the primary tools used to keep a faith community together. Still today, the fear of hell is the primary motivation that keeps many Christians going to church, reading their Bibles and paying their tithes. There is nothing wrong with tithing, but is this what Jesus is really teaching us? Is he using fear to keep us in line and telling us to dot all our i’s and cross all our t’s in order to avoid condemnation? Of course not.

But the word “repentance” is not one we should fear. We can better understand what this word—and what Jesus—means when we learn that the Greek word for repent is “Metanoia”, which also means atonement or spiritual conversion. Understood in this way, repentance takes on a whole new meaning and opens the way for a profound personal transformation.

The text says “if we don’t repent, we perish.” If we are fearlessly honest with ourselves, we do have some things to repent for. If we are controlled by our urges, appetites and desires we are perishing. In so doing, we suffer death to our integrity, death in our relationships with God, and one another. If our lives are governed by selfish ambitions, we become blind to the needs of others and we are perishing. If we lash out whenever we are provoked—as individuals or as a society—we are not living; we are perishing. We must turn away from these things in order to live. But if we make peace with the pains of our past and turn away from what separates us from God, we transform and we live.

Repentance isn’t a sentence. Rather, it liberates us from the bondage we have inflicted upon ourselves and our world. Repentance is necessary for our silence instead of calling a thing what it is—and then actually doing something about it. Repentance is necessary for how we keep on making excuses for horrific acts instead of getting to the real issues that perpetuate the evil in our world. Repentance is necessary for how we continue to ignore the truth. Repentance is necessary for our complicity and complacency, for our explanations and enabling.

We find ways to justify ourselves before seeking justice for others. We find ways to protect power over people. And we find ways to turn the spotlight on others before taking a good, hard look at ourselves. But before we get too down on ourselves, remember that Jesus already knows this about us. Like opening ourselves up to a trusted friend, we don’t need to feel fearful or ashamed about honestly revealing the parts of our lives that we’re not proud of—where we have taken advantage of God’s patience and grace. God understands us and forgives us.

But one of the lessons of the parable of the fig tree gives us is that our lives, too, need a little trimming or pruning. For example, our bad habits or a lack of awareness in a particular area. And some parts of our lives need a deeper examination. Those parts of our lives that need to be lopped off or cut down— our harmful addictions, and deep moral crises.

Last week, my Lenten small group, “Internet Faith,” listened to a podcast by Rob Bell about what gets in our way and that prevents us from deep connection with who we really are and what we really care about. One of those obstacles is “ego.” Ego that compels us to be over-scheduled and over-committed and which can prevent us from realizing our true purpose. Too often we are clouded by our conditioning from life experiences, our choices, and from family and culture. We’re so enraptured with our outer life, or absorbed by it. Eastern mystics believe each of us has a purpose in life, though we might not know how to recognize it. Connecting with this purpose can be a life-long journey. Some are awakened to it like Adam Steltzner, who discovered his purpose through seeing the constellation Orion. But if Steltzner had not pruned away his “extreme risk-taking and minimal consciousness,” his purpose—the call from his spirit—could not have been revealed to him. The gardener in the text describes this as tending to the fig tree, feeding and watering it. He gave the tree special care and loosened the ground so that the nourishment the tree needed could reach its roots. When we tend to our lives in the same way, God’s love and grace washes over us.

The fruits of our lives will show who we really are. If we live as followers of Christ, it will show. The fifth chapter of Galatians tells us what these spiritual fruits look like. There are nine of them: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” The owner who plants the fig tree is exasperated when after three years the tree has yet to produce any fruit and orders it to be cut down. We can relate to this because we don’t handle disappointment well. When we get disappointed by others (speaking personally here) response tends to be swift, sharp and critical. The gardener however, who is God, says to give it more time. It’s so easy to give up on others and even on ourselves but Jesus says, “Wait. Hold on. Give me more time. I’m still working on this one. I’ve got more caring and tending and nurturing to do and I can make life bloom and flourish here.”

Repentance is God’s strategy for a world in which so many of us want a full abundant life, but so often settle for so much less. Through our repentance we will thrive in God’s caring hands just as Stelztner’s repentance allowed God’s true purpose to be revealed to him.

The Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan puts it this way:

As by the opening of the eyes you can see things, so by the opening of the heart you can understand things. As long as the heart is closed you cannot understand things. The secret is that when the ears and eyes of the heart are open, all planes of the world are open, all names are open, all secrets uncovered, and all mysteries are unfolded.