"Second Half," Rev. Kinsey
In most of the circles that I travel in, people mostly don’t believe in, ‘either/or’ decisions, or that most issues are simply, black and white. I’ve come to live in a world of rainbow variations, and a sliding scale of racial and gender, intellectual and emotional fluidity. It took me a while to get there, to “the second half of life,” as Richard Rohr calls it. At its best, the more I dive into my faith and have time for spiritual reflection, it continues to find me – which is a great thing. “In the first half of life,” either/or thinking can sometimes be helpful, as a teacher. But it is not true of the faith Jesus offers us, in the Realm and kingdom of God – in the rainbow-sliding-scale world of relationships.
Even in the bible – written by wise and faithful people, inspired by God, 2,000 years ago – it wasn’t 100% clear, all the time. For example, Jesus in our gospel today says, “Unless you repent, you will all perish, as these Galileans did,” whose blood was spilled by Pilate at the very moment they were offering their sacrifices, and the Jerusalemites did, who were killed when the tower of Siloam crashed and fell on them. This sounds a bit scary on first hearing! What’s Jesus telling us? Is God a god of punishment? Either you repent now, or else!
Note however, that those who told Jesus about these terrible calamities in Galilee and Jerusalem, themselves believed, that it had been their fault, because the notion of such tragedies, was that when people died before old age, it was God’s doing, some kind of punishment for their behavior. But Jesus – knowing the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets – was clear, how this was, “first half of life” thinking. “No,” he says! It was not their fault. Natural disasters, and even political targeting like the ruthless Pilate did, what we might call “terrorist acts,” are not God’s punishment. They just happen. ‘Bad things happen to good people,’ in a world of free-will, where some people, tempted by greed and self-aggrandizement, resort to violence to get their way.
Death, is near to us all, of course! Though, by itself, that’s ‘half-empty’ thinking! But, when used for the kingdom of God, as ‘half-full’ realism, it is the thinking of the eschatological perspective of Jesus. The eschatological, or goal-oriented, end-times thinking of the prophets, is the message that God’s new age is upon us, ready to overturn what has failed, and what has turned away from God. It’s the same message that John the Baptist sent, baptizing at the River Jordan: repent and believe in the kingdom of God – the same message Jesus told the disciples to share.
Because the present age is so run down, become so full of sin and structures of evil, God is getting us ready for the new thing God is about to do, continues to always do, every day, except now, in this moment, it is most urgent, the time is upon us: repent! That is, turn-around from the ways that have been leading you away from God, and come follow me, says Jesus, in a completely liberating, and new, and life-giving, way!
The most well-known example of those who live by the either/or model of repentance, “turn or burn,” as it is often called, could be Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Though, when Fred’s children, and other members got older, some started to wake up – they reached “that second half of life,” and rejected the extreme, cult-like, ‘either/or’ mission they had known. They are like “survivors” of the Siloam Tower collapse, if you will, who, have crawled away from the disaster, to become witnesses to the senseless thinking that they were taught – the binary, exclusionary beliefs, that only ‘they’ were being saved by God, a kind of thinking, that legitimized everything they did, no matter how hurtful.
They were the ones who actually went and protested at military funerals against the LGBTQ community, and at Planned Parenthood clinics, using the nastiest and most vile language. But those who got out his church, found a release, and a new message about how God was a God of love. They actually turned-around and went in a new way – they repented of the old, ‘either/or’ paradigm of “the first half of life,” and are learning the new sliding-scale of love and acceptance, able to share it with others!
When Jesus invites us to repentance, he is speaking to our souls, our authentic most beings. The world is not all just, ‘what you see is what you get!’ There is more in the Realm of God – deep within us, and vastly wide all around us. And there is some urgency to ‘turning around,’ receiving, and ingesting, this message of love and grace.
So Jesus tells us a parable. It’s about a fig tree, the symbol of the people of Israel. The owner was watching its progress as it grew in his field. As a business owner, he has some urgency to see it produce, seeing how he makes his living from how much fruit his trees grow! But when he sees it hasn’t even begun to bear fruit, not one fig, even after three years, he shouts out to his gardener to ‘cut it down,’ haven’t we given it every opportunity!?
The gardener – as the worker caring directly for the tree – has a different perspective, a sliding scale of hope for this stubborn tree. Some have interpreted the Gardener to be the figure of Jesus, in the story. And the gardener tactfully asks his employer to give the fig tree, a bit more time, just one more year. Let me give it some tender-loving-care, a bit of extra fertilizer, and if it still doesn’t produce, ‘well and good,’ then you can cut it down. But I have a good feeling about this one!
There’s definitely a time-line! And we, of course, are the fig tree, and we should have repented already, the parable seems to point out. But on the other hand, the full revealing of the kingdom and realm of God has not yet arrived, and we are still here. But God wants us to be more than just survivors. Our chance to repent and turn toward God, and be a follow of Jesus, lies before us today, and always. Jesus’ Word of life, and forgiveness, and grace, are our fertilizer. Will we grow? The eschatological time is now ripe! Why wait!
You know what they say about buses: you could walk across the street today… Isn’t that the same thing Jesus was trying to convey with his answer to the tragedy of the Tower of Siloam? Why wait, to turn around!?
But this repentance is so much more than, “turn or burn!” God’s realm so much more than ‘either/or!’ We can never be perfect enough to please God, no matter how good we are, or how many times we repent. Nor is there one turning to Christ moment, when we are simply home free. Even our Baptism is both: a once and for all promise of salvation, but also our life-long journey.
Franciscan writer and Spirituality teacher, Richard Rohr, has given us a good way to think about this. He says “religion in the first half of our lives is focused on moral proficiency and perfection… I’m good because I obey …, because I do this kind of work, or because I belong to this group. That’s the calculus the ego [of a person] understands. [Humans], all organizations, and governments need this kind of common sense structure at some level.
[But religion in the 2nd half of our lives has a different focus, says Rohr] “It’s not what we do for God; it’s what God has done for us. [Finally, says Rohr:] We switch from trying to love God, to just letting God love us. And it’s at that point we fall in love with God. Up to now, we haven’t really loved God; we’ve largely been afraid of God. Finally, [in this 2nd half of our lives] perfect love casts out all fear. …,” he says.
Repentance, is all about turning toward a loving God, and away from a God of judgment that we are afraid of, or trying to please. When Jesus was facing his arrest and death on the cross, even though he was innocent, his response holds the key for us. He didn’t rally the disciples to organize an armed resistance. Jesus fought back by holding an eschatological banquet at the Last Supper, gathering all those who would be his witnesses to his message of love and grace, and yes, forgiveness, as he broke bread, and they drank wine to remember him.
As the Gentile followers, the branch that was grafted on to the tree of Judaism, as St Paul said, now we can see that “we” are the fig tree, in the parable Jesus taught. We have been given a reprieve, time to turn around and repent of the world of death we are caught up in, and follow the path of life.
Let us dine with Jesus, that we may find our fill, and fulfillment, in the bread and wine, his body and blood, given for us.