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Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life // Fasting from Planning and Deadlines

This is what Jesus is asking. This is what it looks like to fast from planning and deadlines. Jesus is asking us to let go, to take a beat, to open our hands filled with chess pieces, and to repent from our need to plan our way to our desired end because God has something better in store.
Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life // Fasting from Planning and Deadlines

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
March 10, 2024 • Lent 4
Scripture: Luke 13:1–9

I’ve mentioned this before, but my 20th high school reunion is this October, which is so hard for me to believe. By nature of my being a class president and my experience as an event planner — 52 Sundays per year, give or take — I am on the planning committee for the reunion. It’s been so much fun to hang out on Zoom with people I haven’t talked to since the last reunion. I was catching up on a decade of life, learning kids’ names, and finding out what they do for a living. Where they’ve moved to. It’s been really cool.

And a funny thing happens on these Zoom calls: We’ll talk about somebody I haven’t thought about since high school, and it’ll pique my curiosity, so I casually look them up on Facebook or Linked In to see what they’re up to. And I find that Tyler is a financial advisor in Boston. Brandon runs a nonprofit in Houston. Ashley is single and works for a museum in DC. Mark is a chemistry teacher. Amanda has two kids and is some big deal with a tech company. Brent’s thriving as a pastor in North Carolina.

It’s so cool. And now, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but what’s amazing about this is that so many of them are stuck in my brain as my high school friends. Their growth is stunted in my mind. In my imagination, Brandon is still the arrogant valedictorian. Tyler is still the class clown who didn’t have the best grades. Mark and Amanda were, like me, the band geeks. You knew Ashley was going places and wouldn’t have any trouble finding love.

As I scroll through their pictures and LinkedIn bios, I think, “Oh wow. Who could’ve seen that coming? That’s amazing.” They’ve changed so much. So many of them (like so many of us, I imagine) really blossomed, really ripened, even after high school, you know? Can I get an amen? Does anybody want to go back to their high school selves?

I share this because this is our theme for today: this ripening, this work in the messy middle, this unfolding, as we continue our Lenten series.

It’s hard to believe, but today marks the fourth Sunday of Lent. Easter is three weeks from today, so we are more than halfway through this season. As we’ve shared, Lent is the forty-day season leading to and through the cross.

The season of Lent gives us the space we need to clean out the junk drawers of our hearts, freshen up our rhythms and routines, and reorganize our priorities so that we might be renewed and turn again toward love and life, hope and possibility, and be made ready for the joy of resurrection at Easter. That’s what we’ve been doing over these past few weeks.

And so, to guide us in this season, we’ve introduced a series called “Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life.” And at its core, it’s a series on fasting — but different kinds of fasting. The practice of fasting has long been associated with the season of Lent. Just as Jesus fasted in the desert, many followers of Jesus have taken on practices of fasting — giving something up or taking something on — as a way of growing closer to God in this season.

And what you need to know is that fasting is not about deprivation. It’s about preparation. And so, for this series, we’re particularly thinking about non-traditional and non-physical fasts from things that may get in the way of our connection with God, our relationship with others, and the life, for us, that really is life. We’ve lifted up fasting from consumption and fasting from multitasking. Last week was fasting from scarcity anxiety. And we’re inviting you to practice these fasts, which will, in turn, lead us to embrace something new toward a spacious life — ready for the hope of resurrection.

So that’s our series for Lent, and here’s our fast for this week: Fasting from Planning and Deadlines.

But as we begin, let’s be quiet for a moment…

We’re in the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel today — Luke’s narrative retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We’ve been on a slow roll through Luke since September, and we’re picking up the pace here during Lent.

And today’s passage is something. There are essentially two sections to this passage, which really gets into those big questions of life and faith. In the first section, we find Jesus continuing on his journey toward Jerusalem, and, if you remember from last week, he’s got some company. A crowd has begun traveling with him — some seeking the kingdom, some wanting healing, some curious about whether he is who he says he is.

And some in the crowd begin to tell Jesus about a gruesome tragedy that’s taken place. There were some Jews from Galilee who were at the temple in Jerusalem offering sacrifices and worshipping, but Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had these Jewish pilgrims murdered, mingling their blood with the sacrifices they were offering. It’s horrific. It’s sacrilegious. It’s downright evil.

And as one does in the face of such tragedy, questions start to bubble up, right? Why did this happen? How could God allow this? Did they have it coming because of something they did? Was this God exacting judgment? It’s not too dissimilar from what some who claimed to follow Jesus said after the 9/11 attacks or after Hurricane Katrina — declaring a theology that is unrecognizable to me and to the Bible I read: that it was because of America’s sin that God caused these things to take place.

It’s against the backdrop of these questions that Jesus offers a response. Here it is again.

He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did. (13:2-5)

So, in other words, Jesus is asking the crowd, “Do you think they died because they were sinners? Do you think they died because they were less righteous than you and, thus, more deserving to die? No. That’s not the case,” Jesus seems to say. “Same for the 18 who were killed when the tower fell. It was an accident. No one caused it. But they didn’t die because they were somehow worse than you,” Jesus is saying here. “That’s not how this works. It’s not a game of ‘if you’re good, then you’ll live, and if you’re bad, then you die. Game over.’”

And thanks be to God for that, right?

But you can see where these questions are coming from. These ideas. These assumptions. Maybe you’ve had them, too. I know that I’ve had moments when I’ve been going through something or had a particularly rough week, or I feel like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me, and I immediately start to wonder what I did to cause that. Even when I know in my head that it’s irrational, and I know this is not my theology, and it doesn’t square with who I understand God to be. I know all of those things. But somehow, sometimes I still go there. It’s hard not to. Those sinister voices of shame can get super loud. It’s all my fault, right?

We do this because we want to be able to wrap our minds around it. If we have someone to blame, we can make sense of it all. If we have an explanation, we know more about how to avoid it. We want to make it make sense because perhaps then we can control it.

But that’s just it. We can’t control it. This is what Jesus is getting at here. But oh, how we wish we could, don’t we? Because if we got to run things, you better believe there’d be some changes, right? Maybe we could take more vacations. Perhaps we’d have our dream job and make more money. Maybe we wouldn’t have to work at all. Maybe our preferred candidate would be a shoo-in. Maybe our kids would get into their top choice for college. Maybe Duke would’ve won last night. Perhaps we could end that systemic injustice once and for all. Maybe I’d finally feel free of the pain. The grief. The shame.

If only we could control it. But we can’t. And yet, here’s the thing: In so many ways, in how we order our lives, in the things we prioritize and that which fills our time and attention and energy and resources, we do try to control it.

We do this in many ways through our planning, the things we schedule, and the tasks we take on.

For some of us, this may look like charting a career trajectory. How will we get from Point A to Point Z? What degree will give me the best shot at getting that job? Who do I need to know? What certificates do I need to earn? All of these plans intended to put you in the best possible position to end up where you think you need to be.

For others, it could be making sure our kids have all the right extracurriculars, volunteer opportunities, and job experience so they get into a good school and are set up for success. Or maybe it goes back to last week, and it’s financial planning—making sure there’s enough for retirement and for your kids or grandkids to have a good life.

It can also be more subtle. Maybe you’ve done this, too. But for me, there have been these times before what I know will be a hard conversation that I try to predict what the other person is going to say, and I’ll work through every possible scenario — almost as though I’m a basketball coach — so I’ll be ready. “If she says this, I’ll say this. And if she says that, I’ll say…” Trying to control the outcome and trying to limit the unpredictability as best I can.

Here’s what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that wisdom isn’t important. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t set our kids up for success as best we can, offer what we can to others for their sake, or that financial responsibility doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that. Hear me.

But what I am instead trying to name is how our incessant planning, in particular the ways it seduces us into believing that we can control the outcome, can sometimes get in the way of what God is up to — and it leaves little room for the Holy Spirit to get in there and do her thing.

Here’s how Christine Valters Painter puts it in the book that inspired this series. It’s so good. She writes:

“Sometimes we are so busy making plans and directing our lives, we forget there is a greater wisdom at work already nurturing new life for us.”

In other words, we might hold on so tightly to a particular outcome, our hands filled with all of the chess pieces we need to make the moves to get us from Point A to Point Z and all of the contingencies lined up that there’s no room then, for God to work. There’s no room for the Holy Spirit to move.

It’s curious, isn’t it, that twice in the first five verses, Jesus says this:

“… but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”

What’s he getting at?

Repentance is a key theme for the season of Lent. And it might sound like a scary word. It’s got some baggage associated with it. Maybe it conjures up images of somebody shouting at you to repent. It’s often been a weapon hurled to accuse or to drum up some guilt about what we might feel or are told we should feel.

But this is to miss the deeper meaning of repentance because, at its core, the word repent means to turn or change direction. And so, in the way Jesus uses it here, it implies a complete change of heart, a complete reversal in how something is perceived or understood.

And for those in the crowd that day, they hear these stories out of Jerusalem and Siloam, and you can tell it hurts their hearts. You can tell they’re trying to make sense of it. Perhaps they wish they could have done something about it — that they could have controlled these outcomes.

And so this is why Jesus beckons them to repent. To turn from their need to control the outcome. To turn from their belief that they’re in control of their destiny and have no need, then, for God — faith only in themselves. Because in so doing, in their repentance, they would instead place their trust in the one who made the world and all that is in it, who knows every hair on their head, and who, with every word and every step, is remaking the world, bringing healing and liberation and justice and peace. It’s a repentance that demands a certain trust. A certain faith. A certain… surrender.

Which brings us to the fig tree.

I love this parable so much. Remember, Jesus used parables to teach in a way that would come near to those who were listening — stories that may not have actually happened, but are true nonetheless and that they would’ve been able to find themselves in.

So here’s the story of a man with a fig tree planted in his vineyard — which is an odd place for a fig tree, but that’s for another day. But the man comes to harvest fruit from the tree — a tree to which he has come many times before. It’s a tree that, by all appearances, is healthy with lush green leaves and long branches covered in these lush green leaves, casting enormous shadows and offering shade and shelter to those within and below. And he looks up at the lush, green leaves and the long branches and maybe pulls a small branch down to get a closer view, or maybe he climbs the tree to see for himself.

And what he finds is… nothing. No fruit. No figs.

But he does find the gardener. And his response to the gardener isn’t, “I’ll come again soon. Keep up the good work.”

No. Instead, the man is angry.

So he said to the man working the vineyard, ‘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?’

In other words, “What a waste! Cut it down! It’s time to start over. Let’s plant something new here.”

But that’s when the gardener intervenes. He says, “Hey, give it one more year. I’ll dig around it and put some manure – some fertilizer – on it. The tree will get the nutrients it needs, and the soil will be stronger, too. If it bears fruit next year, that’s great, and you can enjoy the figs. If not, well, then I’ll cut it down. What do you say?”

The man with the fig tree wants to plan his next steps, control the outcome, and have it all now. But the gardener says, “Hey, let’s give it a little more time. Let me keep working on it.”

It reminds me of a story from Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason and (Other Lies I’ve Loved). It’s a year after Kate had been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at age 35, and she’s in the throes of treatment. She’s talking to her wise friend, Frank. And Kate is trying to plan all of the things. She’s grasping for some control. Her mind is racing, and the inner chatter is incessant: What will heaven be like? Will I see my son graduate? How can I do all the things I still need to do? How do I get most of my life… done?

That’s when Frank stops her and says this to Kate:

“Don’t skip to the end.”

I think about this a lot.

Don’t skip to the end.

So much of our planning ahead, racing to deadlines, to-do lists, and trajectories are our feeble attempts to control an outcome. This is why I love Frank’s advice: Don’t skip to the end.

Because, in effect, he’s saying, “Don’t miss what’s happening in the in-between. Don’t miss the grace of God that can lead you somewhere beyond what you had hoped for or imagined. If you cling too tightly to what you want to happen at the end or what you expect to happen, you might miss all that God has for you to see right now.

And this is especially true if things aren’t coming together the way you would like, or the way other people would expect, or the way the world thinks they ought to, even if you’ve been blindsided and all of the plans you’ve made are lying in a heap of rubble, even when your dreams have been dashed, even when you want to burn it all down. It’s true if you feel stuck. It’s true if you’re trying to do everything you can to plan your way to a particular outcome, clinging so tightly to your expectations that there’s little room for God to move.

God, like the gardener, says, “Hey, I’m still working here. Give it a little more time.” God is still at work beneath the surface, piling on the manure and the grace to turn tombs into tunnels and graves into gardens. Give it one more year.

This is what Jesus is asking. This is what it looks like to fast from planning and deadlines. Jesus is asking us to let go. To take a beat. To open our hands filled with chess pieces and to repent from our need to plan our way to our desired end — because God has something better in store. To trust that God is at work and to have faith in the one who was and is and is to come. Such that we might soon be able to look behind us and see the ripening that has taken place. The unfolding by God’s grace. Such that we might say like I did with my friends from high school: “Oh wow. Who could’ve seen that coming?”