David and I have been driving along the 401 a lot lately, as we go back and forth between Toronto and Guelph to work on the house we’ll be moving into in June. There’s often a hold up with accidents, and yesterday we saw a huge plume of grey smoke billowing from a car at the side of the road ahead, and as we drove past it the smoke turned into fierce flames. A young family was sheltering at a distance, and looked terrified.  

Lives can change in a moment. The ordinary people of Ukraine are living in the nightmare of that reality, not knowing on any day whether their homes will be destroyed by Russian missiles and their lives cut short. Terrible things happen to people like you and me.  

Jesus addressed the question of calamities befalling people when he talked about two things that had happened in his community. One was the killing of some local Galilean Jews by Pilate, and the other was an accident when a tower fell down and crushed 18 people. (Luke 13: 1-5)  

Jesus knows people are saying that the victims must have brought it on themselves by sinning in some serious way, but Jesus says no, it’s not like that. There isn’t a divine reward and punishment system in operation that means bad things only happen to bad people and good things only happen to good people. It’s more random than that, and more mysterious. We know intuitively that people don’t get what they deserve. And that can be a profound religious and philosophical problem. (“Why do the evil prosper?” as the psalmist wrote many centuries ago.)  

But Jesus doesn’t philosophize or theologize. He switches instead to saying that what we DO have control over is the direction our lives are going, and that will determine whether we flourish or shrivel up (perish) spiritually. “Unless you repent [turn around], you will all perish.” (Luke 13:3,5) It sounds like a threat, but I think it’s a reality. Unless we turn our lives away from destructive and self-destructive ways, and go down a different path – which is what repentance actually means – we will perish, starve spiritually, die on the inside. It’s not a threat of punishment, but a description of cause and effect.  

The first Christians were called Followers of the Way, because our faith leads us along a path, a way to live. And it’s God’s way – a way that is life-giving and love-based. Choosing that way, over and over again, means choosing life, abundant life. It’s not about obeying rules for fear of punishment, so much as embracing a path because it’s life-giving and nourishing. And we walk this way in community, as part of the Body of Christ. It’s more than an individual journey.  

This is a way that leads us deeper and deeper into trusting God, opening up to God’s Spirit at work in our hearts, turning to Christ over and over again, dying to self, loving and serving our brothers and sisters, especially the weak and rejected, forgiving and being forgiven. It’s a way based on grace, not our own efforts. And it leads not to safety or success or acclaim or prosperity, but to a deep peace, even in terrible times, and to closeness with God, to a different way of being in the world now, that we call the kingdom of heaven or eternal life.  

Indigenous people often talk about doing this or that “in a good way.” It’s about going through life in a way that will allow all to flourish, and brings peace and healing. The Sacred Circle of Indigenous Anglicans in Canada recently produced their version of church canons to govern themselves, and they call it Our Way of Life. It’s not rules and regulations so much as a whole approach to life and faith and community.  

In the reading from the prophet Isaiah God issues a great invitation to the people to come, and eat and drink - water, wine, milk, bread and rich food, all for free. (Isaiah 55) It’s the image of a banquet spread before us to nourish us deeply. It’s based on God’s promise to love us with a “sure and steadfast love”, and to “abundantly pardon” us when we’ve gone off the path but then turned back.  

This is the kind of God we’re journeying with: not a frightening God who punishes and kills people for their sins, but an extravagantly loving and forgiving God who wants nothing more than for us to run back when we’ve gone off on a destructive path.  

The gospel picks up this thread when Jesus tells a parable about a man who owned a fig tree but it wasn’t producing figs. The man tells the gardener to chop it down because it’s a waste of space. But the gardener says, “Hold on; give it one more year. I’ll work on it and put manure on it, then let’s see if it bears fruit.” We’ve sometimes assumed that God is the landowner and those who don’t have faith are like the useless fig tree. Then the parable’s told as a warning: “Watch out, shape up, or you’ll get the chop!”  

But what if God is the gardener? What if God is the one who always wants to give us a second chance, extra grace, a bit more time? That seems to be Jesus’ style, and he isn’t pulling against God, he’s revealing God. (Perhaps we can also think of the difficult times in our lives as manure, enabling us to grow more.)  

Life is fragile and uncertain. We don’t get what we deserve. We sometimes find ourselves in crises and suffering we could never prepare for. But Jesus says, “Come my way. Turn around if you’ve gone off the path, or if your engine is on fire, or your life has fallen apart. Turn around and choose my way.”  

As we say in the eucharistic prayer in Lent, “You are the way we need to follow and the truth we need to know.”  

We’re on this road together, through good times and bad. And God is on it with us, offering abundant grace.  Amen.