Taking the Fork

[This message was delivered on the Third Sunday in Lent, 3/20/22, at Perinton Presbyterian Church. The video of it is on the Perinton Presbyterian facebook page.]

It was a risky letter that Jourdan Anderson wrote on August 7, 1865. Jourdan and his family were freed by Union troops during the Civil War and fled from Tennessee to Ohio. A few months after the war ended, Anderson’s former slave owner wrote to him, asking him to return to the plantation to help with the harvest and promising a good wage and freedom. Jourdan dictated his reply to his abolitionist employer, who was so impressed with its wit he had it published in the newspaper.

To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdan, and that you wanted me to come back, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt.

I am doing tolerably well here. I get $25 a month, with [food] and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy and the children. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated.

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits for me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.

If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker [the Lord] has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire. –From your old servant, Jourdon Anderson

What do you think Colonel Anderson did in response to Jourdan’s letter? This is what we know.

The slave owner was forced to sell his plantation and died a few years later at 44. Jourdan lived a long life, had 11 children with his wife and became a staff member in his church. (This was reported in the Washington Post, March, 2022.)

Contrast that with Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector that Jesus once visited. Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’” (Luke 19:8-10) That sounds like true repentance.

“Unless you repent, you will all perish….” That terse word from Jesus is said twice in this brief passage. Repentance is a major theme of the Lenten season. Even more, it is a major theme of the Good News of Jesus, indeed of the entire Bible. The Old Testament prophets regularly called on the people of ancient Israel to repent. To turn away from false gods. To turn away from injustice. To turn away from selfish greed. To turn away from old ways to God. John the Baptist called people to repent. Paul called people to repent. And Jesus calls people to repent. After his 40 days of fasting and being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, the first thing Jesus says is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt. 4:17)

What is repentance? It is more than remorse. Remorse is feeling badly for something we did, something we ought not to have done. But remorse may remain only a feeling and never lead to a real change of behavior. Repentance is more than regret. Regret is feeling badly for something we didn’t do that should have done. But regret may remain only a feeling and never lead to a real change in behavior. Remorse may lead to change, but not automatically. Regret may lead to change, but not automatically.

The biblical word for repentance means a change of mind, a change in thinking. The word used in the New Testament doesn’t mention the heart, save by implication. But it mentions the mind. In the Bible, the mind and the heart are closely related, more than we tend to think today. Repentance means a change of thinking that leads to a change of feeling that leads to a change in doing. That is what happened with Zacchaeus, but not with Colonel Anderson.

In today’s passage, two disasters are mentioned. One was induced by Pontius Pilate, having Jews executed and mixing their blood in sacrifices. The second is a tower falling and causing the death of 18 people. It sounds like today’s news. Rather than explain what cannot be explained, Jesus calls for repentance: “Unless you repent, you will all perish….” That is bracing and sobering. It is a word we need to hear as much as they did.

That leads Jesus to tell a simple parable about a fruitless fig tree. When we moved into our new home eight years ago, I bought three young spruce trees and planted them near each other with my grandsons. For eight years I have been watching them grow. They are now taller than my grandsons and me. Except for one. Last spring I noticed that it wasn’t showing any new growth and was losing its color. The other two, bought from the same nursery and planted by the same hands the same day, were thriving. I watched it all spring as it shed more and more of its needles. Those that weren’t shed were becoming brown and brittle. Late last spring I got out a saw and cut it down. From my study at home, where I prepare my sermons, I could see that empty space every time I looked out the window. So I bought a new tree, an ornamental Japanese maple and planted it right there. And now I watch it every day. Planting it was a kind of repentance: removing the old dead tree with a new tree. The parable is about patience, but not without limit. If that fig tree doesn’t bear fruit in one more year, cut it down. Give it a decent dignified death and plant a new tree.

John the Baptist brought the call of Jesus and the parable together in Luke 3:8-9, Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” If we stop at remorse or regret and do nothing, we haven’t repented.

I think of two aspects of repentance, Bible-style. The first might be called the big repentance. Many of us can mark a significant turning toward God in our lives. It may have been a decade or two or three or more ago. But there is more. The second kind is ongoing repentance. That is the repentance lifestyle. Once we have turned to God, the turning is not over; it has just begun. When a rocket is launched into space, it usually needs small course corrections. When I am sailing in my little Sunfish sailboat, I keep my eyes forward to read the surface of the lake, the wind pattern, and where other boats are, while my hand is on the tiller, which controls the steering, making minor adjustments. There is no automatic cruise control when sailing. And there shouldn’t be any in following Jesus. The follower of Jesus is always making course corrections.

Yogi Berra, the late Yankees hall of fame catcher and everyday philosopher said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yes. We are well into Lent, a season for repenting, for making course corrections, for giving up that which holds us back and moving forward following Jesus. Every day in Lent is a potential fork in the road, inviting us to choose the way of life. Last Sunday, Pastor Laura mentioned that she has been experiencing some stress. That is common to being a pastor. I, too, have been experiencing some stress. I read last week that in the two years of the pandemic, just over half of mainline Protestant pastors have considered leaving pastoral ministry. This season is an opportunity to make some course corrections. Am I taking criticisms too personally? Am I seeing people that are troubling to me the way Jesus sees them?

How about you? How is your Lenten journey going? Are you identifying areas in your life that need some course correction? If you can’t identify areas in your life for course corrections, then perhaps you are spiritually dead.

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