Sunday, 24 March 2019

Lent 3

Luke 13.1-9, Isaiah 55.1-9, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13

Respond, Repent, Renew

I’ve got a cherry tree in my garden which is at least 10 years old. Hopefully it will soon be in beautiful white blossom which is most welcome of course, but the total amount of fruit is has produced since it was planted would be enough to fill, well, a couple of coffee mugs. A bit like the fig tree in the parable, I have thought about cutting it down but live in hope that if I give it one more year there will at least be enough for one cherry pie.

One interpretation of the Fig Tree Parable could be to see God as the landowner, Jesus as the gardener and us as the fig tree. Despite failing to reach fruition Jesus wants to nourish us and give us more time. But like many of Jesus parables people it offers a lot more potential than the obvious.

When I took a moment it occurred to me that actually I have unrealistic expectations for my cherry tree, I just hope as each year passes that the tree will yield a decent crop but I haven’t actually got off my backside to do anything about it. I haven’t given it any fertilizer, any nourishment.

The parable of the fig tree is a great one for us to consider in lent. It’s a time to think deeply about our relationships, with each other and with the wider world community. The best starting point is to consider our relationship with God through Christ. Is it less than it could be because we are guilty of failing to nourish and nurture our faith, or maybe it’s time to try something new in the service of each other. We are reminded that doing nothing will change nothing.

If we take time to reflect on our own lives this lent, we should find encouragement in our gospel reading. After all who can honestly recite the lines of Edith Piaf , singing ‘Non je ne regrette rien’, I regret nothing? Most of us have some ‘baggage’ which we ‘haul around’ sometimes holding us back from achieving our full potential and at its worst mistakenly leading us to believe that life’s great sadnesses and challenges are somehow deserved.

Let’s resolve to be kinder to ourselves as well as each other this lent, God isn’t looking for opportunities to punish us he wants us to thrive and live abundant productive lives in whatever setting we find ourselves.

Many people are distinctly uncomfortable with the suggestion that for many things there simply is no logical explanation. They like to believe that mankind has conquered all, understands all, can explain all when the truth is that our world has layers of complexity which we may never penetrate.

Perhaps we’d be better to consider whether God would prefer us to react emotionally rather than trying to explain away the reason when sad things happen. Perhaps some use attempts at explanation as a barrier to the fact that our turn to suffer will also inevitably come and for them fear is still more real than God’s grace.

Yet most of us know from personal experience that when we do find the courage to sit with the suffering and dying, particularly those known and loved by us, very few regret having done so, however painful the experience may be.  

The question of whether God sends down punishment upon sinners was aired when in 1984 when a fire occurred at York Minster. It happened just two nights after David Jenkins was consecrated as Bishop of Durham there. He had previously caused a stir when he questioned the virgin birth among other things.

Clearly God was annoyed about this and thought to himself ‘How shall I punish such impunity? Mmmm I know I won’t totally destroy one the finest Cathedrals in England, and I don’t feel like killing him, I think I’ll just take out the South Transept roof, that should be enough to teach him a lesson’ so a lightening bolt was suitably despatched. I paraphrase but that’s virtually what some people implied at the time.

The then Archbishop of York, (John Habgood), wrote to the Times as follows: -

I read with astonishment some of the letters in today’s Times (July 11), the first copy I have been able to obtain since reluctantly leaving York Minster at 5am on Monday morning after hearing the reassuring words that the fire was out…
I feel I must point out the disturbing implications of those letters which somehow seek to link the fire with some remarks made by a bishop-elect on a TV discussion programme. What kind of a god do your correspondents believe in?
I grant that if we still lived in biblical times, and if it was customary to treat thunderstorms as some kind of messengers from God, then the connection might seem inevitable…
But to interpret the effect of a thunderstorm as a direct divine punishment pushes us straight back into the kind of world from which the Christian Gospel rescued us. Is illness a divine punishment? Ought we to ask after a car crash whether the car was carrying some outstanding sinner?

It's a more recent update on Jesus reference to the Galileans brutally executed by Pilate or the 18 killed in a freak accident when the tower of Siloam fell on them, or today people killed in the Grenfell fire, people with cancer, those who find themselves as refugees. Whilst we may not be able to explain such tragedies Jesus tells us that these people are mostly just like us with sins and regrets but this isn’t God punishing them, this isn’t how God works, he wants to forgive us, he wants to give us another chance.

It can be a natural reaction to say ‘what have I done to deserve this’ when sadness and tragedy strikes. It’s not always possible to immediately turn to God in strength and faith yet if we will let God travel with us, show his love for us we can begin a journey where his forgiving love and offer of eternal salvation is evident to the point that the question ‘what have I done to deserve this’ shifts from a bewildered cry to one of thankful recognition.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians includes a note of caution, ‘ so if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.’ Really this links with the earlier need to nourish and nurture our faith. To understand the difference between accepting that we are loved and forgiven versus being lazy and complacent to the extent that we no longer want to foster the relationship through prayer, no longer bother involving God in both our happy times and our struggles, and no longer want to learn more of God’s nature through scripture which has more to reveal to us than we have days on earth.

In our reading from Isaiah as we hear of God’s invitation to the banquet, making it clear that we don’t need money to join in, it’s free to share in wine and milk to delight ourselves in rich food. Perhaps some find God’s generosity to be so far from anything they have ever experienced that they think it’s just too good to be true, there must be some catch, though not now those who attended the lunch provided this week by members of our church community. There are those who still insist on buying food when God offers a place at his table without cost where all are welcome without exception.

It seems that there is such a thing as a free lunch after all. Again the sceptical may ask ‘what have I done to deserve this’ and feel unworthy to accept even when it pleases God for us to do so. It’s a sign of trust in him and his love for us.

Sometimes we over complicate God’s invitation, there’s no dress code to worry about, no fiddly cutlery or awkward conversation. Try comparing it to the unconditional love of parents when the relationship with their child is at it’s best. As a hungry child when my mum would call out ‘dinners ready’ I didn’t try to rationalise the situation, I instinctively heard it as good news and came running. When you grow up in a house with 5 kids, 2 parents and 3 dogs I also quickly worked out it was best not to hang around! Grown up children invited back home for a Sunday roast probably don’t think to themselves what’s the catch, they just accept that they are loved and are happy to be nourished, for free, as often as possible.

When the people told Jesus of the Galileans being slaughtered in the temple they didn’t spare him the gory detail of how the blood of those killed mingled with that of sacrificial animals. Perhaps they hoped to rile Jesus to the extent that he would endorse some violent act of retribution against Pilate and his forces. Instead he reminded them of their own mortality and their need to accept God’s love for them while they still had time. In doing this he reinforced the sometimes difficult to hear truth that true change begins with us.


Kevin Bright

24th March 2019

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