Sunday, 3 March 2013

‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near’

Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree, Alexey Pismenny

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 3 March 2013:

The Third Sunday in Lent (Year C)

10.45 a.m., The Eucharist,

The Chapel of the Mageough Home, Rathmines, Dublin.

Isaiah 55: 1-9; Psalm 63: 1-9; I Corinthians 10: 1-13; Luke 13: 1-9.

Hymns:
672 (Light’s abode, celestial Salem); 566 (Fight the good fight, with all thy might!); 415 (For the bread which you have broken).

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen

The story is told of a one well-known priest in this diocese who was once asked at this time of the year what he had given up for Lent. He replied: “I have given up the slice of lemon in my gin and tonic. But do not fear, I remain as bitter and tested as ever.”

This morning we have reached the Third Sunday in Lent. We are about half-way through Lent, but already, I’m sure, for many of us, our Lenten resolution has faded, and three weeks into Lent our Lenten resolutions are about as resolute as our New Year’s resolutions were three weeks into January.

We hungered or thirsted so much for the little food or the little drink that we gave up for Lent that we soon succumbed. But instead of being made feel guilty, instead of being chided, what most of us need is encouragement and even, at our age, a little bit of affirmation. Both are to be found in our readings this morning, but they also urge us to hunger and thirst for the real food and drink that God offers us.

Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 55: 1-9) concludes the section known as Second Isaiah, which begins in Chapter 40. It was written during the Exile, after Babylon had fallen to the Persians. The key themes are: the way of the Lord, calling the people to enjoy God’s gifts, a new deliverance, the word of the Lord, the king, heaven and earth, God’s relationship with Israel, forgiveness, and the participation of other nations.

All who thirst for God, especially those who are the impoverished and have no money, are invited to eat freely at the heavenly banquet, the meal that symbolises God’s loving generosity and abundance (verse 1).

We are told that God’s “everlasting covenant,” first with one person, David, has been extended to his successors, then to his people, and is now offered all nations, all people (verses 4-5), even those who have done evil in the past but who now forsake those ways (verse 7). God is not only to be found in the Temple, but among all who seek him:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near …
(verse 6).

In our Psalm too (Psalm 63: 1-8), we hear what it is to thirst for the Lord (verse 1). But the same mouths that thirst for God in the wilderness, also praise him with joyful lips (verse 5).

That thirsting in the wilderness helps the Apostle Paul to illustrate our Epistle reading (I Corinthians 10: 1-13), where he urges the Christians in Corinth to thirst for the true “spiritual food” (verse 3) the true “spiritual drink” (verse 4).

These are interesting preludes to our Gospel reading (Luke 13: 1-9), where we hear of the chilling and horrific deaths of two groups of people that made headline news at the time.

In those days, it was commonly believed that pain and premature death were signs of God’s adverse judgment. We think like that today: how often do people think those who are sick, suffer infirmities, have injuries die because they cannot afford health care. They don’t die because they cannot afford healthcare – they die because governments prefer to spend money on weapons and wars or giving tax breaks to the rich than spend money on health care for those who need it.

The first group, a group of Galileans, from Jesus’ own home province, believed they were doing God’s will as they worshipped in the Temple. But they were killed intentionally as they sacrificed to God in the Temple. Even in death, they were degraded further when, on Pilate’s orders, their blood was mixed with the blood of the Temple sacrifices.

In a single act of capricious violence, Pilate humiliated the nation, its religion, its culture, and the very presence of God. In a single act, he violated the altar in the Temple; the ritual practices held there; the sacred place reserved for priests; the animals made holy by prayers; the murdered Galileans who had been standing at that altar.

Think of our horror today at people who are murdered at worship: the people in the Gospel Hall in Darkley in 1983; Oscar Romero saying Mass in San Salvador (1980); or think of the innocent children murdered in school in Dunblane (1996), Columbine (1999), or Sandy Hook in New Haven, Connecticut (2012).

The Tower of Siloam, James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Art Museum

The second group in our Gospel reading, numbering 18 in all, were building workers who were killed accidentally as they were building the Tower of Siloam.

Think of our horror today at people who die accidently, not because of their own mistakes or sinfulness; people who died in the Japanese tsunami, who die daily of hunger and poverty; children born to die because they are HIV +, because their parents live in poverty, because of circumstances not of their choosing ...

How easy it is for us, for example, to talk about “innocent victims” – of wars, of AIDS, of gangland killings – as if anyone deserves to die like that.

But in both cases in our Gospel reading – in all these cases – Christ says no, there is no link between an early and an unjust death and the sins of the past or the sins of past generations.

In those days, it was commonly believed that pain and premature death were signs of God’s adverse judgment. At the time, it was commonly believed that severe physical disabilities or an early death were natural and just consequences for the sins of the past, even the sins of past generations.

We think like that today: how often do people think those who are sick, suffer infirmities, have injuries die because they cannot afford health care? They don’t die because they cannot afford healthcare – they die because governments prefer to spend money on weapons and wars or giving tax breaks to the rich than to spend money on health care for those who need it.

In both stories, we could explain away what we might otherwise see as the inexplicable way God allows other people to suffer and die by saying they brought it on themselves by their sins, or the sins of their ancestors … or, in today’s language, by saying they cannot afford to pay for health care, or they bring it on themselves by their lifestyle, or they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

My compassion is the victim of my hidden values, and so others become the victims.

Siloam provides an interesting place for Christ to challenge this “received wisdom” when he meets the man born blind and heals him at the Pool of Siloam, one of the seven “signs” in Saint John’s Gospel (see John 9: 1-7).

Now, we have another story about Siloam, as Christ couples the execution of Galilean insurgents with the tragedy surrounding the collapse of the Tower of Siloam.

Many may have expected him to say that their deaths were in punishment for their rebellious behaviour, in the case of the Galilean rebels, or collaborative behaviour, in the case of the workers who were building a water supply system for the Roman occupiers.

Is Christ indifferent to the political and environmental disasters around him?

Instead of meeting those expectations, Christ teaches that death comes to everyone, regardless of how sinful I am, regardless of my birth, politics or social background, or – even more certainly – my smug sense of religious pride and righteousness. And he goes on to teach how we each need to repent – even when we do not appear in the eyes of others to need being repentant.

And that death need not be physical at all – spiritual death is the most deadening, for it brings with it not only loss of Communion with God, but it brings with it the loss of hope, the loss of trust, the loss of love for others and for ourselves, the loss of true compassion. And sometimes that sort of death comes suddenly and without warning.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near …


It is so tempting to excuse or dismiss the sufferings of others. To say they brought it on themselves offers us an opt-out: we can claim to have compassion, but need do nothing to challenge the injustice that causes this suffering.

Yet, in the parable of the fig tree, we are called in wait, we are urged not to be too hasty on those who seem to do nothing to improve their lot.

It is logical, economic and financial sense for the owner to want to chop down the fig tree – after all it’s not only taking up space, but it costs in terms of time, tending, feeding, caring and nurturing. But the gardener, a worker who is never going to benefit from the owner’s profits, is the one with real compassion, who can see the tree’s potential, who’s willing to let be and wait, knowing what the fig tree is today and what it can do in the future.

I enjoy recalling a T-shirt I once saw on sale in the Plaka in Athens with the slogan: “To do is to be, Socrates. To be is to do, Plato. Do-be-do-be-do, Sinatra.”

Of course there are different types of people: there are the “do-ers” and there are the “be-ers.”

But whichever you are, we need the balance of the other. Emphasising the spiritual without understanding the world we live in leads to us being irrelevant. On the other hand, actively doing good, without any deep and truly spiritual foundations, leads to burn-out and disillusion.

We are called to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5: 6), but wishing is not enough. Christ reminds us in our Gospel reading this morning that we are called to bear fruit too … and he is patient in waiting for faith to produce fruit.

Saint Paul reminds the Corinthians – and so reminds us too this morning – that we are called to be both “do-ers” and “be-ers.” In that way, all may know that they are invited to the heavenly banquet, where there will be eating and drinking for the hungry and the thirsty, and for all.

But we can decide where we place our trust – in the values that I think serve me but serve the rich, the powerful and the oppressor, or in the God who sees our plight, who hears our cry, and who comes in Christ to deliver us.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect:

Merciful Lord,
Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh and the devil
and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord our God,
you feed us in this life with bread from heaven,
the pledge and foreshadowing of future glory.
Grant that the working of this sacrament within us
may bear fruit in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the Chapel of the Mageough Home, Rathmines, on the Third Sunday in Lent, 3 March 2013.

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