28 February 2016

When compassion is the victim of my hidden
values, others become the true victims

‘I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree’ … fresh figs in a supermarket in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford,

Sunday 28 February 2016,

The Third Sunday in Lent,

Saint John’s Church, Sandymount,

11 a.m., The Solemn Eucharist

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

In the name of + the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen

The story is told of a well-known priest in this diocese who was once asked 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 half-way through Lent, but already, I’m sure, for many of us, our Lenten resolutions have faded, and we are probably as resolute about them as we were about our New Year’s resolutions 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 affirmation. Both are found in our readings this morning, but those readings 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 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), for 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 in giving tax breaks to the rich, rather than spending money on health care for those who need it.

Looking across the countryside in Crete from an old Venetian tower … why were the workers killed accidentally in the Tower of Siloam? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The first group in this Gospel reading, a group of Galileans, from Christ’s 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; and 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 (1983); Oscar Romero saying Mass in San Salvador (1980); or children murdered in Dunblane (1996) or in recent school shootings and drive-by shootings in the United States.

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 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; children who die in dangerous and treacherous sea crossing in the Aegean between the coast of Turkey and the Greek islands ...

How easy it is for us, for example, to talk about “innocent victims” – of wars, of AIDS, of gangland killings – as though some people deserve 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? How often do we shift our focus so that we blame people traffickers rather than asking why people are fleeing war? How often do we forget or deny their humanity and instead listen to politicians talking of “hordes” and “swarms” of people threatening “Fortress Europe”?

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, or they ought to stay in their own countries.

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 links the execution of Galilean rebels 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 political and environmental disasters?

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, in the eyes of others, we do not appear to need repentance.

Death comes to everyone. But 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 not respond to it, nor need to do anything to challenge the injustice that is the underlying cause of this suffering.

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

It makes logical, economic and financial sense for the owner to want to chop down the fig tree – after all, not only is it taking up space, but it also costs in terms of time, tending, feeding, caring and nurturing. The owner knows what it is to make a quick profit, and if the quick profit is not coming soon enough he wants to cut his losses.

It takes much tender care and many years – at least three years – for a fig tree to bear fruit. And even then, in a vineyard, the figs are not a profit – they are a bonus.

Even if a fig tree bears early fruit, the Mosaic Law said it could not be harvested for three years, and the fruit gathered in the fourth year was going to offered as the first fruits. Only in the fifth year, then, could the fruit be eaten.

So, if this tree was chopped down, and another put its place, it would take longer still to get fruit that could be eaten or sold. In his quest for the quick buck, the owner of the vineyard shows little knowledge about the reality of economics.

The gardener, who has nothing at stake, turns out to be the one not only has compassion, but has deep-seated wisdom too. The gardener, who is never going to benefit from the owner’s profits, can see the tree’s potential, is willing to let be and wait, knowing what the fig tree is today and what it can do in the future.

I once saw a T-short 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.

Last week, the Greek Prime Minister accused other European leaders of failing to put compassion into action, and warned of the danger of Greece becoming “a warehouse of souls.”

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.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Solemn Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount, Dublin, on the Third Sunday in Lent, Sunday 28 February 2016.

Luke 13: 1-9:

1 Παρῆσαν δέ τινες ἐν αὐτῷ τῷ καιρῷ ἀπαγγέλλοντες αὐτῷ περὶ τῶν Γαλιλαίωνὧν τὸ αἷμα Πιλᾶτος ἔμιξεν μετὰ τῶν θυσιῶν αὐτῶν. 2 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Δοκεῖτε ὅτι οἱ Γαλιλαῖοι οὗτοι ἁμαρτωλοὶ παρὰ πάντας τοὺς Γαλιλαίους ἐγένοντο, ὅτι ταῦτα πεπόνθασιν; 3 οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἐὰν μὴ μετανοῆτε πάντες ὁμοίως ἀπολεῖσθε. 4 ἢ ἐκεῖνοι οἱ δεκαοκτὼ ἐφ' οὓς ἔπεσεν ὁ πύργος ἐν τῷ Σιλωὰμ καὶ ἀπέκτεινεν αὐτούς, δοκεῖτε ὅτι αὐτοὶ ὀφειλέται ἐγένοντο παρὰ πάντας τοὺς ἀνθρώπους τοὺς κατοικοῦντας Ἰερουσαλήμ; 5 οὐχί, λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἐὰν μὴ μετανοῆτε πάντες ὡσαύτως ἀπολεῖσθε.

6 Ἔλεγεν δὲ ταύτην τὴν παραβολήν: Συκῆν εἶχέν τις πεφυτευμένην ἐν τῷ ἀμπελῶνι αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἦλθεν ζητῶν καρπὸν ἐν αὐτῇ καὶ οὐχ εὗρεν. 7 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς τὸν ἀμπελουργόν, Ἰδοὺ τρία ἔτη ἀφ' οὗ ἔρχομαι ζητῶν καρπὸν ἐν τῇ συκῇ ταύτῃ καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκω. ἔκκοψον [οὖν] αὐτήν: ἱνατί καὶ τὴν γῆν καταργεῖ; 8 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς λέγει αὐτῷ, Κύριε, ἄφες αὐτὴν καὶ τοῦτο τὸ ἔτος, ἕως ὅτου σκάψω περὶ αὐτὴν καὶ βάλω κόπρια: 9 κἂν μὲν ποιήσῃ καρπὸν εἰς τὸ μέλλον. εἰ δὲ μή γε, ἐκκόψεις αὐτήν.

1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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 others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “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?” 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down”.’


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.

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