Lectionary Sermon for Lent 3 C, 24 March 2019 on Luke 13: 1-9

The great thing about parables is that they appear to shake you out of your conventional thought patterns and give you a chance to see the familiar in a different light. However, at the same time the catch with the parables is, to quote Louis Pasteur in a different context, “chance only favours the prepared mind”.

And here we are firstly with this horrible multiple murder in Christchurch, a pleasant if battered city which turned out to have an unexpectedly rotten part to it and secondly the much worse disaster in Southern Africa particularly in Mozamique and Zimbabwe. This storm has brought more flooding and damage than that part of the world has experienced in the last few hundred years and victims on a huge scale and international assistance is urgently required. So we turn to this weeks lectionary and we find Jesus telling a strange story about the fig tree which seems to suggest a way…a conditional way of dealing to rot and disaster, not so much by pretending the problem isn’t there – but rather calling for urgent action. This action needed while there is yet time.

The story is deceptively simple.

The landowner comes across the fig tree which is failing to produce.
He tells the gardener – get rid of it. The gardener says in effect. “Not just yet. We will give it one more opportunity. We will loosen the soil around it – add some fertilizer then after a year if it still fails to produce, then we will get rid of it, for if it still fails to produce the fruit it is designed to produce, it has no purpose for continued life”.

So what is that all about? I guess we might wonder if his listeners are expected to cast Jesus himself as the gardener. Is Jesus saying he comes and finds the fig tree which is not being the fruit tree it was intended to be. At least the analogy appears straightforward enough.

Many of us have talents atrophied through disuse. Sometimes these talents are the critical talents that might give perspective and meaning to our lives. Even if we are not great speakers or musicians, perhaps we have the talent for thinking and caring. Just as different fruit trees produce different fruit we don’t expect a fig tree to produce peaches – but just as if the potential to produce figs is there in the genetic makeup of the fig tree – our value to the community and world will be in developing what we have as our potential.
So at one level Jesus is just saying, if we look at our lives and see the wholesome fruits of our lives are not evident, we may still have another chance to put things right before we run out of chances…. BUT if we are hearing Jesus right we only have limited time. If we do nothing, the axe will fall.

Well that is fine as far as it goes, but if we read the story with care we start to notice a few clues that suggest Jesus was not talking about judgment in a heaven or hell context – and nor was he teaching that our lives would be longer and happy as long as we did the right things religion wise.

It seems quite likely that here in part Jesus may have been trying to remind his listeners – that sooner or later we need to be able to face up to what our lives and communities have really become. Or if you like reflecting on what is needed by a reordering of life’s values, which if attended to is a way of being ready.

Remember also how Jesus came to be telling the story in the first place.
In one sense he is dealing with an age-old game. Disaster has paid a visit. And here comes the first standard question. Were the victims partly responsible for their own misfortune? And the paraphrase of Jesus’ answer?…..
“Absolutely not but if you don’t repent, you won’t cope with the next disaster”. And in case we too want to be part of the blame game, remember in Christchurch it wasn’t the victims but rather the general population who allowed the skin heads and white supremacists to share their messages of hate and propaganda about undesirable Muslims. More to the point it didn’t help if the sort of people who heard others talking prejudice decided to do nothing.

At this distance of time and space, in the parable we cannot be certain that those bring the news of Pilate’s latest outrage might have been deliberately trying to wind Jesus up to get him to commit himself to a political response. Certainly two of his disciples, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot were known to have zealot and Nationalistic sympathies. I can imagine them being surprised and even a little disturbed by Jesus’ odd little parable told in response.

The Temple scene certainly points to an uncomfortable situation developing between the Jews and their Roman conquerors. Some Galileans had been in the Temple and Pontius Pilate had apparently deliberately interfered with their temple ceremonies by having his soldiers burst in and slaughter them, and as if this was not enough he then mixes their blood with the blood of the sacrificed animals, thereby trampling the sensibilities of the general populace by showing his contempt for their religion.

The contemporary historian Josephus has recorded a number of Pilate’s actions which show this was quite in keeping with the sorts of ways he used to subjugate the population. Josephus reminds us for example that Pilate once stole the Temple money to pay for an aqueduct, then, dealt with the ensuing riot by having his soldiers use torture and public execution to crush the inevitable local uprising.

Jesus’ example of the tower collapse has a contemporary ring to it. Buildings, even today do fail, and just as the case whenever there is a substantial disaster, there will always be those who claim that it must have God’s will – perhaps punishing wrong doers. Remember back to the Christchurch Earthquakes when there were letters to the paper claiming that it was God’s punishment as a consequence of the poor morality of the people of Christchurch – blaming as I remember, the prostitutes in Manchester Street being allowed to ply their trade – not to mention an apparently liberal dean of Christchurch cathedral!

Jesus is ahead of this situation. He reminded his hearers that they should not think for one moment that the victims in Siloam were responsible for their fate… any more today that Muslims at worship in Christchurch were responsible for a deranged man bursting in with a semi-automatic. Or any more than flood or Tsunami victims have somehow offended God. Remember the disaster might simply follow the laws of nature, but the freedom part comes when a comparatively wealthy population like that in New Zealand has to decide if their politicians should be encouraged to offer aid to disaster victims overseas.

Prejudice is not simply a matter of a right wing nationalist wanting to gun down a three year old boy and other innocent people in a mosque– it is also ordinary people failing to notice those who arrive in our community without friends. Surely it is up to us to be making the first moves for friendship.

So what did you think when Jesus was saying that everybody needed to look at themselves as being in need of repentance. All, he said – which presumably means the Roman tyrants, the terrorists and the common people caught up in situations not of their making…..all – need repentance – and what it more – repentance before it is too late.

Jesus of course has a well deserved reputation of making astute observations. He clearly understood that people putting their faith in traditions and even the ancient stones of their most sacred buildings would not be enough to protect them from the gathering storm. But for all of us, sooner or later, the dark clouds will gather.

Lent is upon us once more. Although I am not Anglican, I note the Anglicans have a litany for Lent which seems particularly appropriate as the disaster toll mounts for the New Year. A cyclone makes land in Southern Africa, weapons continue to be sold to areas where there is civil war, bombs fall on hospitals, elsewhere car bombs destroy markets and places of worship, refugees set out on inadequate boats and elsewhere there are crop failures, floods, massive storms ….and there are some distinctly un-Christian reactions to those who arrive on our doorsteps as refugees. So the Litany goes:

‘From famine and disaster, from violence, murder and dying unprepared, good Lord, deliver us.’

Although I agree we should be reminded of the ever-present threats of disaster, I do have one problem with the wording of the litany…especially when it says “Good Lord deliver us” Storms, fires, wars and famine are not new.” That is why peace making matters. That is why water supplies are critical. That is why the hurricane shelters must be built. And frankly if we know these things – why ask God to deliver us from the danger.

Now I know it is traditional to pray and expect God will answer, but I am coming to believe that at the very least, as with all intercessory prayers, this prayer should awaken our conscience to do something as part of the answer.

If we do not wish for famine, we must plan our food store – and of course food stores for those less able to fend for themselves. Disasters happen throughout the world as they have done through history and as they will continue to do. Our Rotary club for example helps in a small way by preparing disaster kits called shelter boxes which are deployed when hurricanes and Tsunamis hit the low lying Pacific Islands. Is this not part of the answer to such prayers? Notice at least the litany does not, and indeed cannot ask, that we be delivered from death, but notice the prayer does ask to be delivered from dying unprepared.

For me, prayer has little meaning unless I am prepared to allow myself to become involved in its answer. So in terms of avoiding dying unprepared, some of this preparation is simply planning. Will I have “donor” recorded on my driver’s licence? Will I organize for money to be set aside for my funeral? Is my will clear and easily accessible? And I guess from Jesus words this morning – part of the preparation for death must involve repentance of our own short-comings.

So given that life is finite, and often unexpectedly fragile, as we start to realise Lent is not simply a religious exercise but includes our preparation for Easter, why not look again at the way we have chosen to live?

The story of the fig tree contains some basic truths. Many of us do not bear the fruit in our lives we would like to bear. Check! Negative perhaps, but true nevertheless. But don’t forget another of these truths is positive. There may still be time to turn our lives around. Why not make this a feature of our season of Lent?

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