Morning Service on the Third Sunday in Lent, led by our Minister and to include the baptism of Ethan Mullins, son of Dan and Vicki.
This sermon is taken from Luke 13, verses 1-9
Jesus was having one of “those” conversations. The conversation when people demand why God allows innocent people to suffer? I expect we have all been there and quite likely we have been the ones asking the question. Why does God apparently inflict suffering on those who have done nothing to deserve it?
The people in our reading were telling Jesus about terrible atrocities committed by the Roman Governor on innocent men and women. What had they done to deserve this? Similar questions have been asked here since the shootings in the New Zealand mosque last week. Jesus said, “The victims did nothing to deserve this. It was not their fault.”
Then they went on to talk about the disaster of a falling tower, crashing down and obliterating human lives. What had those people done to deserve this? Again, similar questions have been asked about the devastating floods in Mozambique and the innocent lives swept away. Again, Jesus said, “The victims did nothing to deserve this. It was not their fault.” In other words, neither natural disaster nor pain inflicted by others is something God deliberately causes to happen. But, says Jesus, you still need to repent (change your lives) or you will end up caught in destruction. What does he mean?
When we have children, we want more than anything else for them to be happy. And we so desperately try to protect them from bad things that might hurt them and from bad people who might threaten them. Good parents can do a lot to keep their children safe. But, short of locking them away in a bomb-proof, fire-proof, germ-proof cell, we do inevitably have to let them go into a world of risk. There will be dangerous places and dangerous people out there. Perhaps hardest of all for loving parents to accept and children to learn to cope with is that there are great dangers right within ourselves.
Have you heard the expression “original sin?’ It means that we are all born with a natural propensity to do what we should not do. Some people think it sounds a bit harsh. Most new parents, by the time their child is a year old, start to think that there might be something in it….. Why else would your child, having been surrounded in the living room with beautiful, expensive and exciting toys, ignore them all and steadfastly persist in climbing over every possible obstacle until she reaches the knives you have placed out of reach in the kitchen? Why else would your child wave and smile sweetly at every passing stranger on the street and then, when he arrives at Grandma’s house, scowl and refuse to let her kiss him? Why else did my child, when he was about Ethan’s age greet the kind lady who ran the church creche by hitting her round the head with a hymn book?
Later in life it can get a whole lot worse. Not all the knife-wielding teenagers found guilty of murder have parents who don’t care about them. There are a lot of good and heartbroken mothers and fathers out there asking, “where did we go wrong?”
I think what Jesus was suggesting is that the sin, this inclination to do wrong in us, will inevitably help to create a world in which bad things happen. We are being warned right now that a greedy, irresponsible consumer society helps to create an environment in which cyclones and floods will happen. And a culture in which bullying is rife in homes, schools, businesses, politics will pave the way for a brutal bullying dictator and for acts of terrorism.
It is a gloomy picture but then Jesus tells a little story about a fig tree.
There was this fig tree planted in a vineyard. That was usual. A lot of the land in Palestine, where Jesus lived, was unsuitable for growing trees. But if the land could produce grapes, it would also be fertile enough to grow trees. So fig trees were planted among the vines. BUT a fig tree will take a lot of nourishment from the soil. So, a fig tree which produces no fruit is not only what you might call a waste of space but a threat to the space occupied by the vines. It would keep taking nourishment from them and the owner would end up with no figs and no grapes. It made no sense, in agricultural or economic terms to keep it there. “Cut it down,” says the owner. “Why should it use up the soil?’
This is the natural way of life, isn’t it? The whole theory of evolution decrees that those life forms which produce nothing will die out. Natural sciences prove that a life form which keeps taking nourishment but gives none back is a dangerous parasite and should be eliminated.
But Jesus was not actually talking agriculture, economics or evolution here. He was talking about human life. And although there are and always have been people who cannot or will not contribute anything to the social or economic health of their country, when Adolf Hitler made a deliberate effort to “cut them down;” get rid of the incurably ill and insane; the elderly and incapable; the handicapped, the travellers, the criminals and, for reasons best known to himself, the Jews; when he set in motion a programme of deliberate liquidation the world-to its credit- went to war against him.
Right back in one of the most ancient texts in the Bible- the story of the great flood- God declares at the end that mass elimination is not the right way forward to a better world. And God pledges himself, in the sign of the rainbow, to remain on our side.
In this little story Jesus is preaching what is called “The Second Chance Gospel.” And as most of us need a lot more than one “second chance” he also told a story later on about giving people “70 times 7” chances.
Because we are the hope of the world. We are the creatures with consciousness, with creativity, with compassion. We have intelligence, skills, problem-solving mentalities. We have something of God himself in us. Yes, we do have it in us to destroy the world with our irresponsible lifestyles. We can create a world in which flood waters surge and drought creates deserts and towers fall down and factories burn down, and innocent lives are lost. But we also have it in us to re-create a world of balance and beauty and safety.
Yes, we do have it in us to create a culture in which only the strongest survive and flourish whilst the weakest are left on the scrap heap. We have it in us to raise up a generation of leaders who will bully and threaten and inflict pain and injustice on innocent people. But we also have it in us to create a fair and just society, where everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the general good and where leaders are accountable and responsible.
As a church, we have been exploring what are called “Holy Habits”-ways of living that bring us closer to God and create a stronger church and better world. And at the moment we are looking at the Holy Habit of Service. We have a duty and a privilege to serve our children, our families, our community, our workplace, our church, our nation, our world- to try to do what is best for them. Because we can. We have something of God in us.
So, when you first read it, this little story looks as though it has a neat and happy ending. The fig tree is spared; it will be given every opportunity to do better, the vineyard will flourish, the owner will be pleased, and they all lived happily ever after.
But actually, the story does not end like that. We are left on a bit of a cliff edge. Not only has the owner not given his answer yet (he might be about to say “forget it. Cut the useless tree down.”) but even if the tree is given another chance to produce fruit, we do not know whether this will actually happen. A year of hard work and expensive fertiliser might still see the two men in the same place same time next year looking at an empty tree. And, even worse, by living another year and taking another year’s worth of goodness from the ground, the tree might have starved some of the vines and they are also empty.
If this story is “The Second Chance Gospel,” maybe the emphasis should not be so much on the word Gospel (good news) as on the word “chance.” It is about taking risks; pursuing a course of service for which you cannot guarantee the results. Life is like that. We can and should serve our children by giving them love, training, support in abundance. But because they are living, growing, developing creatures who have to make their own choices, we have no guarantee how they will turn out in the end. We can and should serve our community, our country, our world by helping those in need, protecting the environment, voting for peace with justice. But we cannot say for sure whether our service will achieve anything significant. We can and we should serve our church, supporting the worship and work which goes on here. But it will be almost impossible ever to quantify the results because the work of God can take years to come to fruition. Thirty years ago, I was running a church youth club for teenagers, most of whom had little or no interest in the church or Christian faith. There was no great revival. But about fifteen years later I received a message from one of the boys- “tell Jennifer I am training for the Christian ministry. She will probably faint.”
Because life is life, we can never predict how it will turn out. Even scientists admit this. When he told this story, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem knowing full well that despite his loving service to so many people, he would be arrested, tortured and killed. And that even though by the power of God in him, he would rise from death, there was still no guarantee that men and women would be convinced enough to believe in him as Son of God, to entrust their lives to his saving grace, to follow him and to serve the world in his name. In Jesus Christ we see the huge gamble that is God’s love. God gave something of himself to the human race and trusted that we would be strong enough, brave enough, compassionate enough, creative enough to shape a world which was safe and lovely; just and fair. Through the Holy Habit of service, we take part in God’s great gamble. We serve in love, as God in Jesus serves us in love, taking endless chances so that the world and humanity might have second chances and even 70 times 7 chances to do better.
It is an awesome challenge and we find it hard to keep serving. Only last week we were thinking about the number of people who fling back our offers to serve them in our faces. But the last thing I want to point out in the story of the fig tree is the mention of fertilizer. Apparently, it is never mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. The struggling fig tree needed some hefty support and nourishment if it was going to serve its owner by producing fruit. Hundreds of years earlier the prophet Isaiah had promised a man of God, a leader of the people who would not shout or dictate or bully; who would not break down and cast out those who did not make the grade; who would not sneer at fragile efforts to do good. This leader would bind up broken lives; encourage struggling lives; renew hopeless lives and work faithfully to bring justice to the world and peace with God.
Jesus had taken these words to himself; he was this man of God and this was how he ministered. When he noticed even the tiniest signs of faith, he commended it; when he saw men and women struggling to live good lives in appallingly bad circumstances, he helped them out; when he saw something good, he praised it; when he heard people despair, he lifted them up and gave them hope. For despite the fact that we have something of God in us, we remain human, not super-human.
And this was why he left not a book of rules but a living community. He left his followers to nurture, encourage and support one another in faith and in the Holy Habits that would keep them close to God. Over and over again he commanded his disciples to “love one another.”
This was how he would remain in them and they in him. This was how they would become communities of hope for the world. You might even say that “we are each other’s manure.”
Perhaps it is not quite how we might want to describe our fellow Christians but it is at least an expression you are likely to remember…..
So, we end where we started- at Ethan’s baptism. If he is going to realise his full potential as a child of God; a deeply happy man; a person who can give out and serve to create a world in which good things can happen, then he will need support. Dan and Vicki have promised their support. Ethan’s godparents have promised their special support. Each one of us here has promised to play our part in maintaining a loving, nurturing environment in which Ethan may find all he needs to grow in faith. We cannot say for sure how Ethan will develop nor any of our other children here. But, as God has gambled on us, so we gladly take a chance, keep our promises, and trust in the power of God’s love to make us fruitful in his service.