A sermon given at the 8am BCP Eucharist and 10.30am Choral Eucharist on Sunday 20 March, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor
In the name of God, creating redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
As we gather on this Third Sunday in the Season of Lent, we find ourselves invited to reflect on the idea of repentance. Lent is a time when we are encouraged to spend a little time reflecting, perhaps on the blessings of our lives, perhaps on our frailties, perhaps on the suffering of those we love or those living in places of war, perhaps on those things of which we are ashamed. Sin, to use a theological word. Gerard Hughes, the Jesuit writer says that “Sin is the failure to let God be God’. Perhaps repentance is step in the direction of allowing God to be God. Perhaps it is a step in the direction of allowing us to be most fully us.
It is interesting that the image used for those in need of repentance, in the reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and in this morning’s psalm, is of ones who are thirsty. It is interesting also, that the image of the one who accompanies our repentance, who hears our confessions and forgives our sins, the image of God, is of an abundance of water.
The Prophet Isaiah bids us reflect on these things with these words:
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
The psalmist in Psalm 63 continues the theme.
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
The prophets, the psalmist, and most especially Jesus, use images from the natural world to give us insight into the ways of life in God, the ways of being human, and of the nature of God. And sometimes those images resonate for us and help us see what we might not have seen before. Oh … yes … we can be like that, we might think as we hear a verse or two of scripture. Oh … I wonder if God might be like that … when we hear a verse or two more. But it is also true that, at times, images fail.
Living in our country we know what it is to lack water. We may have travelled or lived in parts of Australia where water is scarce and to know the great blessing when water comes. These images might well give insight to the blessing of God’s presence and the struggle when God seems absent. But, just at the moment, we know well that there are parts of our nation where floods are wreaking so much damage that if we invited those who live there to see God as an abundance of water we would cause them to laugh if the matter was not so serious. Images do at times fail.
Jesus is the master of the use of stories and images to help us the truth that he longs that we might know. Of the presence of the one who he knows as Abba, Father, of the reality of sin and struggle, of the longing of God to forgive and set free.
We come across Jesus, in our reading from the 13th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, in conversation with a crowd. This crowd are reflecting on the local news – just as we might – news about those who are suffering. Not unlike the well known friends of Job, who assumed that his sufferings must have been caused by some sin he had committed, members of this crowd want Jesus to reassure them that the people who are suffering must have done something wrong.
This crowd told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
The first story is about some Galileans who have been murdered, the second about a group of people who died when a building fell upon them. Jesus is blunt, “No I tell you,” he says. Anyone might die in this way.
Not unlike members of this crowd, we find ourselves listening to news stories about those who suffer. These weeks our hearts and minds, our prayers, have grieved for the people of Ukraine and the people of Russia. Did we hear the story of the bombing of a maternity hospital? Did we hear just days ago that the woman, soon to give birth, that we saw carried on a stretcher from the rubble, died a few days later, her baby dying with her? Did we see the woman of Russian and Ukrainian descent who interrupted the main news program on Russia’s state TV Channel One, holding up a sign behind the studio presenter with slogans denouncing the war in Ukraine. Protester Marina Ovsyannikova was arrested after denouncing war on live Russian television. We can only dread the suffering that will be meted out on this extraordinarily courageous women. It is unlikely we would question Jesus about any guilt in these stories. It is unlikely he would need to say … “No I tell you…”
But his words “unless you repent” might haunt us a little. What does he mean? How does he say this words? Kindly or fiercely? After these words, he says a little more … but it’s a parable, isn’t it? Do we dare wonder about the parable he tells?
The parable is about a fruit tree, a tree that grows figs, in fact. Only this one doesn’t. The owner of the vineyard comes to collect some figs and on finding the tree bare he calls the gardener. “See here!” The owner of the vineyard says. “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?”
Do we relate to this sometimes? Do we sometimes feel that whatever we are meant for isn’t bearing fruit? For us, or our community, or our nation, or even the whole planet? Do we sometimes feel that our vocation is not bearing fruit? According to the owner of the vineyard it is the tree’s fault. Do we resonate with this? That we are made to thrive in some way, and that we are not, and that it is our fault?
Scripture always sheds light on who we are, we human beings, and on who God is. Do we imagine God looking at us as the vineyard owner looks at the tree? With disappointment, in judgment, deciding to give up. Do we imagine God looking at us like that?
There’s another character in this parable, did we notice? There is another character. There is the gardener. He speaks on behalf of the tree, the fruitless tree. “Sir,” he says to the vineyard owner, “let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” Is it possible that the vineyard owner, the disappointed one, the one who gives up, is more like us? Would we give up, on ourselves or on one another? Would we cut down the fig tree throw it away?
Is it possible that God is the gardener? The one kneeling on the ground with hands covered in soil, and a trowel ready to dig around the tree and put manure on it? Is it possible that God is the gardener?
We might ponder this – who God is like for us? Whether our image of God is of one who judges, perhaps sensibly, but firmly, giving up on those who do not perform. Or is our image of God like the gardener, pleading for a second chance for us, longing that he might nurture us into life. Perhaps pouring water on the thirsty tree, if we are to remember the images from Isaiah and the Psalm.
As we ponder this Lent the idea of making our confession, of repenting, of turning towards God, part of our reflection might be on what God looks like for us? And whether, perhaps, God is like the gardener, who only wanted another chance for the struggling tree. Perhaps we might turn towards God who is a little like that as we ponder the things of which we are ashamed in this holy season of Lent.