7 March 2010
Third Sunday in Lent
10.30 Communion Appledore
Rev’d Paul White
Readings Isaiah 55:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
May I speak in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You may have seen on television recently that a firm of solicitors is currently running an advertising campaign. I wont say who they are but their name is reminiscent of the old fashioned word for ladies underwear.
Their television adverts go something like this: person climbs up wobbly ladder and falls off, or a person walks along the pavement and trips over a paving slap, or a person slips over and twists their leg. You get the idea: a person is going about their daily life and something unexpected and bad happens to them. At the end of the advert we are informed that if you have had any sort of accident you may be able to claim some money from someone and this firm of solicitors will act on your behalf on a no win no fee basis.
Now, speaking as a former solicitor, I can say that these firms are not all bad and their activities do sometimes mean that someone who would otherwise not be able to work through no fault of their own is not left destitute, and that has to be good. However it also has to be said that this litigation culture has had some very bad effects on our society: in the recent snow people were advised not to try clearing the path outside their house for fear that if they do and someone then slips on any ice that is left over they could be sued. And so, rather than encouraging people to rally round as a community and clear their pavements as an aid to the more frail and vulnerable we were advised to leave the clearing to the professionals from the council who, as it turned out, didn’t come very often. And you may also have heard the story of the school boy who stubbed his toe in the playground whilst playing football who ended up receiving £2,500 from the local authority plus £5,000 costs for his solicitor. So this culture of blame results in icy paths going un cleared and cash strapped councils spending thousands of pounds of tax payers money on stubbed toes.
On the one hand it is pure craziness that detracts from civic and civilised society but on the other it seems to arise from our constant need to find someone to blame for any misfortune that befalls us.
It is always tempting to say that this is purely as a result of “modern society” and that it didn’t used to be like that in the old days. And if one is thinking simply of the rise of no win no fee lawyers then there is some truth in that as it is a development within the span of my own legal career. However it seems that the need to find someone to blame for misfortune, whether that is God or another person’s sinfulness, goes back at least to biblical times, and probably a great deal further.
In today’s Gospel reading the questions put to Jesus were about who is to blame for misfortune and unexpected and tragic death.
The first question is about some Galileans who it appears had been put to death by Pilate, and of course that is exactly what will happen to Jesus himself in due course, but these unnamed people were not only killed but their blood had been offered up to the Roman gods. Of course it was bad enough that these people had been executed at all but for a good Jewish person who is fiercely monotheistic and to whom blood is unclean to have their blood offered up to pagan idols must be the ultimate insult. The temptation is to wonder that these people must have been very bad sinners to deserve such an end. Some of you may recall in the 1980s when HIV & AIDS started appearing in the gay community that some sections of our society including parts of our press and, I am ashamed to say, parts of our church blamed the gay community itself and called AIDS God’s punishment for their behaviour.
Jesus says very clearly that the Galileans who were so dishonoured were no better and no worse than those he was speaking to:
“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 perish as they did.”
And then Jesus speaks about 18 poor souls who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell down. Were these people being punished for their sins, were they to blame for their misfortune? Jesus said:
“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.”
Interestingly, and importantly, in both cases Jesus does not say that the poor unfortunates who had died were either blameless or sin free. What he does say is that they were no worse and no more deserving of their fate than anyone else. This is important because it seems to me that the prime purpose of finding someone or something to blame for any and every misfortune is to comfort and absolve ourselves. If my employer is to blame for me falling off a ladder then I can’t be guilty of being careless myself, if gay people are to blame for aids then I will be safe, if the people in the tower of Siloam or in the Twin Towers were to blame for their misfortune then surely such a thing will not happen to me. And so we seek to use other people’s blame as a comfort blanket for ourselves.
But although Jesus gives us comfort and security he will not let us deceive ourselves with false comfort and security. The people who suffered and died were no more and no less sinful than you, he says, and so do not deceive yourselves that you are better than others and safe from misfortune but you must instead repent of your sins before you meet your own end.
And then, as he often did, Jesus told a story. Jesus’ story was about an unfruitful fig tree that had borne no fruit for three years. The owner of the tree told his gardener to cut it down because this unproductive tree was a waste of soil. However the gardener was a more patient and forgiving man and he persuaded the owner to let him have one last try to get this tree to produce fruit. He would tend the tree, he would dig around it and put manure in to fertilze the soil and feed the tree in the hope of coaxing it back to fruitfulness. But this is the last chance for the tree and if it does not produce fruit then it will be destined for the chop next year. Of course parables are by their very nature open to lots of interpretations and it is almost against the spirit of the parable to pretend that one knows all the implications. So I would simply reflect that joined as this parable is with the stories that have gone before that Jesus is inviting us to repent of our own unfruitfulness, to accept the offer of feeding and renewal that God the gardener of our souls offers and to bear fruit in our lives before it is too late to do so.
What does it mean for our lives to bear fruit? Well as each fruit tree bears the type of fruit for which it was made so the fruits of our lives will vary depending upon our nature and calling. You may be an apple rather than a fig tree, or you may be a pineapple, a kumquat or a carrot. What is important is that each of us seeks to produce the fruit for which God has made us and repents of anything that stands in the way.
And so, as he often does, Jesus tells us to stop looking for other people to blame and to take a long deep look into our own hearts and souls. The other is no worse than us and so repentance and the beginnings of new fruit comes not from either blaming the other or even trying to make the other better but by getting ourselves into a right relationship with God.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ – For the remainder of Lent let’s put aside all blame put down our roots into the fertile soil of God’s loving kindness and ask him to help our lives bear the fruit for which we were made, looking forward always to the joyful resurrection, the new fruit of God’s recreation, on Easter morning.