Sermon for Lent 3C

Luke 13 :1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him 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.’

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. 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?” He replied, “Sir, 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.” ’

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (+) Amen

I can just picture the scene on Monday morning.  You’re back at work, or at home, or you’ve just popped out to the shops, and you get chatting to someone you know – a friend, a family member, a work colleague, or just one of the shop assistants you know better than the rest.

They ask you about some of the things they’ve seen in the news recently.  The building collapse in Taiwan, and the train crash in southern Germany a few weeks ago.  The people killed and injured in the accident at Didcot Power Station.  The 40 people killed in a cyclone in Fiji.  The regular slaughter of innocent people in continuing suicide bomb attacks in the Middle East.  School shootings in the USA.  All those innocent people dead.

You’re a Christian, the other person says.  What had these people done wrong? What had they done to God to deserve this?

You remember the Gospel reading from today and you say that, of course, these people had done nothing to anger God.  They didn’t die because God was punishing them.  These things just happen, you say.

Then you remember a bit more of today’s Gospel reading, and feeling bold you say that Jesus said that if we don’t repent of our sins we’ll all end up dying in the same way…

I somehow don’t think that last bit would go down very well.  Perhaps it’s not the sort of thing you’d say.  I wouldn’t.

Jesus said it though.  I get the impression that repenting of our sins was a big deal to him.

Talking to other people about our faith is never easy.  I certainly don’t find it easy.  But talking about sin and repentance is particularly difficult.

They’re not really the sort of things we like to talk about.  There are certain things it’s just not proper to talk about in polite company, and I think “sin” and “repentance” probably fall within that category.  Why do we never talk about them?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some people who talk about sin all the time.  I’m sure we’ve all seen street preachers heckling people, railing at them, shouting that they need to repent of their sins or else they’ll burn in hell.  That’s probably talking about it too much.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that.

But there is a danger of going too far the other way and never, ever talking about sin.  We are now in the church season of Lent, when we remember Jesus’s time spent in the desert facing his own temptations.  And one of the things some people like to do in Lent is to examine their lives and think about what areas might need a little attention; a little pruning; a little weeding; where they need to repent of their sins.  Much easier said than done.

But before we get any further, what do we even mean when we talk about “sin” and “repentance”?

Because those two words “sin” and “repent” don’t mean all that much outside this building.  We hear them a lot in our church services.  But to those not familiar with church those words might as well be in a different language.  Even for regular churchgoers it can sometimes feel like we speak in different languages in here and out there.

When I was buying Serena some Christmas presents at the end of last year I bought a jar of sweets for her and the company which made them was called “Sugar Sin”.  Perhaps this means that sin is all about sweets?!

Is sin somehow about that little treat, that sweet or chocolate bar, that we know we shouldn’t have, but that we have anyway.  And we enjoy it.  Is that what sin is all about?

Or if we take note of what some parts of the Church of England spend a lot of time talking about, we might think sin was all to do with which people we should and should not sleep with and who people are allowed to marry.  It sometimes feels as if sin is all about sex.  Is that really what sin is all about?

Or sometimes we reserve the word sin in our minds for the very worst things we can imagine.  Really evil things.  Sin has to do with Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and the very worst things we can imagine, but not really with us.  Is that what sin is all about?

I think all three of these images get sin wrong.  Sin might be about having too much food, when we know that others are going without.  Sex might be sinful if it is abusive.  [Noone doubts that Hitler, Stalin and others like them were sinful.] 

But none of those images really gets to the heart of what we mean when we talk about “sin”.  And at the heart, of course, is God and our relationship with God and with each other, and where those relationships go wrong.

One of my favourite theologians and writers is the American Frederick Buechner.  He had this to say about sin[.  I’m paraphrasing slightly]:

“sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes other people, the world and God away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self”

I quite like that.

But, you say, how am I meant to know what things I’m doing or not doing which push God out of the way and tear me up in side?

I think you know.  I think each of us knows those things we do which, in our heart, we know to be wrong.  That’s not the difficult bit.  The difficult bit is not doing them.

St Paul says this in his letter to the Romans:

“I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

The difficult bit is stopping doing those things we know in our heart to be wrong.

And the first step to stopping is what we might call “repentance”.

And in some ways it’s a backwards step.  “Repentance” means literally “turning”.  Turning round to go in another direction.  Taking your life in a different direction.

I don’t know if you’ve seen those posters on the trains that go up and down to London.  “Want to take your career in a different direction? Call us now on 0800……..”.

If only it were that easy with our relationship with God!  Or perhaps it is that easy.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of saying “You know what God, I’m sorry for this and that, and that’s the end of it.  OK?”

That’s not my experience.  It isn’t as easy as that.  We go wrong, we say sorry, we want to do better, but we slip back into old patterns of behaviour, the same things happen again, and now we’re right back where we started.  Only now we have the crushing guilt of feeling we let God down.

Baby steps, baby steps.  We turn around; we repent; it doesn’t work; we try again.  We turn around; we repent; it doesn’t work; we try again.  And again.  And again.  And again for as long as it takes.  Perhaps it takes a lifetime.

And God will wait for you.  You remember that story Jesus told about the boy who ran away from his father with his share of the inheritance.  Used up all the money in a few months.  Came crawling back to the father, who rushed out to meet him with open arms.  The father waited for the boy.  God will wait.  And rush out to meet us with open arms.

But we don’t like waiting.  We get tired and bored, don’t we?  We don’t want to take baby steps: we want giant leaps.  We don’t want to work on things for years: we want things sorted right now.

Perhaps we think we can find a quick fix, a quick way to deal with the bad things we do, the bad thoughts we have.  “If I can just find the right prayer to pray, that will sort everything.”  Or “There’s this church, and they have a special blessing and that’s it all washed away”.  Or “There’s this book you can read and that will make sense of it all”

Well, if it all works out for you like that, great.  But what about the rest of us?

Well, then the temptation comes just to give up.  We keep getting things wrong until eventually we write ourselves off.  We consider our lives worthless, and not worth fixing.  Or we do it to others – we write off people all the time.

Jesus put it like this ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 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?”’

Now this man with the fig tree, he’s being quite reasonable.  A space in his vineyard is being taken up by a fig tree which won’t bear fruit; so it should be cut down and replaced with something which will pay for itself come harvest time.  The fig tree is a write off.  Economically, the sensible decision is to get rid of it.

But what if this story isn’t about fig trees, but about people.  Are we still happy that cutting people down is the right thing to do?

A lot of the interpretations of this story say that God is the owner of the fig tree.  God is impatient with our lives, our unfruitfulness and wants to cut us down to give another life a chance.

Can that really be the same God who like the father waits for the errant boy gone off with the family silver.  The God who rushes out with open arms to greet the boy; the silver nowhere to be seen?

No, no, I don’t think so.

Suppose for a second that you are the owner of the vineyard, and the fig tree is how you feel about some aspect of your life: your career, a relationship, perhaps your life of faith, or just how you view your whole life.  And you don’t like what you see, things aren’t bearing fruit, what you’ve tried hasn’t worked to improve things, so you’ve given up and you say “Cut it down!”  “I want another one.  I want a different one”

And Jesus says “Give me a year”.  “Give me a chance”.  “Let me tend to you.  Let me do a bit of weeding.  Let me put the fertiliser down.  I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.  A bit of muck here, a bit of manure there?  No problem.  I can handle that.”

Jesus is always there, waiting for us to invite him in.  Jesus in the book of Revelation says “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Think of that when we come to the time of sharing Communion together – Jesus standing at the very threshold waiting to be joined with us as we break bread and share wine.

Jesus wants to help us, to lighten the burdens we feel we carry.  Jesus in Matthew’s gospel says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Comforting images.

It all looks so easy when it’s written down on paper.  It all sounds so easy sat here together.  But in reality it’s not. Knowing Jesus is there for us, and is there to help us can be very easy to believe one day. And feel impossible to believe the next.

Which is why we need each other, why we need the community of people we call a Church.  Why we need to look out for each other and look after each other.  Why we need to pray for each other.  Why we need to do what Jesus would do and walk alongside those in need.

There was a man walking down a street when he falls in a hole.  The walls are so steep, he can’t get out.  A doctor passes by, and the man shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?”  The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?”  The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a friend walks by.  “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?”  And the friend jumps in the hole.  The man says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.”  The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

Jesus says “Give me a year”.  “Give me a chance”.  “Let me jump into the hole you’ve got yourself in and show you the way out”.  Will you let him?