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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 3, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 7, 2010

Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9

Cutting remarks’

The artwork by Alexey Pismenny illustrates well the parable of Jesus from Luke 13. In the background we see two calamities – Pilate’s massacre of the Galileans and the falling of the tower in Siloam that killed 18 people. Two first-century calamities as background to teaching that addresses common theologies of tragedy and blessing. In the context of raw memories of blood and rubble, Jesus criticises what we have come to call prosperity gospel, or prosperity doctrine (it’s not gospel, it’s not good news) – the popular and simplistic belief that tragedies befall the wicked and that blessings are showered upon the righteous. Implicit to prosperity doctrine is the notion that God endorses political authority (Pilate’s authority, for instance) as an instrument of judgement.

The clearest note sounded by our Gospel for today is a call to repent – to change our minds with respect to prosperity doctrine. The mind of Jesus is set against popular and simplistic beliefs about tragedies and blessings. His own story, of course, runs counter to the notion of righteousness rewarded – the resurrection is God’s affirmation of the way of the cross – God’s affirmation of a loving way of confrontation with powers – a non-violent resistance in the name of good news for those least likely to prosper in the present age.

“Do you think these Galileans were the greatest sinners just because they suffered this?” asks Jesus. “Not at all!”

“Do you think those killed by a falling tower in Siloam (in Haiti, in Chile) were more guilty than anyone else? Certainly not!”

The call to change our thinking with respect to tragedies and blessings extends to all manner of misfortune and privilege – all manner of explanations and rationalisations of suffering and affluence. Do we blame the sick for somehow attracting sickness, the persecuted for somehow attracting persecution, the impoverished for somehow attracting poverty, the unemployed for somehow attracting unemployment, and so on? Do we congratulate the healthy for their well-deserved health, the powerful for their well-deserved positions of power, the wealthy for their well-deserved riches – the prayerful for their well-deserved sporting victories or parking spaces?

The call to change our thinking with respect to the cause of tragedies and blessings is at heart a call to eschew simplistic world-views that serve primarily to bolster a sense of control over others, a sense of order. Repentance, though, is better expressed in positive terms as the desire to think and act in a godly way. In terms of turning to God. In terms of trusting God. We are encouraged, then, to focus on compassion (none of us more deserving than others), on a godly concern to see others nurtured and fed rather than cut down (the moral of the parable about the fruitless fig tree), and on the richly complex wonders of the world – the mysterious ways of a God whose thoughts are beyond our own, the mysterious ways of God that entail mystery in the world and in ourselves. We are led, then, with the world’s artists and scientists, from narrow places to a wide-open space wherein grace reorders reality and wherein faith finds a lasting home. We call this space the kindom of God or the kindom of heaven. And, most deeply, what happens in this space is called salvation – we participate, body and soul, with Christ in God’s love for the world.

I could end the homily here, but that would be simplistic. Wishful thinking. It is crucial that we hear the dominant note of compassion and mystery, and that we turn in trust toward a God of mercy. In the kindom of heaven we let go our desires to control and explain – and yet we are not called to give up discerning what is fair and just – we are not called to carelessness with respect to actions and consequences – our own or those of others.

Three times Jesus refers to judgement as a horizon worthy of concern. Twice in respect of the calamities – “you’ll all come to the same end unless you change your ways” – and at the very end of the parable, with reference to the fig tree – “If it bears fruit next year, fine; if not, then let it be cut down”.

This minor theme of judgement is important in that it teaches us to be wary of naïve notions of mystery, grace and faith. It is important in that it encourages us toward greater responsibility and accountability – even as we let go our desires to control and explain. And, especially, as we let go our need to be certain, right and good.

As one commentator says, “There are times when firm action is required” (William Loader).

The most striking example comes with reference to prosperity doctrine itself. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti that destroyed the capital and killed tens of thousands of people, televangelist Pat Robertson made the following statement: “It may be a blessing in disguise … Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. Haitians were originally under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. And so, the devil said, Okay, it’s a deal. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Do we find this religious explanation compelling/satisfying? Not at all! Do we think the Haitians deserved to die in the earthquake? Certainly not! We are called to denounce such a simplistic statement made in the name of the church and in the name of the Christ. Perhaps we are called to more clearly distinguish doctrines of orthodoxy from doctrinaire drivel – prosperity doctrine is not slightly inferior Christianity so much as a perversion of Christian values and revelation. It’s not pitiable so much as it is downright harmful. There are times – and there are trees without prospect of bearing fruit – when firm action is required.

The difficulty, though, is maintaining a humble regard for complexity and mystery. Our “no” to prosperity gospel is not to be spoken with malice or self-righteousness, but, trembling in the light of judgement, in the Spirit of genuine care.

There are times when firm action is required. Sometimes we need to name a fruitless situation, with an awareness of limited perspective and knowledge, as well as a capacity for responsible and accountable action.

The Gospel leads us from simplistic explanations and rationalisations toward godly concerns to nurture and feed rather than to cut down – to respect for complexity and awe-ful mystery – away from naïve and wishful thinking toward respect for judgements made in faith that God forgives and redeems – in faith that God brings new hope and life. Amen.