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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 3, 2013

Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

Oh Mercy

The call to change our thinking with respect to the cause of tragedies and blessings is at heart a call to eschew simplistic (“prosperity doctrine”) 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. We are encouraged, then, to focus on mercy or compassion, 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. We are led, then, 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. 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. God be with you

As he journeys towards Jerusalem, Jesus is told of two dramatic situations where people have died. There has been the slaughter of some pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem from Galilee, and the accidental death of others upon whom a tower has fallen.

Jesus takes the opportunity of the reported deaths to refute a commonly held opinion. It was generally believed that tragedies of this nature came upon people because they were sinners. Jesus points out that the issue is not whether or not the people who lost their lives were sinners. His listeners must not look to the possible sinfulness of others (sinfulness as a kind of spectator sport), but to their own very real need for repentance.

This may sound harsh at first. We all share the same sinfulness — the Greek word connotes the tendency to get it wrong, to miss the target, to miss the point, to go astray. One recent commentator refers to sin as the human propensity to stuff things up. We all get it wrong, no matter how hard we try. We all miss the target, the point, no matter how much we practice. We all go astray, no matter how committed to love, to each other.

The parable of the vinedresser caring for the fig tree adds an important feature to Jesus’ dealing with sinners. It would be a perfectly acceptable practice for the owner of a vineyard to cut down an unproductive tree after three years without fruit. But, as is often the case in this Gospel which reports so much of the loving care of our God, the fig tree is strangely allowed time to produce its best fruit.

The philosopher will be taken with this sacramental notion of time. Time as gift. It’s a radical notion, counter-cultural. Often we regard time as theft, time as taking away life. What if we were to regard time, this time now, today, tomorrow and all time, as a measure of mercy? As opportunity for growth, that the best fruit might be produced?

Logic and good farming practice would lead to the destruction of the unproductive tree (conversation/project/institution/person). Jesus, the Child of a loving God, does not follow such principles. He is aware that many need time and patience, and he is prepared to give it to them.

Much needed repentance is not often found in the ambiguous lives of each of us, and rarely found in the collective sinfulness of society as such. (Socially, are we not inclined to gossip and slander, hatreds and scapegoating? It might be said, as my hero Soren Kierkegaard did say, that the media is particularly keen on gossip and scapegoating? The great theme of tabloid journalism, it seems, is the fall from grace – in contemporary parlance, the tendency of so-called “role models” to disgrace themselves, to “stuff it up” – and we’re back at sinfulness as spectator sport.

Much needed repentance is not often found in the ambiguous lives of each of us. Does destruction follow? Not usually, no. We are strangely given time for repentance. One of the most important things that Jesus teaches us about God is that God will never fail us, despite our many failures. There is an enduring patience, untypical of most human relationships, when God looks to the failures and weaknesses of God’s children.

The season of Lent is a grace-filled time for us to reflect on these truths. Like the people of Galilee and Jerusalem, we are aware of the need to repent of our selfishness, to turn away from our false gods. Yet, we are also aware that we are supported in our efforts by a loving Mother-Father who will leave us free.

God will gently urge us to look more to godly ways to make sense of our lives, and give us more time when we fail to respond.

Today’s gospel is a firm rejection of prosperity doctrine – the belief that wealth and good fortune are signs of blessing or divine favour. The alternative, the true alternative that avoids merely embracing the opposite belief that disaster inevitably befalls all good and loving people, has something to do with the inherent goodness of love. It may be stated something like this: to live mercifully is already to have overcome the fear of judgement/rejection/isolation.

Henri Nouwen records the following journal entry/prayer:

O Lord, the great spiritual teacher Isaac of Nineveh said: “He who knows his sins is much greater than he who makes someone rise from the dead. She who can really cry one hour about herself is greater than she who teaches the whole world. She who knows her own weakness is greater than she who sees the angels.”

These words, O Lord, are so true. I realise that my preoccupation with my sinful deeds is a way of avoiding a confrontation with my real sinfulness. An avoidance of a confrontation with my real sinfulness means also an avoidance of a confrontation with your mercy.

As long as I have not experienced your mercy I know that I am still running from my real sin.

Come, Lord. Break through my compulsions, anxieties, fears, and guilt feelings, and let me see my sin and your mercy ... (A Cry for Mercy, 1981).

To live mercifully (or compassionately) is already to have overcome the fear of judgement/rejection/isolation.

Let’s complete the homily together. How might you value time this week as time for mercy/compassion? I’m thinking about giving and receiving mercy, showing mercy and being open to the mercy of God. “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” How might you value time this week as time for mercy/compassion … Amen.

Draws on a reflection by Francis J. Moloney, This is the Gospel of the Lord: Year C, 1991.