Sunday, 28 February 2016

So... Do you feel guilty enough yet? (Third Sunday of Lent)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

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.” ’


Hello you miserable sinner. How awful do you feel about yourself so far this season of Lent?

Sadly, guilt can be, and often is, used by religious organisations to manipulate people, but Jesus doesn't work like that. His intention is that we are changed and freed, not shackled. Let me explain.

It is the easiest thing in the world to make people feel guilty, especially if they are people in church or in some religious cult. Christians are generally, by definition, people who are aware of our own inadequacies. The church has traditionally referred to that as sin, but I prefer a modern definition: Sin is the human propensity to screw things up.

That's a slightly abridged version of the definition written by Francis Spufford in his book, Unapologetic, but I think he's right. Sin is the human propensity to screw things up.

So if you're in a church, the chances are you're already there because you know you've screwed up, at least that's my reason. I know that the world outside these doors tends to think that we come here because we believe that we're better than anyone else. They think we're goody-goodies. We know better. Or at least I hope we do. So we're already half way down the path to feeling really guilty.

And the people who put these lectionary readings together seem to be playing on that too. Look at that reference to sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians. How many of us squirm in our pews because of something in our past or our present that we wish had been otherwise, or that the authorities in the church tell us is wrong (even though we think otherwise...)? As soon as a reading like this is trotted out, it's bound to reinforce that feeling of guilt and to make space to be controlled or manipulated.

Or in case that doesn't get you going, then there's also a comment in there about complaining. And what happened to the people who complained? They were destroyed by the destroyer. Oo-er. Better make sure you never complain then, and sit there in your pews doing whatever the leader or the authority says you should. And if you have complained about something, well, there you go, that's why you feel guilty. And we're in the middle of Lent, so we are supposed to feel guilty aren't we? Isn't that the point? We come to church and the preacher makes us feel guilty and so we repent and go away feeling all better thank you because someone has put a sticking plaster on the wound of our sin. And I can make you feel guilty if you like. But I'm not going to.

Now don't get me wrong about guilt. I'm not averse to my unconscious mind or the Spirit within me warning me that I've done something wrong. It happens most days. It's just that, despite what you might have heard, that is not primarily what Christianity is about, and it's not what church is about. Or at least it's certainly not what this church is about. I will grant you that there are, sadly, some churches and also pseudo-Christian organisations where the leaders will use guilt to manipulate people, but that is not what Jesus does in the Gospels, and today's reading make that clear as, despite provocation, Jesus does not try and shame his listeners. He is, instead, far more creative as he tries to show us how God really works.

Here, when he is confronted with two stories about sudden death, he does not do as his listeners expect; he doesn't blame people for bringing down death on themselves because they were sinners.

We don't know a great deal about what took place. The stories are lost in the mists of time and there are no historical mentions of it anywhere but here, but it seems that a group of Galilean pilgrims were slaughtered by Pilate. We don't know why, but we do know that he had a reputation for a casual brutality.

And as for the tower falling, again there is no record of this. There are steep inclines around that part of Jerusalem so it's quite possible that a tower built there could fall. But neither of these are the point.

And notice that at no point does Jesus try and give us an explanation of why these things did happen. All he does is to make it clear that they did not happen as a result of sin. The people who died weren't any worse than anyone else. This gives the lie to the saying 'Things happen for a reason.' Sure some things do, that's action and reaction. If I blow air into a balloon it gets bigger. If I drive like a lunatic, someone might get hurt. But other things happen due to chance. When something goes wrong and we say, 'What did I do to deserve this?', more often than not the answer will be, 'Nothing, that's just the way the cards fell.'

Take notice of that.

Jesus is presented with an absolute gift on a plate in terms of making people feel guilty. It's an old style evangelist's dream, and he doesn't take the bait. He doesn't use this as an excuse to make people feel more guilty in order that they get down on their knees and pray a prayer of repentance, which sadly, in some places, means 'Do whatever the leaders tell you.'

All Jesus basically says is, 'It happens.' Things happen and people die. It's very hard to maintain this body as a living, breathing and thinking thing. You have to avoid accidents, eat, drink and sleep, not catch a disease that will kill you and so on. Staying alive is hard. Dying, though, happens too easily. One mistaken action, or being next to someone who's infectious with a killer disease, or eating something toxic or whatever and the body dies.

Jesus doesn't even attempt to explain why, perhaps because death was much closer to people in that culture and a more accepted part of living. No one thought that living to 90 was their right. But what he does say is simply, Everybody dies, so what will you do while you live? Will you have used your gifts? Will you have turned and followed God? This isn't about dying because you've done something wrong, it's about living, and taking the chances you have been given. It's about repentance and being the people we are supposed to be. The question I think we are faced with is far more, what are you going to do with the life you do have, not the guilt you carry? So whilst some testimonies can sometimes sound like a person found Christ and became successful middle class people with no problems, sometimes it helps us to be reminded that Christ can really change lives.

Sometimes it can help to be reminded of this. This example is not meant to be a political compliment because my political views are very different from his, but many of you will remember the politician Jonathan Aitken who lied in court under oath and was sent to jail. What happened to him next? Well, while in prison he began to study theology having been on an Alpha course that stirred his interest. And now? He has been the president of Christian Solidarity for ten years. I still don't agree with his politics, but he is an example of someone who began the long process of change and of bearing fruit that lasts. And that brings us to the parable Jesus tells.

Now what I think happened to Aitken, and I'm sure to many of us, is the kind of thing that Jesus is telling his story about, because the parable is not about guilt, but to understand that we have to remember that it's a parable, a story that makes a point to ponder, not an allegory that makes a point about God. The focus is on the fig tree, not the other characters.

I want to be clear about this.

There is a big difference between an allegory and a parable. The problem with allegorising a parable is that you end up tying yourself in knots. Who is the garden owner? Is it God? Are we the fig trees then? He doesn't sound like he cares much for us if he's so willing to chop us down. But then who's the gardener? Is that Jesus? So is Jesus like the friendly Son of God trying to placate his angry Father God who wants to cut down the trees?

And what if the tree is us as individuals? Of course that would play well on the 'Woe is me, I am a miserable sinner' muscle that we all have. But traditionally in the Bible the fig tree represents Israel. Oh, then is this actually about God trying to get Jesus to make Israel repent? But then what if it's about the church? Is that the whole church or just our denomination, or just the Roman Catholics, or the Baptists? Can you see how allegorising a parable is very dangerous.

There is, instead, a far easier way to deal with this.

Notice perhaps the most important thing. What is a fig tree supposed to do according to this story? It's supposed to bear figs. That is the fruit that is supposed to grow on a fig tree. But it wasn't growing any figs. It wasn't doing what it was meant to do, what it was created to do. So what happens? Well by rights it should be chopped down, but it isn't. The gardener says to the owner, 'Give me some more time with it and maybe I can get it to grow figs.'

The meaning of this parable then is more than about simple repentance.

It's about more than being made to feel guilty. It's about asking the question, 'Are you doing what you are meant to be doing?' Are you bearing fruit? And if you're not, (and please don't go straight on to a guilt trip that will tie you up in psychological knots), but if you're not God isn't about to cut you down and throw you away. He's going to work harder with you to try and make sure you do.

What are your stories? How did you come to believe what you believe today? I bet that if you look back on your life carefully you will be able to see little things that happened to guide you to where you are now. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, in what ways is the Spirit of God tending to me now to try and enable me to bear fruit?

We have to ask ourselves if there are ways in which we are being prompted, and are we responding? The voice of God is usually such a quiet whisper on our souls that we can crowd it out with other things very easily. Do you sense the Creator quietly saying to you, 'There is more. You're not done yet'? Christians don't get to retire until they put us in the ground.

Our stories are likely to be different from one another. Some of us will have gone through huge changes as a result of the way God has met with us, and others of us will have experienced small, incremental changes. But the changes should still happen because the Spirit is trying to work with everyone of us to help us produce fruit. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ continues to work with us, to try and change us, to help us so that we do start to produce the fruit that we were designed to produce.

So what is the fruit you're supposed to bear? I can't answer that one for you, but please don't stop searching. And some of you are bearing fruit. But if you are wondering what you should be doing, then pray; ask for guidance. Come and chat. I can maybe help you ask the right questions, but ultimately this comes down to you in your relationship with God and the commitments you have in the world. What are you going to do with the remainder of your life?

When we baptise someone, as a mark of hope we give them a candle lit from the Easter candle, the candle that symbolises Christ's light in the world, and we do that as a symbol that we believe wherever they are in the world will be better and brighter because they are there shining with his light within them.

If you are doing what you are supposed to be doing then your corner of the world will be a better place because you will be the hands of God. Are you and is it?

1 comment:

  1. I loved every word of this Paul. Thank you. I found especially helpful your section on the dangers of allegorising parables. One thing I find with God is that he can and does prune us (sometimes severely) in order that we may bear more fruit. That pruning is painful. It is our job to accept the pruning and not allow it to become infected by resentment. I think that all of us bear fruit in some branches of our lives and not in others. I know that is the case for me. Oh, and BTW - Alastair and I were on the same Alpha course as Jonathan Aitkin!