2016-02-28 by Jeremy Clarke
Preacher: Veronica Zundel
28th February 2016
Readings: Luke 13:1-9, Isaiah 55:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:13
Nearly fifteen years ago when I had breast cancer, I was asked to give a short talk to a Christian women’s group I then belonged to called Women on the Move. It was supposed to be a network for Christian women who were going places, but since I was mostly at home with a young child, I thought that as far as I was concerned it was Women on the Back Burner. It so happened however that two of the members had breast cancer at the same time and we were both asked to share our experiences.
One speaker had just read Dr. Jane Plant’s bestselling book Your Life in Your Hands and used her talk to tell us that breast cancer was caused by dairy products and we should all give them up. I later read the book and decided to ignore it, partly because Jane Plant is a doctor of earth chemistry not of medicine and her research was only on herself and 36 other women, and partly because I’d rather have a short life with cream cakes than a longer one without.
My talk was more personal – and I chose to speak on the following parable from Luke.
1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
4 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?
5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6 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.
7 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?’
8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.
9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
Basically I said I felt like that fig tree: that God had called me to bear fruit, but since I didn’t seem to be bearing much, God the gardener had decided to dump some more manure on me – only I used a stronger word – and see what happened.
Jesus’ parable, one we don’t often hear preached on, is in the context of people around him asking why disasters happen to the apparently innocent. They use as an example a human-made massacre and desecration, which must have shocked them profoundly: apparently some pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover had been butchered by Roman troops in the temple while they were killing animals for their Passover sacrifices. The questioners wanted to know whether those people must have been great sinners to be slaughtered in this way.
Jesus counters with another recent story, of people killed by a tower which collapsed on bystanders, or perhaps on those inside it. We’ve had a similar situation at a power station only last week. Two apparently random tragedies of which Jesus’ followers are trying to make sense. In response, he puts paid forever to the idea that there’s a one to one corelation between disaster and our own sinfulness. Disasters are not punishment from God for those who deserve it any more than the lightning that struck York Minster was God throwing a thunderbolt to condemn the bishop’s theology or than AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality (if that were the case, why would it primarily be a heterosexual problem in Africa?)
To speak in the voice of the fig tree again, I think Jesus is saying, to put it politely, “manure happens.” That doesn’t mean the people to whom it happens are greater sinners, nor that the people to whom it doesn’t happen – and there are very few of those, viewed over a lifetime – are particularly virtuous. As an Enneagram Type 4 – the Romantic – envy is my besetting sin; I sometimes get envious of those Christian dynasties who seem to have been blessed for generations, but as I’ve seen that’s no guarantee that one of them won’t get Alzheimer’s or lose a son to suicide.
How then, as Francis Shaeffer asked, shall we live? if bad stuff happens randomly, what’s the point? The point, as Jesus points out, is that sometimes the manure in our lives, if we entrust it to God, can lead us to bear more fruit. It deepens our reliance on God, it increases our maturity, it gives us greater compassion for others who are suffering similarly. This doesn’t mean that God is deliberately dumping the fragrant fertilizer on us to force us to grow. I don’t think we are meant to read the parable that way. In any case, Jesus was primarily directing the parable not towards individuals, but toward a nation who thought being the chosen people would protect them from all ill. And there’s no suggestion here of God having a plan to punish that people. But God has given us, and the world, freedom of choice, and so inevitably there are going to be wrong choices and bad things happening. As indeed they did happen, only a few decades later, to that ‘chosen people’ when their holy city and Temple were destroyed.
To return to the immediate context, the slaughter by Roman soldiers that the enquirers bring up was the result of Pontius Pilate’s sinfulness, not that of the victims; the collapse of the tower was the result of the builders’ sinfulness, or ignorance, in not building it properly – or perhaps that of their client in asking them to cut costs. This doesn’t however make the victims one hundred per cent innocent. We all need to live a life of constant repentance for the sins of word and deed, of things done and things undone, that we commit every day. Only thus can we experience the unlimited forgiveness of God.
So what’s the relevance of this to where we are now as a church? I think it’s this: as we come sadly to the end of our life as a Sunday congregation, we should not be asking, “What did we do wrong?” It may be that we did too much right and people didn’t want that high a commitment. Or it may be that we were just too polite and British to blow our own trumpet and advertise either ourselves or the good news of the gospel. Or it could be just what Bob Dylan calls a Simple Twist Of Fate. We cannot know the reason for the events that have contributed to our decline: the deaths in the Misrahi family, the closure of the London Mennonite Centre. Rather than trying to work out why things have happened, it might be more fruitful, in every way, to look at what new things God can do in and with our lives as a result. That’s where we come to our second reading, from Isaiah:
1 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Isaiah is prophesying in a time of exile for God’s people, when everything they believed about God’s favour towards them has been turned upside down. How, as Psalm 137 plaintively asks, can they sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? We might be asking the same question, as we contemplate moving to churches which might be very different from this one, which might treat some of our beliefs and practices as heresy or as irrelevant to the Gospel. We, or some of us, are going to be ‘Mennonites in exile’ – and it might be hard. I’m reminded of that other plaintive verse…
…from Psalm 120:5-7:
5 Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech,
that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
6 Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace;
but when I speak,
they are for war.
This could be our life in churches that don’t have the perspectives that we have as Mennonites. What to do or say? Isaiah reminds the people of their greatest king, David,. Although he spent much of his life on the run from his enemy Saul, he became not only a great ruler but a witness to peoples beyond Israel. The covenant God made with David and with David’s people is not cancelled by exile. Nor is the covenant God has made with Christians, through the one who was called Son of David. (By the way, I’m not suggesting here that Mennonites are God’s people in a way other denominations aren’t – that would be the height of arrogance – merely that we have a peace witness which is rare in other traditions, a witness to which I believe God has called us.)
The prophet then goes on to predict that God’s people will speak the good news of God to a much wider range of people than they expected: “See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.” Their exile is not just a disaster but also an opportunity to broaden their horizons – to realize that God, as Jesus put it, has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” who must be called and taught to listen to God’s voice. Similarly Zechariah tells us, in his prophesy of the Day of the Lord,
“In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ ”
(Please excuse the non-inclusive language of ‘ten men’ in that, but actually it has its own significance: ten men was – and still is – the minimum needed to form a synagogue.)
Perhaps our coming exile as Mennonites is also an opportunity to bear witness to what God has taught us in our time here. I’ve often spoken, ’til you are all probably bored with it, of this church as a foster parent church. I’ve suggested we’re called to shelter those who have been hurt by, or grown dissatisfied by, other churches, who have sometimes almost given up on church. Our role has been to to comfort them, heal them and teach them new ways so that they can then go out to other churches and bring there what they have learned here. Maybe this is the time for all of us to leave the ‘care system’ of this congregation, taking our experience here and sharing it with others. It will be hard, but it may have more impact than staying here in our comfort zone.
Finally I want to go back to the beginning of the Isaiah passage, verses which Jesus quotes in John 7 at the Passover:
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
We may be wondering, “where can I go to be spiritually fed in the way I have been fed here at Wood Green (not to mention physically fed…)?” I certainly am. This is my last sermon here and I’ve also been wondering whether anyone would ever let me preach again; but lo and behold, just this week I had an email from Eldon Rd Baptist Church asking me to preach there in August. I can’t have done too badly last time.
Here through Isaiah, God is promising a feast wherever we are; and in fact feasting or feasts are referred to in three of the four lectionary readings for today. It may seem odd to talk of feasting in Lent, but as Anglicans often have to point out to Catholics, Sundays in Lent are not part of the fast. So on Sundays we’re allowed to anticipate the Easter feast and start celebrating (and maybe even eating chocolate).
There is nowhere we can go where God is not present. In the words of the lectionary reading from 1 Corinthians 10 that we didn’t hear:
1 Corinthians 10:13
13 “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
There is spiritual food to be had everywhere, in church and out of it, and I pray that we will all be led to places where we can both find that nourishment and fulfil our calling of sharing with others the rare and particular food we have found with the Mennonites.