‘Bearing Good Fruit’ – 20th March 2022 – 3rd Sunday of Lent

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22 03 20 Third Sunday in Lent Eucharist

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The Readings

Isaiah 55.1-9
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.
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.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
   a leader and commander for the peoples.
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.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;
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.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Psalm 63
A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
   my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
   as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
   beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
   my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
   I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
   and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
   and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
   and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
   your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek to destroy my life
   shall go down into the depths of the earth
Luke 13.1-9
At that very time there were some present who told Jesus 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.” ’
Scripture quotations are from: New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Sermon

By Canon Dr Matthew Rhodes

In the past few weeks we have witnessed unimaginable suffering in Ukraine. Defenceless people attacked as they hide in their homes or try to flee the Russian onslaught. Though President Putin uses spurious excuses there is no justification for what is happening. The suffering of others raises big questions for us as human beings.  It is as old as the hills and different cultures and different eras have found different answers to it. It’s probably the biggest challenge that we face as people of faith. The traditional Old Testament answer to that question is that suffering is a punishment for sin. Certainly, the sufferings that the Israelites endured in the wilderness were perceived as punishments for their immorality and faithlessness. Paul seems to have accepted this interpretation as he looked back on that time in his First Letter to the Corinthians. And it was this world view that Jesus had to work with in his ministry. People assumed that those who were ill or were suffering in some way had sinned, or their parents had sinned.
But when people come to ask him about it, Jesus confronts this view. It appears that Pilate had murdered some Galileans and many thought that they must have been particularly sinful. We do not exactly know what incident Jesus was referring to. The historian Josephus tells us that Pilate used funds from the Temple to build an aqueduct and when some Jews opposed this many were brutally killed by his soldiers. So the incident that Jesus is referring to doesn’t seem entirely out of character.
We don’t know anything about the tower of Siloam either but it seems that this was just an accident. A story in the news that would have made the front page when it happened but was soon forgotten about. In neither case, says Jesus, were those involved particularly sinful. His message is that we are all sinners and we all need to repent. By dying on a cross, Jesus showed us that God is not remote from our suffering but shares in it with us. By rising again, he showed us that suffering does not have the last word. It should not define us.
That does not mean, however, that we should take God’s grace for granted. The events that Jesus mentions, the war in Ukraine, these all remind us that life is fleeting and precarious. We cannot take it for granted. And we need to use it wisely. The prophet Isaiah reminds his people that God loves them and longs to refresh the thirsty. He longs to feed them with rich food. But he tells them that the time is now. The banquet is prepared. They need to listen to him, to seek the Lord while he may be found, to call upon him while he is near. The wicked need to abandon their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. They must return to the Lord so that they can know God’s mercy.
And having returned to God, they need to be fruitful. Returning to the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. A man planted one in his vineyard but it failed to bear fruit. I had the same experience in my last house. My father gave me a fig tree which was an offshoot of his tree. But it never produced anything and I’m afraid I got rid of it. The man in the parable is inclined to do the same but the gardener begs for a stay of execution. He is more merciful than I was.
The gardener promises to take care of the fig tree. To dig around it and put manure on it. And I find this interesting because for fig trees to be fruitful you have to be quite tough with them. You have to plant them so that their root growth is restricted. You usually plant them next to a wall and you might create a box of paving slabs around the roots. And although a fig needs plenty of sun, it does pretty well on poor soil so it seems odd that the gardener wants to add lots of fertilizer. I wonder if Jesus’ hearers would have known that. Perhaps they would have interpreted this horticultural largesse as another sign of God’s abundant grace and love.
But even the gardener says there are limits. If the tree doesn’t bear fruit he says that the owner would be justified in cutting it down. It’s a phrase we hear a few times in the New Testament. Not just from Jesus but from John the Baptist too. And it leaves us with the question: are we bearing good fruit? Both as individuals and as a church? The past few weeks have reminded us how blessed we are in so many ways. We live in peace and security. We have access to healthcare. We have shelter, food and warmth, though these are becoming more and more expensive. And what do we do with these blessings? How do we spend our lives? How are we a blessing to others? All of us will have different answers to that question. My wife and I are fortunate to live in a five bedroomed vicarage. Our children have left home so we are thinking about hosting Ukrainian refugees. But there are so many other things we can do.
Today is our APCM. And it’s an opportunity for us to look back and give thanks for God’s faithfulness over the past year. It has been amazing to see the evolution of the worship here as we come through the pandemic. St Mary’s is hugely blessed with some very committed and gifted people who have given so much. It’s been lovely to see people coming back to church and people joining for the first time. And of course, that growth and change will continue. Hopefully, Covid restrictions can be further eased. We can resume things that we did before the pandemic but also start new things. Do things differently. St Mary’s Church is very well placed to serve this community of Walkley and we need to think about how we do that better in the future. We are thinking about this building and how it can be developed to be of greater service to people here. So as well as looking back we are also looking forward. Thinking about how we as a church can be more fruitful in the future. Perhaps some of us here are called to take on new responsibilities. God has given us so much. There is so much for us to be thankful for. How should we respond to that in the months to come? Amen.

The Prayers

Adapted from Common Worship: Times and Seasons

With confidence and trust let us pray to the Father.
For the one holy catholic and apostolic Church
For our own local churches – St. John’s, St. Mark’s and St. Mary’s,
let us pray to the Father.
Lord of compassion,
in your mercy hear us.
For the mission of the Church,
that in faithful witness it may preach the gospel
to the ends of the earth,
let us pray to the Father.
Lord of compassion,
in your mercy hear us.
For those preparing for baptism and confirmation
including those from our local churches …
and for their teachers and sponsors,
let us pray to the Father.
Lord of compassion,
in your mercy hear us.
For peace in the world
For Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and other areas of conflict…
that a spirit of respect and reconciliation may grow
among nations and peoples,
let us pray to the Father.
Lord of compassion,
in your mercy hear us.
For the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer
For those known personally to each of us…
for refugees, prisoners, and all in danger;
that, like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori,
they too may be relieved and protected,
let us pray to the Father.
Lord of compassion,
in your mercy hear us.
For those whom we have injured or offended,
let us pray to the Father.
Lord of compassion,
in your mercy hear us.
For grace to amend our lives and to further the reign of God,
let us pray to the Father.
Lord of compassion,
in your mercy hear us.
In communion with all those who have walked in the way of holiness
including those known to us personally …
let us pray to the Father.
Lord of compassion,
in your mercy hear us.
God our Father,
in your love and goodness
you have taught us to come close to you in penitence
with prayer, fasting and generosity;
accept our Lenten discipline,
and when we fall by our weakness,
raise us up by your unfailing mercy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Common Worship: Times and Seasons, material from which is used here, is copyright (c) The Archbishops' Council