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Sermon - 3 Lent

In the Name...

There's a saying that no good deed goes unpunished. In 2003, a woman in Dallas witnessed a violent crime which made the news. She reported what she had seen to the police and three young men were soon arrested and charged. Eight days later, someone fired several bullets into her house.

The police suggested she enter the Witness Protection Program and she moved into a hotel. Her doctor recommended that she take a couple of weeks off work to recover from the emotional trauma. When she called her employer, however, to arrange a leave of absence, she was shocked when the HR director told her she was being fired because the company, a healthcare provider, considered her to be a threat, a danger to its clients and staff. She was even served with a restraining order to keep her off the property, as if she was a criminal.

Blaming the victim is a favourite human pastime. It relieves us from feeling obliged to give assistance or support. It puts a safe distance between us and their situations. Jesus had to deal with this, even from his disciples. Hey, look, there's a man who was born blind. I wonder what sin his parents committed?

Jesus, however, had little patience for that sort of thing. He healed the blind man and scolded the disciples. On another occasion, he invited the sinless person in a stone-carrying crowd to toss something his way, but, there were no takers.

In this morning's Gospel, Jesus has just finished talking about hypocrisy. His big concern is that the Jewish people didn't see that there was more to their religion than observing rituals. For most people, as long as they said certain prayers and fasted on certain days, they didn't see any need to practice justice in life or honesty in business, to do good for the poor and needy or repent of prejudice and false judgment. They had done the rituals and they were okay before God. So, Jesus uses the illustration of a lawsuit where the defendant has a weak case to make the point that everybody has a weak case before God.

No surprise then to hear that a few folks object to his teaching. Hold on, they say. We can know we're right with God because God punishes sinners. That's how you know who’s sinned. And to prove their point, they use the case of some Galileans who made an armed attempt to take over the Temple. God punished them for profaning His holy place.

Is that so, Jesus counters, then what about the water tower of Siloam? Did God also arrange for the worst sinners in Jerusalem to stand near it when it collapsed? Or to use a modern analogy, would we accept the idea that God used Osama bin-Laden to destroy the most evil people in New York?

Of course not. And that's the false logic of the blame-game. But, throughout history, people have tried to find reasons for tragedy and one solution has been to say that when bad things happen to people it's a divine judgment. Jesus' audience buys in to this. It's kind of comforting. But, no, he says. That's wrong, that's human superstition. The thing is it's deeply rooted within us.

The story was told of three clergymen who died and found themselves standing at the fiery gates of Hell. The Baptist fell to his knees and cried, "Why am I here?" The Roman Catholic fell to his knees and cried, "Why am I here?" The Episcopalian, though, remained standing with a thoughtful look and said, "Ah, yes, at the bishop's reception, I ate the main course with the dessert fork."

More seriously, and sadly, though, a minister once went to visit an older couple whose adult daughter had died in a car accident with a drunk driver. He arrived at the house prepared to offer words of comfort and hope, but, their first words completely shocked him, "We ought ‘a tell you, Pastor, we were worried when she didn't tithe last year."

This couple could not understand their daughter's death. Of course, she must have done something to upset God.

But, even if tragedy is not visited upon us as a divine retribution, Jesus is nevertheless warning his audience in his parable of the fig tree that blaming others for our faults does not excuse us.

The parable Jesus uses of the fig tree would have immediately caught his audience's attention. The fig tree was a national symbol of Israel. And what Jesus was saying, that the owner of the tree, God, was considering cutting it down, would have struck them as arrant nonsense. They were the Chosen People. God had promised to support them always in his covenant.

Well, yes, maybe they weren't keeping up their end exactly, but, it wasn't their fault. It was the Romans' fault for oppressing them. It was the fault of Hellenistic culture for being so attractive and distracting. It was the Arabs' fault for fighting them over the land. It was the Babylonians' fault for the social trauma caused by the Exile four hundred years ago. It was everybody's fault, except their own.

The owner of the fig tree, though, is not asking the tree to produce bananas or roses. All he wants is figs. Something the tree is very capable of doing, in fact, the only thing it can do, if it's going to do anything.

We are the fig tree and it won't do to hide behind a fig leaf. All God expects of us is what He knows we can do. As the prophet Micah phrased it, "Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” These are the fruits which please him.

How long can we get away with being unproductive, casting blame on the difficult circumstances of our childhood, an unreasonable boss, a missed opportunity, a doctor's misdiagnosis or an unsympathetic spouse? Blame is easy. There are more than enough targets.

All Christ is asking of us is that we be the best that we can be. He understands that we have barren years. And he pleads before the Father for us. He pleads for one more year. May each of us use that time in the way he intends for us to use it, to grow in the way we should, and bear the fruit we are meant to bear.

In the Name...

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