Second Chance

Sunday 11th March 2007
Year C, The Third Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 13:1-9

Preachers like to begin sermons with a story but you have just heard one from Luke, about a tree that is given a second chance. It is planted in a lovely garden with a loving gardener. And although it has been barren, we know in our hearts that after the gardener's attention it will bear fruit. It is the tree of the mansion or of the orchard, reminding us just a little of Eden where the trees grew without the sweat of Adam's brow; Jesus the gardener has come to put right what went wrong in Eden, beauty and fruitfulness are restored. These images, which were so commonplace at the time of Jesus, commonplace right up until our childhood, now strike us as a little fanciful. So let me try another story:

Once upon a time there was a spindly tree planted in a bleak, litter-strewn forecourt; and, as the years went by, the area became scruffier and scruffier; and the tree was gradually poisoned by pollution and a terrible blight; and then it died; and nobody noticed.

Now that's better! We are on home ground at last. We recognise that tree as being much closer to the world we live in than the tree in the garden. We are no longer in that golden age of decency and respect. We are in the age of pollution, violence, junk food, drugs, satellite television, swearing, binge drinking, graffiti, ASBOs, tabloids and mugging. There are no gardens; and not a gardener in sight.

How, then, are we to make sense of today's Gospel from this dystopian perspective? Well, the first thing to do is to be a little more discriminating. If there was a golden age for some, for the owner of the mansion and the gentleman farmer, it was hard going for the rest; rural poverty might have been more picturesque than urban poverty but it was still poverty. And although today there are, in our land, people who are poor and hopeless, the majority of us have never had it so good. We might regret the passing of our rural idyll; we might grumble at creeping suburbia, we might frown, from a safe distance, on the degrading antics of the alienated; but there is always the prospect of the Mediterranean or even the Caribbean, of the new coat or the new car.

Secondly, if we are a little more discriminating, this should lead us to be a great deal more thankful. There will be some among us who are not very well off, who feel the pinch when inflation strikes; but I doubt there is one of us who lives in a condition that would not have made our grandparents incredulous. Our travel, consumption and leisure would have astounded them. Even in this age where the work/life balance is supposed to be wrong, at least we are talking about it. I doubt the mill owners of my home town would have been very impressed if my trade unionist grandfather had gone bleating to them about the work/life balance. And, in any case, it is a misnomer; what we are really talking about is the consumption/caring balance. People work long hours because we have slipped into a culture of consumption that has to be fed by hours we should spend with family, friends and ourselves.

Thirdly - and this is the cruncher - Luke only makes sense in this world if we remember that when Jesus died he left us in charge of the garden. Adam laboured with the sweat of his brow, burdened with the knowledge of his own sinfulness; we labour in the garden with the same sweat and burden but we labour with the strength of God's grace and the promise of eternal life.

But - and there is always a "but" - being the gardeners does not mean eating all the produce. The garden in which we labour is the world; and there are many parts of the world, as close as five miles from here, where the soil is not so fertile. In the short term we must give of our substance but the only real solution is to teach people how to work with us in the garden. In the short term we might want to send food parcels to the needy or put some coins in the tin for St. Patrick's; but we can't spread the word of God by proxy. It is all very well and good to celebrate our feasts when the garden produces plenty but there must be a space for the poor and for the stranger. It is fine and good to take our turn as supervisors in the garden but we also need to take our turn at digging. I don't say this to make us feel uncomfortable - although I hope we are - but because we too often forget that the better off we are the more difficult it will be for us to live in the kingdom of God. Think of it this way: we are approaching a very narrow gate and so, the wider our car or the more plentiful our packages, the more difficult it is to get through. With every rise in fortune there is a rise in obligation; the gate doesn't get wider as we do; it stays exactly the same size. And the poor, without cars or packages, can just slip through.

But a good parable has many layers. We are the gardeners whom Jesus has left to tend the Father's garden; but we are also the trees. I mentioned grace, almost in passing, but it is the central reality of our broken lives. In the world of coarsening public discourse and grotesque consumption, we might better think of ourselves as the spindly tree in the scruffy, litter-strewn court than the temporarily barren noble tree in the idyllic garden. Beset by consumption and meanness, by vulgarity and excess, we live in permanent need of the sacred balm of Grace. WE are not children of God Our Parent and brothers of Jesus in a separated, familial way, we are infused by their Holy Spirit. When we say that God is everywhere what we mean is that wherever there is a human soul there is the possibility of a flow of Grace to infuse it; not as the sun's rays striking the ground that is fertile and the ground that is stony; not as the rain falling on the flagstone and the flower, Grace is like electricity, it flows between two terminals, the terminal that is God and the terminal that is our Consciousness of God, witnessed in prayer and practice.

Without Grace we are like the spindly tree that dies unnoticed; with Grace we are the noble tree in the pleasant garden, ready to bear fine figs. May we bear fruit for our Risen Lord this Easter.