A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
The Third Sunday of Lent
Readings Isaiah 55: 1-9; Luke 13. 1-9
One reason we human beings have made such a good living on this planet is our ability to see connections, to see how things happen because of other things, to look for causes and effects. This helps us avoid bad stuff and repeat good stuff. And when we can’t see an obvious cause, there is something in us that still craves a connection, that resists the Donald Rumsfeld doctrine that ‘stuff happens’.
'What have I done to deserve this?' you may joke when faced with your fourth nappy change of the day, or putting out the rubbish, or when you've paid good money to see your team lose – again, but the question can also be serious. A truly bad thing happens, illness or accident, and you ask, ‘Have I brought it on myself?’ The answer might be Yes: too much of some things (like alcohol) or too little of others (like sleep) can lead to illness or accident, but that’s not to say you deserve it, that’s just cause and effect. Sometimes, though, when you can’t find causality, morality kicks in: ‘Nothing I have done has caused this terrible thing, so why has it happened? There must be a reason. Is there a moral connection – am I being punished in some way? Stuff doesn’t just happen, so what have I done to deserve this?’
It’s an idea probably as old as humanity, and it seems to be buzzing around in the scene in Luke’s gospel, concerning two bits of news from Jerusalem, one an atrocity, one a tragedy. The rumour is, troops of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, have killed some pilgrims from Galilee bringing animals to be sacrificed in the Temple. Why? No doubt they had done something to deserve this judgment from God. And what about the eighteen people killed by a falling tower in the Siloam district? This may have been an industrial accident, or perhaps a riot; but anyhow, no doubt they too had it coming to them.
To this Jesus says No. ‘These people weren’t greater sinners than any of you,’ Amen to that, you may say – but then he continues, ‘…unless you repent, you will perish as they did.’ What can this mean? Jesus may be mounting a double-barrelled critique of his audience, censuring both their beliefs and their behaviour, their superstitions and their expectations: ‘Don’t play morbid games looking for obscure patterns of God’s punishment, but look instead at the things you want, and the consequences.’
And what do they want? There are signs in Luke’s gospel that some of the crowds who flock to Jesus are expecting the kingdom of God to come any moment, and think this means an armed uprising to kick out the Romans – which will succeed because God is behind it. To this Jesus might be saying, ‘Carry on that way, taking up the sword, and you will perish by the sword, like those pilgrims in the Temple. Carry on that way, trying to crush the Romans, and they will crush you as surely as that tower did those innocent by-standers.
Jesus’ alternative? Repent, and soon: the parable of the fig tree suggests that they have a little time, but not much. ‘Repent’ is for us a very religious word. We use it a lot in Lent. Repentance for us means feeling remorse, seeking forgiveness, but in Jesus’ day it is in the first place a neutral word which means ‘change your thinking’. Our days are full of calls to that kind of repentance. The rival marches, the rival petitions, the Prime Minister’s broadcast – these are all saying to MPs on different sides of the EU argument: change your thinking, and soon; you have a little time, but not much.
We also have our atrocities and tragedies: the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch as they offered their sacrifice of praise, and a parallel to Siloam on a vastly greater scale: the dead, bereft and dispossessed in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The first part of Jesus' words fits exactly: these people have done nothing to deserve what has befallen them – the very idea is grotesque – but what about, 'Unless you repent, you will perish as they did'? Does that fit? If we take Cyclone Idai, does this collective disaster, with its individual tragedies, hold some urgent warning for you and me?
Possibly. Lives have been shattered by uncontrollable forces of nature, and unless we repent – change course, change habits – the forces of nature that a warming planet will unleash will shatter many more lives. I remain convinced that future British generations will judge this one less in terms of how we handled Europe than how we handled the climate (though the two are not unconnected). In Jesus’ parable, the gardening expert gives the fig tree a year. Climate experts give us twelve.
Well, I see that connection, you may not. But even if you do, this is not in itself a sufficient response. Jesus cannot be for us just an eco-political guru. His mission is not just to change policies and lifestyles but to change lives. So what other word is there for us here? Sudden-death stories, whether those in Luke or those in New Zealand and southern Africa, remind us that life is fragile.
On a Street Pastors patrol once I met a young man finishing a sub-zero cigarette outside a pub. He was keen to talk, and thought it was splendid that there were church volunteers on the streets to look after people who got impossibly drunk (as he intended to do). He told us he had had a close shave with death (or at least paralysis) in a drink-related diving accident. Clearly it weighed on his mind but had not (yet) caused him to repent. Weirdly, he made me think of a certain German theologian.
I once heard the great Jürgen Moltmann give a lecture. I have forgotten everything he said, except for his testimony at the beginning. One night in 1945, Moltmann, who was in his late teens and had little interest in God, was crewing an anti-aircraft gun. As the RAF throbbed overhead, a bomb landed close by. His friend in the gun crew was torn to pieces. Moltmann was unscathed. Had that young man sinned more than Moltmann? No, but from that moment Moltmann knew how precious and fragile was his life, and how terrible it would be to live it trivially. He repented, changed course, and that was the beginning of his life with God. He is now 92.
I guess a fair few of us can look back on a close shave. Was it a Moltmann moment – less dramatic, I hope, but still a moment to repent, to change course? If it was and you didn’t, is it too late? Such moments bring us up hard against what is always true for everyone: the fragility of this inestimable gift of life. And in the end what matters is not just whether it is longer or shorter but whether it is shallow or deep – and what it leads to. What matters is to use our time on earth to learn what God’s voice sounds like, so that we can hear the call to repent, and be guided to change, and change well. ‘Incline your ear and come to me,’ says God through the prophet Isaiah; ‘listen, so that you may live.’
Postscript Anthony Weale, a member of the Cathedral congregation, was reminded by the sermon of a ‘Moltmann moment’ in the life of a priest he had known, the Revd John Brooks. Preaching at John’s funeral, the Revd Anthony Bird described a wartime experience that recalls Moltmann’s own, and did so in words that may echo a book of Moltmann’ s, The Crucified God. Anthony writes:
John had been considering ordination before the war, but hadn't made up his mind. War then came and he joined the RNVR [Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve]. As a young officer on board HMS Cassandra (not a good choice of name!), he had the responsibility of retrieving, identifying and burying the bodies of members of the crew killed when her bows were almost completely blown off by a torpedo north of Murmansk in 1944. I quote from the sermon at his funeral (he lived to the age of 92):
But what did John do with the experience? What did it do to him? ...it is inconceivable that in his soul images of his impaled comrades and of his crucified God did not merge and cry out for an answer, an answer to the obscenities of war, then as now. For John there was but one answer, or none. Either Murmansk and Golgotha meant futility, utter futility, or Easter is harboured within them, the Easter power of a done-to-death God to defeat death and evil, to restore creation through the love of Christ. John's faith drew more from the certainty of vision than the conviction of reason. Seeing his crucified Lord in those Murmansk casualties, he discerned them risen too and something of Easter in his own survival. Such certainty entertains no denial of Christ or compromise of His call. John was desperate to share his vision. Cassandra, prophetess of doom to the ancient Greeks, became for him a vessel of hope.
So, this experience determined him on ordination and a compelling and exemplary priesthood.