A Sermon preached by the Vicar of the Close, Canon Ian Woodward
Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9
I imagine that we all have our own ideas of the significance of Lent in our lives and in our faith, and on this third Sunday of Lent - half way to Easter - it is timely to ask ‘How is your Lent going?’ For some it is time of reflection, for others a time of forgoing a seeming luxury, for some a time taking something up. Whatever our response we are encouraged at the very least to think about what Lent means and to try and travel with Jesus on his mission journey to Jerusalem, to his death and to his resurrection.
Whilst not wanting to re-open a debate about our hymnology again from this pulpit
Our first hymn this morning is another example of a ‘High Victorian’ view of faith and suffering in the context of our own Lenten travels, and a question we might ask is should our pain be hallowed and are we somehow expected to nurture a sense of worthlessness?
This is not setting at liberty those who are oppressed and I don’t think that this is what God wants for us.
With this mind though I wonder what you make of today’s readings?
On the face of it the Isaiah reading is a mixture of contradictions – the writer startles us – in a sort Bertie Wooster way – ‘Ho’ he says calling the people to attention as it were and then in their exile, in their deprivation, makes luxurious promises: wine and milk as metaphors for a richness of living – and all for free. And then there’s a warning – why do you spend money on non-essentials that that do not, in the end satisfy – perhaps a long distance warning of consumerism? I think we can see in Isaiah’s call that getting back to God is indeed a Lenten message. Furthermore Isaiah promises that in returning to God we receive forgiveness and mercy and thus liberty.
So our own Lenten journey can thus be seen as a means of returning from exile, from that gulf that often separates us from God and from each other and a time to renew and deepen our relationship with God.
Our Gospel reading from Luke challenges a very contemporary question about tragedy. When information about an alleged sin that some Galileans had supposedly committed by the mingling of human and animal blood, their supposedly divine punishment was the collapse of a tower that was part of the city wall around Jerusalem. When this news reaches the disciples, Jesus asks them: “Do you think these Galileans suffered in this way because they were worse sinners than any other Galileans?”
And it begs this question: does death and misfortune strike us because we have sinned? This is, for just about all of us I trust, a preposterous notion and yet it still holds sway in much of Christendom and indeed other religions and consequently leads to a question why do the good and the faithful suffer just as much as the errant the sinners? Jesus’ own answer to this rhetorical question is a clear ‘No’. Jesus refutes simplistic answers to deep and complex questions and no to attempts to solve deep troubles with quick fixes and ‘no’ to shallow theological thinking.
Michael Curry – the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States is descended from slaves and sharecroppers in North Carolina and Alabama and he recalls as a child when a light hearted occasion of a misfortune befell someone, hearing an old person say in jest “you ain’t been living right”. ‘The principle behind this saying is often articulated when things fall apart for someone, when the burden of the heat of the day becomes unbearable, when things seem to go from bad to worse, when someone cries out from their bed of affliction or shrieks in despair from within a vale of tears: “Why?” “Why me?” In the painful struggle of trying to make sense of something senseless, the age-old logic of “You ain’t been living right” sneaks into our consciousness.’ ‘If God was in the business of measuring out judgement and curses in relation to our sins there probably would not be anyone left on the planet.’
How do we understand these dilemmas of so often failing God and indeed ourselves and what God expects of us, and why is it that human nature can be so frail?
As Bishop Curry says ‘Facing the mystery and limits of what we know is not an excuse to stand still and look sad (as Luke narrates in the story of the journey to Emmaus in the early evening of Easter day), when some of the disciples were paralyzed at the time of Jesus’ death. Jesus is on a mission. Those who would be disciples of Jesus, who would follow in his way in the power of his spirit, are on that mission. So much is unknown and many questions remain unanswered. In the end the future is God’s but the important thing is that we share in the mission of the unfolding future and this is where our responsibility lies – ‘to preach good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives and sight to the blind and liberty to the oppressed and the acceptable year of the Lord’.
The feeling of guilt and failure is ever present.
In our own experiences here, the myriad conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan are simply dreadful. Questions are often asked by the Sudanese themselves ‘Where is God in all this?’ Is the priority between faith and tribe irreconcilable? In discussion with a number of our Sudan and South Sudan brothers and sisters, including most recently with the three bishops who were with us last week, it is the sense of corporate sin and guilt and the need for repentance and reconciliation that is at the heart of their efforts and our initiatives to bring healing to those broken lands. We have been working with them through in part, the experience of the tragedy of the civil war in Rwanda in the 1990s which some of you may recall.
Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel “unless you repent you will all likewise perish”
What we have found is that through the prism of repentance and healing the ground for renewal is fertile and bountiful.
Jesus reminds us of this duality of purpose –that God’s judgement is tempered by divine mercy; that mercy must ultimately trump justice; that he is unfailingly merciful towards us, and he gives us - his fig trees new opportunities to bear fruit for him and for one another.
Our own repentance in our Lenten journeys is about liberation – we are freed from the shackles of guilt and sorrow and we set out to our own Easter resurrections knowing that we will overcome our Holy Week terrors.
Yesterday in our lectionary we remembered the priest and poet George Herbert, a central figure in the life of our diocese of Salisbury; and amongst my favourite lines from his writings is in his poem and subsequent hymn ‘King of glory, King of peace’ which runs: ‘…and the cream of all my heart I will bring thee; though my sins against thee cried thou didst clear me.’