SERMON LENT 3 28 February 2016
Just over a week ago I sat in the Opera House, gazing almost unseeingly up towards the high ceiling, absorbed in the glorious music of Beethoven. It seemed so wonderful that human creativity could hear, compose that music into being, especially someone who was losing his hearing. But then what he wrote came from the ear of his heart and soul. Then it is amazing that human creativity could construct the instruments, have dreamed them into being. And what gifted people played those instruments, conducted the orchestra, and brought all that wonderful music to our ears, as we sat there and listened. When it was over we came out into a hot Friday night where people thronged around Circular Quay, dominated by the tower blocks, the harbour bridge and the Opera House itself. What an amazing capacity to create beauty and to enjoy it, we humans possess. What amazingly beautiful surroundings we also enjoy in the natural world around us.
But it is also true that we have a terrible power to create hurt and to destroy. We see it around us and we see it far away. Our human power is quite terrifying when used violently against life, and has such enormous potential when used to help and to heal. Our knowledge and connectivity too often makes us feel we are masters and mistresses of our own world and when things go against us we don’t like it. We also seem to think that we generally have the answers to many of our questions. If we don’t know ourselves then it is easy nowadays to find out. I have been putting some shape to the planning of my trip to UK in July and August. On Monday I wanted to know the distance and the time it would take to travel between Ardrishaig and Skipness in the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. I found the answer in about 20 seconds on Google.
But can we live with unanswered questions? It’s the questions that don’t have easy answers that really draw out of us responses that seem to define us and our approach to the world, the way in which we deal with the most important aspects of life. These are the kind of questions that may also test our faith: why do the innocent suffer? Why does a good woman, the mother of three pre-school children, get hit by a drunk driver and killed? Why does a man who has worked hard all his life retire and have a disabling stroke a month later? Why does an earthquake kill hundreds of innocent people? Why do people’s lives and values become so distorted that they join a terrorist organization and kill men, women and children indiscriminately? How do we answer these questions?
Last Sunday, someone spoke to Clive after his church service and said that the hurricane which hit Fiji was punishment from God. We have probably all heard similar statements about any number of different things. One has to be very careful about how one responds if one feels differently. But I have to say that, for myself, I can’t buy into that understanding. It might be much easier if I did because things are much clearer cut then. That is the appeal of that kind of theology: everything then is securely held within well-defined criteria. I am tempted to say within boxes. Last week I talked about the different images we have for God, for Jesus and how many of us may have grown up thinking about God as a rather frightening figure of judgement. This is the God who would send hurricanes, tsunamis, even traffic accidents, to make his feelings on human sinfulness apparent.
But here we are in Lent, with a reading from Luke in which we hear people telling Jesus about an act of violence, murder, perpetrated by Pilate. The people wanted to see how Jesus would react. Jesus knew their minds: was this punishment? Jesus doesn’t buy into their mindset at all. It is he who then adds in another dimension to senseless death – the people killed by a falling building, possibly the result of shoddy workmanship or neglect.
We need to be aware of the context that this reading has been lifted out of: there has been quite a discussion about worry, about judgement and about being ready and prepared for the time when the master comes. Jesus predicts division within families and households. We are to read the signs of the times. These are not “soft” comfortable passages. There is a hard edge. Today’s verses only appear in Luke. So why is this reading there? Luke portrays Jesus as the Saviour, more than the other gospels, and one of the themes of Luke is the open nature of God’s kingdom. All these verses are a warning to the Jewish people not to think that just because they define themselves as the Chosen People, they are right with God. But this then points to Jesus’ call to people to repent, to turn back to God. The killing of the Galileans and the death of innocent people in an accident is not related to any sin of these people. Jesus calls on all people to repent. And he gives people a second chance and more time. The fig tree is not immediately given up as useless because it doesn’t bear fruit.
Can we talk about God judging people and sending them terrifying violent punishment? None of us would escape if that was the way God worked. The idea of God somehow weighing us up on some scales of justice and discarding the ones whose sins weighed heavier than others is just so far from the message of God’s kingdom. Thank goodness that we can read in Isaiah the beautiful poetry of the verses we heard which finish off with the words “’My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’, declares the Lord.’”
We are not let off the hook because we regard ourselves as people who are not as bad as some others. Luke also leaves us with a clear message – we all need to turn back to God. The fig tree needed work, it needed fertilizer so it could have a chance of becoming fruitful. And where do we find the things that bring life and re-create us?
Luke gives his community this passage, and so us also, as a clear reference to what lies ahead as he mentions Pilate and undeserved sacrificial ending. We often view Jesus’ death on the cross as a necessary sacrifice because of human sinfulness and I don’t want to go into theories of atonement here. But what is also true, as we have already seen, is that suffering of innocent people, pain, loss, death and injustice, remain part of the human experience. It’s also a fact that for the early Church, suffering was expected in a way that is different from our contemporary attitudes.
Whether we see suffering as an aberration, a punishment or just part of life, we remain confronted by things that are hard to bear and that seem to make no sense. The chaplain at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead was telling a group of us about listening to a mother whose child was in hospital with burns to nearly all of his body except his face. The situation was all the more unbearable because the mother said she couldn’t understand it: for the month before the accident they had got into the routine of reading the Bible together in the morning and praying together in the evening. Why then did this happen?
Can we live with unanswered and unanswerable questions? The book of Job is one of the oldest books in the Bible. It is classified as Wisdom writing. I am sure we know the story. The innocent Job loses almost everything. Maybe one of the hard things is that seems to happen as part of a wager between God and Satan. It is also a test of faith for Job. It is senseless. His friends come, and, in the beginning, just sit with him in silence. They should have left it like that. But their human struggle, and ours, is to find some reason. The reason has to be that Job has sinned. So they go on and on at Job trying to get him to admit his guilt. Even though he can’t understand the “why’s” of his situation, Job holds onto his integrity, until, at last, God appears, not to give him an explanation, but really to remind Job that God is God and Job is a man. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” as Isaiah said. That understanding is enough and Job turns back towards this God.
Living with no answers is truly, deeply testing. As I was thinking about the hymns for this service, I was going to use one written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister in Germany imprisoned in Germany by the Nazi’s for his resistance to Hitler and refusal to acknowledge him as the Fuerher, the Leader. His writings from prison are full of insight. Here are the words of the hymn. It is number 240 in the hymnbook.
Bonhoeffer points us to the extraordinary fact of Christian understanding: that Jesus, who had ministered, taught, healed, embraced the lepers, eaten with sinners, pronounced forgiveness and peace; Jesus who had demonstrated all this as God’s Kingdom and purpose of love, headed to Jerusalem suffered and died, innocent. He did this so that, as Bonhoeffer understood, we might go to God when we are sorely placed, because God, indeed, understands suffering.
Jesus didn’t give any answers about suffering. He called people to change their hearts and minds, to find life. The Church cannot give easy answers. Nor should it try and give theoretical explanations. We can only be people and places where we uphold one another in sometimes blind faith and, in so doing discover hope, because we are all in this together. Together we can create something beautiful, because we do it in love.