What would I want to hear in a sermon!
Someone asked me to post this sermon I gave this morning as a blog. So here it is…
The reading was from the Gospel of Luke.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
What would I like to hear in a sermon? Particularly today.
Well after the last few weeks, the things that have happened around the world, the tragedy of New Zealand, but also the floods in Papua, the shooting in the Netherlands and the ongoing suffering in places we now don’t hear about, in Syria, in Iraq, in the Congo, I would want to hear something positive and meaningful about faith and our role in the wider world. That’s what I would like to hear.
So this sermon is as much for me as for you all.
But to do that I think firstly we have to understand where we are in the 21stcentury.
What is it to be human today, for we have different versions of it. One version can kill others praying in a mosque, and plant bombs on planes and cars and buildings because of an ideology that insists you are either for or against them. A version that can destroy the nature world, deny freedom to people, and abuse an economic system for wealth and power. That leaves others in poverty for their own comfort.
Yet we also have a version of being human that displays caring and love amidst tragedy, that works for justice and peace, daily thinks of the other, and when needed responds with compassion to those suffering. A version that supports the weakest, the poor and the marginalised.
We see it every day, we have seen it this week, this contrast between the evil and the good in the world, yet both are driven by people, sometimes the same people. People with a history, with ideas and beliefs, and with relationships that can be either positive or negative. Sometimes it is driven by faith, depending on how the faith is interpreted. God can be the saviour or the destroyer.
How are we to find a way forward.
Let’s find our starting point. I believe wholeheartedly in a God who doesn’t come to judge, who doesn’t send vengeance because we have sinned or are bad people. Who does not sit outside of humanity, flaying those who have not done the right thing, whatever that is. Rather I believe in a God who is with us, shares our burdens and fills our souls with hope and light. A God who is life giving rather than life destroying. Who even in our darkest hour is ever present.
We live in the 21stcentury and bad things happen to good, peaceful and loving people. And to neglectful, crazy, mean and sometimes awful people as well.
And today this is what the scriptures says, what Jesus says.
It is poignant that in the reading from Luke Jesus is told some distressing news from Jerusalem. Soldiers are believed to have killed some Galileans within the temple area while they were in the very act of offering sacrifices. The horror of the scene is captured in the words, Pilate mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. Seems too close to home, doesn’t it?
What about the next incident, an accident at Siloam, a pool or water reservoir near the walls of Jerusalem. The tower probably overlooked the pool. Pilate ordered the construction of an aqueduct to upgrade the water supply, but people have died building it.
Two events, one murderous, one an accident, both shocking. But neither is God’s doing! Jesus asks, do you think they were any more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem, I tell you no! What about Pilates actions, they are not Gods!!! He is not acting under God’s authority.
Even in the Old Testament, while Proverbs contains the idea that the righteous are rewarded and the sinners punished, we have the book of Job, to counteract this. Job, a fine upstanding Jew still ends up on the ash heap. Because life can be hard and suffering plentiful regardless of what we do or not do.
We know this, but often people, in terrible situations revert back to the idea that they must have done something wrong, that God was punishing them for their wrongdoing, even though it is not clear what it is!
And I have plenty of chaplaincy moments that reflect this. People who believed they were not worthy of God, had made too much money, or somehow had let him down and that was why this terrible thing has happened to them or their loved one.
An awful idea to place on the loving, ever present spirit of life, who even in our darkest hour is ever present. Jesus completely rejects this interpretation here as he does elsewhere in the gospels.
But neither does that let us off the hook completely!
Because there is more to today’s reading than this.
Sometimes we are required to take responsibility for things that happen. Sometimes we are required to open our eyes, turn around and change our ways, least we make things worse. Sometimes we need to repent or at least think again about what we are doing.
For in the reading we also hear about a fig tree, the parable of a fig tree. Remember Jesus always used earthy images for his parables, because he was a human being. Living in a time of great suffering.
Jesus presents us an image of a fig tree, one that is not doing so well. But the gardener is persistent, let it keep growing he says, even after 3 years, lets tend it, let’s work on it. To see if it will bear fruit. Jesus calls the people listening to him to repent using the image of the fig tree as a guide. We can all turn things around if we try.
So it’s not that Jesus thinks that we are above having to repent, for the image we hear in Luke is used in Matthew after the temple moneychangers have been expelled by Jesus. In Matthew the fig tree, shrivels the next day. In Luke we are given more time to get our act together. But it is not that we are judged by an external deity, ready to reap vengeance. Rather, in Jesus eyes, we are judged by those around us, we are judged by what happens to the least of these, we are judged by the lack of care we take for human and non-human alike. And our judgement will be seen in the way our societies work and our world suffers.
In other words, what we do does matter.
So what should we do? Remember this is a sermon as much for me as for you.
I think we have to tend our garden of love, and compassion and inclusion, nurture and fertilize it. Find out what gives life to us and to others and follow it.
A sermon by Martin Luther King in this book of sermons I have (A Gift of Love), describes the complete life as having length and breadth and height. Let me summarise a bit of it. For it gives a great guide.
The length of life is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. With developing our own goals and ambitions. King suggests there is a thing as “rational and healthy self-interest”. He goes on to say that “before you can love others adequately, love your own self properly”. A lot of people do not love themselves. Or accept themselves. Often, we wear masks to hide our true selves from others, going through deep and haunting emotional conflicts.
By not accepting ourselves, not being our true selves, it becomes harder to connect with others because we don’t know who is doing the connecting. To love well one must also be open and vulnerable and willing to share. If we are always looking to cover our faults, hide our hurts or are not honest in our feelings and ideas the connection will be tenuous. Yet the message from the gospels is clear. God calls us to love others as God loves us, for God is always present, never absent. We are all worthy of God’s presence which doesn’t disappear when things get tough. When we accept ourselves, we become free to give and receive love.
So as Martin Luther King says, “the principle of self-acceptance is a basic principle of life”.
But he goes on to say that “after the acceptance comes the discovery of what we are called to do with our lives. And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all the strength and all the power that we have in our systems. This does not mean we are all going to be great scientists, doctors, writers or artists. Most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories and in the streets. But we must see the dignity of all labour.”
This is the length of life.
And many people just do that, they develop their “inner powers and do their job well”.
But in the end, there is something missing.
There is also a breadth to life. As King says, “The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. A person has not begun to live until they can rise above the narrow confines of their own individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity”. Who will ask, “what will happen to humanity if I don’t help”. What will happen to refugees if I don’t participate in raising concerns. What will happen to the Muslim community if I don’t embrace our brothers and sisters of other faith and nationalities. What will happen to my city and country if I don’t raise my voice in protest against policies and decisions that are inhumane and lack compassion. “What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them.”
This is how Jesus expects us to act as his followers. How we are to respond to the urging of the divine spirit within. The questions, as King points out, are not about “how many friends we have, or how many PhDs we have or how many houses we own, but what did we do for others”. And when we do that our hearts and lives know that we are being fully human.
This is the breadth of life for King. “Somewhere along the way we must learn that there is nothing greater than to do something for others. Because we have what we have because of others”, it is a relationship at the core of life. We are co-dependent on each other for life. Jesus saw this, that relationships are the beginning, the middle and the end, and that love shared is the main game plan for living both as individuals and as a society.
But let’s not stop there. “A lot of people master the length of life, and the breadth of life but they stop there”. For Martin Luther King and me and all of you here, we must also embrace the God of the universe, this third dimension of life. The height of life.
Lots of people neglect this aspect, or only bring it out when it is to be blamed of the disasters that befall us, or worst used to justify terrible acts of terror and violence.
As King suggests, “some people say they follow a God with their lips and with their doctrines and creeds but deny the existence of God with their lives. Instead they concentrate on getting a bigger car, house or into a better neighbourhood”. They forget to look at the great cosmic light, the beauty of nature , and the inner peace brought by the spirit’s presence and pretend they are alone in this world.
But the spirit of God remains, every present in us and in all of creation.
In the incredible world and life we have all around us. For King, “God is the great I am”. Life giving and affirming. As he says, “if you believe in him and worship him, something will happen in your life. You will smile when others around you are crying. This is the power of God.”
And with this power and the words of Jesus to fight on and never give up King asks us to reach out and find the height of life.
Let me conclude by reading the final section of King’s sermon…
“Go out this morning. Love yourself, and that means rational and healthy self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That’s the length of life. Then follow that: Love your neighbour as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That’s the breadth of life. And I’m going to take my seat now by letting you know that there’s a first and even greater commandment: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, (Yeah) with all thy soul, with all thy strength.” I think the psychologist would just say with all thy personality. And when you do that, you’ve got the height of life.
And when you get all three of these together, you can walk and never get weary. You can look up and see the morning stars singing together, and the sons of God shouting for joy. When you get all of these working together in your very life, judgement will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
When you get all the three of these together, the lamb will lie down with the lion.
When you get all three of these together, you look up and every valley will be exalted, and every hill and mountain will be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh will see it together.”
This was Martin Luther King’s faith and it made him climb mountains.
Let it make us climb mountains. Even if occasionally we have to reflect on what we are doing, and make some adjustments along the way. For we are to change the world with God’s love, not vengeance.
“A Gift of Love – Sermons from Strength to Love and other Preachings”, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beacon Press, 2012