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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=120


 

Lent III Year C (February 28, 2016)                               St James', Peace River

First, a warning. There will be sports analogies in this sermon. I can't remember the last time I used one of those, and in fact it's so unlike me, that I thought some of you might be alarmed if it happened without an advance heads-up. In my defence, this has been a weekend of refereeing six basketball games, not to mention a certain curling tournament on the TV. If sport isn't your thing, just keep in mind it isn't normally mine either! The second part of the warning is to remember that analogies are imperfect. To be honest, life isn't much like sports. But sports are sometimes like life, and maybe there is something helpful there, that will illustrate what I need to say and what we all need to hear.

All right, having got the allergy warning out of the way, on to the readings. They're pretty grim. In a way, appropriate to Lent – they're quite sombre and sobering, making us think about the ways we fall short of what God asks of us, and the consequences of that kind of failure in our relationship with God. One striking thing is that these readings actually reverse our stereotypes of the Old and New Testaments. In those stereotypes, which go back to the beginning of Christianity, we often imagine that the Old Testament is where we find a God who punishes sinners, who is vengeful and even jealous; whereas the New Testament is where we hear about mercy, grace and forgiveness. Of course those are just stereotypes, and nowhere do we see that more clearly than today.

We began with Isaiah, proclaiming God's invitation to come to a thirst-quenching fountain that has no price tag attached. He hits the nail on the head when it comes to the frustration of trying to find our own way in life: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” There is no clearer offer of grace than when God says, just come to me and you will live. The Psalm echoes that invitation, speaking in the voice of someone who has experienced the grace of closeness with God: “Your steadfast love is better than life... My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast... You have been my help.”

It's in the New Testament readings that things start to look a lot grimmer. St Paul reflects on the story of the Israelites following the pillar of cloud and fire that guided them through the wilderness. God provided for them then, feeding them, protecting them, leading them – but that didn't make them faithful followers. Instead they kept choosing their own way, and as a result there was judgment and punishment. And, St Paul says, this is an example to us: “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” - even as Christians we can fool ourselves into thinking we are on the right path when we're not.

Then we're into the gospel reading, and Jesus tangling with a couple of situations “ripped from the headlines”, if there had been headlines in those days. People ask him about a tragedy, and you can see in the back of their minds the idea that bad things happen to bad people – when disaster strikes, it must mean that its victims have done something really wrong. The first situation happened when some people from Galilee were apparently doing the right thing, offering their sacrifices – but Pontius Pilate sent in the Roman guard and slaughtered them, in an act of state terrorism calculated to strike fear in the hearts of an unruly population. But the assumption is that the targets of this violence must have been the greatest of sinners, for God to so completely reject their appeal to him. Then Jesus himself brings up a second situation, pure accident, when a tower collapsed, killing the bystanders. Again, people must have assumed that this was an “act of God”, that is, an act of judgment or punishment.

Jesus' reaction is less than comforting. Regarding both situations, he says, these people weren't any different from you, and you can expect the same kind of thing to happen to you unless you repent. Then he offers a story with only the faintest hope of mercy in it, likening God to a gardener who gives the fig tree one last chance to bear fruit – if it doesn't bear figs, what good is it? May as well cut it down for firewood or mulch. The best we can get out of that story is that God has more patience than we have a right to expect, but even so it's limited. Repent or perish, and do it soon!

There was a time in Christian culture when people were much more used to, and much more responsive to, the message that you're all dreadful sinners, each one as bad as the next, and you need to change your ways. In fact people used to turn out in droves to hear preachers deliver exactly that message: they would wail over their own guilt, and go away oddly comforted. I don't think the message is any less true now than it was in the 19th century, but it's certainly a harder sell, for a bunch of different reasons. And as we talked about in the General Synod conversations around the diocese this month, if we want people to listen to the Christian message, we have to deliver it in a language they will understand and respond to. Being told that you are wicked by nature, that God is not pleased with you, and that you deserve to be destroyed – isn't the language of our day. So what is the message of repentance today?

This is where the sports analogy comes in. Think of an athlete – any sport will do, really, though as I mentioned, I have basketball and curling in my own head mostly this weekend. The athlete has a clear goal, to win the game – but they also face clear obstacles, not just from their opponents but from within themselves. Bad habits are probably the biggest obstacle. Attitudes are another obstacle – a too low opinion of your own ability, or a too high opinion, either one causes problems. And when you tangle with those obstacles on the court or the rink, what happens? You miss shots, you commit fouls, you make mistakes. And it's true, every single player has those issues. No one is perfect. Everyone gets something wrong. If you don't miss a shot or take a foul, it's either because you're on the bench, or else you're just not trying hard enough. (Or maybe it's because the ref didn't see... I'm not perfect either!)

But to say that you're always going to get something wrong doesn't make anyone want to quit and take up fly fishing. If the game is worth playing, it's worth getting better at. And that's because of those moments when you get it right. When you see the shot before it happens, and everything flows exactly the way it was supposed to, I'm not kidding when I say there is something very nearly spiritual about the sense of harmony you experience – kind of like that angle-raise double-takeout I was so excited about that I posted about on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. (But I digress.) It's not even about winning in the end – it really is about doing it right, and getting away even momentarily from the habits and attitudes that drag you down.

I think this corresponds pretty closely to a perspective on life which a lot of us might share, and certainly that a lot of people around us in our culture hold. We may be less willing to see ourselves as wicked sinners, perhaps even less willing to take the blame for our own behaviour than we ought to be, though to be fair, we also understand a lot more about mitigating circumstances which genuinely do put some of us in a bad place, and for which responsibility needs to be shared. But one thing we do understand is that we don't get it right, and that we want to. We want life to flow like that perfectly timed shot – and we know it doesn't, very often, and that we bear responsibility for that. So the question, “Where do I find redemption?” isn't foreign to us. We even understand that time is short, that the game (by which I mean life) doesn't go on forever, and so we need help now.

And that's what God offers, even when it's couched in the language of judgement and threatened destruction. Because as much as those things come up in the story of God with God's people, what we hear even more clearly is God's deepest desire to lead us to a different path. In words we used to hear regularly in the prayer-book service, drawn from the book of Ezekiel, God “does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live.” I often wonder if we've ever plumbed the depths of those words. God does not want to punish anyone, to throw anyone away, to shut the door on anyone. So if any of that were ever to happen to you or me or anyone else, it would not be because God wanted it – it would have to be because of our choice to keep muddling along, getting it wrong, missing the path, ignoring God's love and God's grace.

Those words are a solemn warning. But they come with a promise attached – God will give you and me and anyone else what we need to get it right, if that is what we truly want. Like the training of an athlete, it's not easy, it requires commitment, and it's certainly not something we can ever achieve by ourselves. If you want to play better, you need help. And if you want to live better, you need God's help. But that help is there, in the Bible, in the sacraments, in the church, in the discipline of living your life dedicated to loving your neighbour.... and most of all, in the one thing we overlook all the time but which never leaves us, God's deep and abiding love for you, which wants for you the life that you most truly want for yourself.