Second Sunday of Lent, 24th February 2013, St Mary’s, morning

Readings  Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-end

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

We live in a world in which the supermarket that sells you your bagels also wants to be your bank; a world in which the UK has had its creditworthiness downgraded, like France and the US before it, who found that their borrowing costs actually fell after their downgrades. Our world is a complicated place.

Was the past different, perhaps, truly another country in which life was simpler? Did everybody know where they stood then? I remember war comics that (I’m rather ashamed to admit) I read as a boy, in which you knew who to support because the British were always clean shaven while the enemy sported a good two days’ stubble (and not the Jude Law/Jose Murinho designer variety, either), and Westerns in which you could tell good cowboys from bad by the colour of their hats. No – the past was a complicated place too. In another depiction of the past, the multi-nominated film Lincoln, we see a statesman at work a century and a half ago, as he tries to do the noble deed of rendering slavery unconstitutional and has to get into some messy stuff to get the vote through. It should be required viewing for those whose job it is to ensure the General Synod comes up with the right answer next time over women bishops.

Even so, we tend to oversimplify the religious and political world of Jesus’ day: on one side, Jesus (good) and his disciples (good but gormless); on the other side, the Scribes and Pharisees (bad). In fact, though, if the Romans had done polling like we do, if they’d done a Judean Social Attitudes Survey, they’d have found that Jesus’ views were closer to those of the Pharisees than to those of any other group in Jewish religious life. We see them clash with Jesus over things that divide them, and don’t appreciate all the things on which they agree. We may see this in today’s gospel reading, when it’s some Pharisees who warn Jesus that king Herod is after him. Jesus, just like any Pharisee, cares about God and God’s people, whereas Herod – in their view – does not. So if it’s Jesus vs Herod, these Pharisees choose Jesus. On the other hand, though, they might be just trying to put the frighteners on Jesus to get him out of their area. In a complicated world there usually is an ‘on the other hand’. Jesus, however, seems to know exactly where he stands, and where he is going. And he knows exactly what he thinks of King Herod: ‘Go and tell that fox,’ he says, in the one outright insult the gospels give us from the lips of Jesus, ‘that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and heal, and on the third day I finish my work.’

Knowing where you stand in a complicated world – big challenge. You can get moments when you see things clearly, but the problem is that they often come too late. I remember, in a former job, a moment when I saw with real sharpness what really mattered in that job, what I should have spent more of my time doing. It was a moment of real insight, but it came soon after I’d accepted a new job, and I had under three months left in which to act on it. So what’s the secret of getting clarity when it’s still worth having?

Last Sunday’s gospel reading told of Jesus in the wilderness, being tempted. He is encouraged to take certain courses of action – and rejects them. That is the place where Jesus goes to get a clear picture of where he stands and where he should head, but he goes there first, and then begins his work, so that when he is plunged into the complexities of the world he won’t loose his bearings.

We have just begun the season of Lent, forty-odd days of preparation for the feast of Easter that echo the forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness. But Lent comes to many of us, I suspect, at a less than ideal time, not at the very start of some great task, but in the middle of everything. For some, that means the middle of all the stuff, big and small, that fills your days; for others, life has space in it, indeed it may feel like a wilderness – large and empty – but it’s not a wilderness you have chosen to be in. Nevertheless, however God finds us, God says to each of us, ‘During these days let me show you where to stand, and where to head; while there is still time.’ How might God do that?

There is an old tradition of giving something up for Lent. It’s easy to get this wrong, and make it a religious form of self-help – cutting out for a few weeks what I should eat less of anyway – whereas the purpose of this giving up is to create space, a wilderness of the heart, space not for me but for God; or rather, space for me and God to be together. Oddly, you can do that in a group – that’s why we have Lent groups meeting – and of course you can give time to God on your own. The space you clear for your wilderness of the heart can be big or small. If you have time, it could be a Lent retreat or quiet day  – did you know we have a wonderful convent just down the road in Ham, that is perfect for finding some soul space? Some of  our busiest people find time to go there – but it can be as short as a few moments’ pause before you hit the Send button and fire back that email. This space is not for checking the spelling of ‘totally unacceptable’ or the number of exclamation marks, but for facing your temptation: ‘These words I’ve bashed out, do they really spell out where I want to stand? Will they take things in the direction I truly want? Maybe I’ll put it in Drafts for the moment.’

All this is not only a matter of your or my inner life but of public life too. In today’s story, Jesus does not only heal individual people, he laments over the whole city of Jerusalem, that place of business and politics and power; and in these coming days we are not only preparing for Easter, but facing some serious public conversations. The repercussions of the Eastleigh by-election and the downgrading of the UK’s credit rating will generate lots of froth, but scrape off the froth, and what lies beneath? Paying down the debt without beating up the economy is a horribly complex thing, and it’s not just a technical argument: it bears, for instance, on all we shall hear from Lotte after the service about her work with young offenders; it’s about flesh and blood, because – though there have to be cuts – every cut hurts someone. Most of the tough questions in life are about who gets hurt.

‘Our citizenship,’ says St Paul in our first reading, ‘is in heaven.’ It sounds like a lofty way opting out of the mess of life, but it’s not (as the rest of his letter shows): it’s a challenge to look at things from the end, to see the tangle of the present moment in the light of what God longs for us and our world to become. It calls us to ask ourselves:

‘What can I do now, in the tangle of this world, that shows where my true allegiance lies?’

Notes

Ham Convent www.sistersofthechurch.org/our-houses/uk/ham-common/hospitality-at-ham

Young offenders After the service, Lotte Webb and former members of Felltham Young Offenders Institution gave a presentation of the work of the Feltham Community Chaplaincy Trust as part of the Christianity at Work (C@W) series. http://www.felthamcommunitychaplaincy.org/index.php

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Leave a Reply