Benefice of Seaview, St Helens, Brading & Yaverland
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Suffering
Sermon by Local Minister Sylvia Beardsmore
24th March 2019 - Third Sunday of Lent

Readings – Luke 13:1-9; Is55:1-9; Psalm 63: 1-9; 1 Cor.10:1-13

Aim

To see Lent as a positive time of forgiveness and second chances. Parable of the fig tree.

Introduction

Three weeks ago I received this lovely hand made card with 2 tea bags inside. (Read aloud) It was from some Anglican friends in Nottingham with whom George and I ran an ecumenical youth club on the large housing estate where we lived. Today is the third Sunday of Lent and this time next week we will be half way through and I am already starting to feel a sense of relief!!. I have to confess that the hardest part of my transition to Anglicanism has been the endurance of Lent. The heavy emphasis on sin, suffering, and penitence leaves me struggling. It seems so strange to me that when nature is bursting into new life, the hedgerows are green, and the vibrant colours of spring flowers greet us was say “no flowers in church”.

I think my friends must have known that and hence the card which really did cheer me up. So what is Lent all about?

Suffering

It is certainly about suffering. These weeks leading to the glorious resurrection of Jesus at Easter mark the time of Jesus turning his face to Jerusalem and preparing for his suffering and death in the final week of his life on earth. As he made that journey his disciples journeyed with him struggling to understand what was really going on and how it fitted in with the last three years they had spent with him. Listening to his teaching, seeing his healing, and gradually coming to understand something of his kingdom. And suffering is no stranger to any of us. We have all experienced it to some degree and so often asked God the question – why me? Or why do bad things happen to good people? They are huge questions and I make no attempt to answer them this morning.

And this week seems to have been marred with suffering :-

The massacre of 50 innocent Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand; thousands of innocent people dying as cylone Idai wreaked havoc in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe; and three young people crushed to death waiting to get into a St Patricks Day party in N.Ireland. And they are just the international news stories we know about. There is so much suffering near and far not known to us.

While there have been many supportive words and actions for the victims of these events there have also been those looking for somewhere to lay the blame across the political and religious spectrum. For the Jews, and still for some today it is clear that suffering is the result of sin - God’s judgement. And that is the theme of our gospel reading today, and Jesus’ response to it.

Jesus is told the shocking news of the massacre of Galileans in the middle of their sacrifices by the Roman Governor Pilate (an uncomfortable resonance with the events in Christchurch last week) – and is quick not to apportion blame, or divine retribution – but remind them all of their need to repent. And goes on to tell them the parable of the fig tree.

Parable of Fig Tree

This is the story of a fig tree that has stopped producing fruit, and for three years it has been barren. It might once have been a very fruitful tree but is no longer and so the farmer is tempted to get rid of it to make space to plant another, but decides to give it a second chance. He will fertilise it and give it extra care and attention, feed and water it well in the hope that it will become fruitful.

I want to suggest to you this morning that we are all like fig trees – we are all capable of bearing the fruits of our Christian experience; however long or short a time we have been in the church. But sometimes we need a nudge to get us going again, we have got tired and run out of steam and need extra attention and nurture. As in every organisation there are two distinct kinds of people in the church, and I am sure ours is no exception. There are those few who do everything and are in danger of being overworked and burnt out; and those who are not given the chance or encouragement to fully utilise their gifts, indeed they may not have ever been given the opportunity to discover even what they are. Lent is a good chance to look at ourselves and our faith afresh and listen to what God is saying to us. For some there may be a challenge to do more for our church and the community; while for others we may need to step back and give other people more space to grow. And maybe for all of us we need to look at how we can encourage each other in our service and see if together there is new or different aspects we should be exploring. Our vicar has set us a good example of this in her mean bean challenge. Maybe it is no coincidence that our annual meetings fall in Lent? What is God saying to us this Lent?

Gospel of Second Chance

For me this parable highlights one of the most important truths of the Christian gospel – it is the gospel of the second, third, fourth and fifth chances ad infinitum. And with every chance, the Gardener gives us all the care and encouragement we need. The problem is that we so often fail to give ourselves that second chance – with every perceived failure we become despondent and feel more guilty, in which case, I think we have missed the whole point of Lent. Yes we need to repent but in the sure and certain knowledge that we are already forgiven. That’s what Lent and Good Friday Are All About. God loves everything he has made – even the barren fig tree and me, and KNOW we are forgiven.

Yes we are the holy people of God in this place, at this time called to love and serve the people here. As churches and individuals we are called to pray, serve, fight injustice, carry the needs of others on our hearts, bring hope and new life into this community. As God’s agents we are responsible for calling everyone to abundant life. As Isaiah described it we are needed to invite everyone to the great banquet. And that is a huge demand on us – perhaps difficult and uncomfortable at times. But this is the challenge of Lent.

Conclusion

If Lent finds us spending all our time and energy begging for forgiveness, and bewailing our past mistakes we will have no energy for this task of telling our community of God’s love and mercy for them. It will be hard work and a real challenge but Christ will be with us. The suffering of Lent, the death and resurrection of Christ means that we are already one with Him and and our place at the heavenly banquet is assured. So that with the hymn writer we can say with complete confidence (Last verse of "And can it be ..." by Charles Wesley)

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

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