Beyond comfort and convenience
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
21 February 2016 (THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT)Some of you may have come to the cathedral this morning hoping that the European Union, the forthcoming June referendum and the opposing sides of stay in and ‘Brexit’ won’t get a mention in the service!
Well, if you have, you are already disappointed. Our news bulletins and opinion columns, call in radio programmes and chat shows have been saturated with it this past week.
The good news is that although the Pope doesn’t think the alleged views of Donald Trump should be regarded as Christian, neither Jesus nor any of his Church leaders are telling us to stay in or leave the EU!
So this Lenten sermon is not going to tackle the pros and cons of the European debate.
However, our faith and the season of Lent are neither irrelevant to the issues nor the debate itself.
Lent is a transformative opportunity each year to see new things and recognise new aspects of truth and justice in our lives and in the world.
Do you believe that your Lenten observance might actually cause you to change the way you vote this coming June – or indeed at any future election or referendum?
No we probably don’t. Lent for most if not all of us is more about personal discipline and restraint or abstinence in some are of our lives.
Yet the very word ‘Lent’ comes from a Saxon word for spring and its attendant renewal and new life – and perhaps that gives us a better understanding of how we should view and live these forty days of preparation for Easter.
So on this second Sunday of Lent here is a key question: in what way, if any, have we dared to step out of our familiar world and its comforts, supports and reassurance, and confronted the wilderness – that place where our identity, habits and values are tested in every way?
It’s rather different from giving up chocolate or alcohol, isn’t it?
Entering this wilderness world is an intrinsic part of the life of prayer for the presence and power of God lead us and challenge us beyond the realm where we are strong and assured – and where ‘I’ am the centre and the principle meaning of the world that I encounter.
Quite simply, Lent is about reality, the reality that so easily escapes us because we are content to live in the shallow end of human living.
As T.S. Eliot wrote, Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
None of us is an exception to that truth.
And so God has to break through our defences, if we are to grow up and face the power and cost of the love that saves and that alone can touch our lives with eternity.
We all yearn for meaning and permanence in our lives, and Abram as we learn in the Old Testament lesson was no exception.
O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? …You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.
And from this cry of despair, Abram is promised that he will have an heir of his own, and as he looks up outside to the heavens, God promises him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.
And the Lord makes a further promise, the promise of a land and permanent home.
This life-changing and indeed world-changing promise is sealed in a covenant oath and sacrificial ritual.
The sacrifice is utterly alien to us today: spilt blood and divided carcasses – they may seem repulsive and primitive to the tastes and practices of our culture and society yet at the same time we have dismissed, diminished and tamed our sense of the awe and wonder of God’s power and activity – and we do so at our peril.
I am not advocating animal sacrifice, but it is I believe true that our rejection of ritual slaughter (mainly on grounds of squeamishness and sentimentality) can also lead us to reject the need for forgiveness and reconciliation that is their very purpose.
As the sun was going down a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
In the Bible, a deep sleep is a prelude to divine intervention.
And Abram’s experience is raw and terrifying: in the darkness a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch seal God’s promise as they pass between the severed carcasses of sacrifice.
This fire of God’s presence and activity leads us through history to Jerusalem, the place of his meeting with his people in the Temple.
The faith of Abram gives birth to the people of the Covenant, the Law of Moses and the role and significance of Jerusalem as the holy city and dwelling place of God.
Jerusalem is the ultimate place of sacrifice and reconciliation and this is where Jesus will be heading to do his Father’s will and offer his life for all people and all time.
But this morning’s Gospel passage is set in Herod Antipas’s kingdom of Galilee and Perea, and a group of Pharisees come to warn Jesus to leave the area immediately as King Herod intends to kill him.
The Pharisees pose as Jesus’ friends but they are in fact in collusion with the king.
Jesus sees through all this and calls Herod ‘that wily fox’; he tells them to let Herod know that he is untouched by his underhand motive and bloody threat for it is Jerusalem that for long years has been the killer of the messengers of God.
Yes, it is to Jerusalem that Jesus is about to set out and where we in our Lenten journey will find the culmination of each year’s pilgrimage.
It is still a place of sacrifice, suffering and blood – and where Judaism, Christianity and Islam intersect.
In our cathedral this Lent we have Sir Frank Brangwyn’s hand-coloured lithographs of the Way of the Cross – the fourteen traditional stations or stopping places on the Via Dolorosa that leads through the city and out beyond the walls to Calvary.
On Friday morning we prayed the first seven and will continue this prayer and this journey throughout Lent.
Jesus still walks with us on this way today. The news may be full of the European Union referendum set for 23 June but there are bigger issues for Europe and the world involving millions of displaced people from the Middle East war zones and the terrible cruelties of war and terror that daily rain down on the peoples of Syria and beyond.
Jesus teaches us that the sufferings of our neighbour are his sufferings and that to be a true neighbour is to show compassion to the needy and afflicted.
Yes, the way of the Cross is where Jesus takes us – far from our strengths and comforts.
In Passiontide our cathedral is reconfigured in its layout and seating for our part in the divine drama of Our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem and his consequent death and burial before the miracle of his being raised and taken into the glory of eternity.
God in Jesus breaks up our habits and familiarities that make faith convenient and palatable. Whether we like it or not, life is a struggle and God shares in it.
And it is only beyond our natural choice and pleasure that truth can make itself known.
This is the gift and promise of Lent.
Lent is an intrinsic part not only of the Church’s commemoration of Jesus Christ’s earthly life, it is also a gift that runs through every age and exposes us to that love that sustains in the harshest of conditions and endures beyond the horizon of death itself.
Let us join hands in care and love for one another – across the world and make our prayer as one people defying the bleakness of faithlessness and the fears and terrors of pain and death.
Jesus has triumphed and yet is caught still in this world he loves and for whom he died because he promises to be with us to the end of time.
A city – its name
keeps it intact. Don’t
touch it. Let the muezzin’s
cry, the blood call
of the Christian, the wind
from sources desiccated
as the spirit drift over
its scorched walls. Time
devourer of its children
chokes here on the fact
it is in high places love
condescends to be put to death.
R S Thomas Amen.