Luke 13 1-9
This week I watched programme about a female TV presenter spending some time in an Anglican convent. I have to say I was a little sceptical to start with as I am not a particular fan of the presenter and I did wonder if it might all be a bit superficial. In fact it was very interesting and one of the things that really struck me was not only the prayerfulness of the nuns but the way in which they were very much of the world. They were not an enclosed order so spent a great deal of time in the local community. They really exemplified a practical outpouring of Gospel love and they were far from blind to the challenging times in which we live. One of the gifts that these amazing women provide is prayer. They devote some of their time to taking the concerns of the world to the Lord through deep, reflective prayer – and those concerns are vast both in number and in breadth of subject. They do not shy away from the brokenness of the world – instead they embrace it and surround it with God’s love. There are some who would say that politics and theology don’t mix and that those who are members of religious communities and indeed those who are ministers of religion should keep their political opinions to themselves for fear of unfairly influencing their congregations. While I try not to be too overt about my views there are times when I know that I have to stick my head over the parapet and nail my colours to the mast. After all just like that community of Anglican nuns, priests cannot ignore what is going on around them in whatever context they minister and I firmly believe that for all of us our spirituality is part of our holistic being and feeds the way in which we live every aspect of our lives.
One of the other practices that the nuns uphold is regular and detailed study of scripture. Again they do this in a way that makes it highly relevant to our current context and they consider each passage as if it were a contemporary issue, drawing parallels between the times in which it was written and the times in which we now live. When I read this week’s passage from Gospel I was reminded of those godly women as I could see the relevance of the situation to that of today’s world and I was reminded that the greatest of all commentators on the political situation they found themselves ministering in is Jesus himself. Here in Luke’s Gospel we find yet another example of our Lord speaking into what was at the time a highly political situation. The reference to the murder of those bringing sacrifices to the temple is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the oppressive regime that the Roman governor, Pilate, imposed on the people of Israel.
Pilate was a cruel and ruthless man who would go to any lengths to subjugate those who dared to flout the many unfair regulations that were designed to make life as difficult as possible. Many of those who came to listen to Jesus were longing for God to send them a mighty leader under whom they could rise up and overthrow the Roman occupying forces and reclaim Israel as their own. Their prayer was very much for someone who would use military force and sheer brute strength to achieve their dream of freedom – they wanted to play the Romans at their own game and to an extent you can see why. As a nation it is over 1,000 years since we have experienced occupation by a hostile force so it is difficult to empathise with the Judeans who flocked to hear Jesus but elsewhere in the world liberation theology is a very key part of the faith of many who struggle to survive under oppressive regimes where just to confess Jesus as saviour and lord carries great risk. Indeed the war in Ukraine is a very real example of what happens when a man who is driven by his hunger for power sets those he rules over on a path of destruction and violence. Here is this passage from Luke we find Jesus reminding us of the need to look to ourselves before judging the acts of others – repent he says, repent or you too will perish! Harsh words maybe but words born out of love and the endless desire that God’s people should once more seek a relationship with him that is steeped in faith and integrity. Jesus is speaking into a situation where there is political chaos and division between so many differing factions throughout society, a situation that seems insurmountable and unsolvable, a situation where the lack of clear and consistent leadership is having a disastrous impact on the whole of society and there the disenfranchised are suffering the most. Sounds familiar? And if we look beyond our own borders we see the same upheaval being played out across the world. And we see the tragedy of a world where extreme political ideologies lead to the death of innocent people. And we see the tragedy of a world where our thoughtless and disobedient stewardship of creation leads to extreme weather conditions that decimate the environment, destroying homes and leading to the unnecessary deaths of those caught up in the chaos of storms, floods and tsunamis. And in the light of such overwhelming destruction and sorrow it is all too easy to wring our hands in sorrow and feel helpless to change anything. It is all too easy to subscribe to the school of victimhood, to sit back and passively accept the brokenness of our world, in the mistaken belief that there is nothing that can be done, and even more dangerously to believe that this is God’s will, that we are being punished for the evil that abounds and that we deserve everything that is coming to us.
When Jesus calls on us to repent he is not asking us to do this passively. He is commanding us to do this as a route to activism, as a means of submitting to God’s will that we should live out his commandments with vigour and energy and proclaim the Gospel message loudly and with pride. If we reflect on the parable that Jesus goes on to tell about the fig tree we can see that our God is a God of encouragement and reconciliation who longs to give us a second chance. The tree has not yet borne fruit, and surely it would make more sense to dig it up and use the space, the manure, the time and energy on a tree that will provide figs. But the gardener says no, give me and the tree one more chance. God’s call to us to come and repent is a call to receive one more chance. And God’s call is to each of us who may sin in a ‘small’ way, but also to those who wield guns and barbed words, those who seem to only be concerned about their own well-being. This doesn’t mean that God will not judge them, or us, for our actions, but that when our hearts are truly repentant, grace and mercy meet at the place of judgement.
As Christians we are called to be disruptive, we are called to be counter cultural, not just to imagine how things can be done differently but to be courageous and to stand up for kingdom values in the sure knowledge that the Holy Spirit is at work through us and that God will protect us from harm if we are obedient to his will. As Christians we can bring kingdom-based perspectives to our world, we can act as mediators and bring peace to those around us who are in disagreement with each other about the way forward.
After all not only are we Christians we are Anglicans and if ever there was a religious institution where differences abound it has to be this one – be it huge issues such as the ordination of women, sexuality or liturgy through to what clergy should wear and what tune we should sing various hymns to! Yet we manage to co-exist, we manage to accommodate our differences in order to bring about the mutual flourishing that is essential if we are to work together for the good of the Gospel which is after all what our purpose as the gathered church is. We are commanded to seek justice and fairness for all, to love each other and our neighbours without judgement but as God loves us, boundlessly and with compassion in our hearts. Time and time again I am drawn back to the words of Micah – “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humble with your God” It is this that compels me to speak out, to seek to build the kingdom, to endeavour to be fearless in the face of adversity. And speaking out loudly is not the only approach to tackling the challenges of our world.
There is a real need for a calm and gentle approach to subversion and one that is deeply rooted in prayer and contemplation, just like the way in which the nuns of whom I spoke lift up the world to God. We need to storm heaven with our prayers not only for this land but for the whole of God’s marvellous creation. We need to pray corporately, as Richard will lead us to do shortly and we need to pray individually. And we need to do so courageously, firm in the belief that God will answer our prayers and his kingdom will indeed come on earth as it is in heaven, just as Jesus taught us to do. God calls us all to speak up for those who have no voice, to mediate between those who cannot agree, to love generously and without judgement and most of all he calls us to pray unceasingly for the coming of the kingdom when all will indeed live in peace and harmony. Maybe that sounds like an impossibility but we know that through God all things are possible and it is with that hope in our hearts that we go forward proclaiming the Gospel as followers of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ