February 28, 2016
Third Sunday in Lent Year C
The Rev. Canon Eric Beresford
Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
First I want to say thank you to your rector Donna for inviting me to preach today. I’ve been here for the conference that your parish has been hosting and I must say congratulations to all of you for putting this on and bringing people together from across the city to reflect on how as a society we are going to support those making difficult decisions around grievous illness at the end of their lives. The topic of the conference was on physician-assisted dying, but of course the real question is about suffering and how we respond to suffering in our lives and the lives of others.
Some years ago Harold Kushner, a conservative Jewish rabbi wrote what became one of the best selling religious books of all time, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, theologians, both Christian and Jewish didn’t like it much, but many people did because it came across as a voice for compassion, for hope, and for generosity, and these are all good things. I honestly had not thought about the book for years, but as I prepared for the conference and as I read the scriptures for today it came back to me and what struck me afresh was the glaring assumption in the title, an assumption that we so easily miss. But what if we reverse it? What if the book were called, When Good things Happen to Bad People? Would it have sold as many copies? I don’t think so. It would not have had the sense of urgency, and anyway we would not have imagined it was speaking to us because, of course, we are not bad people. It is almost as if good things for bad people are an accident – where bad things for good people are an affront – a challenge to our sense of the order of the world, and therein lies the problem. Because the presumed world is one in which cause and effect applies not simply to the physical universe but also to the moral and social universe. It comes out of the strange assumption, strange only because it has never been true, that to be morally good is to earn success and blessing, to find ourselves in a place that is safe and fulfilled. To which it seems obvious to ask, “how do you think that worked for Jesus?”
Turning to our readings for today this sort of economy of virtue and reward seems at first to fit most closely with the reading from Corinthians, but is it really the point Paul is making? Does it really make sense of where he takes this thought? If Paul is really talking about rewards to the righteous (the good) and punishment for the wicked (the bad) then why does he end by saying that no testing has overtaken us that is not common to all? Why is his “punch line” about a capacity for endurance that is a gift of faith? If blessing were the reward of the faithful, why would they need endurance? I don’t want to go into this passage in depth today only to point out that it needs to be read (as is always the case with Paul) as part of the sweep of a much longer arc – a much longer discussion.
The other two passages that we heard today make an even sharper break with this economy of virtue and reward and I want to now weave them together to point us to a quite different vision of life.
Starting with Isaiah, we might at first hear this as a call to the righteous (Israel) to enjoy their reward.
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you who have no money come buy and eat!
But in fact Isaiah is calling the people back to the mercy of a god who is utterly and mysteriously other, whose ways are not their ways. At the beginning of this passage he sets up a contrast between those who have no resources but who eat and drink and are fulfilled and those who earn what they receive but are finally unsatisfied.
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
And the key to this difference for Isaiah is not what we earn or deserve but covenant. The steadfast everlasting love of God, which God lavishes on us not because we deserve it, but because in God’s giving of it God demonstrates who God is. His point is that the relationship to God is experienced as pure and unmerited gift, a gift whose essential qualities belong not to the recipient but to the giver: to God’s generous even reckless love for us, for you and me. We enjoy God’s love not because we deserve it but because it is the very nature of God to give it, and by giving it to transform us into God’s own image and make us worthy of the gift God first gives.
In the end this is about what we Christians have called grace. The sense of life as pure gift, and although we affirm this joyfully we are reminded in these readings that this notion of gift, of grace, has an edge because it undercuts our assumptions about a world that deep in our cultural formation, deep in our cultural bones we believe should be about merit and reward. What Isaiah sets before us is the call to a relationship with God that transcends this transactional understanding of the relationship of holiness and reward.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
It is not that the holy are not rewarded, but their reward is to become in the good times and in the hard, in blessing and in exile, living, and vibrant witnesses to the faithfulness of God. Their reward is the call to a life that is defined not by our gifts but by the relationship into which God calls us. The point of all this is not some scheme of virtue and reward but the new life that God is at work making in us in both joy and grief, in all the ups and downs of ordinary life. I want to suggest that embedded in this passage is a call to move away from seeking to earn God’s love, and instead a call to become living witnesses to what that love means in all of the circumstances of our lives. And that is where Jesus takes us to. In some ways his language sounds rather harsh.
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Do you think that the eighteen who died in the collapse of the tower of Siloam were, “worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” And our modern enlightened selves respond with horror, of course not! We would never suggest such a thing, and yet Rabbi Kushner’s question still resonates in our culture and isn’t it really another, more polite, more subtle version of the disciples questions addressed by Jesus? More subtle maybe, still resonating with the idea that our virtue ought to privilege us, to protect us from harm, that such tragedy in the end belongs in the realm of justice. Jesus challenges that assumption. “No, I tell you: but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.”
Now this sounds like he is going back on his earlier observations but in fact, in the context as Luke sets it up, it is a call to fruitfulness. It is a call to be who we are created to be, whatever the circumstances of our lives, because Luke uses it to lead in to the Parable of the Fig Tree. The point seems to be that fig trees are made to bear fruit wherever they are planted and in the same way we are made for...? For what? Augustine tells us that we are made for God. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
The real question is not whether we have easy lives or lives full of challenge – heaven only knows there are people whose lives are all too full of one or the other. Even our popular culture knows that. Remember the Paul Simon song, “Some folks’ lives roll easy as a breeze drifting through a summer night heading for a sunny day” But, “most folks lives, they stumble, Oh Lord they stumble and they fall through no fault of their own.” And yet are you not struck, as I am, by those who manage joy and fulfillment in the midst of lives that know more than their share of tragedy and loss. Why is that? The CBC recently reported on a research study that was carried on over 75 years, making it the largest longitudinal study of life satisfaction and happiness ever conducted. Not surprisingly, it shows that the strongest indicator of our happiness is not to be found in material things – however rich – or however challenging, but in the quality of our relationships.
For those of us who are Christian this should come as no surprise, because we know that relationship is the very heart of all that is... God is relationship in Godself... We know that we are made for relationship (Augustine’s point), and that we discover the capacity for relationship and are trained in the art of relationship in and through one another. We discover the centrality of relationship precisely through our capacity to be present to each other in the good times and the bad – to be the sort of community that cares for each other whatever our personal circumstances. We grow as we learn to do these things not out of some sense of duty, because of an obligation laid on us from outside, but because as we grow in our relationship to God we discover that it is our nature – it is what we are called to be and to do even as we know that our longing for relationship is only truly fulfilled in our relationship with God.
So our faith will not protect us from suffering, but nor does it call us to suffer for the sake of suffering, and it certainly does not call us to make judgments about the suffering of others, but it does invite us to find in all the experiences of life a crucible in which we encounter God and in which we open ourselves to being remade by God. There is a wonderful, but rarely read book by C. S. Lewis called, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. It is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche story, from a perspective clearly shaped by this Christian understanding of grace I have been speaking of. The story begins in the story of the ugly and deformed Orual eaten up with rage against the injustice of the gods because of the fate of her beautiful and lovely sister Psyche who (she believes) she loved. When her parents die she becomes the ruler of the kingdom of Glome where she rules wisely and well, but where she feels isolated and unloved as she nurses her bitterness behind a mask that protects others, but also protects her. Only towards the end of her reign does she begin to see how she herself contributed to her sister’s downfall. Only at the end, as she herself is about to die does she finally come to terms with her own rage and realize that her anger against the gods is a reflection of her own fearful anger at herself. At last she sees the truth of herself, the mask comes off, and instead of the ugly deformed face of Orual she is found to share the exquisite beauty of her sister Psyche. When she comes to see herself as she truly is, when she learns to see her own feelings and speak finally and truthfully with her own voice, then she no longer needs a mask, then she is truly beautiful. It is not that the mystery of her suffering is somehow explained, but she is transfigured. She is healed.
In the end there is, I believe, no simple answer to the challenge of suffering, except the experience of those who suffer themselves, and even there it is an answer that each of us must find for ourselves and this is not easy. But in the end it is not about justifying our experience – not about what we deserve, but about what we discover, about ourselves, about those around us, and about the deepest mystery of all, the God we discover not beside us, but within us. The God who has suffered before us, and in our suffering transforms us into the perfect image of God’s love.