Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Lent (24 March 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

Today at the Cathedral View More
12:00pm Doors open for sightseeing
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Lent (24 March 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

The Chaplain explains that the journey of faith lasts a lifetime; it is something that we must work on every day of our lives, not just in Lent. 

Its easy to hear a threat in this morning’s Gospel, and a rather unpleasant one at that. As it says:

"There were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galilean’s suffered in this way they were worse sinners that all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."

Jesus deals with two important issues in this difficult passage. The first is the assumption that suffering is a judgement for sin. That people somehow get what they deserve. It’s a remarkably persistent belief that is just as prevalent now as it was then, and long before the time of Jesus, but Jesus is quite clear, that in both the awful examples given of the killing of a group of Galileans, presumably taking part in a religious ritual, and an awful accident that randomly (and in an instant) wiped out eighteen people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Judgement? no says Jesus. Emphatically no. But…and here’s the next important lesson, you and I are going to die and we need to be prepared, because it can come at any moment, unexpectedly, and as Jesus said, we do not want to perish as they did ‘unprepared’ taken by surprise. 

Repent, be prepared.

So today we are about half way through Lent and how is this season of repentance and preparation going for you?

Are you someone who adopts the traditional practice of giving things up, of denying your self something; or do you prefer the practice of taking something up something that is personally hard for you but can be received as a gift by someone else?

Either way our Lenten practice is supposed to be a challenge that needs our focus and effort. 40 days of trying to stick to a promise you’ve made to your self and to God, one day at a time. 

The traditional practice of giving something up usually involves the body in some way - cake, chocolate, alcohol, etc. This is the ancient practice of self-denial through fasting and taps into the wisdom that the denial of satisfying physical desire brings spiritual gain. Allowing the spirit to focus on the quiet contemplation of God. This mental testing then makes us stronger to resist those things which may distract us from the difficult, and lifelong challenge that as disciples of Christ we have entered into, the daily continual search for God.

Now of course none of this is easy. A Lenten fast, properly done is quite a challenge, and not one that I have ever personally managed, but that doesn’t mean I should stop trying. And that’s the point! In this sense, the journey of Lent is like the journey of faith itself, it has a clear purpose, motivated by the most important and exhilarating idea one can choose to live by - the idea that only God can provide the ultimate satisfaction and meaning for life. And, no one should pretend that the journey of faith, like Lent, is easy.

It can be joyful, at times, exhilarating even, fulfilling, satisfying, moving and give a real sense of purpose and meaning to one’s life. 

However, it can also be beset with doubts, with feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, hopelessness, of feeling that you never seem to make any spiritual progress etc etc. A life of faith is not an easy option. 

I would always argue that the search for God is the most meaningful way of living life but I would never pretend that it’s easy. And of course how could it be. God is God and as such will always be that which ‘passes all understanding’. As Isaiah reminds us: 

‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’.

To be a Christian is to enter a quest for ultimate meaning that can never be complete because God is always so much more than we can possibly discover.

However, if we go back to this morning's Gospel, we find that it concludes with facing the difficulties and challenges of faith. 

The journey of faith is that it is one that lasts a lifetime. To commit ourselves to the idea that the search for God is the way to find meaning in life is to commit ourselves to a journey that not only lasts a lifetime but, as I’ve said, can be a challenging one of many lows as well as moments of real joy. And this can be a real problem because what often causes people to give up their Lenten fast or indeed to give up being a practicing Christian altogether is that they have unrealistic expectations of the Christian life. 

And in today's Gospel, in the parable of the fig tree there is a perfect example of such false expectation. 

The vineyard owner had unrealistic expectations about the fig tree, thinking that once it was planted it should bear fruit immediately. It is as if the owner is saying; ‘well I’ve done my bit, I’ve bought it and planed it, now it should bear fruit’. Just as we night be tempted to say; ‘well I go to church, I read my bible, I pray, I’ve given up whatever it is, for Lent etc., now, where is my spiritual gain? Why don’t I seem to have a greater sense of the closeness of God’ (for example) or blessing?

The gardener is the character who has the wisdom in this story. Not only did the gardener show the owner that the fig tree needed to be constantly nurtured through feeding it, watering it and regularly checking it; but more importantly, the gardener noted that even if this was done, there was no guarantee that all would be well.

There’s an important lesson here. We live in a world that over promises instant happiness, security, comfort which, if it isn’t achieved, is somehow deemed to be unfair or we look for the reason an explanation where there is none to be found. The journey of faith does not work like this, it is an expedition on which we should expect challenges because it is a process of conversion. 

Conversion is not a trite declaration made once but is a process entered into. Through our baptism, confirmation and in our Christian practice (and at this time through our lenten discipline), we have said a yes to Christ, a yes to his kingdom, a yes to living and loving as he wants us to. These are the surest foundations for seeking to enter more deeply into the heart of God and the true meaning of our life. But having set ourselves on the road, we must be patient and gentle with ourselves as the journey unfolds with its ups and downs. When in comes to living with God, we have to commit to the long haul.

We need to constantly and consciously take steps forward  – another step again not only each day, but each hour of each day – not just every day of our Lenten journey, but every day of our lives. It’s by doing this that we will bear fruit for ourselves, for others and begin to become the people that God calls us to be.