Sermon - 28th February 2016
Equal before God
Scripture - Isaiah 55:6-9; Luke 13:6-9; Galatians 3:26-39
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today is the third Sunday of Lent, which marks roughly the half-way point between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. At the beginning of Lent, either this year, or in previous years, many of us will have had the experience of having our foreheads marked with ash. The following words were spoken over us: “Remember that you are you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” To be reminded of our own frailty in our mortality is a humbling experience. In today’s reading from St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus challenges us with how we might live out our lives:
This reading is taken from the central section is St Luke’s Gospel. There is very little narrative of Jesus’ actions and movements: Luke focuses on Jesus’ teaching to various audiences, including the Pharisees, one of the groups of religious leaders of the time; however, the specific audience for this parable is not mentioned. Nevertheless, like all of Jesus’ teaching, we can use it as a mirror to hold up to inspect our own lives.
The man who planted the fig-tree represents God. The fig-tree represents the Jewish people. The fruit, that is the figs, represent how (or not) the Jewish people reconciled themselves to God. The three years represent the centuries of time from Moses to Jesus. The gardener represents Jesus who petitions the owner, that is God, for a final chance. The fertiliser represents Jesus’ teaching of the Good News. Leaving the tree for just one more year tells us that time is limited.
Our re-written text might become:
“God established the Jewish people. God waited for the people to become reconciled to their Creator, but they did not. After many centuries, God sent Jesus who gave the people a final chance, giving them God’s son Himself to teach the people the Good News that God longs to be reconciled with His Creation. The warning is that there is limited time to respond.”
Throughout human history, our knowledge and science have changed our lives completely from the simple hunter-gatherers humans were around 10,000 years ago. We live longer than ever before. We are richer and more comfortable than ever before. We can fight disease, keep out the cold, grow food in places which were once desert, communicate with others instantly, even with those on the other side of the planet; we can travel into space. Our societies are complex: we have laws to give us rules to live by, police and other agencies to protect us, democratic assemblies to represent all our views, support systems to help us when we are ill, poor or otherwise needy. Yet, there is one thing we cannot change: the fact that for each and every one of us, life will end one day, and that life may end, suddenly and unexpectedly.
Things happen in life, when we are left in pain, asking “Why?” But often, there is no answer to this question.
Natural disasters, diseases and accidents do happen. Be it is a traffic accident, getting a terminal illness, or having our home destroyed by flood or fire, for each and every one of us, we can lose our lives at any time. Jesus’ challenge is again repeated to us: have we restored our relationship with our Creator?
The prophet Isaiah, writing some 700 years before Jesus’ time on Earth among us, can provide us with some insight:
The advances humankind has made in terms of knowledge, discovery and civilisation are amazing, yet our lives remain as fragile as they ever were. So much can happen in our lives and in the lives of those we love, when suddenly we are brought to a halt, and in our pain, in our helplessness, our anger, our despair and in so many other emotions, the only question on our lips is “Why?” – and so often, there is and there can never be an answer.
The message in both the readings we have heard so far is for us to recognise our place in the created order, that we turn to God, our Creator.
Does the story of the fig-tree and the reading from Isaiah have any other lessons for us? Yes, I think they do. Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel reading is difficult, radical and uncompromising. The fruitless fig-tree may also represent fruitless aspects of our lives – situations in which we find ourselves, friendships, relationships. Maybe we are at the stage where we need to give it one last chance, just like the fig-tree is given one last chance. Or maybe, we have gone past that. The one last chance has been given, and the fig-tree remains fruitless. And as hard and painful as it might be, now is the time to cut down that fig-tree, that is to loose ourselves from the unfruitful situation, friendship or relationship.
The challenges in both Isaiah’s words and in the words of Jesus through this parable can be applied in two directions: we can apply to them to ourselves and to our lives and circumstances, but what of those who are living their lives unchallenged?
Here is a picture of our church building when empty. It can sit around 120 people comfortably, more if we squeeze together, with room for another 30 or so in the upstairs balcony. Philip keeps a note of how many attend our services each week, and it is excellent to see that over the past year, average weekly attendance has risen to around 35.
There are some in the morning congregation who remember when this church was built in the 1950s, and how it was full every Sunday! The same can be said of almost every church in Manchester and across the UK: once they were full; now, it is usual that worshippers are counted in their tens, not in their hundreds.
For our congregation, with our specific ministry to the LGBT people of Manchester and the North West, we are only too aware that while the secular authorities have led the way in equality and rights for LGBT people, it is the churches that have done so much damage to so many. And that is true not only for LGBT people born in the UK, but in all parts of the world.
Many of you present in our church congregation today come from Africa, where because of your sexuality, you were unable to live your lives as you might wish. In fear for your safety, you had to flee the countries of your birth, while the churches in Africa continue to preach hatred against gay men and lesbians.
We are delighted that you are here in our church, despite what the African churches have said about you. You are all a great blessing to our church. Even though many of you have the considerable burden of your asylum cases, your faithfulness to God continues to shine through. You are indeed living out the messages we heard in the readings from Luke and Isaiah.
About a year ago, a few us – Jean-François, Cyriaque, Happy and I – all took part in a project for Gaydio, the UK’s LGBT radio station. The project looked at how people of faith, like us, live our lives also as LGBT people. One experience common to all of us was the experience that in the 21st Century in the UK, it is far harder to “come out” as a Christian than it is to come out as LGB or T. It was also a very common experience that when it comes to relationships, people of faith found it more difficult. For some, that was because of religious-phobia that many LGBT people have – an attitude which is not surprising, even understandable, given the anti-gay rhetoric which even today is spoken by mainstream church leaders.
Others have also had the experience that once in a relationship with someone who does not share their faith, a power struggle can ensue, where the person of faith places God first in their lives, and the secular partner is unwilling to accept that.
The values by which we Christians live our lives are different from the ways in which others might live. As Isaiah realised, God’s thoughts and ways are different. God is love, and love gives. We are not out for just what we can get in return.
Ann Sinclair, a lay preacher in our Synod, wrote this:
“It is an open invitation from God. There are no preconditions of status or wealth… It is an open invitation to all ‘who are thirsty’, a spiritual invitation to those who choose to listen and seek God, it is a gracious gift from a generous God. The invitation comes unconditionally but with concern of what we say or do, such is God’s great love. To those who repent, the Lord ‘will freely pardon’; God’s open invitation is also a gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.”
As a church community, we have been on a journey in the last 4 years. That journey began with the overwhelming love and acceptance of us by the morning congregation here at Wilbraham St Ninian’s. Last October, we joined with them formally, and we now share our walk in Christ together. As part of the wider United Reformed Church, we are part of a church which is wholly affirming of LGBT people, and it will be the first national church to introduce same-sex marriage, following the General Assembly this July.
This year, many of our sermons have looked at how the Bible has been used against LGBT people. (If you have missed any of those sermons, they are available on our church website.) Next week, when I have the privilege of preaching again, we will be looking at Jesus and how He deliberately sought out those people on the edges of society and transformed their lives forever. This He has been doing for centuries, and is still doing in our lives today: we are living proof of that today!
Despite what certain church leaders may have said against us as LGBT people, that is not the Jesus of the Gospels. Indeed, St Paul in his letter to the church in Galatia (in western modern-day Turkey), wrote in such affirming terms: we are all equal before God; God welcomes us all. This Lent, let us try to share that message with those whom we meet.