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Reflection for Lent III Sunday 20th March 2022 by the Rev'd David Warnes

Luke 13:1-9

Today’s Gospel tells of two horrific incidents – a massacre of Galilean pilgrims in the Temple in Jerusalem carried out on the orders of Pontius Pilate, and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam which resulted in the deaths of 18 people. One is clearly an example of moral evil, the act of a ruthless political leader. The other may have been an example of natural evil, the collapse of a building due to an earthquake.

We can infer that when Jesus asks:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?

He is responding to a question of the kind that all of us have asked at times:

“Why do innocent people suffer? Why does God permit it?”.

These questions have the strongest possible resonance at the present – for Pontius Pilate, read Vladimir Putin. Our news is dominated by reports about people who have been killed and injured in the Ukraine as a consequence of unprovoked aggression, including some who had sought shelter in a mosque in Mariupol.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus emphatically attacks the belief that bad things happen to people because God is punishing them, but he does so in a challenging way. The Galilean pilgrims slaughtered by the Romans were, he says, no worse than other Galileans, and the eighteen people killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed were no worse than the other inhabitants of Jerusalem. He is reminding his hearers that, while they do not deserve to suffer and God does not inflict suffering on them, they are not innocent. They need to repent.

He explains that need in a parable, the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. It was common practice in those days to plant fig trees in between the rows of vines – fig trees have quite shallow roots, so they don’t take up too many nutrients from the soil. The fig tree in the parable had been there for three years – and that’s significant – it’s the length of time that a fig tree needs to come to maturity. If a fig tree doesn’t produce any fruit in its third year, it almost certainly never will, and the landowner’s wish to cut it down is therefore understandable and sensible. The fig tree is a waste of space.

The gardener in the story pleads for a second chance for the fig tree, promising to dig round the tree and to treat its roots with manure.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good;” he tells the landowner, “but if not, you can cut it down.”

I’m sure that this particular passage has been chosen for one of the Sundays in Lent because Lent is a time when we are encouraged to reflect on how fruitful we are, to find nourishment for our shallow roots. We are still here, despite the changes and chances of this transitory life, and the fact that we are still here can be seen as a God-given opportunity for the repentance – the turning round of our lives – of which Jesus speaks.

Christianity isn’t a self-help or a self-improvement programme. We aren’t called to be the gardeners of our own souls, and we certainly can’t sort ourselves out by our own efforts. To use the language of the parable, it is God who is the gardener and who provides the manure. Our Lenten disciplines are about allowing God the time and the space to do that.

Going back to what lay at the root of the question that Jesus was asked – that why question, why does undeserved suffering happen? I feel sure that the question was, in part, prompted by fear. When bad things happen to people, whether as a result of human evil or natural disaster, we are afraid. Will it be me next? Or someone I love? And somewhere in the background, moving into the foreground when there are wars and rumours of war, moving into the foreground as we get older, is the awareness of our own mortality.

I think Jesus’ answer to his questioners lovingly acknowledged the fears from which their question arose. They felt vulnerable and fragile, as do we in these alarming and uncertain times. Jesus understood those feelings but he did not provide a knock-down theological answer to the mystery of undeserved suffering. Rather what he said to them was, in effect, this:

“Yes, you are vulnerable and fragile. And so am I. But that part of you in which the fears have arisen can become a place of change, growth and fruitfulness. It can become the place in which, because you acknowledge the fragility of your life, you learn truly and fully to value it and to live it, to have life and to have it abundantly.”

And that is to move from a fear about our own fragility into repentance – and repentance shouldn’t be thought of wholly or mainly as a backward-looking process – a cataloguing and confessing of past wrong-doing. It should be seen more as forward looking – as reflecting on what God calls us to be and to do, and then acting on that.

As he answers this question, Jesus is heading for Jerusalem and for the extraordinary climax of his ministry in which he will show that God’s answer to the question “Why do bad things happen to good people” is to take the bad things upon Godself and suffer them and die – like the Galilean pilgrims – on the orders of Pontius Pilate. In doing so he placed God at the very heart of the mystery of undeserved suffering.  For us, despite the best efforts of theologians, it remains a mystery, but the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ are a pledge that, although human life cannot be made safe, nothing

“…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

Refection for Lent II Sunday 13th March 2022

There’s something about mountains. The way in which rock pushes up from the surface of the earth to be enveloped by the sky, is beautiful and inspiring. The sight of them has often led my thoughts into prayers; heaven and earth becoming one.

The Gospel reading for today, talks of earth and heaven merging into one. Jesus has gone up a mountain (we are not told which one) with his three closest companions. On the mountain some rather strange events take place, culminating in a disembodied voice proclaiming that:

“This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.”

That voice is an echo of the same voice that at Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan proclaimed:

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17b

It is a voice that sets Jesus ‘aside’ - that makes him special, that says to those who hear it that this man is my (the Lord your God’s) chosen one. He is the one that I, God, have decided to use to show you how much I love you. It is a voice that gives authority to Jesus and to everything he says and does from then on. It also seeks to tell those who hear this voice who Jesus really is.

It is important to Matthew and his Jewish audience that the events of the Transfiguration took place upon a mountain; because mountains were sacred places for the Jews. Mountains were seen as being places closer to heaven and therefore closer to God. Places that one could almost reach out and touch God or be touched by him and many important religious events took place on mountains; such as the ark coming to rest on Ararat after the flood and Moses receiving the 10 commandments. In the Orthodox Church almost every hill top and mountain has a small chapel on its summit; a sacred space to offer prayer to God and a place to encounter him as well. Mountains give us a chance to leave ourselves behind and to experience something other than ourselves.

This is what seems to be going on for Jesus and his companions; Peter, James and John today. The four of them left their old selves behind as they climbed to the peak of the mountain. The three disciples probably thought that Jesus wanted to walk and talk with them alone in order to tell them something important, away from prying ears. I doubt they had any idea what they were actually going to experience.

I wonder how they handled it all. I wonder how I might have handled it! Suddenly your friend and guide starts to glow and then two other figures from history appear and chat with him, especially as these two figures are the premier characters in the history of your people and then you hear a disembodied voice from nowhere. Weird or what?

I am not surprised that Peter, with his tendency for ‘foot in mouth disease’ suggests building dwellings for the three beings, as a way of keeping the event going. I like Peter because he often says and does the wrong thing at points of dramatic encounter. As soon as he suggests building the tents the voices shouts out – NO! You need only to listen to Jesus; you do not need the others because he is the one who speaks for me NOW, not them. The fact that you have seen Moses and Elijah conversing with him should be a visual confirmation to you of what I say. The giver of the Law and the senior prophet affirm him - he therefore embodies all the Law and the prophets in his being and in what he says and does, you need no one else.

It was following the affirmation of Jesus by the Law Giver and the prophet of prophets that Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem and all that awaited him there. Peter, James and John did not gain insight as to what was to happen to Jesus in Jerusalem or why but they were given a glimpse of something other than the ordinary. They may not have fully comprehended what it was all about but they would have been left in no doubt as to the importance of Jesus and that they were to follow him and to do his will until their lives end.

The image of Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus is very powerful for in that conversation all that they represented to the Jews was seen to be transferred to Jesus. Jesus is the Law, Jesus is the prophets, and Jesus is the voice of God. Jesus is more important than anyone else because he truly is the chosen one of God and as such can now be seen to speak directly for God. That revelation must have hit the disciples like an express train!

Then as suddenly as it appeared the vision disappeared. It was gone and Jesus was left alone. The disciples had experienced one of those moments in life when there is no fog, no haze, no cloud or trees or any obstruction of the truth of God. One of those rare times when God is clearly perceived and the reality of Jesus became apparent. The vision of those three disciples all those years ago not only transformed their lives but continue to transform ours today.

The disciples realised that they had been privy to a revelation that would change the world. For the disciples that vision was a point of clarity in their lives, for us it is an encouragement to listen to Jesus; just as they did because what he says is true. Life for the disciples had changed on that mountain, they too were transfigured and enabled to glimpse possibilities, to see beyond the mundane and hindrances to look into the ‘Promised Land’.

Visions enable us to see possibilities, to look beyond problems and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The disciples believed their vision and would ultimately give their lives for it too. Visions are vitally important to our wellbeing. We need to be able to vision the future for our lives, our relationships, our children and friends our country our faith. We need to be able to rise above the haze and fog and to see clearly where it is that God is calling us to go. People like Martin Luther King Junior and Nelson Mandela glimpsed the Promised Land and saw beyond racial and social divisions that kept people apart. They believed their visions and one gave his life for it, the other his freedom for many years.

On the mountain of transfiguration Jesus was given clarity of vision, an insight into his destiny and purpose. Peter, James and John were shown clearly who Jesus was and what authority he held. We too are given understanding in the account of the transfiguration as Peter says:

“...be attentive to this as a lamp shining in a dark place” 2Peter 1:19a

We do well to listen to what Jesus actually says in the Gospels because he and no other speaks directly for God, not Paul, not the epistle writers not the OT prophets only Jesus.

If Jesus speaks directly in the voice of God, what does he say to you?

A reflection for Sunday 6th March 2022 Lent I by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

If you are the Son of God…… (Luke 4: 3)

If I was to ask you what your expectations are for Lent this year,    

what would you say? Will it just be to get through these next 6 weeks

unscathed or do we actively wish to engage with, seek after or spend time with

God?  There is always the unknown; the unexpected and even the

unpredictable. Not things that we generally like.

Canon Mark Oakley, the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, in this year’s “Reflections for Lent” comments that “Coming up out of the water, Jesus had heard the unmistakable voice that matters, telling him he was cherished, wanted and ready. He then goes into the heat of the desert spending time with himself, hearing other voices that want him to bow down to them. He knows that his vocation can only be lived out by following the voice he heard that day in the river. We follow him. Where he goes, so do we”.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1951) produced a series of paintings of “Christ in the wilderness” of which “The Scorpion” (1939) is one. You may know it. What is particularly moving is the way Christ is looking down at the scorpion in his hand. Jesus once likened God to a good father, putting the question: “If we ask a father for bread, will he give us a scorpion?”.  In this painting it is just such a scorpion that Jesus cups in his hand, looking down at it with a sense of deep pity. Scorpions can sting us to death, and the painting depicts more scorpions all around Jesus on the ground. It seems as if Jesus is contemplating his future and facing up to his destiny. It is not the bread that his Father gives him, but the sting of death.

Teresa White – a member of the Faithful Companions of Jesus - writes in this year’s Lent Book entitled “Hope and the Nearness of God” that “God is with us in a special way during Lent, our Christian season of prayer and fasting, and wants to unlock the doors of depression or pessimism in which we may feel ourselves trapped. When we take time to pray, to reflect, things which had previously escaped us in the jumble of existence become more clearly visible. It is God who gives this new vision. God that unblocks our ears so that we hear echoes of the distant melody of hope. God who touches our hearts and draws us towards what is good and beautiful. Hope in the nearness of God can set us free to walk more courageously into the unknown. It opens up our horizons. It is not a substitute for action, but it relies on God to point the way forward”.

In Lent, we are invited to enter into the wilderness in order to seek God’s presence, and to pray that we will become more alert to that which is invisible. The wilderness is a place of encounter with the divine, and God’s nearness can be very real in this place of apparent sterility and strange, unlooked-for beauty. As Pope Francis has said “God does not hide himself from those who seek him with a sincere heart, even though they do so tentatively or in a vague or haphazard manner”.

Jesus, friend and brother,

You were tested and found faithful,

When we are tested give us the insight to recognise what is right,

The will to do it,

And strength to continue in the true path.

Daily Prayers for the people of the Ukraine

Daily Prayers for the people of the Ukraine

God of love, turn our hearts to your ways; and give us peace. Amen.

God our deliverer, when the foundations are shaken and justice has departed, defend the poor and needy and give your people strength to fight all wrong in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

At the request of the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine we say:

Psalm 31:1-5, 21-24

In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;

let me never be put to shame; 

deliver me in your righteousness.

Incline your ear to me;

make haste to deliver me.

Be my strong rock, a fortress to save me,

for you are my rock and my stronghold; 

guide me, and lead me for your name’s sake.

Take me out of the net

that they have laid secretly for me, 

for you are my strength.

Into your hands I commend my spirit,

for you have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth. 

Blessed be the Lord!

For he has shown me his steadfast love

when I was as a city besieged.

I had said in my alarm,

‘I have been cut off from the sight of your eyes.’

Nevertheless, you heard the voice of my prayer

when I cried out to you. 

Love the Lord, all you his servants;

for the Lord protects the faithful,

but repays to the full the proud.

Be strong and let your heart take courage,

all you who wait in hope for the Lord.

God of peace and justice, send your blessing on the people of Ukraine. Sustain them in their courage, hold them in their fear, protect them from all danger and be for them the hope they desire; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both, our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that, by thee, we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Adapted from the prayers issued by the Diocese in Europe

A service for Ash Wednesday

A Rite of for the beginning of Lent

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation; and sustain in me a willing spirit.       Ps 51:12

Preparation for Lent

Dear friend in Christ, in beginning our Lenten observance, on this Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our baptism, and how Christ’s death on the cross may clearly be shown in our lives. We now come before God in penitence, reflecting on our life in Christ. We pledge ourselves to observe this season of self- examination, discipline, and self-denial with sincerity, prayer, and reverent reflection on holy Scripture, seeking God’s purpose for us, and modelling our lives on the example of Christ Jesus.

Kyries

Lord, have mercy. Lord, Have mercy.

Christ, have mercy. Christ have mercy.

Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Reading:  Joel 2:12-17

Let us pray for grace to keep Lent faithfully.

God of mercy and giver of comfort, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect forgiveness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Verses from Psalm 51

1 Have mercy on me, O God,

   according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

   blot out my transgressions.

2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,

   and my sin is ever before me.

4Against you, you alone, have I sinned,

   and done what is evil in your sight,

so that you are justified in your sentence

   and blameless when you pass judgement.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,

   and put a new and right spirit within me.

11Do not cast me away from your presence,

11 and do not take your holy spirit from me.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

   and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

   and sinners will return to you.

15 O Lord, open my lips,

   and my mouth will declare your praise.

Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

As a sign of the spirit of penitence with which we shall keep this season of preparation for Easter, I invite you to make the mark of Christ’s cross, on your forehead, with which we are signed at Baptism, and by which we are forgiven our sins and live to the glory of God. Saying:

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.

Absolution

May God, who is both power and love, forgive us (+), and free us from our sins; heal and strengthen us by his Spirit, and raise us to new life in Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord God Almighty, your people are washed clean in the saving flood of baptism, and born again: as we follow the way of the cross, we ask you to unseal for us the wellspring of your grace, cleanse our hearts of all that is not holy, and cause your gift of new life to flourish in us; grant this through Jesus Christ your Son, who sets us free from sin, and lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God, world without end. Amen.

Father of all, we give you thanks and praise that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home. Dying and living, he declared your love, gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory. May we who share Christ's body live his risen life; we who drink his cup bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world.  Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us, so we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Forty days and forty nights

Thou wast fasting in the wild,

Forty days and forty nights

Tempted and yet undefiled.

Blessing

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him; and may the blessing of God, almighty (+) the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with us and remain with us always. Amen.