A sermon given by the Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Isaiah 55:10-13
Luke 6:39-49

She was standing in front of St Michael’s Cathedral, arms outstretched, in the city where she lived, praying it seemed to Christ and the saints painted as a mural on the cathedral wall. An old lady. Her home, in the midst of being overrun, is Kyiv.

A newspaper picture showed a row of schoolchildren sitting like parcels on supermarket shelves, their faces covered in masks, for it in the midst of pandemic that their homeland is being invaded. These children preparing for a bombing raid in Druzhkivka.

And, in many cities and towns across Ukraine, buildings that, only days ago, housed families not unlike our own, human beings created and loved by God, are piles of rubble after the shelling that has taken place.

Ukraine has been invaded in a breaking of international law. Families known to loved ones across the world, including members of our own Cathedral community, flee or hide or fight not knowing what violence the next day will bring.

As we gather in our cathedral this morning, our minds and hearts cannot but be affected by the struggles of our world. Two years into a pandemic, many years into living with deep concern about the health of our planet, we now find ourselves utterly shaken by these events, events it is no exaggeration to say,  echo the Second World War.

And so we gather. And we pray. And we hear the singing of our choir. And we look at one another in disbelief. And, then, we hear the words of scripture.

We may find ourselves struck by the image at the end of our Gospel reading of the house built without a foundation that, when the river burst against it, immediately fell in the force of the ensuing flood. We might feel as if that flood is rushing upon us, more particularly on the people of Ukraine. Images of scripture resonate. Which is just exactly what God would have them do.

Through the voice of the Prophet Isaiah, in this morning’s reading from Chapter 55, God speaks about scripture and how it reaches us. “My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty,” God says, “but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” We have an image of God speaking, and God’s word reaching us, and God’s word being heard, and responded to, and, somehow, in this, God’s word returning to God.

We might reflect on this image as we find ourselves bystanders in the scene of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, is speaking with his disciples on a level place, the text says. After healing and freeing those who come to him for help, Jesus speaks, the word of God, we might think, to which Isaiah points us. In the words we heard read today, Jesus tells four parables, parables encouraging us to ponder our vocation as disciples. Parables that point to the struggle of it, really.

What do we do with Jesus’ parables? What is he doing? His longing is that we hear, we know, we are transformed. He seems to understand us, that transformation as children of God is so difficult and happens rarely through instruction, direction. He might tell us what to do, where we fail, but we are unlikely to hear him, or if we do, we are unlikely to be changed by this. He knows that it is through our imaginations, our love of stories that he might reach us. If he can make us laugh, perhaps. Or leave us puzzled. Or in the case of the images with which this sermon began, leave us crying. “Tell the truth but tell it slant”, the poet Emily Dickenson said. Jesus is often the expert in this.

And so he tells us parables.  ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?’ He begins. One of the grounds of the Gospel of Luke occurs in Chapter 4, is Jesus’ statement of his manifesto, if you like, his reading in the Synagogue in Nazareth, a passage from Isaiah. He took up the scroll and in the words he read one thought was of  recovery of sight to the blind,
Recovery of sight to the blind is one of his works, is part of his mission. It is small wonder he has the disciples, us, ponder the activity of the blind. And have us consider the possibility that we are blind, perhaps. He heals those who are physically blind, of course, but here he may be having us wonder about something different. It seems to be an aspect of life as a disciple to be a guide, a guide to others. An encourager, perhaps of those who journey with us in the life of faith, a welcomer to those who might tentatively walk through the doors of our cathedral for the first time. Journeyers together at times when world events leave us utterly shattered.

Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? He says.

We can smile at this. Of course, both may fall into a pit. And wonder, if we are not a little blind. And allow ourselves to worry a little about what this means for our interactions with others.

The theme of blindness continues in the second parable.

Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 

Are we like this? Gazing on others, almost reassured by their faults. Failing to reflect on ourselves and our failings. Rarely wondering if we see clearly enough to judge another. Looking with judgement rather than compassion. What does Jesus mean when he tells us to take the logs out of our own eyes before we take the speck out of our neighbours’ eyes? How can we take the log out of our eye if we cannot see?

We are trapped, you see, trapped by the parable. Which is just how Jesus would have us. Ironically, it helps us see that we can’t see. We cannot help ourselves, reflect on ourselves, let alone anyone else. And if we allow the muddle of this to stay for a little while…If we admit our tendency to see others’ faults and rarely our own, if we sit with this …We might turn and look into the eyes of the one who tells the parable. We might look into the eyes of the one who sees us so clearly and longs to give us our sight. We might confess this to him. And he might wash our blind eyes and set us free.

Jesus then turns his attention to nature:

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit.

We may not be puzzled by these words but Jesus quickly places them alongside us and our identity, which he says is found in our hearts. We might find ourselves quickly, worriedly, wondering, are our deeds good, are they evil? Is our heart good, is it evil? True a good tree produces good fruit. Have we seen things this way? That our failures may be connected to the heart of us, our essence. That our good deeds may find their origin in our hearts. We are rarely all good or all evil of course. Usually we are, again, a muddle of things. A little better some days than others. Sometimes regretfully flawed. Sometimes mercifully driven by the good. Jesus seems to have us wonder about the heart of us and only in sitting with him in his clear, loving, forgiving presence would we dare do this. Would we let him see our hearts, allow him to let us glimpse who we are.

Finally in the fourth parable we are given an image of a builder.

‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 

Before the parable we hear what Jesus longs for – that his disciples come to him, hear his words and act on them.

What does that look like … one who when building a house, digs a deep foundation upon a rock. This takes time, takes wisdom, takes care. And what is the result of such a builder building such a house? The spiritual writer John Shea puts it this way:

 “Spiritual development entails hearing, understanding and acting. A question that would naturally arise for the disciples would be: if we hear, understand and act on what you say, what will we become? Jesus answers this question in a startling way. They will become flood proof. Raging rivers symbolize both the vicissitudes of life and the dark, sinister forces that seek to destroy human life. What Jesus offers is a foundation that can withstand those attacks. …Jesus the teacher wants disciples who can act and survive in a dangerous world.”[1]

They will become flood proof. …

What does this mean, that we might be flood proof in the midst of the raging rivers that we see? How do we respond? How do we pray?

Jesus stands alongside us, as he stood in his human life, alongside those around him in all the struggles of human life, family life, community life, the life of his country. Stands alongside us, even dying at the hands of human violence. Perhaps this is how we pray. Standing alongside those suffering now in the Ukraine and also, in many cases, those in Russia, protesting against this war.

Perhaps, we let go of the endless news stories and the analysis of these events for a little while and we allow just one story to touch us. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable as those in the story are vulnerable. Perhaps we imagine ourselves praying in front of our cathedral, like the old woman in Kyiv. Perhaps we imagine ourselves a parent of one of the schoolchildren in Druzhkivka, sitting like parcels on a supermarket shelf. Perhaps we hear the story of one soldier who has died and we remember that soldier and those who love him. Perhaps that is what Jesus is saying. That we sit at the foot of his cross and pray, human beings caring about human beings, grieving as one can only grieve in a time of war, crying at the utter waste of it, the loss of it, the violence of it, longing that Jesus might bring peace, begging him to heal the human blindness that brings about these things, knowing that, in the midst of this blindness, is our own.

[1] John Shea The Relentless Widow p55.