A sermon offered by The Reverend Ann Edwards
20 March 2022 | St Mark’s The Gap
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Have you heard it said that when friends pray, you are under the umbrella of God’s protection?
It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it – reassuring, like gathering under the wings of God the mother hen. And this idea does come from Psalm 91, which we’ve heard about the last two weeks, an image Jesus used, and it is a comfort indeed.
Somewhere along the line, we morphed into thinking the work was done by prayer itself. But do we extend and hold a God-given umbrella by prayer? When we’re hit by the inevitable storm, does God still love us? Assault, betrayal, financial control, illness, elder abuse, war, famine, pandemics… Did we just not pray enough? Were we not faithful enough? Were we worse sinners? Today, we hear Jesus say, no. No. This is really important, because if we think God plays favourites in that way, we stop identifying with those suffering, and put them over “there”, with the “worse sinners”. This is so easy to do, unintentionally.
Two years ago, my mother was unwell at Christmas – I wanted to take her to hospital, but she was sure it was an infection that would settle with antibiotics. She stubbornly went to her work at Greenslopes Hospital on Boxing Day (yes, that streak runs in the family) and was sent to emergency and then admitted. My friends, my church family, mum’s friends rallied and prayed, and she deteriorated sharply. Eventually, mum received a provisional diagnosis of an aggressive lymphoma. We knew it would end her life, but we had time – perhaps 12 months. Or so we thought. She didn’t respond to treatment, and died that week with her sister and I by her bedside. Her oncologist, and work colleague, called me later in that week when the histology was returned, clearly reeling himself, and was open in not knowing why she had so much pain and had not responded to the treatment that should have given her time.
I had some friends over the following week. A dear friend, who is as kind and thoughtful as anyone I know, was late and missed the conversation about my mother. She came with her own news – that her family member, who had been diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma, had their diagnosis downgraded that week, and would not even need treatment, but would just need to be monitored. A miracle. Thank you for praying, she said to us. Thank God, she said, for the cover of prayer. She didn’t know how people could live without it.
The cover of prayer. The ultimate in group. Somehow, we can be led into believing that it is our huddling and cowering that protects us, rather than the grace of the God, who extends divine protective wings over us. That we create the prayer cover and cling to it for dear life.
I’m grateful that I had been led to do some hard work before that time. As a suffering teenager, I had once believed that my suffering was my fault, unanswered prayers were the confirmation, and I was never going to be good enough for God. I wasn’t going to make it. I was a lost cause. God never turned from me but kept calling me back. It was hard work to unravel my idea of a God that had an ingroup and would cut you loose for failing – who would turn from you – until I came to realise that God loved me and honoured even my faltering first steps back to the way Jesus paved. All I had to do was turn to God. That’s repentance.
In our text, Jesus was presented with the timeless unspoken question – how did this atrocity happen? Why did these people suffer like this? Where is God? Jesus’s answer and parable in response didn’t come to me at the time, but what a comfort it would have been.
Was my mother, and my family, worse sinners because we suffered in that way? No, says Jesus. No. Those who looked on in dismay – our story was their story too. Being overly comfortable can lead us to convince ourselves comfort is how it’s meant to be, and to ignore, diminish, or rationalise the injustice all around us. Thinking that suffering belongs to others, and is not ours to experience, or to share, is a trap. Taking comfort in our own control, our own ability to protect ourselves and our family leads us away from the unity to which we’re called. Jesus tells us that we are in our world, in our current time, and we are not separate from the brokenness and heartache around us. We are all in need for repentance – to purposefully turn to God, to live with integrity, value equity, and to make sure the suffering, poor and marginalised are not left behind, but are brought into our family.
This is such a relevant parable to our circumstances. The Galileans weren’t different from you, said Jesus. They are not “over there”, they didn’t earn their fate, they weren’t forgotten by God. And the tower that fell in Jerusalem, a freak of engineering or nature, was also not something that happens to “other people”. Their fate is our fate. Their time is limited and unpredictable like our own. This isn’t something that happens to “other people”. It happens to our people, it happens to God’s people, and it calls us to action.
We will all perish if we don’t turn to God – even if we’re personally spared suffering by the fortune of our birthplace or circumstances. Jesus wasn’t promising an end to dangerous times, but affirmed the times were uncertain and dangerous. They still are. We’re called to accept and identify with the reality of our world, and to not waste a moment.
So, do we bring suffering to God in prayer – yes, yes we do. And we know in Luke that Jesus retreated to God in prayer. Does God hold us in the terrible mess of this world, yes, without a doubt. Is there comfort under those strong yet feathery wings? Yes, and we draw each other into that comfort. Are there times of miracles and providence, of guidance and direction – I think there are. When people pray together, and when many people pray, I don’t understand how the Holy Spirit moves, but it happens. We’re drawn together, drawn to good, drawn to God, and we shelter together under those wings, without any need to hold up a cover in our own prayerful power.
We’re sheltered in God together. My fate is not separate from your fate. The suffering should never feel alone. We can’t individually hold the suffering of the world, but together in prayer, as the body of Christ, we can bring it all to God.
There is a limited time in our lives. We can’t measure our worth or righteousness by our comfort or good fortune. God has no time for that. We’re not protected by the comforts we have, in fact, those comforts can distract us from seeing where God might have us go. The tree that doesn’t fruit is very comfortable in its well-maintained grounds. Perhaps it doesn’t bother with the energy of making fruit? Perhaps it needs more to achieve the same result as other trees? But should it deplete the soil when it doesn’t contribute to the work of the orchard?
But yet, it doesn’t take much for the gardener to convince the owner to give the tree more time. One more year, and I’ll tend to the tree, let’s see what happens then.
As always, with Jesus’s parables, there’s so much to reflect upon. Perhaps like the tree, we can be a little too comfortable in our rich soil, to the neglect of the poor and marginalised, to the neglect in honouring the one who plants us for purpose. Perhaps we can identify with the gardener, who will persevere with someone falling behind and tend to them with more care so that they might grow for God. And finally, can we realise that God has provided everything we need – the fertile soil and caring gardener – to continue the work of Christ in this world.
And most of all – Jesus reminds us our time on Earth is limited. Just as his was. Each year is a precious gift.
My mother had been badly hurt by people in the church and dismissed God as a result. Mum felt far from God, yet both of her children, my brother and I, embraced Jesus in our lives. As my aunt and I stood by her bedside, I leaned over and said to my mother that I know the church had hurt her, but that I also knew she was proud of me, and praying for her was the one thing I could do for her now. We prayed those familiar words from our prayerbook, the Ministry for the Dying, and as we finished, a tear slid from my mother’s eye down her cheek.
God wants us all to flourish, to flourish together, and so there’s no time to waste in getting to work in God’s mission. And it’s never, ever too late to start.
In the name of Christ,