Canon Treasurer - Revd Cannon Leanne Roberts
Isaiah 5.1-7; Luke 20.9-19
I feel very honoured to be preaching during this Holy Week here at the Cathedral
It is rare and wonderful – and a little daunting – to have the opportunity to develop some thinking across no fewer than ten homilies, and to do so in a place like this. So, at this beginning of our journey through Holy Week, thank you for the chance to do this. I hope some of my thinking might land with some of you, and resonate with some of those areas of your feelings and experience that look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to make sense of your own living.
My theme for this week is ‘The Kingdom is Now: fear and the unlived life’, and I thought that some unpacking of this title in this first homily might be helpful in setting out my stall, so to speak, for the week.
The Christian faith speaks compellingly to our experiences, whether internal or external, metaphorical or concrete, of life, and also death. It teaches us that death is not the end, and there is a different kind of life available to us which is eternal.
But there is a danger, I believe, in thinking that, whatever we suffer now, there will be respite in the life to come. While this brings great hope and solace, which are not to be disparaged or dismissed, it can – understandably – lead to a way of being which puts joy and peace and freedom on hold; a sense of ‘not now, perhaps, but then’, and ‘if I can just sit tight and get through this then – eventually, I know not how or when – everything will be ok in the afterlife’.
I believe, passionately, that the Kingdom of God is now. Right now, whatever we’re experiencing, however we’re feeling, whatever pain or grief or despair we might be carrying. This is personal and individual, but also communal, global. We are all painfully aware of the struggles in our world at the moment, both the local issues of poverty and the gnawing anxiety around the steep cost of living we’re witnessing, and also the global horror of war in Ukraine - which although, rightly, dominates our news at this time, should never lead us to forget the struggles and hardships elsewhere in our world which are very real, and ongoing.
So how are we to believe that the Kingdom of God is now, let alone live as those flourishing in such a Kingdom?
The second half of my title is ‘fear and the unlived life’. Although, arguably, there is much to be afraid of at the moment, I believe that it is fear that stops us being fully alive. This fear takes many forms; is so deeply rooted as to be sometimes indetectable; is defended against by other habits and actions which, despite our longing to feel more alive, only sink us deeper into patterns which seem to keep us stuck in unfulfilled longings, painful feelings, and destructive behaviour.
Our reading from Isaiah this afternoon has something to say to us about this. It begins:
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
The vineyard is planted by our creator God. It is fertile, and it is in each of us, whether we are aware of it at any given time or not. It has been prepared – cleared, planted – and we are not just left to it – God has remained in the midst of us, a watch-tower to guard and keep us safe. So far, so good: what could possibly go wrong? Here is the fertile, protected, lovingly created vineyard/kingdom we have been promised. And yet: it yields wild grapes. Still grapes, mind you; still fruitful; even with all our efforts to ignore what we’ve been given, or our dissatisfaction with it, we are not capable of destroying God’s good gifts, and his loving care of us. None of us is capable of that, however hard we try, however parched we are, however lost we feel. But sometimes, we yield sour grapes.
Fruit less succulent, less tended, less useful to ourselves and others in living a full life, the life that has always been intended for us. The unlived life that led us to require God to go to the cross in order to show us what a fully lived life truly looks like; one that is prepared to die to self in order to life joyfully, creatively, and unafraid.
Instead, we remain hedged in, constrained, afraid of death and afraid of feeling afraid. The present moment, then, becomes a nothing that is endured, or ignored, or an inconsequential second, day, month, year that is full of loss, which is what is born of the fear of loss. This fear that led us, when confronted with love itself in human form, to ignore, betray, kill him so that we would not be confronted with our fear, and the necessity of dying in order to live authentically in each present moment.
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher, writes:
“Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?”
How can we lose what we don’t have? In becoming clear what we don’t have, we are freed to realize what we do possess, in each and every moment: the whole Kingdom of God, ready to be realized and accepted and lived in each one of us.
Rumi, the C13th mystic and poet, believed we must ‘gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being’.
This journey on which we have set out is, then, a love-song; a love-song from God to us, his beloved; and a love-song from us to one another and to the God who created us in love, and for love.
The Kingdom is now: so let us consider, together, how we might resist the fear that keeps us only half-alive; let us not defend ourselves with the habits, thoughts, and feelings that stop us being fruitful: which is, generous, free, content – in short, loving. Let us see the now as the gift, the love-song it truly is.
And over these coming days, let us walk together, attentive to how our story of salvation gives us what we need to set our fear aside and live as those who inhabit the glorious Kingdom of God.