A Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Lent by Ms Leslie Spatt
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Something we all experience and participate in with differing degrees of regularity; some of us more than others, is described by a tiny word beginning with ‘S’. And no, it’s not the supposedly naughty word which certain types of tele-evangelists and fundamentalist preachers use in abundance. The ‘S’ word here is, of course, SIN.
Something we all experience and participate in with differing degrees of regularity; some of us more than others, is described by a somewhat longer word beginning with ‘S’. Suffering. And there’s been an abundance of that in the past year.
Something we all experience and welcome when it appears in our lives, very possibly an antidote to, but usually in shorter supply than the first two, is hope. Hope – which can help us deal with sin and enable us to endure suffering.
And where and how, we might ask, are these three things in the vast mystery which is God? Are all three tied up with belief in God? What does God do when we sin, does God allow or even create suffering, and is it God who gives us hope? The mystery of God isn’t something to be solved, like a puzzle or an Agatha Christie story; we don’t have to understand any of this, nor do we need to. All three are very real for us but the reason why they exist at all is hidden within a God who is unknowable, except …..how God is reflected in and revealed through Jesus.
Sin is, of course, a difficult and controversial topic. My own belief is that God creates us in love, but we’re born into the universal human condition of being alienated from God, rather than being born as inherently sinful. As human beings, throughout our lives we can continue to distance ourselves from God by our actions and the choices we make. Sin, like breathing, is an unavoidable consequence of being human. It’s something we do because of what we are. Pope Francis’ suggested translation of the Lord’s Prayer ‘Do not let us fall into temptation but deliver us from evil’ is far better than ‘lead us not into temptation’, as though God is showing us the way to sin. We don’t need God to show us, we’re smart enough to find out how to do that for ourselves. What we actually want is rescuing.
So, what is sin – idolatry, immorality, testing God, complaining – desiring evil as St Paul would define it ? Apart from some very obvious things like murder, adultery or theft, how would any of us give a precise rigid definition of ‘sin’? Maybe the start of an explanation could be – sin is what we know to be wrong. If we’re fortunate enough to be taught the values of what’s right or wrong then, in theory, it should be easy to know when we’re going off course; something chews at our consciences until we acknowledge and try to correct it. Sin can be as much a pattern of behaviour as it is shopping lists of individual items of commission or omission. Possibly the mystery is that God will always be there to forgive sins and let us try again however badly we behave. We just can’t understand how this can be so – especially if we’re convinced we can’t forgive ourselves. But we don’t have to be perfect before we can look for God; God finds us first and wraps us up in compassion even if we don’t think we deserve it.
Suffering is something different. The mystery of suffering involves many different facets. It can be used to inspire compassion and help, or negatively to frighten or punish, We can feel it as a consequence of knowing we’ve sinned – punishment given for guilt – but it’s usually the result of something done to us, or experienced by us.. Perhaps we’re having uncontrollable pain – that’s physical suffering. Or we’re seeing someone or something else tormented with pain, sorrow or sadness and we feel helpless – that can be psychological suffering. Watching a parent disintegrate because of dementia or terminal cancer may cause us more suffering than the parent. And there’s spiritual suffering when we think we’ve lost faith in a God who doesn’t seem to be there.
The God-dimension in suffering frequently has people yelling at God and saying ‘why are you allowing this to happen, why don’t you do something about it if you’re supposed to love and care for everyone??’ Why does one person get handed a heaping plate of suffering while others get none? It doesn’t seem fair. The idea of a God arbitrarily handing out misery isn’t fair. Prayer seems pointless when the pain, sorrow, helplessness and awfulness of the situation goes on and on. But the mystery of God in suffering could be that God is right there alongside us in our pain and horrible situations. That’s the point of Jesus – God living in Jesus experiences everything human beings go through; good, bad, pain, joy and everything else. We live through suffering, but know, as St Paul says: ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’ Just as with sin, God find us and holds us.
The way forward is hope. Hope is the faith that there is an escape from both sin and suffering. Hope is what we cling onto, assurance that things will get better or at least become bearable, that we’ll never slide to the very bottom of the black pit. As the Psalmist says, O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. All my hope in God is founded, as the hymn says.
And God gives us hope by offering a pathway to life in all its fulness. Jesus shows us that pathway. We can have our sins forgiven, know that the strength to cope with suffering is in remembering that God travels alongside us. It isn’t a promise that we’ll never be tested but it is a promise that we will never be overcome. As Julian of Norwich says – ‘We are kept all as securely in Love in woe as in wellbeing, by the Goodness of God.’ With hope, we’ll get through all sorts of things; the mystery of hope is that we don’t know how it might work, but have to leave it to God.
We commit sin, experience suffering and hold onto hope. All open to discussion about what they mean, and why the first two are found in a creation made by a supposedly good, benevolent and loving Creator. All of them are mysteries because we know they exist but not why. Neither do we know how the mystery which is God might use them to shape our relationships with each other and God’s self. I’m willing to bet that God has figured it out. But I’m happy to let God surprise me.
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