A sermon for the Third Week of Lent 2016 by Rev’d Matt Harbage, reflecting on Edward Burra’s painting ‘The pool of Bethesda’
I pray that I may speak faithfully of the One God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You may find the subject matter of this address difficult or uncomfortable this morning. My prayer is that we might find Jesus in even the hardest of circumstances amongst the suffering in the world today.
I’d like to reflect on the third painting from this year’s Lent Booklet which you should hopefully have sight of. It is a painting from the Methodist Modern Art Collection, drawn by Edward Burra, depicting Jesus healing people at the Pool of Bethesda in Jersualem.
We can all get sick. And I don’t just mean catching a nasty cold which puts us in bed for a few days. We can all, in a heartbeat, go from being healthy to being in intensive care; from being comfortable to being in anguish. From being joyful to shock, tears and sadness.
Sometimes it can be due to our own mistakes. Driving a little bit too quickly across a roundabout. Taking a step in the dark without looking.
Other times, it’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the 18 who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed. Jesus tells us it was by no fault of theirs that they died, they weren’t worse sinners than anyone else. Call it being part of a fallen world.
And sometimes, we suffer, or perish, because someone has decided to come against us. Although our painting is of a scene from Middle-Eastern history 2000 years ago, those grey faces could be a reminder to us of survivors of the Holocaust. Men and women wondering in a nightmare, unable to escape.
Or perhaps, those grey faces may remind us of the ordinary people going about their days in Hiroshima; one day to find the wind in the trees bringing with it a violence so terrible that their lives are permanently interrupted.
I hope not. For if this was a late summer scene from Hiroshima in 1945, Jesus would be soaking up radiation, and even those figures painted in colour, helping to bring people to Jesus, would be dying while they tried to bring aid
Suffering and pain, too deep for words. Some tragedies that happen in our world cannot be undone but we must stop risking our future, by repeating the evils of the past. Putting the current debate of whether the UK should create further nuclear weapons aside –
Indiscriminate killing, whether through the use of nuclear weapons or by a suicide vest is always a sin.
The season of Lent offers us a space to reflect on the suffering of the world. Both the tragedies out there – and painful experiences closer to home.
I think many of us struggle with guilt: we look at the TV and the refugee crisis and wonder, “Should I be doing more? But I cannot turn the tide.” Or perhaps we worry that we are desensitised – I do. I confess I sometimes catch myself thinking, “It’s yet more people suffering”. It is simply overwhelming.
As I reflect on the painting before us, I wonder if Jesus ever felt guilty.
Jesus only healed a small number of people when he was walking the earth. The need around him was so great, and yet, being fully human he could only be in one place at a time, and as we read the gospels, like us he got tired and needed rest.
Jesus reveals a God who knows our human condition: he knows what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by sin and suffering, and yet as human Jesus was limited in the help he could provide.
What’s more, Jesus also knew suffering and pain himself. He was betrayed, mocked, humiliated, and disposed of.
But Looking at the picture, we can see signs that the story doesn’t end there. As we know, for Jesus death was not the end. There is also the resurrection.
We see Jesus painted in colour; those he has helped in colour; and we see the two sky-lights, giving light to what would otherwise be a dark world. These are the signs of God at work in the suffering world. Jesus too offers us resurrection – colour and light – when we turn to him in repentance. One of my favourite sayings, adapted from words by author Finley Dunne, is that Jesus “comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable.”
When we get overly comfortable, and cease to think about our neighbours, Jesus is there to unsettle us. To shine a light on our sin and remind us that we are called to repent and love our neighbour. But for most of us, we are disturbed. Disturbed at the evil in the world. Disturbed at the size of the problem. Disturbed too at the problems at our own door and in our own lives.
When we struggle with these things, Jesus seeks to comfort us.
“Come to me, all who are weary and heavily laden and I will give you rest”
The pain in our world is not ours to bear alone. Rather, we must bring our suffering lives and suffering world before God in prayer. To cry out for healing. We sometimes talk about the church having a mission, but actually, God is on a mission and we are invited to take part.
Rather than save the world, we are to recognise that the world already has a saviour in Jesus Christ. Our role is to weep at suffering and sin, but also to notice what God is doing in our community, our country and in the world and celebrate and encourage those things.
Our role is also to join in with what God is doing around us, His mission, by loving our neighbours both near and far.
My prayer for you all, and myself, is that we would not be overwhelmed by the sin and suffering of the world, but instead, to remember that God is God, and come before our loving Father in prayer for his world.