Sermon for Lent 3, Sunday, February 28 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 55:1-9; Ps 63:1-8; 1 Cor 10:1-13; Lk 13:1-9
W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” written on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, is one of his most famous and most powerful poems; and, it is, above all, remembered for one line at the end of the second-to-last verse. This is that verse:
All I have is a voiceTo undo the folded lie,The romantic lie in the brainOf the sensual man-in-the-streetAnd the lie of AuthorityWhose buildings grope the sky:There is no such thing as the StateAnd no one exists alone;Hunger allows no choiceTo the citizen or the police;We must love one another or die.
The interesting thing is that Auden came very rapidly to hate that poem, and particularly that line. Mostly because, as he pointed out, it is strictly untrue — we are in fact going to die anyway, whether we love one another or not. In 1943, it appeared in an anthology without that verse. For the next twelve years he refused to let it be reprinted at all, and then in 1955 it appeared in another anthology with the line in question reading, “We must love one another and die.”
No one, of course, remembers that version. It is no doubt, on some level, truer. But it sounds less true.
The reason I begin today with this bit of somewhat obscure literary history is that Jesus, in the earlier part of today’s gospel reading, seems to be working around a similar problem with the limits of language. We must repent or die. Except, we will in any case die, and Jesus makes it quite clear that death is not something God inflicts only on the unrepentant, or on particularly spectacular sinners; it is a universal fact of human existence. Whether at the hands of political power or by the chance collapse of buildings, whether by age or illness, hunger or abuse or accident, we will die. Neither love nor repentance can preserve us from that.
It is precisely our inability to accept this reality which often prevents us from loving each other well, which ties us up into knots of fear and self-protection, as we labour for all the shiny things that will never really satisfy us, as we strive to make ourselves feel like we are immortal by hoarding all the goods, all the value, all the love. The love which we treat as a commodity, valuable because it is limited, which we can only have if others don’t. Call it the error bred in the bone or original sin, it has been named over and over.
Eastern Orthodox theology proposes that it is our mortality, and even more than that our deep, almost genetic, fear of our mortality, which is the root of all this brokenness and evil. The fear of erasure, the compulsion to preserve the individual biological entity at the cost of others. It is this from which Christ’s resurrection frees us, as the principle of life enters into death, and transforms death into the gateway to greater life. The martyrs know that they will die, but they are able to face down their fear, to escape from its control, and to act not out of self-protective terror but out of love. They are free, in the end, as we are hardly ever free.
So, thus far, Auden was right that his original line was a lie, and maybe even a dangerous one. And yet—repent or perish, love one another or die—it sounds true. I understand why Auden struggled with the line, and why Jesus’ argument about the Galileans and the tower is so hard to follow. There is something there, something the language is not saying quite correctly, but something which is real. There are many ways to die; and if death can ever be for us a gateway to greater life, there must first be something in us which is alive.
The verb translated here as “perish”, apolesthai, is a strong one, carrying overtones of a kind of existential destruction, exactly the erasure we most fear. And it is the erasure we find ourselves creating for ourselves by our insistence on tying ourselves up, as individuals and as societies, into self-protective knots of fear, by our refusal to turn. It is the erasure of life in advance of death.
That turning is not always easy. If life is a long training in letting go, releasing the death-grip of terror and self-protection, that can sometimes mean that it is also a long training in loss, in grief, in painful self-examination and renunciation, hard choices about how we live. But it is not only that; life also training in love, in growth, in being alive. We learn in our human relationships, by becoming more able to give, and perhaps even more by becoming vulnerable and honest enough to receive, human kindness and love in all its complexity. We learn in service and in prayer, in trying to be responsible to those close to us and those far away. So that there may be something in us which can be alive, which can enter into life eternally.
That gardener, if he really wants to the tree to bear fruit, will have to both feed it and prune it. Neither is enough alone. Both together may not be enough—that tree, like all mortal things, will not last forever. But then again, it may at the last moment produce fruit, it may not have been a barren tree. The stories of the Galileans, of the falling tower, point to urgency—we cannot put off our lives, we cannot wait until tomorrow to love or to repent, because there may be no tomorrow. At any moment a tower may fall, a vicious tyrant may lash out, and our last chance in this lifetime is over. And this is true enough. Yet the fig tree parable says—and this is also true—that God is patient. We do not, being mortal, have forever in this world; but Christ the gardener is in no hurry, will wait out our fruitless years and accept whatever little growth we are able to show.
It is the tension between the warning tone of Paul’s letter and the celebratory tone of the prophet. Paul telling us that the tree must be pruned, that our actions matter—and this is true, it is true now and in the framework of eternity, even if the precise picture of God which he draws here, brutally striking down large groups of people in gruesome ways for vaguely defined offenses, is not a very useful one, and is specifically contradicted by Jesus’ own words. And the prophet telling us that we will all be brought into the feast, that everyone who is thirsty may come to the water, that this promise sustains us, that the tree must be fed if it is to thrive—and this is true too, even as we must not use it to let ourselves out of our responsibilities to live rightly now, in this present moment. It is the tension between God’s unbreakable and everlasting covenant, the permanent invitation to every single being, and our own constrained and limited time in this world.
So we live in the gaps and the tensions, because we can do nothing else. In our own nights of uncertainty, our own times of dirty politics and cycles of violence, our struggles with our own confusions and desires. We love as we can, and fail as we must, and turn, and turn again; we live at the horizon of death, and the horizon of life. We know only that the gardener, the good gardener who does not wish to see any tree uprooted, will be in the garden on Easter morning, and will name us as the selves we truly are. And we will be given the chance, the one and only single eternal chance, to turn.