Bear Fruits Worthy of Repentance

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for this service: Luke 3.7-18

Yesterday in this church we held the service for those bereaved by homicide. To prepare for this service I read a BBC report entitled London Homicides, the Victims of 2018. The report lists those killed through murder or manslaughter in the last year in London alone, and in many gives photos of those killed. The report is simply devastating. It is overwhelmingly tragic to read this list- pages and pages of names with short descriptions of their lives all from this city. In London alone from 1st January until 11th December there are 130 homicides in London. Of these 130, 74 of them were fatal stabbings and 14 were shootings. Many of these people were teenagers or in their 20s with their whole lives ahead of them. What is so heart- breaking is to see their photos. Pictures that you would normally have on your mantel piece of those you love- sons, daughters, friends, many looking cool ready for a night out and smiling at the camera before the event that ended their lives and caused unimaginable suffering and grief to their family and friends.

For most people thankfully- these are just statistics. But for those of us in this church yesterday they were not statistics, for each one of us had come to remember a loved one whose life had been violently taken away forever.  It was so overwhelming that I felt I had to speak about it today. This violence is not just the terrible violence done to the individual who dies in such tragic circumstances. It is also the violence done to all those whose lives will be changed forever- the parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, partners, friends, loved ones, whole communities, who knew them or become the location for these tragic acts. And as one woman said to me as she came out of the church. “At least I can grieve for a son who died, how much worse to be the parent of a young perpetrator will waste his life in prison bringing grief and shame upon his whole family.” A moment of recklessness and a life time of spiralling suffering for so many.

I just want you to imagine for a moment the journey of grief and trauma that those bereaved by this evil of violence often go through.

  • The initial terrifying shock of hearing the news and praying that it is not true, or that somehow you are dreaming and that you will wake up from this and your loved one will return. That you can turn back time.
  • The initial trauma in the spotlight when everyone is wanting to find out what happened and you feel exposed and so full of fear and grief
  • But then the dumbness and the feeling that you will never surface or breath freely or feel happy again.
  • And then that sense of survivor’s guilt- why them not me? And the endless thoughts that keep circulating could we have done something that would have stopped this happening. If only, if only, if only.
  • And then the feelings of anger towards not only the perpetrator but also others who we thought we could trust but seem to let us down perhaps the police, or the courts, or the community, or the intrusive media, or the politicians, or the friends you thought you had but disappear.
  • Then the sense of loneliness and alienation that this violence brings deep within you. The feeling that no one can really talk to you about it or ever really understand.
  • And the deep desire to defend your loved one from other peoples’ projections, as though being killed was not enough but in some way it was their own fault- that’s one of the hardest things to deal with.
  • And the trial where it often seems that you are the one on trial.
  • And the years and the years of living with this and wondering what might have been but always that empty space- that longing

So, what is it that can stand against these things? What is it that God offers? What is the straight path of the Lord when trapped in the labyrinths of suffering when nothing seems straight? What is the Gospel for us today? Well quite simply it’s a call to a baptism by fire. To turn away from evil and to turn to Christ. A call not to mirror the violence done to us but to conversion- the rebirth of generosity, kindness, honesty and integrity. But for those of us here yesterday what could that possibly mean?

  • It is above all love. This may sound trite but it is also true. Love cannot be defeated or overcome. Even though those we love may be parted from us no one can ever take that love away and it will be with us each day of our lives calling us to live not only our own lives but lives worthy also of the one who has died. We have to live out their love, and out of their love- and live as they would want us to live. It is that love that lives on and not the violence of the perpetrator.
  • It is also a call to struggle for a greater justice: Justice for victims, many of them people of colour but also justice of hope and opportunity for many of our young people living in deprived parts of our city.
  • This conversion is also a compassion born often in a wounded heart. An ability to listen and to hear. As I looked round the church yesterday, I realised how many of those there had committed their lives in some way after the tragedy to living better lives for others, finding ways to redeem the enormity of other people’s suffering.

-Sandra Sullivan who began this service here at St Martin’s 24 years ago and Justice for Victims.

Anne Oakes Odger who founded Knife Crime. Org and goes into schools and addresses youth groups to warn them of the dangers.

Marie Ellis who founded SAMM National- Support after Murder and Manslaughter offering support, understanding  and advice and help to those bereaved.

  • A new relationship with God- dying with Christ, resurrected with Christ- the wounds becoming signs of love for the world
  • A new community is born in solidarity with others.
  • Healing -the journey of a lifetime- courage, gentleness, perseverance, strength, determination. In fact the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

What has all this got to do with this Gospel of ours today. Well I think it’s got everything to do with it. We often think of John the Baptist as a kind of wild prophet of the past. Dressed in his camel’s hair and shouting at the people to repent. Someone who reminds us more of one of those fire and brimstone eccentrics with bill boards rather than a prophet we should take seriously in the twenty first century. But what if John the Baptist is not just addressing the past, he is also addressing our society, our injustices, our present-day hypocrisies, addressing us! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” I wonder if we really think about it, if these words are actually so out of place – in a capital city where I have just described 130 people have died through homicide in the last year 74 of them stabbed, many of them young kids- or another huge injustice- the number of people sleeping rough on our streets, you can’t have failed to notice it. Those sleeping rough seem to be filling shop fronts and doorways in Westminster at night. A number that has doubled in the last few years despite our best efforts. Or the number of migrants trapped in destitution not allowed to work to work, and with no access to benefits, unable to move forward or go back, many of them have been in the UK for years. Its shameful in a city of this wealth. Or as Rowan Williams so prophetically pointed out as Chair of Christian Aid last week how can we ignore that in his words “our official policies are helping to support large scale slaughter and long-term misery elsewhere in the world. In Yemen, he writes: “14 million people are on the edge of famine as a result of a war: a war in which the UK government is complicit through its sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, sales which have increased two thirds since 2016 and now account for half of British major arms exports.”

“Bear fruits worthy of Repentance John the Baptist challenges the leaders of his time. He lashes out at their hypocrisy, their duplicity and corruption. They cannot and will not escape God’s judgment. Don’t think you have a superior right to others or special privilege with God. We will be judged by the way we live our lives he says. “What must we do?”- the crowds ask John the Baptist. In response John’s answer may seem remarkably humble, even common place- it’s actually about the way we respect and treat our neighbour. He says if you have two coats share with anyone who has none. If you have food do the same. Then he calls tax collectors to a new honesty and soldiers to a new integrity. One can almost hear the laughter and baying in the House of Commons- how can you confront the duplicity, corruption violence of our world with such compassionate actions. A bit like the congregation yesterday trying to stop murder through their kindness. Ofcourse in many ways they can’t but also in many ways it’s the only way that can. John the Baptist does not stop there he speaks of a Messiah, one who is coming to set free, one who is coming to truly liberate, one who will baptise the people with the Holy Spirit and fire.

In the next few weeks you will hear a lot about peace on earth and good will towards all as we are enticed to buy more Christmas goodies. But if that peace and good will is to mean anything perhaps we also need to listen to John the Baptist: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Nearly 70 million people in the world are displaced because of violent conflict and poverty and the number is rising. In our country the last week, whatever your political persuasion, party, or belief, the political life and governance of this nation has not been edifying. What we have seen in our national soap opera is a lack of any kind of moral compass- where loyalty or faithfulness, or respect for neighbour, or working together for a common good- the things that ultimately make a nation worth believing in seem to have fallen apart and every alternative in both major political parties seems riven with division.  So much so that most of us are left wondering who or what we can believe in.

For Christians the coming of Jesus into the world spells the beginning of a new awareness of human possibility and dignity. A rebirth, a baptism in God’s Holy Spirit. It is an exhilarating promise but it is not simply about comfort and joy but about confronting violence, and the depth of suffering caused by poverty, war and all that perpetuates injustice and denies hope and opportunity. There is a tendency in all of us to keep on playing the violins while the titanic sinks. John the Baptist calls us to wake up. Repentance is actually a call that must confront us all- the way we live our lives, the choices we make, the injustices we choose to ignore. Our own complicity, perhaps not deliberate but nevertheless real in cycles that have led to huge inequalities, hypocrisies and divisions. It should not be easy listening to hear the words of John the Baptist. He is confronting his time. But he is also confronting ours.

The one who is to come has “a winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” Not easy words to hear when we are more used to singing of the wideness of God’s mercy but perhaps sometimes in a city and nation where it is easy to take privilege for granted we also need to hear this call to repentance and transformation.