Sermon for Evensong on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 16th March 2014
Luke 14: ‘For which of you … counteth the cost?’

I’ve never really got this passage. On the one hand, Jesus tells his disciples that they must turn their backs on family and friends, must give up everything, if they are to become his disciples, his students.

On the other, He asks some rhetorical questions about making prudent choices, making sure you have sufficient building materials before starting to build; weighing up the relative numbers of opposing armies before launching an attack.

On the first hand, Jesus seems to be calling for reckless abandon on the part of his followers. Cast off the trappings of life. Have faith.

On the other, He says, everyone figures out the odds before committing themselves. Is it really worth doing, to become a disciple of Jesus? What are the pros and cons?

These two points of view can’t both be true. Conventionally, scholars reconcile the apparent contradiction – reckless abandon versus figuring the odds before acting – by saying that this is about the seriousness of the commitment needed in order to become Jesus’ disciple. I’m not sure that’s right.

Lent is supposed to be a time of reflection and self-examination, reflecting the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, during which time He was tempted by the Devil. Traditionally we have made this into a time of abstinence and fasting, a time of self-denial. So people typically give up alcohol and chocolate as a sign that they are marking Lent, that they are part of the group that is marking Lent, that is, the Christian church. Let’s say that their reflection and self-examination correspond with being Jesus’ sensible builders, figuring out the odds.

But let’s face it, the abstinence, the keeping off chocolate – unless you are Revd Keith Hebden, the vicar in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, who is going to take no food for 40 days and nights in order to support End Hunger Now – whatever you do, will be relatively trivial.

Not but what I hope that you will, for example, support the Bishop’s Lent Call, for which there is a flyer at the back of the church on your way out, which puts a price on various things that you might do in the normal course of your life, so that, rather like a swear box, you will pay a little penalty for doing a particular thing, like taking more than 2½ minutes to have your shower in the morning, or having an alcoholic drink: I’m not knocking any of this.

I think that anything, which makes you reflect, is a good thing. But I have experienced something in the last few days which has made me realise what it is to search my inner being in a way which I have never had to before. I have been attending court for the last week, to support a friend of mine who is on trial.

I got to the end of the third day of the trial, and as I drove home, my mind started to fill with all sorts of testing thoughts. I thought about the testing time which Jesus himself suffered: and I slowly began to realise what a real, serious, testing period could involve.

Obviously I can’t tell you in any great detail about the court case, which, incidentally, is still going on. It is a re-trial. The whole trial has taken place before, but the jury was unable to agree. So the prosecutors decided that they would do it all over again. Three months later, a new jury was empanelled, the new hearing began, and the evidence was starting to be set out all over again.

But after three days, three days of the retrial, one of the jurors called in sick. The rules are that they are supposed to get a doctor’s note to justify their absence, or else such absence becomes a criminal offence in itself. Well, by the next day the juror hadn’t turned up, and the police had been round to his house to find him, but he had disappeared. No doctor’s certificate had arrived.

Both sides don’t want less than a full jury, so it looks as though there is going to be a third trial. What I was reflecting on, as I drove back from the court, was how all the various people involved in the case must have been feeling. My friend, who is on trial, is under terrible stress. He maintains that he did not do what he’s accused of. There is a witness who is effectively accusing him of something which, if it is proved to have happened, would amount to a very serious crime, for which he could be sent to jail for several years. There is apparently evidence on both sides.

Now I don’t know about you, but I quite enjoy policier stuff on the TV. The whole emphasis is on the thrill of the chase. Whether we’re watching Wallander or Dixon of Dock Green, the idea is that the policeman is out to catch criminals and have them locked away when they have been convicted in court. You can thoroughly enter into this and enjoy it. My favourite detective at the moment is Montalbano. Montalbano is a detective in Sicily. He has the most beautiful flat, which is on the beach. In the opening sequences we see him enjoying a swim before he goes to work. Various things happen, sometimes involving the Mafia, and sometimes even involving murders. Montalbano’s method of working always involves lunch, in a congenial trattoria where he’s extremely well-known, and where he lunches people who might be helpful in the context of his current case. Strangely enough, such people are always very good-looking girls.

It’s great viewing on a Sunday evening after Evensong. But having been in the court this week, it certainly occurs to me that real crimes, and real criminal law, aren’t like that. It’s not fun. The court has to establish the facts, then to establish if those facts mean that any law has been broken, and then to establish whether the person in the dock did the things which amounted to the breach of the law: and if so, the right penalty, as prescribed by law, has to be handed down.

So far, so uncontroversial. And frankly, so unconnected with our comfortable lives here. Some of us may have done some prison visiting, and some of us may have gone to one of those Grange Park Opera productions performed in prisons around the country. But what would you feel like, if you were watching your barrister and the prosecuting barrister fighting it out in front of the jury? And knowing that, if it goes the wrong way, you will end up for several years in jail?

What does it feel like for my friend? He’s a professional person. He went to a good university. He had a professional job. Something has gone terribly wrong. He is ruined. He is already ruined, even before the verdict, just by being in court on trial. His wife has left him. But he didn’t do it.

But will the jury believe him? Will the jury weigh up the evidence, with the help of the barristers on each side and with the help of the judge, who will give directions? What happens if he’s acquitted? There are still those people who accused him. They’re still going to be out there.

What if he goes to jail? Where will he end up? Will any of his friends be able to come and see him easily? What about those long periods when his friends can’t make it? He has no family any more. It’s not like hospital visiting, just down the road. For whatever reason, people are not going to do it so easily.

I know he’s a Christian. He prays every night, and he asks me to pray for him. And I do. And then I find all these thoughts come crowding in. What if the jury finds him guilty? What if he does go to jail? What am I supposed to feel if they find him guilty of the things he’s accused of? Then, on the face of things, he would be a terrible criminal. Certainly the rest of the world will think that.

These are my reflections, my trials in the wilderness. Would I choose that fight? How strong are the forces ranged against my friend in the court? I’m figuring out the odds.

And that sort of reflection, that sort of analysis, doesn’t help. When I came back from the court, full of conflicting thoughts and emotions, deep, rational thoughts, thoughts fit for Lent, even – they didn’t help.

But if I thought in the way Jesus started off arguing here, just dropping everything and falling in behind Him; getting rid of all the baggage – then what? I think that is the clue, that is the way to look at what Jesus was saying. Not that one should weigh up carefully the cost/benefit of being a disciple, and then make a reasoned commitment: not that. Nothing wrong with figuring things out – but this is different. This is in a different league. What Jesus is looking for is commitment, commitment untrammelled by the baggage of life.

So when I worry about my friend facing his trial in court, I can reflect all I can, but it won’t get me anywhere. ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?’ Jesus asked, in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matt. 6:27). What will happen, will happen. What Jesus is saying, is raising things to a higher plane. Whatever happens, proved innocent or proved guilty, my friend is still my friend. I can hate the sin – if there is one – but love the sinner. We are all sinners. But Jesus shows that, if we are prepared to make a commitment, to take up a cross and follow him: to be reckless, reckless about the cost – then He will be there.

Even in that court this week, in the context of serious crime, God was there. He gives us reason to hope. He will give my friend reason to hope, whichever way it goes for him. Let us today remember, as part of our Lenten observance, those people who are being tested, tested in a much tougher way than just giving up chocolate. Where they are concerned, let us pray St Ignatius Loyola’s prayer: ‘Teach us, good Lord, …. to give, and not to count the cost’. [St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)]

PS – this story has a happy ending. My friend was acquitted of all charges.

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