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‘It was the hardest Lent, I have ever had to endure’ – The Revd Canon Richard Sewell

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Title: ‘It was the hardest Lent, I have ever had to endure’

Date: 14 April 2024, The Third Sunday of Easter

Preacher: The Revd Canon Richard Sewell, Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem

Readings: Luke 16:19-31


‘It was the hardest Lent, I have ever had to endure’

It was the hardest Lent, I have ever had to endure. Not because of the suffering of my penitence and Lent disciplines although of course I did those. It was hard because of the unrelenting pain of those in Gaza, suffering real hunger not because of fasting but because  they were being starved to death. It was a hard Holy Week but at least the mood and the seriousness of final days of Jesus matched our own mood of the suffering and violence of all the people of Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. Good Friday’s Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City was the perfect spiritual fit for our own sense of loss and near despair.

The day I was most wary of, most dreading, was Easter Day. How would we raise ourselves with Hallelujahs and Easter joy when on the ground in Gaza nothing had changed? Children, women and men were still dying in their hundreds from missiles, aid was still not getting through in sufficient quantities to prevent extreme hunger. Hostages were still held in underground tunnels. Our hearts were breaking and the celebrations of Easter seemed a far distant cry from that reality.

But when Easter Day dawned, we gained a glimpse of something to turn us around. At our service in St George’s Cathedral, we gathered, Palestinians and foreign nationals together and sang our hearts out. It changed nothing in Gaza, it did not release the hostages, it did not lift the crushing restrictions in the West Bank. It did not stop bombs falling and people dying. But for a couple of hours we proclaimed a truth which is written into nature: God has contended with the power of darkness and evil, and has won. We sang our hearts out because we heard again the story of an empty tomb and the declaration which the angels gave to the women: ‘He is not here. He is risen!’

Now we are two weeks into Easter, the joy is still there but it’s battling with the gathering darkness. Of course, it can be the same for any one of us. There are multiple reasons why the core and essence of our Christian faith is not always the dominant though and prevailing emotion in our hearts. If you are recently bereaved, if your marriage is in deep trouble, if you are living with depression and any number of other reasons, then Easter joy is not easily accessible.

But the gospels and the best teaching of our traditions remind us, over and over that our faith has to be able to endure many challenges of our circumstances; it will be tested by many of our life experiences. Faith must hold firm in the heat of the fire.

The mention of fire brings us to Jesus’s parable and the flames of Hades. It is a dire warning even if we do not take the parable literally, which we should not. Jesus tells the story as a graphic warning that this life is the time in which we are given the opportunity to decide how to live: which lights to follow, where to set our heart. Of course, we are going to keep hold of the truth of the Gospel, that we are saved by grace and not by works but we are also reminded by scripture that we are known by the fruit of our actions.

In the parable the rich man has lived to enjoy the good things of life without any concern for those who are denied such pleasures. Perhaps he has decided that compassion is for losers; that people make their own good fortune and what concern should that be to him? Lazarus positioned himself the gate of the man who lived the high life believing that sooner or later he would be moved to spare some of his excess to benefit a man with nothing. But it never happened. Jesus tells the parable to demonstrate that decisions which may make perfect good sense whilst enjoying the fine things in this life, may look different from the perspective of eternity.

It is certainly a story which resonates strongly for me living in Palestine and Israel in a time of war. I’m fairly certain that it’s a story which resonates here in York today because a war in the Middle East is never only a concern to the people who live in the Middle East. However, I must say that there have been times in these past six months that Palestinian Christians have felt that even their Christian brothers and sisters in the wealthy and comfortable parts of the world have not noticed the suffering of poor Lazarus at their gate. The feeling of neglect and the sense of rejection felt by Palestinians by the words and deeds or the lack of words and the lack of deeds even by Christian leaders has left them feeling utterly abandoned. Balancing the need to condemn Hamas with the desire to support Israel along with the desire to protect innocent victims has usually resulted in the innocent victims feeling as if they are the ones who have been left begging without reward at the Rich Man’s gate.

But I am here to tell you, Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike are not sitting passively waiting for the world to come to its senses. Inevitably people are taking many different courses of action in the face of dangers they face, some of them not so wise. But my experience in many different contexts across the Land is that they will not let fear and hatred rule their actions. I clearly see a determination to pull together, to strengthen the bonds of community so that none are left to suffer alone. I am continually impressed and moved by those who are literally binding up the wounded, comforting the bereaved, feeding the hungry and visiting those imprisoned. They are not just siting around waiting for the rich countries of the world to come to their senses. They are They are using the forces of light to contend with the darkness which threatens to engulf them. I believe with all my heart and soul that we are all called to play our part too.

On Easter Day, the Anglican Christians of Jerusalem gathered together in the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr for the high point of the whole Christian year. We may not have been all that many but it felt as if being together we amounted to a great deal.

I am pretty sure that I was not alone in wondering if Easter could be made to feel anything like Easter when our hearts were breaking and we were grieving and also angry. I need not have worried: The Holy Spirit moved among us. Two of our teenagers sang and encouraged us:

When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary
When troubles come and my heart burdened be
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence
Until You come and sit awhile with me. You raise me up.

We received the Eucharist as a sacrament of the presence of Christ with us. And in the final hymn we sang together in Arabic and English simultaneously:

Up from the grave He arose
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes
He arose a Victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

In singing it, for a while at least, we knew that victory over the dark domain and Easter joy lifted our hearts. We walked blinking, out into the bright sunshine and the world still had not changed. But we were changed, as I hope you were too in your own Easter celebrations. As we continue through this season of Easter may we live in that resurrection light and commit to doing the deeds of the light, in the power of the Holy Spirit.


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