Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Not all those who are lost, have wandered

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

7th March 2021


Luke 15.1-32

Listen to this sermon here:

In the book The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien,

              there is a character called Aragorn, also known as Strider,

              who wanders Middle Earth in humble clothing,

              hiding his kingly origin and destiny.

 

When Gandalf is trying to explain Aragorn’s significance to the Hobbit Frodo,

              he does so in the form of a short riddle:

 

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

 

The point is clear: sometimes you have to look beneath the surface

              to appreciate the true value of something or someone.

 

And as we come to our consideration this morning

              of the three linked parables that Jesus told,

              of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son,

I want to offer a slight re-framing of Gandalf’s riddle for us:

              Instead of Tolkien’s ‘Not all those who wander are lost’,

              I’d like to suggest that,

              not all those who are lost, have wandered.

 

So now, let’s turn to the first in this trilogy of parables in our reading for today,

              the story of the lost sheep.

 

The first rule in coming to read the parables of Jesus

              is to seek to remove our presuppositions about them.

 

Many of us assume, often wrongly, that we already know them perfectly well,

              whereas in actual fact we may well have overlooked some aspect,

              or allowed our perceptions to be formed by memories of sermons and hymns,

              or by retellings of these stories by parents, teachers, preachers and books down the years

 

An example of this is the summary of the parable of the Lost Sheep

              which forms one of the verses of H.W. Baker’s beloved hymn

              “The King of Love my shepherd is” - I’m sure you know it.

 

Perverse and foolish, oft I strayed

But yet in love he sought me

And on his shoulder gently laid

And home rejoicing brought me

 

The author of the hymn here accurately picks up the picture from Luke

              of a sheep on a shepherd’s shoulder,

              and the theme of rejoicing at its recovery.

However, in interpreting the parable, we need to be wary.

 

The hymn makes a definite identification between the shepherd of the parable

              and Jesus, the Good Shepherd from John 10:11.

And whilst it’s not impossible that these stories can be held together,

              it ain’t, as the Gershwin Brothers famously wrote, necessarily so.

 

But more significant, I think, than the easy yet questionable identification

              of the shepherd in Luke’s parable with the Good Shepherd of John’s gospel,

is the troubling blame that the song lays on the sheep for getting lost in the first place:

              The sheep, we are told, is ‘perverse and foolish’, and strays ‘oft’.

 

To which I’d want to say:

              Not all those who are lost, have wandered.

 

Luke 15:4 actually says

              "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,

              does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness

              and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

 

In Luke’s narrative, as in the companion parable of the Lost Coin

              it is the owner who seems to be responsible for the loss.

 

The shepherd lost the sheep, the woman lost the coin,

              and this raises all kinds of interpretive difficulties

              if we assume that the shepherd in this parable

              is Jesus the Good Shepherd from John’s gospel.

 

Luke’s way of emphasising it puts the emphasis on the shepherd and his ownership,

              and makes no mention of any blame on the sheep for its folly

              nor any wrongdoing on its part in getting lost.

 

The sheep is not a sinner for getting lost,

              any more than the coin sinned by being dropped on the floor.

 

Further, in the hymn, the shepherd’s rejoicing is extended throughout the journey home

              whereas in Luke, the shepherd rejoices twice

                           once when he finds the sheep

                           and again in the company of his friends and neighbours

                                         when he has completed the task of rescuing it.

 

I point all this out, because when we come to deeply loved and oft-preached parables,

              such as the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons,

it can be hard to hear them with ‘fresh ears’,

              and yet this is what we must try to do,

              to hear them speaking afresh to us.

 

So, to return to my theme for this morning,

              not all those that are lost, have wandered.

 

These three parables of lost-ness need to be heard in dialogue with one another,

              because Luke has carefully arranged them together, here in his gospel.

 

And our starting point should be where Luke starts,

              the parable of the lost sheep.

 

So we should resist reading backwards from the story of the lost sons,

              to infer that the lost sheep or lost coin

              were in some way were culpable for their being lost,

and I think we should resist reading back from John’s gospel

              to suggest that the shepherd who loses a sheep

              is Jesus the Good Shepherd.

 

Rather, these are parables of the kingdom of God,

and they speak about God by extension from the lesser to the greater:

if even a careless shepherd searches until the sheep is found…

if even a careless woman searches until the coin is found…

how much more will God never case searching for that which is lost!


These are parables that reveal the action of God 

to bring in those whom others would write off or exclude,

they are about the celebration that marks the bringing home of those who have been lost.


 

The previous chapter in Luke’s gospel is relevant here

              because it’s the story of the great banquet;

              you know the one, where the invited guests make their excuses,

              and the host invites the excluded and marginalised to take their places.

 

And the controversy that Luke sets as the introduction to the three parables about lost-ness

              is also about food,

with the Pharisees and their scribes grumbling

              that Jesus persists in welcoming sinners and eating with them (15.2).

 

It seems Jesus didn’t just tell stories about God’s inclusive banquet,

              he lived it into reality - literally sharing table with those whom others would deny.

 

And the Pharisees had a problem with this,

              because their teaching was one which emphasised personal responsibility

              for maintaining one’s own state of righteousness before God.

 

Now, I don’t think we should be too hard on the Pharisees here,

              because most of us would want to emphasise the importance of diligent discipleship.

But there’s a fine line between making every effort to live rightly before God,

              and starting to think that one is better in some way than those who don’t live in the same way.

 

It’s a bit like the parable of the workers in the vineyard,

              where the late arrivals get paid the same

              as those who have been working faithfully since daybreak.

God’s inclusion of the sinners, the outcast, and the lost,

              can feel very unfair to those who have been in for ages,

              toiling in the vineyard of God’s kingdom.

 

So you can see why the Pharisees grumbled

              when Jesus persisted in eating with outsiders,

              claiming that this is how God’s kingdom works.

 

And in reply to their grumbling, we find Jesus giving these three parables of lost-ness,

              which simultaneously deconstruct the Pharisees’ objections

              and expound Jesus’s proclamation

              of the radical, inclusive, expansive nature of the Kingdom of God.

 

Which brings me to the issue of repentance.

 

I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word repent?

              Is it a fiery preacher, shouting ‘repent’

              whilst wagging a judgmental finger at your sinful thoughts and deeds?

 

If so, you’re bang in there with the Pharisees’ understanding of repentance.

              For them, to repent was to ‘turn from’,

              to turn away from sin, to turn away from unfaithfulness.

 

But is this what Jesus has in mind when he says,

              after both the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin,

              that there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents?

 

I don’t think so,

              because the lost sheep and lost coins did nothing to be found.

Lost things don’t find themselves,

              any more than they lose themselves in the first place.

 

The key to this is to realise that repentance isn’t just about turning from

              it is also about turning towards.

 

The Pharisees had turning from nailed,

              it was all about careful, righteous living,

              keeping away from sin, away from temptation,

              away from those who were unclean, reviled, and excluded.

In other words, it was about what you, as an individual, did.

 

But Jesus is showing that repentance is not so much about what we do,

              as it is about what God does.

We don’t hear the sheep confessing its sin of straying,

              nor the coin confessing its sin of being dropped.

They are just lost,

              and then they are found,

              and then there is much rejoicing in heaven.

 

Through these opening two parables,

              Jesus invites a realisation of the driven desire of God

              to form relationship with those who are the lost, the least, and the loveless.

 

The Pharisees thought repentance started with an individual’s actions to change themselves,

              but Jesus shows that it starts with God breaking through,

              with the one who cares enough to search, and search, and search, until the lost are found.

 

So hear this, if you are feeling lost:

              God is never going to give up until you are found,

              and you are welcome at the table of Christ, at the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.

 

And if you’ve already secured your seat at the communion table of God’s people, hear this:

              it’s not about you, and it never was.

None of us have earned our place in God’s kingdom,

              we are here by grace alone,

              and not because of any righteousness on our part.

 

By this understanding, repentance means not so much a turning from sin,

              although that may follow, as sin loses its vice-like grip on our lives.

Rather, repentance means ‘being claimed’ by God,

              the turning towards God of repentance,

              is the state of being found, being loved, being sought, and being saved.

 

And, as I’ve said, not all those who are lost, have wandered.

 

These parables are not about the 99 sheep who remained,

              nor are they about the 9 coins that were not lost,

they are about the one who was lost,

              and is sought, and is found.

 

And those, like the Pharisees, and like some of us too,

              need to hear that sometimes, it’s not about us.

 

There is a parallel here with the Black Lives Matter movement.

              Many of us have heard someone say, in wake of BLM,

                           that ‘All Lives Matter’.

 

And of course, objectively speaking, this is true.

              All lives do indeed matter.

 

But not all lives are threatened, not all lives are marginalised and excluded,

              and the power of Black Lives Matter

                           is that it highlights the injustices faced by some,

                           and that it calls the many to be part of addressing these.

 

I can hear the Pharisees, who are part of the 99 sheep, or the 9 coins,

              saying, ‘yes, but all sheep matter’; or ‘yes, but all coins matter’

 

It’s like the elder son in the final parable,

              angry at the part that greeted his returning brother.

I can hear him saying, ‘yes, but all sons matter’.

 

But the truth is that not all sons are lost,

              and not all those who are lost, have wandered.

 

The mechanisms for exclusion, that lead to lost-ness,

              are many and varied.

Some, certainly, are the result of actions taken by an individual,

              as the younger son in the final parable shows;

              but others are just a state of being.

 

The person excluded because of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, or poverty,

              are not lost from society because of their sin.

Rather, it is the sin of others that has pushed them to the margins,

              and there will be rejoicing in heaven when they are found,

              when they are able to take their rightful place at the banquet table of the kingdom of God.

 

Jesus’ actions in sitting and eating with the lost of his world,

              which so upset the Pharisees of his day,

were a prophetic enactment of the nature of the kingdom of God

              where all are invited to the table, without exclusion or exception.

 

There is a warning here for those expressions of Christian identity

              that are predicted on a ideological and theological construction of a group we can call ‘other’,

              against whose so-called sinfulness we can measure ourselves as righteous.

 

But there is also good news,

              for all those who feel lost, excluded, marginalised, or oppressed;

and this is that God, like the shepherd and the woman in the parables,

              seeks and searches, and hunts, and never gives up,

              until all those who are lost have been found.

 

And there is also a challenge,

              for us all to realise that, whoever we are, we too are lost until we are found.

This is not a once only state of being,

              we all need to be found, and found again.

 

The younger son was lost before he left home,

              while the elder son was lost even though he remained at home;

and the younger son was found,

              long before he eventually made his way home.

 

The story of the two sons is not a story about ‘finding yourself’,

              it is, of course, another story of ‘being found’.

And it is a story of a compassionate father loves both of his children in their lost-ness,

              never giving up on them, never writing them out of his family.

 

So this morning, as we come to our own expression of the great banquet of the kingdom of God,

              gathering around the Lord’s table to celebrate Communion together,

              we do so rejoicing that each of us, whoever we are, is invited to this table.

 

Bloomsbury was famously an ‘open table’ church from its founding,

              and it is with great joy that we continue to extend the welcome of God

              to all those who ‘find themselves’ at the table of the Lord.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Unless you repent, you will all perish

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

28th February 2021

Luke 13.1-9


According to the Guardian last month,

 

“Persecution of Christians around the world

            has increased during the Covid pandemic,

with … a 60% increase [in 2020] over the previous year

            in the number of Christians killed for their faith.”

 

So here’s a question:

            Do you think because these Christians suffer in this way

            they are worse sinners than other Christians?

 

No, I tell you.

            But unless you repent, you will all perish as they do.

 

And a recent inquiry into the cladding that caught fire on Grenfell Tower in 2017,

            leading to the loss of 72 lives with a further 70 seriously injured,

states that the manufacturer of the cladding

            suppressed the fact that it had not passed fire safety tests.

 

And here’s another question:

            Do you think that those who perished and suffered when the tower caught fire

            were worse offenders than any others who live in London?

 

No, I tell you.

            But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.

 

Are you shocked? If so, then I think that’s the point.

 

Too often, it’s too easy for us to rationalize to ourselves

            the terrible tragedies that befall other people.

 

The sense of relief that it isn’t ‘me and mine’

            facing persecution in another country,

            or dying in horrific tower fire,

can be so great that we gift ourselves

            an inflated sense of our own cosmic importance.

 

And then, oh so subtly,

            we distance ourselves from the suffering of others.

The relief of ‘It hasn’t happened to me’

            can easily become the conviction that ‘it could never happen to me’.

 

The presence of evil and suffering in our world is always disturbing.

            Tragedy surrounds us on every side.

And the question that bubbles below the surface is now, as it always has been,

            ‘whose fault is this?’

 

And today, as always, there are plenty of people who will offer an opinion.

 

Listen to this wonderful and terrifying quote from the great Richard Dawkins

 

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world

            is beyond all decent contemplation.

During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence,

            thousands of animals are being eaten alive,

            many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear,

            others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites,

            thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.

It must be so.

If there ever is a time of plenty,

            this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population

            until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication,

            some people are going to get hurt,

            other people are going to get lucky,

            and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect

            if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose,

                        no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

            ― Richard Dawkins, River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View Of Life

 

‘whose fault is it?’

            – No-one’s fault, says Dawkins.

These things just happen, it’s the way the universe is constructed.

 

Dawkins, of course, is reacting against those people

            who persist in ascribing everything to God’s action or intervention.

Why did those people die?

            Because God, inscrutably, has willed it.

Why am I still here?

            Because God, for reasons unfathomed, has deemed it to be so.

 

I remember when I was in my first church,

            and a wonderful young man named Phil was elected as a Deacon.

            He was 21 years old, engaged to be married, and training to be a nurse.

After a chaotic teenage period, he had turned his life around.

            And then, one night, he died.

I had spent the evening with him planning the next Sunday evening service,

            I went home, and he went to bed with a headache,

            and the next morning he was dead of meningitis.

He never made his first deacons meeting.

 

And some people said, ‘God takes those he loves the most’;

            and some people said ‘God must want him for something special in heaven’;

            and some people said ‘God has spared him a life of suffering’.

Others said that his death was a work of the evil one,

            who had snatched Phil’s life from him far too young;

Others said that God could have intervened,

            but didn’t for reasons we know not of.

 

And do you know what, I didn’t and still don’t buy those answers.

            If that’s the way God works, then I’m with Richard Dawkins.

 

Interestingly, in the ancient world,

            people were a lot less willing to attribute evil

            to God’s carelessness, or noninvolvement.

 

They assumed that tragedy generally reflected God’s judgment for sin committed.

            So if and when tragedy came,

                        the ancient logic of the book of Deuteronomy

                        suggested that responsibility must lie with the person

                        who has experienced the tragedy.

            In some sense, they must have deserved it…

 

It was this perspective which led Jesus to respond

            to reports that were circulating

            about a pair of recent Palestinian tragedies.

And in his engagement with these two stories,

            Jesus took popular assumptions

                        about who might be blamed for such suffering

            and turned them into an opportunity for public reflection,

                        and indeed repentance.

 

Rather than engage in abstract discussion about the misfortunes of others,

            Jesus personalizes the issue, and asks questions of those around him:

            “What do you think?” he asks; “Unless you repent…” he warns.

 

He takes the tragedies of the moment,

            and asks those following him to reflect on where God might be found

                        in the midst of all that horror and suffering.

 

He doesn’t turn his face from the news of tragic and sudden death,

            thanking his lucky stars that he wasn’t there when it happened,

            or muttering to himself ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.

 

Not a bit of it.

            Jesus faces the news of the tragedies square on,

                        and asks that most difficult question:

            Where on earth, and in heaven’s name,

                        is God in the midst of such suffering?

 

William Brock, the first minister of this church, famously said that

            ‘The Bible and the Times newspaper are the best materials for the preacher’

                         – a quote that has been repeated in many a preaching class

                                    over the last 150 years,

                        and not always ascribed to Brock, I might add.

 

Did you know that there’s a tradition ascribing the phrase

            to the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth,

but seeing has he wasn’t born until eleven years after Brock died,

            if he did say it, I think he may have been borrowing.

Anyway, I’m going to claim it back for Bloomsbury

 

To assert that

            ‘The Bible and the Times newspaper are the best materials for the preacher’

is to say that the task of preaching includes the honest and public reflection

            on the events of the day – be they joyful news or tragic misfortune.

 

It was also said of William Brock that,

‘The pastor of Bloomsbury Chapel

            was a man who knew the times in which he lived,

            and he marked the signs thereof.’

 

This, it seems to me, is both appropriate and Christ-like.

 

Can we rightly interpret the signs of the times?

            Do we agree that what happens ‘over there’ should, and must,

            affect who we are ‘over here’?

 

What are we to make of Christians being persecuted unto death in their thousands?

            or people dying in an horrific fire in a tower block in West London?

Where is God in the midst of such horror?

 

Where in all this is the God we worship, praise and adore Sunday by Sunday?

            Where is the God to whom we give thanks for our manifold blessings?

What does it even mean to speak of God in the face of suffering?

 

These questions are not new, and they did not elude Jesus.

 

Some people came to tell him of the tragedy in the temple:

            Pilate, the Roman governor, had slain some Jews

                        and allowed their blood to be mixed

                        with the blood of the sacrifices in the temple.

 

It can be hard for us to appreciate how significant

            this event would have been in Jewish circles.

Such an attack in a sacred setting

            was sure to raise religious passions to a high level.

 

It is as if someone marched into a church

            and started shooting people as they prayed,

or planted a bomb to go off in a mosque at prayer time.

 

In Jesus’ day, this atrocity would have raised nationalistic questions

            as well as indignant outrage.

 

The Jews were fighting back against the Romans,

            Jewish freedom fighters were waging a low-level war

                        against the legionaries in their land.

 

And occasionally Rome struck back,

            with Pilate’s murder of worshipping Jews,

and the subsequent desecration of the temple,

            simply the latest example that he was seeking to make.

 

You can see how some might have wondered

            whether the unfortunate Jews in the temple

            had in some way brought it on themselves.

 

Was this a judgment for their sin, a judgment for their rebellion?

 

No, says Jesus, these Galileans who suffered in this way

            were no worse sinners than all other Galileans.

 

But, before the philosopher-theologians in the crowd

            could get lost in the various possibilities raised by the question,

            Jesus personalises it,

 

‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’

 

There is a more fundamental issue here than ‘them’ and ‘their sin’.

            And this is the call to repentance.

 

The call to repent is the call of the Messiah summoning Israel

            to reconsider the meaning of her vocation

                        as the people of God,

and to repent of the national pride

            which interpreted that vocation in terms of privilege and worldly greatness.

 

No, it wasn’t their fault.

            But, says Jesus, if you continue to take up arms against Rome,

            if you continue to meet Roman violence with more violence,

                        eventually you too will die at the hands of the Romans.

 

Jesus is making it clear that those who refuse his summons to change direction,

            who refuse to abandon their flight into national rebellion against Rome,

            will bring down suffering and death not only on themselves

                        but on the many innocent ordinary people

                        who will find themselves caught up in the violence.

 

Those who take the sword will perish with the sword.

            And they will not perish alone.

 

Do we think that every Palestinian in our own time is a terrorist?

            Of course not, but nonetheless many innocent Palestinian

            women and children and men face death and suffering.

 

Do we think that every Israeli in our own time is an oppressor?

            Of course not, but nonetheless many innocent Israeli

            women and children and men face death and suffering.

 

Do we think that every Muslim is a threat to national security?

            Of course not, but nonetheless many innocent Islamic

            women and children and men face death and suffering.

 

Do we think every American is a colonial oppressor?

            Of course not, but many innocent Americans died in New York in 2001.

 

Do we think every Brit is a colluder in oppression?

            Of course not, but many innocent British people

            have died here in this very city

            as the spiral and cycle of violence continues to our own day.

 

Do the innocent deserve to die? Never.

 

But, unless we repent, we too will die like they die.

 

Jesus cites a second event to make the same point.

            Rather than a political tragedy, this is a natural catastrophe,

                        something akin to a hurricane or an earthquake:

            a tower at Siloam has collapsed and eighteen have died.

 

Siloam was a small area of Jerusalem,

            close to the centre of the ancient city, just to the south of the Temple itself.

Here was an event apparently beyond anyone’s control.

            And the question bubbles up again:

                        Who was responsible this time?

            The last time it was conflict with Rome that triggered the massacre,

                        but what about this time…?

            Maybe disasters are different?

 

Jesus’ interpretation is exactly as before.

            Without repentance, all die similarly.

 

Building accidents happen, people die, it’s not their fault.

            But, says Jesus, if the Jerusalemites continue to refuse God’s kingdom-call to repent,

                        if they continue to refuse to turn from their present agendas,

            then those who escape Roman swords

                        will find the very walls of their city collapsing on top of them

                        as the enemy closes in.

 

The victims of tragedy, whether due to the vindictive severity of Pilate

            or to unforeseeable accident,

must not be regarded as outstanding sinners

            especially singled out for divine retribution.

Sometimes people are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

BUT the reminder of human mortality and the fragility of life

            nevertheless provides a salutary reminder

that there are choices to be made in life:

            choices which can lead to death,

            and choices which can lead to life,

            both for themselves and for others.

 

Ultimately, when people resort to violence, violence wins.

 

And this is why Jesus must go to Jerusalem,

            to confront the violent regime of Rome

                        not with a terrorist dagger or a popular uprising,

            but by embracing the violence of the cross

                        and by taking the worst excesses of human suffering

                        and redeeming even the horrific death of an innocent man.

 

This is why we need to hear this passage in Lent,

            as we too are journeying towards the cross.

 

Like the unfruitful fig tree

            which is given one last chance to respond to special treatment,

Jesus’ call on Israel is that they must use the respite,

            which God in his mercy has given,

            to bring about a national reformation.

Or else, they will face death and suffering as Rome crushes them.

 

The gospel of Luke presents the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70AD

            as a direct result of refusing to follow the way of peace

            which Jesus had urged throughout his ministry.

 

And all this raises some profound questions for us

            as we try to discern the signs of our times,

as we grapple with the question of where God is at work in our world,

            of where God is at work in our lives,

and as we try to work out what it might be for us,

            as the people of God in the twenty-first century

            to bear the fruit of the kingdom of God in the vineyard of our world.

 

And as we ponder these issues,

            there are some key questions we can ask ourselves

that might help us find some answers.

 

Firstly, where, in our world, do the innocent suffer?

            Where are the tragedies of suffering and death to be found?

 

Secondly, what are the mechanisms by which we, either individually or as a society,

            distance ourselves from that suffering?

What are the subtle mechanisms we employ to assuage our guilt

            and relieve ourselves of responsibility?

 

And thirdly, what do we need to repent of,

            what do we need to do differently?

 

The challenge before Israel was to turn from violence

            and that challenge is before us, too.

How often in our world do we meet violence with violence,

            and in so doing create spirals of suffering that encircle the innocent?

 

But there are also other, more subtle ways,

            in which we might need to reject the lies of self-justification

 

The Joint Public Issues Team of the Baptist Union, Methodists and URC

            published a report a few years ago,

called ‘The Lies We Tell Ourselves’

            which seeks to end what it calls ‘the comfortable myths about poverty’.

 

The report highlights ways in which evidence has been skewed

            to put the blame for poverty at the door of the poor themselves.

 

Let me read you a short except:

 

‘The myths exposed in this report, reinforced by politicians and the media,

            are convenient because they allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty,

            and the rest of society to avoid taking any of the responsibility.’

 

The report suggests that a number of "myths" about welfare claimants

            have arisen as a result of statistics being misused.

These are then repeated by the media

            and find their way into the popular consciousness.

 

The myths, according to the report,

            pin the blame for poverty directly on those who rely on welfare benefits

            while ignoring the more complex reasons

                        that really lie behind people’s experiences of poverty.

 

The report says that these incorrect ideas must be challenged.

            ‘Everybody is complicit - politicians, the media and the general public.

            But still many people prefer to believe

            that bad things only happen to "bad people".’

 

The reality, of course, is that in poverty

                        as in so many other areas of human suffering

            bad things do not only happen to bad people,

            sometimes bad things happen to good people who don’t deserve it

 

And any viewpoint, whether religious or secular

            which seeks to blame people for their suffering

is surely something that, in the name of Christ, need to be exposed and opposed.

 

This was the issue which Jesus was tackling

            when he addressed the news reports

            of the tragic deaths in Jerusalem.

 

He challenged those unaffected by the news of other people’s suffering

            to hear in those reports a call for their own repentance.

And that same challenge echoes down the centuries to our world.

 

Did you hear about the poor, the homeless, the dispossessed,

            the asylum seeker, the terminally ill, the tragically killed,

            the long term sick, the war zone victim,

            the depressed, the possessed, and the repossessed?

 

Did you hear?...

 

And did you think for one moment

            that their suffering was nothing to do with you?

Did you find a way of justifying

            your own continued existence before God?

Did you wonder if they in some way deserved their suffering?

 

No?

 

But I tell you,

            unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.