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?




But I tell you,

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

Saturday, 20 February 2021

God’s love, in Christ Jesus

A Sermon for the Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Bill Somerville.

Romans 8.31-39

Occasions such as this, when we gather in the face of human mortality,

            are often occasions for asking profound and troubling questions.


Death, for all its brute reality, remains a mystery,

            and quite rightly we find ourselves asking the great existential questions of,

            Why? and What now? and How has this happened?


The reading we had just now, read by Bill himself on an earlier occasion,

            is a text packed full of just such questions.


But, and I don’t know if you noticed,

            Bill added short introduction to the reading,

            a brief statement of faith that prefaced the questions that followed.


This passage is, said Bill, about ‘God’s love, in Christ Jesus’.


This is the absolute, the basic conviction of faith:

            that God is love,

            and that God’s love is made known to us in Christ Jesus.


This is the certainty that Bill himself lived by,

            and it is offered to us today

            in the face of the questions of this day.


So when the questions come tumbling,

            we already have the beginnings of the answer.


When uncertainty beckons, and doubt descends,

            when faith wavers, and grief overwhelms,

we have this assurance of faith:

            ‘God’s love, in Christ Jesus’.


And so the ancient apostle Paul leans out of the text of his letter to the Romans,

            and asks of us, today, ‘What then are we to say about these things?’


What is there to say in the face of death?

            What is there to say in the face of loss, grief, and mourning?


Just this: ‘God’s love, in Christ Jesus’.


But Paul is not yet done,

            and his next question explores this conviction in greater depth:

He asks, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’


Despite any evidence or feelings or convictions to the contrary,

            Paul’s assurance is steadfastly that God is for us.


And if God is for us, will not God with Christ Jesus

            give us everything we need at the point of our deepest need?


If God is for us, who can accuse us? Who can condemn us?

            Who can separate us from the love of Christ?


Let’s see, says Paul…

            Will hardship, or distress, or persecution,

            or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?


No, none of these, says Paul,

            can separate us from ‘God’s love, in Christ Jesus’.


But what about death itself?

            No, says Paul, not even death

            can separate us from ‘God’s love, in Christ Jesus’.


And so we come to the final verse of the reading,

            in which we encounter one of the great articulations of the Christian faith.


After all the questions, Paul circles back to God,

            and to God’s faithfulness to all that God has made,

            and to God’s love that transcends even death itself.


For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, n

            or angels, nor rulers,

                        nor things present, nor things to come,

            nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

                        nor anything else in all creation,

            will be able to separate us

                        from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.