Isaiah 55:1-9 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Luke 13:1-19
I’ve always been fascinated by politics and current affairs, so it’s a rare day when I don’t listen to the news. But this week, something unusual has happened: I’ve found myself switching off, because I couldn’t bear to listen.
You might think I refer to Brexit – and I am as disappointed as most of us with the failures of leadership that have set up our current self-destructive spiral. But what got me this week, was the appalling news from Christchurch in New Zealand.
The first shock was hearing about 100 people being shot as they gathered to worship. But what has really broken my heart has been the funerals. The repeated, bewildered question: “why would anyone do this?” And I was moved by the dignified and effective response from the NZ government. Their Prime Minister’s decision never again to name the killer – but only to remember the names of the victims – resounds loud for me in a world where the wicked and foolish often seem to get more airtime than those who speak of peace.
I wonder if the dialogue in our gospel reading arose from someone asking Jesus to comment on the day’s headline. These Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their own sacrifices, whatever that means. No external sources refer to this particular atrocity, so we have no details or context. But the contemporary historian Josephus does tell us about a number of other instances where Pilate provoked rebellion though sacrilege, or over-reacted bloodily to protest. He was by all account a clumsy and cruel ruler, so it is quite within character to read of him profaning temple sacrifices by mixing human blood into the sacrifices required by the Mosaic law.
So was Jesus being asked to comment on current affairs? Actually, some think that this question was a trap, aiming to set up a dilemma for Jesus: if He criticised the Romans for impious sacrilege, he was stirring up revolt. But if He failed to defend the integrity of Jewish worship, He was clearly not the Messiah.
Jesus’ response not only side-stepped the political pitfall: it also opens out onto basic issues of the human condition and our relationship with God.
Note first, that Jesus links the murder of the Galileans – which is clearly a result of human sin – with another incident that was, we must suppose, basically an unfortunate accident. The collapse of the tower of Siloam was not obviously anyone’s fault, at least not in any direct sense. Unlike with the Galileans, there is no-one at whom one could obviously point a finger and say “It’s his fault.” Which implies an underlying solidarity in suffering. Although the immediate cause might be Pilate’s cruelty or just bad luck, in a deeper sense all are victims of the same underlying cause: the brokenness of a world that is alienated from God.
Jesus also suggests a solidarity that the spectators have with the victims. Were those killed worse than others? No, they were not. And, equally, by linking the temple killings with the simple accident, Jesus teaches that we are not to point fingers. There are also not two groups, one called “baddies”, people like Pilate who cause bad things, and the other called “goodies”, who include us. There is just one group, humanity. We are all as bad as each other. All are sinners, in need of God’s grace.
“Unless you repent,” Jesus says, “you will all perish just as they did.” Our ultimate solidarity arises from being in need of God’s grace, and we are all in the same desperate need. And the good news is that God’s grace abounds, that He loves us so much that He has sent His only begotten Son so as to bring us that grace.
Let me return to the news headlines, and in particular to the Christchurch shooting. From our gospel reading, we can do so fortified by two insights: first, there are not goodies and baddies, but only one humanity standing before God; and second, that we are not united by our virtues, but by our need. Ours is the solidarity of people who have nothing to lose; it is our need for mercy that unites us.
Part of what shocked me in about the mosque shootings story was how easy it is to imagine myself into it. Or rather, to imagine us into it. You and I happen to live in a very small corner of the world where an armed attack on our worship seems unlikely. But if we worshipped as Christians in Egypt, for example – a country that has been Christian ever since the Apostle Thomas preached there – it would be a different story. Imagine, as you sit in your pew, the fear that you might turn around to see an armed man standing by the door, who would open fire on us, because he hates us. In Egypt, that has happened often, and every congregation lives with that knowledge every time they gather.
Imagine that fear. But also imagine what it would be like to walk to church in fear of attack; to run a gauntlet of your neighbour’s hostility, to be shouted at in the street, to have to wash hateful graffiti from your walls.
Imagining this should not be hard, because we do not mentally need to go as far as Egypt. Only as far as Leicester or Peterborough. This is what life is like for our fellow-citizens, now. Tell Mama is a charity monitoring hate crime in Britain, and they announced a six-fold increase in reports this week compared to the usual level. These are attacks or hateful speech against Muslims, often threats to do the same thing as in New Zealand. Somehow, the Christchurch attack has made more people feel it is OK to express hate against Muslims. Also this week, a man with a sledgehammer put in the windows of two mosques in Birmingham.
The Christchurch victims were, as it happens, Muslims; but I could tell the same story about attacks against Jewish people, in Europe and in the UK: desecrations of cemeteries, attacks on synagogues, hate-speech against people going to them.
Bigotry and hatred are of course not new or recent phenomena. But we cannot confront what is happening in the world if we do not recognise the truth, that they have taken on a new vigour in the last few years. People sometimes highlight that such attacks have increased since the Brexit vote, and this seems to be true. But of course they are not caused by Brexit – they are not caused by any particular factor in British politics, because this is not a specifically British phenomenon. Actually, we can perhaps see the dangers of this new populism most clearly by looking to some other countries in Europe: to Hungary or Italy, for instance, where xenophobic nationalists are in government. And some of their supporters (like the French National Front, or the National Rally as they call themselves nowadays) explicitly justify their hate-speech on the grounds that they are defending the Christian character of Europe, as if they were modern Crusaders.
As Christians, we follow Christ: not as a badge or a mascot, but as our sovereign, and as our example. As we have seen, Christ did not divide humanity into teams – goodies and baddies, His team and the others. There is only one humanity standing before God. And we stand in solidarity – not united by our virtues, but by our need for God’s mercy that unites us.
We try to follow Christ, living out these truths – and we do so in a world which is not going to seem any less mad in the coming week than in the last one. I suggest that Christ’s words offer a test we can apply to what we hear in the media, or from cultural or political leaders, or indeed from our neighbours.
First, is the account of events in your newspaper such as to build up the sense of solidarity – that we are all in it together, all equal before God, fated to solve our problems through co-operation or never to solve them? Or does the narrative in your paper point fingers and encourage sectarian thinking? If the latter, then I respectfully suggest that you stop reading or buying that newspaper, and that you write to tell them you are doing so. The media are commercial organisations, they respond to consumer feedback.
Second, is the narrative from our political leaders one that builds up a sense of solidarity? One that stresses the problems we have in common, and our need to work together to solve them. One, I venture to add, that stresses the need for collaboration not only within the UK’s national community, but also within the community of nations. If not, I suggest that you seriously consider withdrawing your support from politicians who work not to unite but to divide; and that you write to them, also, warning that such is your view.
And finally, there is a personal dimension to this. As I have worked on this sermon, I have realised ruefully that, although I have visited a synagogue, I have never worshipped God in one. And I cannot remember ever entering a mosque, let alone praying alongside Muslim brothers and sisters. I am beginning to think that, for myself, this is not good enough, and I might humbly invite you to ask yourself the same question. If a number of us think that it is time we reached out in solidarity, and visited others in their places of worship… perhaps we could do this together? If that interests you, please speak to me afterwards.