Facing Disaster!

This week I have been denied an opportunity to preach in person because I have tested positive. Be warned sisters and brothers! It’s still out there.

So instead here is my offering for Sunday based on Luke 13:1-9.

Sometimes when we read a familiar passage in the Bible it can reveal something quite new to us. At other times though the lectionary points us to a passage that we’d never read before so that we find in the old book something entirely new to us-something quite amazing!  One of those passages they don’t mention in Sunday School.

Today’s passage in Luke is to my mind rather like that. It’s concerned with our responses to disaster.  We are told that some people questioned Jesus about the deaths of apparently innocent people who had been caught up in a civil disturbance. Were their deaths a judgement upon them-a form of divine punishment? What is our response to be to events like this? Jesus’ answer is quite clear. He says, No their deaths were not a judgment upon them. No ifs or buts, no hesitation just a simple short word. No. I find that rather refreshing.

Jesus goes on to speak about the deaths of eighteen people killed when a tower in a Jerusalem suburb collapsed. Were they worse sinners than all the others in the city? Again Jesus says no, quite emphatically. It might be convenient for you to blame the victims of these things and sometimes the victims like to blame themselves. Perverse but true. The truth is that we are all equally at risk and we need not fear that it is some judgment upon us if we caught up in a disaster. That is good news!

We usually associate the good news with the word “yes” but this time the good news is “no.”

But what else has Jesus to say to us.

The commentary on St Luke that I read in preparing this describes both episodes as tragedies. It was a tragedy that these innocent people were killed. It was a tragedy that the Tower in Siloam collapsed and eighteen people died.

Is this notion of tragedy correct? I don’t think so. Tragedy suggests to me the outcome of a hopeless struggle against blind fate. This isn’t a Christian response. For a Christian the struggle against evil and suffering is never hopeless even though those who struggle may suffer and fall. There is always a Christian response to evil-it begins with repentance- a turning around- an embrace of the good. To say something is a tragedy is too passive-it’s not to make a response at all.

When we listen to the readings on Good Friday we might say to ourselves-that’s a sad story and we’d be right. However to say it’s a tragedy is quite wrong. Good Friday is not a tragedy-it’s the account of a struggle but also the prelude to a victory. It’s not called Good for nothing.

My own view is that there’s too much use of the word tragedy in our world. Bad things happen, often in the area of personal relationships and family life. People say-it’s a tragedy for everyone involved. It’s often just a way of avoiding responsibility. The option for repentance is always there-Jesus says so.

So tragedy won’t do but what about bad luck- or as people say these days –just one of those things. On the question of luck I would refer you to the remark of Napoleon who said he would only have lucky Generals. In other words you make your own luck.

Just one of those things. Another popular remark that allows us to evade all responsibility. When some time ago I backed my car into the Circuit Stewards car and dented it I could have said, it was just one of those things. The truth is though that I was careless and should be more careful in future.

References to bad luck or just one of those things are not very helpful to us. It’s too deterministic, too fatalistic.

So bad luck won’t do either Some Christians with high views of the providence of God want to attribute everything that happens however trivial, however evil to God’s personal intervention. Those who questioned Jesus about these two incidents may well have been of that mind themselves. God purposes everything so if bad things happen to innocent people perhaps they weren’t so innocent after all. You can meet with this kind of opinion in the book of Job. Oddly enough you meet the same sort of thing in the Book of Common Prayer in the order for the visitation of the sick. The priest is supposed to say to the sick person and here I quote: Whatsoever your sickness is know you surely that it is God’s visitation. Thereafter the priest is to call the sick person to repent of their sins. I can confidently say that your own minister does not do this or at least not in quite that way.

Jesus won’t have it. He won’t let this kind of perverted logic turn God into a monster. Jesus admits that these incidents were accidents-that yes an element of chance was involved. Bad luck no but accident yes.

Accidents will continue to happen but after each accident we are reminded of our need of repentance otherwise as Jesus said we may be caught unawares and then we shall all perish with our sins unforgiven and with rancorous bitterness still in our hearts. That would be terrible for us and for those closest to us.  None of us would want to die unrepentant with hurts unhealed and grievances still fresh.

This is Jesus’ second word. His first word was “no” and that in this context is a good word but there is also a need for a response. That’s also a necessary response. One such response would be repentance and a call for repentance is peculiarly appropriate for Lent

In our time people have been much preoccupied with the problem of evil. How can evil be reconciled with a God of love. Why do bad things keep on happening? This is a stock question in house groups. These are questions that the New Testament isn’t really bothered about. Explanations are not offered, the problem is not discussed. It’s almost as if the writers of the gospels and the epistles want to say that the philosophers and the theologians might want to understand the world but our task as Christians is to change it. The question is always not why did God allow this evil to happen but how did God turn this evil to good. The first Christians sought to overcome evil rather than explain it. Prayer and action were the means to bring this about. Persecutions and trials were expected almost welcomed. The question is never: Why do these things happen but how are we going to respond to them as Christians.

In the Venerable Bede’s history of the Church in England the story is told of how the plague came to the monks and nuns of Barking Abbey. The men were affected first and the women were spared enabling them to care for and pray day and night for the sick and bereaved. The Abbess knew that the plague would get to the nuns eventually so she asked them where they wished to be buried. The nuns prayed for guidance. Their prayers were answered one night just before dawn. As usual they had gathered in the chapel to sing God’s praises. Then the Abbess asked them to follow her out to the cemetery where the monks were already buried. The Abbess led the prayers for the monk’s souls. As she did so the sun began to shine on the eastern horizon. The air was so clear that the sun shone even more brightly than it does at noon and its rays bathed the south side of the Church in a warm orange light. The nuns knew at once that this is where they wished to be buried. The following day the plague struck the women’s part of the Abbey and soon the south side of the Church was filled with the nun’s graves.

To the modern mind this is an odd story particularly as its set in Barking of all places. And yet as we wait for the next flu pandemic not such an odd one after all. And they know its coming- at Hong Kong airport there are screens that measure your body temperature. In Britain local authorities have emergency plans for coping with a greater number of deaths than is usual.  (This was first composed over ten years ago) We need to remember that as Christians we need not be overcome and that there is nothing to be afraid of. In the story from Bede the Nuns don’t ask why and they don’t have any physical resources to fight the disease. They can only respond with prayer and love and this they do. To my mind they are not overcome-they achieve victory of a kind. They knew they were going to die quite soon but in dying well they would achieve a kind of victory. Nobody would describe their deaths as a tragedy.

Once upon a time there was a TV programme in the God slot entitled the Question Why. Why suffering? Why war and famine? The attempt was always to find or seek for an explanation. To be honest though the New Testament never goes in for this kind of thing. It never asks why? The key question in the New Testament is always how. How are we to live in the face of evil? How does God bring good out of all the evil in the world? How do we respond to the good news of God’s love? This is the question the nuns asked and they came up with an answer. A response is always possible although it may not produce visible fruit very quickly. That surely is the message of the parable of the fig tree.

In the power of the Holy Spirit we can embrace God’s way of suffering love and look for the changes God wants for the world and by seeking the changes God wants for the world we shall be changed ourselves. Prayer leads to action and action strengthens our hope.

Thanks be to God, says St Paul, who gives us the victory through our lord Jesus Christ.

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