A powerfully prophetic sermon at the Friary by Patrick Woodhouse on Sunday 28th February
February 28th Lent 3 Friary
Luke, chapter 12. 54 – 56, ch 13. 1 – 5
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
In the gospel we have just read, in his typically abrasive manner, Jesus challenges his hearers to wake up and interpret the signs of the times. “When you see a cloud rising, you know it is going to rain; when you see the south wind blowing, you know there will be heat … you hypocrites … you know how to interpret the weather, why do you not know how to interpret the present moment …”
or … we might say, ‘why are you not able to see what is really going on?’
And then – at the beginning of chapter 13, two apparently random events of his time, his present moment, crop up in this very uncomfortable conversation. Two random violent events.
He is told of Galileans, followers of the zealous sect of Judas Gaulonites, who have been ruthlessly murdered by the Romans as they offered their sacrifices in the Temple.
And then, completely disconnected, news has come in of 18 people crushed to death under a collapsing tower.
His listeners probably felt a bit punch drunk, for then he drives his challenge home with one of the most sobering of all Gospel texts repeated twice: “do you think these people who died at the Temple or under the rubble of the tower were terrible sinners and that is why they died? I tell you no, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
Bracing challenges to interpret the signs of the times. Random violent events happening. And then warnings that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” What are we to make of all this today? What are we to make of it not least because the Church is called not just to be priestly, but also prophetic. When you are ordained as a deacon and then a priest you are also called to be a prophet … someone who can interpret what is going on.
So what are we to make of these texts? Well, surely there is something very predictably human happening here. In his day then, and in our day now, a very common reaction to shocking bits of news – indeed a way of defending ourselves against such news – is to refuse to think, to refuse to interpret, … we resort to a very easy laziness and make no attempt to join up the dots … and we say – ‘has something terrible happened?’ … ah well, sad, but nothing to do with us.’
Of course in his day, when everything that happened was assumed to be the direct result of the action of God, there was an additional way out: people who suffered such disasters must have incurred divine wrath … that is what made sense of it … they must be spectacular sinners who were reaping the rewards of such sin … so … nothing to do with us.
To which this uncomfortable prophet from Nazareth bluntly retorts “I tell you no. Don’t delude yourselves. Unless you repent you will likewise perish. Nothing is disconnected, everything that happens is part of the great inter-connected fabric of life. These are signs of an impending catastrophe that could overtake you all … unless you repent, unless you turn and seek the way of justice and mercy and inter-being and the dignity of every human person – the way of my heavenly Father.”
In our secular age we don’t easily have their get out – normally we don’t say that this or that disaster is down to sinfulness – though you still hear that – but with 24 hour rolling news there is no shortage of random, apparently disconnected, violent events, mostly far away, and surely … nothing to do with us.
An obscure caste group in India sabotages the water supply of Delhi, in which 19 not 18 died. ‘Well’, we say, ‘they must be a bunch of zealous fanatics.’ In reality they are a relatively high caste group demanding to be allowed to work in government employment which is deemed to be beneath their status and reserved for others in a country in which there is massive unemployment, terrible poverty and absolutely no welfare state. India somehow has to create 23 million new jobs every year if its vast expanding population is to be kept in work, and have any hope of a future. With the present model of globalised capitalism, and with a fourth industrial revolution involving artificial intelligence and increasing use of robotics now upon us, it simply can’t be done. So this small, far-off event, is a sign of a huge world-wide impending crisis as to how people are rewarded when there is no work. ‘Unless you repent, unless you seek a new economic paradigm based on justice and mercy and inter-being and the dignity of every human person, you will all perish. ‘
Other apparently random events hit the news. A showman billionaire property developer who just could be president of the United States declares that he is going to build a wall on America’s southern border because Mexicans are drug dealers, thieves and rapists … in other words spectacular sinners. Because of their sinfulness there must be a wall. They are nothing to do with us.
Muslims must also be kept out of the United States because – following the san Bernardino massacre when 14 people died – some of them murder people.
And in Britain migrants must be kept out because … well … they bring all their confusion and chaos … they are threatening to swamp us … like ‘a swarm’ says the British Prime Minister – a phrase which suggests a plague of locusts eating everything … and terrible though it may be … their plight is really nothing to do with us.
So there is much talk of the three Ms of exclusion: Mexicans, Muslims, and Migrants, which leads growing numbers of people to think seriously about building walls, pulling up drawbridges … all signs of our failure to deal creatively with a world of grossly unequal life-chances. “Unless you repent and turn to the way of justice mercy and inter-being and the dignity of every human being, you will all get caught up in a violence that is destroying not just them, but you too.”
And then there is the great debate: ‘remain’, or ‘leave’. Interesting to ponder the meanings and resonance of these two words: ‘remain’, ‘stay’, ‘be with’, (interestingly the verb ‘to remain’, or ‘abide’ is the favourite verb of the Gospel of John used something like 43 times;) or ‘leave’, ‘depart’, ‘separate’, ‘go away, …’
Remain or Leave. Stay involved in all the messiness, or go back to the separate nation state in control of your own borders, your own walls … quite forgetting that it was the era of the separate nation state that brought on the last catastrophe.
“Unless you return to the way of justice and mercy and inter-being and the dignity of every human being, you will all perish.”
‘You will all perish.’ There was an extraordinary article about the coming referendum in the Observer last week by the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole. He reminded us that we need the European Union to protect us from the chaos and destructiveness of our own worst selves. He wrote ‘The banner under which the EU has marched forward has two short words inscribed upon it: ‘or else’. The union’s 28 members must leave an empty seat at the table for a ghostly 29th: the abyss. ‘
‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Unless you turn to the way of justice and mercy and inter-being and the dignity of every human person …’
This sober gospel and these current events remind us that we live in a world of
- extraordinarily rapid change and technological invention,
- of huge dangers … particularly the dangers of separation …
- and yet, if we can interpret the signs, if we can join the dots, a world of hope.
In the words of Deuteronomy there is a choice. ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses …’
Either we take the path of exclusion, of attempting to fashion separate identities in a world of interconnectedness … the way of building walls and not bridges in the words of Pope Francis, the ‘pontiff’ … the title of course literally means ‘bridge builder’ …
Or … we go by the way of hope, of greeting the stranger, of embracing the so-called enemy, and so of moving forward to the discovery of a common humanity in which all belong.
‘Wake up’, says the Gospel, ‘join the dots, in the great ecology of God, everything is connected, even the seemingly most random distant events. Everything that happens is connected and is saying something. Unless you see this, you will all perish.’