Whose fault is it anyway?
March 24, 2019 § Leave a comment
I preached this at Heath Street Baptist Church on Sunday March 24. As it reflects on some social media posts earlier in the week I thought I’d share it.
There’s a reference to “rock stars” – Heath Street has a superb exhibition of rock and pop photos, and George Michael (a local) was in one of them.
Luke 13. 1 – 9
How on earth did we get here? Whose fault is it? Who should take responsibility? Who can we change things so it doesn’t happen again?
Yes, I was at the march yesterday in Westminster, and, yes, such questions were a feature of the conversations all around me. By and large they were cheerfully done, and there were some magnificently humorous banners. A favourite was held by a child. It said: “I can negotiate my bedtime better than Theresa May has negotiated Brexit.” Surrounded by rock stars as I am today I rather enjoyed “Wake UK up before EU go go”, which was geographically topical too. My favourite alluded to the millions who have signed the petition, and the question of digital manipulation: “Do we look like Bots?” What a state we are in. How did it come to this?
Signs of the times questions quickly move from “how” to “why”. What led to this? Was there anything which could have been done? How then are we going to get out of this mess? I do think the signs of these current times are deeply disturbing, and became profoundly worried when the Prime Minister pitted the people against Parliament on Wednesday. I could not see that the solution was to be found in some kind of rebellion against democratic and parliamentary processes, and I worried for the fabric of our nation. That rhetoric seems to have subsided, but the present emergency means we have to look to the underlying way in which we are society, as well as the short term answers to what will happen on and after March 29, which will take more than the Church of England’s rather lovely cup of tea to sort.
Signs of the times questions are asked just as readily in other situations too: of the rise in violent crime in this city and around the country; of the destruction by fire of a council run block of flats; the mass deaths inflicted by the negligence of crowd control at football grounds, unsolved acts of terror; shootings by soldiers on duty; the systematic abuse of children unprotected by institutions which should have kept them safe. All of these are subject, rightly, to public scrutiny at the moment. What happened? How did it come to pass? Who should be blamed? Why? And what can we do to ensure such things don’t happen again?
It’s not just the results of human actions which are so questioned. The “why” question is also asked of natural disasters or so called “acts of God” too. Are the people of Eastern Africa wondering why they were so devastated by Cyclone Idai? People continue to come to judgment and make all sorts of wild accusations, saying earthquakes or floods are the result of immorality and bad human behaviour – a Bishop I know said something like that about floods in Carlisle not long ago. The questions are age old. Jesus was once asked whether a man’s blindness from birth was the result of his own sin or the sin of his parents. A similar question is asked of the two situations which form the background of Luke 13: a mass killing of prisoners, and a collapsing building. “Who sinned?” “Who is to blame?”. The underlying assumption is that what happened to them was their own fault. And thank God it’s not us. That’s judgment and pride all in one go.
No, says Jesus. Twice. Not them. Not their sin. Well, not exactly. Luke 12 and Luke 13 are “signs of the times” chapters. Jesus has been talking about lifestyle and readiness, about a mounting crisis where friends and families will be pitted against each other, about how you can predict the weather by reading the meteorological signs and should do the same thing with the events of politics and the news. It is clearly all too tempting for people to read the signs and come to the wrong conclusions: that these things are the result of other people’s wrong doing, and that God takes direct action against those who act or think badly. Someone must be to blame. No, and no, is Jesus’s answer. It is not as simple as that.
This is all of us. At every time and in every place. Of course bad behaviour, exploitation, wrong actions will eventually lead to catastrophe, and of course some actions have their direct consequences. But you can’t say that people killed by a tyrant must have had it coming to them. You can’t say that people killed in a building collapse must have been put there by God because they especially deserved it. Sinfulness – what the writer Francis Spufford calls the Human Propensity to **** Things Up is – more subtle and pervasive and complex than that. This is everyone. It’s about the way institutions and societies and denominations and cultures work. It’s not about blaming someone or something else. It is about looking deep within.
Twice Jesus says to the people “unless you repent you will perish as they did.” This is no analysis of the origin of sin, but it is a clear statement that whoever you are and however you are and wherever you are, all need to recognise fault and flaw and mess and brokenness and our part in the way the world messes up. How did we get to this state of affairs over Europe? It’s complicated. How did we get to a state where young people have to go out armed? It’s complicated. How did institutions such as mine enable a culture where appalling behaviour was not exposed and condemned? It’s complicated. The world is like that, and though individual situations can be analysed and better practices put in place, the need for repentance goes far deeper.
Where then is salvation to be found? Jesus, in talking about the impending crisis and the signs of the times seems to imply that the game is up and judgment will come quickly and on all. Well, not quite yet. There’s a profound little parable of hope, for those who have ears to hear. Take a fig tree which is not doing its stuff. The owner has had enough, but the gardener says “wait”. Let’s give it another season. We will offer it every chance. If fruit comes, well and good. If it doesn’t take the chance then you will have done everything you can, and down it can come. Where people have been too quick to rush to judgement about others, Jesus offers a vision of God who will stay the judgement, put down the loppers, not use the axe, yet. Everyone gets a chance.
This is grace, and love, and mercy. This is what is offered in Isaiah 55 to people who have been looking in the wrong place for satisfaction and life and hope. This is what is said to a whole nation whose wickedness has led to exile and judgment: God will have mercy. God will pardon extravagantly. Start thinking with God’s thoughts, and you will find mercy and love encompass judgment, that the life of God will absorb all human wrongdoing and the groaning of creation, and heal and renew it and offer it back to God in praise. God, in Christ, judges sin, puts it to death, and holds out new life and the Kingdom of heaven. Recognise your need for this, says Christ; recognise your call to turn round and live a new life, and there is mercy and love, and grace.
What is then to be done in the present times? I despaired on Wednesday. Wise voices told me to keep on doing the little things, to hold out the hand of grace and love to all, to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God is about holding together those who disagree and are at odds, because we are bound together by the love of Christ. In a time of turmoil we are asked to offer the “more excellent way”, to defuse hatred, to hold out the hand of fellowship, to ensure that the poor are not forgotten, nor the hope of the needy taken away. This is about all of us. All are offered the grace of God, the gentle care of a gardener who takes the long view. May we receive such forgiveness in Christ that we bear rich fruit. May we so challenge and love that others find that hope too. And may we offer the love of God to all.
In the words of the prayer offered to the nation by the Archbishops:
God of hope,
in these times of change,
unite our nation
and guide our leaders with your wisdom.
Give us courage to overcome our fears,
and help us to build a future
in which all may prosper and share;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.