1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
Third Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s 24.03.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
The events of the massacre in the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, have shaken the world. Muslims gathering peacefully to worship, gunned down in cold blood. To add to the heinous, callousness of the crime, all streamed live on the internet. When one feels that our human capacity to be inhumane to other human beings cannot get lower, we show yet further evidence of our propensity to delve the depths of evil.
This act does not stand alone, however. Take just one country – Pakistan – and one religious minority – in this case, Pakistani Christians. In the last six years, a twin suicide bomb attack at a church in Peshawar left over 80 people dead, two bomb blasts at churches in Lahore killed 14 people and injured more than 70; at Easter two years ago, a suicide attack killed 70 people and wounded 340 others; and in 2017 another nine people were killed and a further 57 injured following an attack on a church in Quetta.
Pakistan is just one example. Look around the world and we see state-sponsored religious persecution in countries such as Saudi Arabia, military-driven genocide of religious minorities such as in Myanmar and Tibet, and extremist acts of terrorism in countries as diverse as the United States, New Zealand, Kenya and India.
In this morning’s Gospel reading we hear of a similar act of massacre and religious outrage being reported to Jesus. Some people come up to Jesus and report that a massacre of Galilean worshippers has just occurred in the Temple in Jerusalem under the orders of Pilate. Pilate had a track record of stamping all over religious sensibilities. He brought his Roman standards with their pagan symbols into the streets of Jerusalem. He seized money from the Temple treasury to fund the building of an aqueduct. On both occasions, the demonstrations and riots that arose were brutally crushed. Maybe Pilate was fearing another riot, but for whatever reason, he sends his troops into the Temple to slaughter those who had come on pilgrimage and were offering sacrifices. To add to the human misery, is the religious affront – the Temple has been polluted with the shedding of human blood.
Two thousand years on, our world does not seem so dissimilar to the world Christ lived in. So what is Jesus’ response to this tragic news, and what can we learn from it?
The first thing he says is to say that just because these people died such horrific deaths, this does not mean they were any more sinful than anyone else. Nor are those unlucky enough to be crushed by the falling tower in Siloam any more deserving of death than those who escaped. Life cannot be reduced to such simplistic terms. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. When hatred and cruelty raises its head, all people are vulnerable.
The second thing that Jesus says that continues to resonate with us two thousand years on, is that the world will continue to experience such horrific acts until we renounce the way of power, might and violence and embrace Christ’s way of love and peace.
Jesus says: “Unless you repent, unless you turn from your current trajectory, unless you turn away from your belief that human might can overcome and and solve your problems, unless you do that, you too will perish in the same way.” As we saw last week, as Jesus headed towards Jerusalem his thoughts were ever more caught up with the future of that city. He could see ahead to where the Jewish people’s longing for a military victory over the Romans would take it – to calamity and destruction. Unless they turned from their way, they too would die at the point of Roman swords; they too would be crushed under falling buildings, burnt to the ground as the city was sacked and destroyed.
Two thousand years on, and we know, the way of violence, the way of asserting our rights over and above those of others, the way of doing down others and exalting ourselves, does not work. Violence begets violence; the abuse of power begets yet further and escalating abuses of power. Our world must embrace a different way, a way of love and grace. It is interesting to note the words of praise for New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who has sought to articulate such a view this week.
Our world, indeed our own individual life contexts, cry out for a different way, a way that reaches out to the stranger, that embraces difference, that seeks to understand rather than judge, to empathise rather than stereotype, to search for common ground rather than seek personal gain. Christ rejected the temptations of wealth, power and fame, to live a life of humility, of willing service, of compassion. These are the markers of what our life should be like.
But the third note of resonance to us from Christ’s words is that this road to peace starts with confession and repentance. Its why so central to our own cathedral’s commitment to the work of peace and reconciliation is the Coventry litany. The acknowledgment that we cannot be peace-builders unless we are prepared to seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others. Its why in Lent, we give particular emphasis to repentance. It is crucial that we acknowledge our natural inclination to hatred, greed, envy, indifference and pride – all that lead to divisions in our world – seek God’s forgiveness and ask for his empowering to live a different life.
And that brings us to a final point made by Jesus here. God is a loving and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love. He patiently longs for us to turn to him. But there are consequences to our tardiness to repent, to change, to seek a different way. Consequences for ourselves and also for others
The people of Israel, our first reading reminded us, had opportunity after opportunity to follow God’s way, to live lives of faithfulness and love, but instead they chose to grumble at God’s goodness and reject his faithfulness to them. Eventually God allowed the direction of travel they had chosen, a direction consistently away from him, to become permanent.
In his parable, Jesus speaks of an owner of a vineyard willing to wait to see if a fig-tree, a symbol of Israel, will bear fruit. He is willing to let his gardener dig round it and fertilise it, and give it every chance to flourish, but at some point a line will be drawn.
It is a warning against complacency – “if you are thinking you are standing firm, be careful you don’t fall”, Paul warns us. The state of our world is such, the state of our own lives is such, that there is no value in procrastinating. The events in New Zealand, just as the events in the Jerusalem temple, are a reminder of that. We are called to turn, to repent, to seek love rather than hate, humility rather than power, and to do it now. Our world, and our lives, will be a better place if we do so.