Minister's Sermon - Sunday 24th March 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 24th March 2019

Luke 13.1-5 and 15.1-7

The last couple of weeks have seen tragedy after tragedy. The crash of an Ethiopian plane killing 157 people. 50 Muslims praying in Christchurch, New Zealand, killed by a right-wing extremist. 3 people, killed in a random attack in Utrecht, by a man with personal problems and a radicalised ideology. 3 teenagers crushed in a queue outside a disco at a St Patrick’s Day party in Ireland. And predictions of at least a thousand people killed and thousands displaced in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique in the worst ever cyclone in the Southern hemisphere. Why? Why are these things happening? We want explanations. And often we want someone to blame. Some of the reasons are self-evident. They’re mechanical issues, even if we’re not absolutely sure, what. Insufficient attention paid to safety, maybe for maximum profit, perhaps human error. Then there’s climate change, ‘though some deny that, and insist cyclone Idai is a natural disaster. While others are the result of hatred. Right-wing racism, Islamophobia and Islamist ideology. Every theory has been chewed over at great length in the media. But what we probably won’t have heard on the media - ‘though this question might be around for some of us - is the theory Jesus is exploring after similar tragedies in his time. You might think it’s not a very appropriate theme for a baptism service. Callum is a child. What does he know of things like this? And of course, he knows nothing. But he’s growing up in a world where this tragedies like these happen regularly. And 24/7 media means he’ll be exposed to more of it, than most of us were, when we were younger. The world, that he and other children are growing up in, is now complex. They need help to find a way through the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that events like these will face them with. And the events in today’s Gospel reading might just help us to help them.

The writer of the Gospel doesn’t tell us who tells Jesus about these tragedies. The first is about a horror that isn’t far from the murders committed by Islamic state. The second is the collapse of a building. The question asked of him is as old as the human race. Why? Why did these terrible things happen? Why does a good God allow human suffering? People of all faiths and none ask these questions, and even ‘though we haven’t found answers that satisfy, we keep on asking them. Debie Thomas is an American Christian writer. She says, “We crave a Theory of Everything when bad stuff happens. We… look for formulas to eradicate the mystery. Everything in us… longs to make sense of the senseless.” (1) Today’s first reading ‘though, suggests that the people who ask Jesus these questions, already have an answer. And they expect him to support their deeply ingrained assumption. That people suffer what they deserve. So bad things happen to bad people. And even ‘though we know it’s not true, “we also know that there’s a place deep down inside us all, that space where secrets reside, that wonders, that questions, what did I do? …Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong?” (2) So, when Jesus says twice: “I tell you, unless you turn from your sins, you will all die as they did” we feel in the wrong and assume he’s condemning us. I am not going to give you a simple answer to the question about why bad things happen. I can’t because there isn’t one. And while some events might have clear rational reasons as to why they happened, there will always be others that we’ll want to say are mysteries. But I can say something about how we respond to tragedy. Which is what Jesus is doing here. For Jesus’ doesn’t connect death and punishment. People do not die because they are being punished. The people who have died over the past few weeks are no better and no worse than the rest of us. They are all loved by God. But Jesus doesn’t say that sin and death are unconnected. And this is why he invites us to turn away from our sins. The traditional word that’s used is “repent.” And it means turn around, change direction, look in a different place for happiness. In relation to the tragedies that have happened recently, it means putting people before profit, changing the way we live so that climate change might be reversed, tackling the root causes of racism, terrorism, and Islamophobia. Because these are caused by sin. By selfishness, greed, and ways of thinking about other people that are rooted in prejudice. For sin gets in the way of people living the full, fulfilling lives, that God longs for us all to have. And the only way of ensuring everyone shares the happiness God intends for us, is for those who benefit from tragedies, to choose to live differently. To choose justice, compassion and unity over division. For choosing these really is our best interests. But because we humans struggle to grasp what this means, God came among us in human form as Jesus, to shows us what this living differently looks like.

And that brings me to the reading. To the complaint that Jesus “welcomes outcasts and eats with them.” To his story about lost sheep. People felt safe with Jesus. They felt his compassion. He welcomed people who were ignored and despised by others. Women who sold their bodies. Outsiders. People from other religions. Other countries. Lazy poor people. People with chronic or psychiatric illnesses. People with disabilities. Women, widows, children. People bad things had happened to. People who felt, in some way or other, lost. And when Jesus welcomed them, when he accepted the unacceptable without preconditions, he angered others. Just as those who want to do as Jesus did today, anger those, who in every faith, community and nation, try to keep out those they don’t think belong. Jesus’ story about the lost sheep is the first of three stories about lost things and people. The way he begins, “Suppose one of you…” suggests that he’s going to speak about something that was normal. But is it? It’s natural for a shepherd to search for a lost sheep. That is the shepherd’s job. (PP 7) But to do it he puts 99 sheep at risk, leaving them in the wilderness, with no protection or shelter. And when he finds the lost sheep, he takes the whole flock home (PP8 and 9), and calls his neighbours to celebrate (10). This is hardly ordinary behaviour! But that’s the point. He’s saying this crazy behaviour is how God responds to those who change, who turn their lives around, who repent. “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine respectable people who do not need to repent.”

But I think there’s more to it than this. And that more relates to what I said earlier. For this isn’t only about the people who know they are sinners, know they are lost. People who get turned into outsiders. This is also for the people who complained to Jesus. People who thought they were right, respectable. People who are also lost, because they’ve lost sight of the fact that God loves, and welcomes everyone. And sometimes, that includes people like you and me, people who think we’re good, because we’re trying to do our best. Jesus is inviting us to a more complex view of other people and ourselves. People aren’t usually right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or evil, in or out, lost or found. People are a mixture of all these things. David Lose an American pastor, ask these questions. “Might the career minded man or woman who has made moving up the ladder the one and only priority be lost? Might the folks who do jobs they hate just to give their family things they never had be lost? Might someone who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement be lost? Might the teenager who works so hard to be perfect and who is willing to do just about anything to fit in be lost?

Might the earnest Christian who is constantly asking whether people have accepted Jesus into their hearts be lost?” It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with working hard, doing our best, fitting in. These can be good things. But they only scratch the surface of who we are and what we hope to become. And they may be getting in the way of deeper relationships with ourselves, with our families and friends, our community and nation, with the wider world and with God. For its these relationships that help us to become the people God made us to be. And enable us to live full, fulfilled lives. And when these relationships are at the forefront of all of our lives, when they become pour reason for living, the tragic events of recent weeks, could become things of the past. Not overnight. But in time. As we come to understand that the way we live, and the privileges we enjoy, mean other people’s lives are less than they could be.

Whether we are lost because of the way we live. Or because of the way we’re treated by others. We don’t need to do anything to receive God’s love. God loves us just like we are and right where we are. The only thing we have to do is to accept that we are accepted. A well-known theologian said: “You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you, the name of which you don’t know… Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” “We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievement… but we are still accepted by God, and held in God’s hands.” This is what God promises in Jesus. It’s a promise we can trust. And it’s the promise made in Callum’s baptism. That whatever he might or might not do with his life. Whatever he becomes. Good, bad, ‘though probably a mixture of both. He is loved and accepted by God. He is held in God’s hands. And God holds us all, as we are, and as we are becoming. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen