The Tower of Siloam, Al Noor Mosque & Grenfell
Sermon for Lent 3 – Sunday 23 March 2019 – St Mary, Walton.
Text: Luke 13.1-9
…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? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
I have grown weary with the accusations of those on the edges of faith and of no faith, who want to dismiss all religions and every time a natural disaster, an aeroplane crash, or a massacre by those filled with hate occurs, proclaim that this proves that there is no God. And if there were a God the the God we worship is an empty and powerless God, so why do we even bother with worship?
Their cry is an old one that echoes down the ages and is found in the middle of our gospel reading today.
We read of two groups of people who died. A group of faithful Galilean worshippers and some local Jerusalem builders. Both should have expected to have been protected by the God to whom they were offering sacrifices and whose temple they were working on at the Tower of Siloam. No wonder the people of Jesus’ day were perplexed.
This story brings into chilling relief the fate of the worshipers of Al Noor mosque in Christchurch whose blood was horribly and suddenly mixed with their prayers, and also that of the residents of Grenfell whose tower burnt them alive as if they were some kind of perverse holocaust.
How do we answer Harold Kushner’s oft-posed question Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Kushner answering from the point of view of his Jewish faith is led to suggest the idea of a God who suffers alongside us, but does not give any balm for our un-earnt hurt or reward for our righteousness.
It would be all too easy to lay the blame for disaster at the foot of the sufferer. That those who died in the Jerusalem Temple and at the Tower of Siloam, in Christchurch and Grenfell, were somehow ‘getting their just deserts’. Even a brief reading of the Book of Job shows us the futility of that blame game. Kushner has this to say;
The idea that God gives people what they deserve, that our misdeeds cause our misfortune, is a neat and attractive solution to the problem of evil at several levels, but it has a number of serious limitations. As we have seen, it teaches people to blame themselves. It creates guilt even where there is no basis for guilt. It makes people hate God, even as it makes them hate themselves. And most disturbing of all, it does not even fit the facts.
This is the question at the beginning of today’s gospel reading. The worshippers Herod massacred were performing righteous deeds; why would God let them be punished? The workers who died in the Tower of Siloam were building something to God’s glory; surely God should have protected them? And the same applies to the tragedies in Al Noor Mosque, in Grenfell, in churches across Nigeria, amongst the people of The Yemen, and for the cyclone wracked people along the coast of Moçambique. Surely some of them were worth saving? Surely they didn’t all deserve to die? Surely God is not that capricious?
And Jesus’ response? What does the Son of God say when questioned about why bad things happen to good people? Repent! All of you, unless you want to end up in the same situation as these, repent!
Repent? Repent of what? Offering sacrifices? Being part of the church working party? Going to Friday prayers? Making a home for your family in a tower block in Kensington? What on earth is Jesus getting at?
There are two urgent things to learn here about being righteous and being penitent
Firstly trusting in our own righteousness.
Being a vain creation we want to leave our mark on the world. We easily forget that we are not saved by what we do – regular worship, help with the church building project – we are saved by grace not works. Saved for good works yes, but not saved by our good works or even by our excellent worship. So it is that Anglicans pray at the end of each Book of Common Prayer Communion Service;
…we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in;
Any work or worship we do is because of God’s grace at work within us not because we are special and deserving of more of God’s love or protection than anyone else. And in case we forget that in the Anglican Communion we are given Article XIV of the Articles of Religion ‘Of Works of Supererogation’ to keep us humble. Look it up.
The second thing this Gospel passage teaches us is the nature of repentance.
Look again at the words of Jesus. To whom is he speaking? Faithless Gentiles? Idol worshipping Phoenician traders? Or is he talking to people who believe they are faithful?
Jesus call to repentance is backed-up with the story of the unfruitful fig tree, an ancient symbol for the Children of Israel. A people whom Jesus has tended with three years of miracle working in Capernaum, the Galilee and now Jerusalem. And all this without a figs-worth of reward. This story is not about ‘them’ it is about ‘us’.
It is not sinners whom Jesus is calling to repent but the faithful. After all how can sinners, those outside of the welfare of Israel, even know they need repentance? You can’t break a command you didn’t know you were supposed to keep, nor commit a sin against your neighbour if you don’t first follow a religion that commanded you to love her.
It is his followers and fellow Jews whom Jesus is calling to repent. ‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ It is not so much a condemnation but a fact of life. People have died at the hands of despots and hate mongers throughout history; people will continue to suffer because of the greed of others and the caprices of Mother Nature. Not one of us here is protected from that. We know not when disaster may fall anywhere in the world or even fall close to us here in our lovely seaside home. Ask the family of Nik Moore who was murdered at the Admiral Duncan Pub 20 years ago or those who still weep for Philip Heathcote gunned down on a beach in Tunisia a mere 4 years ago.
What are we to do? If the call from God is to repent what does this mean? Going to confession? Being in church more often? Both laudable habits to be encouraged but this is not what Jesus asks of us.
His complaint of the fig tree is not that it wasn’t growing but that it bore no fruit. The proof of repentance is not worship or works but fruit borne out of the grace and generosity of God. Jesus comes to us looking for fruit, not good works or great worship.
A fruit that brings others closer to God’s family. A ruit that encompasses all people and all of creation. A fruit that welcomes rather than excludes. Out of this fruit there will flow as naturally as a tree gives of its produce, worship and good works that will become a foundation for our common life to flourish and an anchor when the storms of life assail us.
When I look at the news reports from Christchurch and the community being rebuilt at Grenfell I see that fruit not only growing but overflowing and being shared with the whole world.
How do we, the already faithful repent? We repent by refusing to keep God’s love to ourselves. We repent by using the time we have left here – be it short or long – to live lives of grace and generosity. We repent by living lives wherein strangers may find shelter from the storms of life. We repent by making our churches places of sanctuary for those who flee from those who pedal hate.
We repent by learning to love others just as much, if not more than, we love ourselves.
Please Note: This blog ‘The Tower of Siloam, Al Noor Mosque, and Grenfell’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2019
 From the Introduction to ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People.’ Kushner: 1981