Today’s Gospel brings us three disturbing images and a deep sense of the fear and dread felt by the religious faithful who had gathered around Jesus.
The first involved the leaders of a group of Galileans who had been at a feast in Jerusalem and may have been involved in some insurrection against the Roman government, whom Pilate had killed right in the temple courts where the sacrifices were going on. Jesus comments on the incident, but not as the reporters had expected. Instead of denouncing Pilate he turned it into a parable for their own conduct in the uncertain times they were living in.
In the second, Jesus also refers to the collapse of a tower at Siloam where many people died simply because a construction accident occurred.
The third involves a fig tree, which has not born fruit and deserves to be cut down. The gardener, who pleads for it to have just one more year to prove that it can be fruitful or else it will be forcibly removed from the vineyard, saves it.
The fear and dread felt by those around Jesus, and who are reflecting the concerns of the wider community, is simply the big question of the seeming randomness of life. How does bad things happen to ostensibly good people? In trying to come to grips with this disturbing question, they suppose that those involved have sinned, are sinners, have been responsible for breaking God’s law in some way.
Gary M. Simpson suggest that like them, “We moderns (and post-moderns) are also adept at externalising. In addition, our contemporary affection for the adequacy of causal explanations escalates our use of diversionary tactics.” We need a reason a cause for the bad things that happen to us. We need a diagnosis, a pre-existing genetic fault, a pin-pointed experience, an identified causal agent to explain why we do or experience bad things. We seek labels and become victims to our reasonable reasons for who we are and why we behave the way we do. No less than the people of Jesus’ time, we are imprisoned by sin – the motivation resulting in our bad behaviour or outcomes.
There must be a reason for this situation to have occurred, and if we can identify that reason we can reassure ourselves that we have nothing to fear. For those around Jesus that was sin. “It was undoubtedly their fault, and we know we have not sinned and therefore we are ok.” And then they look to Jesus for confirmation and get a rebuke, unless you repent
Matt Skinner suggests that “Repentance becomes less interesting when people mistake it to mean moral uprightness, expressions of regret, or a “180-degree turnaround.” Rather, here and many other places in the Bible, it refers to a changed mind, to a new way of seeing things, to being persuaded to adopt a different perspective.”
In another article he adds, “The word translated as ‘repent’ is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of yourself toward God.”
Now this ups the ante. It is no longer about the little things we do, we feel guilty and regret over. It is not about running a red light, having a naughty thought or saying a bad word! It’s not about secretly wanting to throttle your partner or hire someone to shoot your most hated relative! It is about shifting the focus from self as the centre of the world, the place of entitlement, from being assured of immunity from bad things happening.
It is a recognition that life plays out according to randomness we do not control, and we may assume God does not control. Why? Because nowhere in this discussion does Luke put in the mouth of Jesus a defence of the Divine. Jesus does not attempt to absolve God of the responsibility for these things happening. He seems to accept that life will play out the way it will and that we are to simply be in awe of its mystery. Awe not fear.
Awe or praise should bring from us a complete reorientation of ourselves to God. No longer do we see ourselves as being deserving of God’s good will, expecting God to always make life easy and safe for us just like we are entitled to for we worship God, on a Sunday.
Over the last week or so I have read and heard a great deal of doom and gloom regarding the future of the church. I have heard speakers struggle to find ways to give hope numbers attending church will rise, speaking about mission and evangelism as if there was some magic formula by which people would return to the finding reasons to our form of church.
The truth is simple; the church as we knew it no longer exists, and neither does the world in which that church existed. Jesus says we need a new orientation of ourselves to God if we are to be ready to deal with the interruptions to our comfortable worldview.
How does that happen for us today?
Stop saying that people are no longer interested in faith just because they are not here. It simply isn’t true. They are interested in faith and the church but have lost faith with the image of the church they are presented with in the media or have experienced in the past.
Stop expecting people to be like us, to like the things we do, our worship and style of faith. They will bring with them their own interests, likes and dislikes and we will be enriched and enlivened if we make space for them in our place.
Stop saying that is the way we do it here. That may be nice for the small number who are here, but is it appropriate for those who would like to be here but find the way we always have done it confronting and out of touch?
Anglican Theologian Stephen Pickard suggests three reorientations the church is to undertake. It is to be Fresh, Local and Organic. Mark Davis Jr calls this subterranean, having its roots deeply embedded in place and time.
Fresh does not mean contemporary or even guitars and drums. It means that when we come to worship, however we express it be it through church, social justice, ecumenism and more, with fresh eyes each time. Full of awe and wonder at the possibilities abounding for us. It is not to be routine, ritualistic or pedestrian. When you come to worship do so knowing you worship the creator of the world who is available regardless of the circumstances.
Local implies a response to people, place and time where you live. It does not matter what others are doing in other places, it only matters how we live and relate to those around, how we experience the shared challenges of living in Glen Iris/Ashburton. Our church cannot be, as it has been for many years, a remnant from the past, or as the church in Australia has been, an out post of the Church of England. Find the local problems and issues, find ways to help address them and then it is possible, just possible people will join you.
Organic means it grows down and up out of the whole community. Organic growth is slow, requires hard-work tilling the soil and clearing the weeds and needs a constant presence. We cannot impose ideas, pre-packaged formulas or what we believe to be the solutions. They will grow if we are patient.
Angela Reed suggests that “In this season of Lent, the church has an opportunity to seek restoration and renewal through the discipline of confession and heartfelt repentance.” Confession of existing in isolation and repentance in orientating it self to be fresh, local and organic.
On that note I invite you to join us in the local coffee shop in the courtyard, meet the locals, get involved in the fresh engagement with the schools, explore your expression of faith with others and be in awe as God works organically amongst us. Amen.