How do we respond to tragedy?


Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 17 March 2019

Readings were Psalm 1 and Luke 13:31-35

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I had another sermon prepared for today. It was linked to the themes of the Lenten Study on Les Misérables, and I was just applying the finishing touches on Friday afternoon…

…and I received a phone call that something terrible was happening in Christchurch.

So, the sermon changes. Because our world has changed. Because what we take for granted has changed. Because our questions change.

How do we understand what happened? Can we understand what happened?

It feels that we could deny the horror of what has happened, and try and shut it out. Or we might get drawn into the ugly evil of it all, and react with vengeful anger.

How do we honestly acknowledge the horrific reality AND respond well to it?

Firstly: honest acknowledgement.

It’s our human nature to deny something so horrific. It’s not that we deny the events that have occurred, rather we resist acknowledging how close it is to us, to where we are and who we are. We can say to ourselves:

“It happening in Christchurch, not Wellington”

“It happened to Muslims not Christians”

“It happened to strangers, not anyone I know”

“It was done by someone whose attitudes I share absolutely nothing”

Let’s be real. If we’ve said anything like these sorts of things to ourselves in the last 48 hours, may they be part of the coping with the shock only.

May we be able to acknowledge truly what has happened SO THAT… we may respond well.

I think today’s readings have something to say about how we might respond. Let’s see if you think the same…

Psalm 1 (I have to be honest) is one that feels simplistic, with the very ‘black and white’ view of righteous and unrighteous. This assessment of the Psalm was part of my ‘pre-Friday’ sermon. And, although I feel the desire to identify the Mosque-attacker as the ‘wicked’ described by the Psalmist, can we really make such neat distinctions?

The Psalmist contrasts the righteous and the unrighteous – the righteous are ‘happy’, the unrighteous will ‘perish’.

Isn’t our experience more of a mixture? Don’t we know that we are all a mix of good and bad? It’s not as easy or comfortable as we’d like to be able to identify all the wicked people are ‘over there’, and that we will never have to have anything to do with them.

So, although I’m drawn to this distinction between people who are good and bad in the wake of events that clearly has attackers and victims, I think this is too simplistic; too comfortable for me to identify with the good, and distance myself from the wickedness that compromises who I’d prefer to be.

The Gospel reading, I think, is far more helpful in offering guidance for how we might respond well to evil. This is actually the lectionary reading set down for today. (and I acknowledge the reflections of Bruce Prewer which has helped me recognise some of what this passage offers us) 

It seems to suggest two possible responses: being tough, or being compassionate. The evil Jesus was contending with manifested in some Pharisees coming to Jesus with a warning:

Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. (v31)

This threat was from the same Herod who ordered John the Baptist’s head lopped off. A tyrant known to attack the innocent he hated. He was a son of the notorious ‘Herod the Great’, the killer of the infants at Bethlehem. Like his father he was cruel and ambitious. He ruled, using fear as power, and the Roman Empire as his dominant weapon.

The response of Jesus was tough and direct:

Go and tell that fox, ‘Listen, I am continuing to do my thing today and tomorrow, and on the third day I’ll finish what I’ve started.’

Now that is a tough response to a terrorising tyrant. ‘That fox’  – not exactly an answer Herod would hear with kindliness.

Jesus was a strong person, resilient in character; a tough-guy when the occasion was right. This shows Jesus isn’t simply a nice-guy, a sentimental dreamer. Jesus knew the score. He mourned the bloody death of cousin John. But he was not going to be intimidated. He was in charge if his own destiny.

Go tell that fox I will move on when I am ready. Not before.

Jesus responds tough.

But wait…

Placed beside this response of Jesus, is another scene depicting a compassionate response by Jesus. It’s a graphic juxtaposition. Luke immediately shows Jesus lamenting over the fate of Jerusalem.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem …How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (v34)

There is hardly a more gentle and nurturing metaphor for Jesus available in the Gospel. The picture of a clucky hen rounding up her chickens and fluffing her feathers protectively over them, shows the compassion of the Jesus whom we name Lord and Saviour.

And Jerusalem rejected him, spurned his compassion. At the conclusion, Jesus was attacked and forced outside the city walls to a rocky hill called ‘The Skull’. But here, it seems the heart of Jesus was almost broken. Compassion; profound human compassion – divine compassion!

Here you have it. Jesus the tough character who would not give an inch to the bullying of Herod, is also Jesus the compassionate person. He is the man who longed to ‘mother’ the lost people of Jerusalem, and who would at the last willingly give his life “as a ransom for many”.

Their rejection of Jesus was the rejection of the greatest compassion this world has known. And, as we journey through Lent, we recognise the toughness of Jesus that made him press on toward the goal. Despite the threats and the attacks, Jesus was tough and faced down death itself, in order to rescue us from evil and bring us into eternal life with God. Motivated by divine compassion, and uncompromising to human threats, Jesus demonstrates how he is our Lord and Saviour.

He has rescued us all; we have received eternal life;we are commissioned to follow and act with compassion and tenacity.

Let’s journey with this Jesus who is both tough and compassionate and learn from him – especially when evil threatens us and seeks to compromise us in how we respond.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that this has been one of New Zealand’s ‘darkest days’.

I conclude with what Jesus says about himself in the Gospel of John:

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life. (John 8:12)

By saying those who follow him ‘will never walk in darkness’ doesn’t mean we won’t ever face evil, but …that the darkness will not prevail. Because of Jesus (he, who is human and also ‘God with us’) …because of Jesus, the darkness does not succeed.

— Glory be to His name! Amen.

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