"The Tower of Siloam and Suffering"
A sermon preached by the Minister, Rev Andrew Sails
at the Mint Methodist Church, Exeter
on the third Sunday of Lent, 3 March 2013
Lets go to the start of our NT passage –
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (Lk 13:1)
What does this refer to? We can’t be sure – but Pilate was evidently a fairly callous and ruthless colonial governor. Galilee was traditionally the heartland of Zealot nationalist opposition to Roman rule - So it sounds like a group of Galileans were going to the Temple to make their sacrifices, and Pilate rightly or wrongly fears they are planning terrorist attacks of some kind. It is maybe a bit like the UK government and Abu Hansa.
But being Pilate, he doesn’t just argue for their deportation -
he has the suspected terrorists killed in the temple.
Why did these men get killed? Those talking to Jesus assume
(as did most people of their time) that if you suffered,
you must have done something wrong that brought about the suffering –
so those who died must have been specially evil, unlike those who lived.
Jesus says this is not the case - "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” No – everyone – whether they prosper or suffer –
are part of the sin of the world – we all need to repent.
Jesus goes on to a cite a similar example – what about
“those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
Siloam was a small area in the heart of Jerusalem –
evidently a tower collapsed –
they were building aqueducts at the time – it could have been part of that – anyway 18 people were killed.
The same question is posed –
what specially heinous sin had they committed to deserve to die?
Again, the clear assumption on the behalf of Jesus’ hearers
is that individual suffering in the world
is directly commensurate with individual sin - They must have deserved it.
God looks after the righteous and punishes the evil.
But Jesus again says no –
you can’t link levels of suffering in this world
with the sin and evil of those who suffer.
It just doesn’t work like that.
All of us are guilty sinners, whether the towers falls on us or someone else.
In early July 1934, Adolf Hitler feared a possible coup within the Nazi party, and so he organized a purge – in one day the SS assassinated around 200 of his opponents within the party.
At this time Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and staunch opponent of Hitler and fascism, was living in London. On the following Sunday, 8 July 1934, he preached on the passage we are looking at.
How tempting it must have been to use his sermon to attack Hitler or to see the death of the 200 Nazis as judgment on the sins of the Nazi party.
But just as Christ in our passage does not single out Pilate, so Bonhoeffer does not single out Hitler. And just as Jesus says – you can’t simply identify those who died as the sinners deserving their fate, so
Bonhoeffer says you can’t simply blame the Nazis as the only ones who sin.
He quotes the self-righteous Pharisee in Luke 18 who says
“Thank God I am not sinful like other people” –
No says Bonhoeffer we are all sinners wrapped up in an infinitely complex web of human sin and suffering –and every one of us has to say
“God be merciful on me, a miserable sinner”. In the words of his sermon:
“Christians are not to assume the arrogant, know-all attitude of looking on & judging, but rather Christians are to recognize: this is my world in which this has happened. This is the world in which I live, in which I sin by sowing hate and lovelessness day by day. This is the fruit of mine and my brothers & sisters sin & guilt….So let us repent and realize our guilt and not judge.”
On 11 September 2001 the Twin Towers were destroyed – a modern Siloam.
For Pilate read Hitler, and for Hitler read bin Laden.
Every generation and every culture has its dragons to slay or redeem….
The hymn we have just sung was written in the immediate and raw
aftermath of 9/11 – it wrestles with the issues, and talks about the need to avoid revenge and hatred and rather to seek mercy.
I remember immediately after 9/11
some of the US Christian websites I follow put up stuff saying
“How could such a terrible thing happen to such a great and noble nation?”
Well it is not for the UK (with our own rather ignoble history of imperialism) to lecture our American friends on this – but you just can’t say that.
We know that the political, economic and racial sins of the rich West
have contributed hugely to the rise of global terrorism –
our place is to repent our sins, not to look for all the sin elsewhere.
And neither should we see 9/11 as simplistic judgement
on specific individuals caught up in the disaster.
A colleague of mine had a son who worked on the 57th floor of the World Trade Building. Following the attack, the father spent hours on the phone trying to contact his son. Finally he discovered his son had not gone into work that day – he was not at his desk when the plane struck.
Was that God rewarding him for his virtue whilst condemning the guy at the next desk for his sin? No – the 18 men who were crushed by the tower of Siloam were no more guilty than those who escaped.
But old ideas of bad things happening because of my sins are difficult to shift
A mother loses her child and says to me -
“What did I do to deserve this?”
To which of course the answer is “Nothing more or less than the next person – suffering is not distributed on that basis.”
Look at the great saints if you want to see how often it is
the most holy who are those who seem to suffer the most.
Or take another topical issue -
On Friday this week, the Methodist URC and Baptist Churches produced a really important document called “Lies about Poverty”
It shows how statistics have been manipulated and misused
by politicians and the media to support a comfortable but dangerous story: that the poor somehow deserve their poverty,
and therefore they deserve the cuts which they increasingly face.
The tower of debt has fallen on your life and crushed you –
what do you expect – your lazy shirking sins have found you out.
Jesus says No to that – if there is suffering, if there is poverty,
we as a total society, as a human race, need to share the blame and repent.
We could go on – this is the middle of Fair Trade Fortnight and also the start of Climate Change Week. So much present and potential suffering –
Let’s beware lest we say that those who suffer deserve what they get –
Rather let us repent the selfishness and corruption of the whole of society.
So in the midst of this Lenten season, we need to spend less time pointing the finger of blame at others – and rather repent our own sins.
We know that the suffering of the world is the result of the knotted tangle of woes involving every one of us.
When the flood comes, we – none of us – deserve any less.
All of which may sound very depressing.
Until we recall the key Gospel message -
the promise of God’s unending love for every sinner.
Last night here at the Mint the students presented “Noah the Flood and the Flatpack Ark”
I have to say there are bits of the story I don’t remember from Genesis –
I hadn’t realized that Noah was the first Palestinian penguin farmer
or that he bought his ark as a flatpack from Arkea….
But then there is plenty in the Biblical version –
floods covering the mountaintops –
which need to be taken with a bucket or two of sea salt
But the two versions end in the same place – with God’s rainbow promise.
And that’s where I want to end -
However much the human race may sin in the future, says God,
I will not desert them.
However much we suffer – even if our suffering takes us through death -
I will never desert you.
However much it rains, the sun will always shine through,
and the rainbow appear.
The rainbow is a promise that from now on
I will be there for my world – however sinful it may be.
So at the end of the day what matters
is not who sinned or suffered most –
that is just the talk of one drowning man to another –
what matters is the God who dives in to save us -
what matters is the promise of new life from out the waters of death -
and that comes not through my deserving but through God’s grace,
So to conclude:
Let’s not waste time pointing the finger of judgement at others -
rather let us confess our sins as a human race and each and every one of us repent our part in the flood of evil at work in the world.
Let us trust God through all our suffering and heartache
whether that suffering be the result of my sins or the sins of others
Let us follow in the path of Christ and the saints and stand alongside those who suffer - in solidarity with the poor the lost the suffering and the sad.
Let us trust in God’s rainbow promise – and rejoice that come what may,
though tower and temple may fall to dust,
nothing, but nothing, can prevail against the love and power of God