There’s a moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus has to engage with the recent murder of pilgrims in Jerusalem and the aftermath of a tower collapsing in Siloam. And it ends up being a theological discussion, but it got me thinking – the people killed when the tower fell, the people slaughtered by the agents of state oppression, left behind children and partners, parents and friends and a community with wounds that may not have become scars. And the people of faith living in those communities would have to deal with those.
We only get a snapshot of Jesus’s three years of ministry. We can read through all the gospels in a few hours, and we know that things were left out. And so while we know of Jesus’s response in terms of the righteousness (or otherwise) of those involved in recent current affairs, we don’t get to see any ‘pastoral’ conversations he may have had about these same things.
But in our localised congregations we need to be able to deal with collapsing towers and sudden death. And we’ve not always been good at this in a communal sense – we work with individuals and relatives and friends, but do we always tackle the wounds that rip through our communities as a whole?
An example. Years ago, Princess Diana died early on a Sunday morning. Only the person preaching at my church hadn’t heard the news and so didn’t mention it, meaning that it felt like there was a gap in the service. Days later, the streets were full of flowers, catching everyone unawares. A friend from university would later suggest that this was only partly our grief over Diana – it was also about Jamie Bulger and Dunblane and all the other horrors of the preceding years, all the things we hadn’t been able to process, flowers flooding the streets to heal open wounds. I think my friend had a point.
What do our sermons sound like if we live in communities dependent on over-stretched food banks?
What do our sermons sound like if a factory shuts down and a few hundred middle-aged workers suddenly feel dropped onto society’s scrapheap?
What do our sermons sound like when children are killed, by gangs, by classmates, by cops?
What do our sermons sound like when people feel threatened by immigration or by racism?
I’m not saying our preachers should become pundits, but we need to be able to speak into the wounds and the scars and the self-harm of our communities before fear and despair and hopelessness and grief and abandonment metastasise into cancers that will slowly and painfully kill us.
In a recent interview with NPR, Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales pointed out how we need to be able to offer public theologies in a range of different contexts – in black communities dealing with white privilege, in working class neighbourhoods facing profound economic changes, whatever – and figure out how to speak God’s word into a situation. Because the Good News has to be good news in church, in the queue to the food bank, at a police call out and down at the job centre. And in the midst of this our churches should be an immune system, not an isolation ward.