I came across a story this week, told by an American theologian called Thomas Long.He wrote this. “ In the little Georgia country church of my childhood, there was a story the older folks loved to tell again and again, … The tale involved a certain Sunday night in October 1938. Evening prayer services were in full swing when a man named Sam, a member of the congregation who lived down the road from the church, charged into the prayer meeting trembling with fear and excitement. Finally gaining the breath to speak, he shouted, "Martians are attacking the earth in spaceships! Some of ‘em have already landed in New Jersey!" The preacher halted in mid-sentence; the congregation stared at Sam blankly. "I s-s-swear," he stammered, now a little unsure of his footing. "I h-h-heard it on the radio."
What Sam had heard, of course, was Orson Welles’s now infamous Mercury Theater radio production of War of the Worlds,[ which caused mass panic in the US, because many people, like Sam, thought it was real] but no one in the congregation was aware of that at the moment. For all they knew, the world outside was coming to a flaming end. The little flock looked apprehensively at the preacher, but he was mute and indecisive, never having had a sermon disrupted by interplanetary invasion. Finally one of the oldest members of the congregation, a red-clay farmer of modest education, stood up, gripped the pew in front of him with his large, callused hands, and said, "I ‘speck what Sam says ain’t completely true, but if it is true, we’re in the right place here in church. Let’s go on with the meetin’." And so they did.”
Bad things happen. That alien invasion might not have turned out to be true, but there’s more than enough real disaster in our own world without us needing to look to Mars for more. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated civilisation gets, we will never be able entirely to rid the world of suffering. Accident, illness, the effects of deliberate evil – there are many things which can suddenly cut short or impair life. I think this week of the people killed in that balloon accident in Egypt, in the midst of what was meant to be the holiday of a lifetime, or the man in Florida who was killed the other day when a sinkhole suddenly opened up under his house. Random disasters will have struck many whose names we don’t know too; victims of the wars in Syria and Mali, or those closer to home who’ve lost jobs or relationships this week or heard bad news from their doctors. Trouble, when it comes, often comes out of the blue.
When bad things happen to us, though, we often seem to be taken completely by surprise. ”Why me?” we ask; very rarely “Why not me?” We are bewildered. We look for explanations, for someone to blame. “Why has this happened? Whose fault is it?” we ask, even if, in reality it’s no one’s fault at all.
If we can’t find anyone else to blame we often prefer to blame ourselves. We’d rather beat ourselves up than face the rather scary fact that life is sometimes beyond anyone’s power to regulate. We want to believe it is controllable. We might have failed to control it on this occasion, but it is our failure and perhaps, we feel, we can do something about that another time to prevent bad things happening.
That is why superstitious practices have always been so seductive. Walking under a ladder might make no difference at all in reality, but a belief that it is bad luck at least means we feel there is something we can do to protect ourselves against the vagaries of the world. It’s an illusion, but it is a comforting illusion. Religious practice itself can easily become no more than superstition. If I go to church, say my prayers, keep the commandments, then surely God will owe me his protection.
When we behave like this – and I think we all do to some extent – we are no different to people throughout history. We meet some of them in today’s Gospel story. They come to Jesus asking for an explanation for a recent disaster. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, had ordered the killing of some Galilean rebels in the Temple precincts. It wasn’t an action they were likely to forgive or forget in a hurry. But how could this have happened in such a holy place, the dwelling place of God? Surely God could have prevented it. Or had these rebels sinned in some way. Had they brought it on themselves?
No, says Jesus, they were no worse than anyone else. He reminds them of another recent tragedy, the collapse of a tower at Siloam in Jerusalem, an apparently random disaster in which eighteen people were killed. Were they sinners? Was that why this had happened to them? His questioners might well have hoped, in a way, that this was so. If it was all down to sin, then so long as they kept the laws and did what was right they should be safe.
But Jesus has no such reassurance for them. This could have happened to any of them, he said. There was nothing especially wicked about these victims.
That doesn’t mean that what they do doesn’t matter. They all need to repent says Jesus, and we might wonder whether he is falling into the same sort of thinking that he is condemning, but repentance isn’t a magic ritual we do simply to put us into God’s good books, in the hopes that he will then make sure life is kind to us. That turns it into just another superstition. The Greek word for repentance means a complete change of mind, a change of attitude, a change of direction. It is about letting ourselves be completely reshaped, with a new way of looking at the world. Repentance won’t prevent bad things happening to us, but if we take it seriously it will change the way they affect us and how we respond to them. Repentance will lead us to a deeper relationship with God and healthier relationships with each other, so that we can grow into people who can endure the storms of life, whatever comes.
The prophet Isaiah, in our Old Testament reading, is talking to people who knew all about storms like those. They were exiled in Babylon, far from home and not sure if they would ever return. Like any group of people in that sort of situation they’d agonised about why this had happened. Why had God allowed them to be conquered and humiliated? Who was to blame? What had they done to deserve it? Of course there were things they needed to learn and ways in which they needed to change, but Isaiah knew that answering these questions wasn’t enough.
He knew that life would always have its dangers. We can try to understand why , though we’ll probably fail. We can try to safeguard against it, but our efforts at doing that will always be limited. We can hold public enquiries to find out why disasters happen and introduce new safety measures to prevent them, but there’ll always be threats we haven’t foreseen. Vaccines have virtually eliminated many of the diseases that used to kill children wholesale, but that means that we are now seeing a huge rise in the diseases of old age instead. Scientific advances are great, and important, but if we put all our faith in their power to predict and prevent trouble, we will ultimately find, as Isaiah puts it, that “we are spending our money for that which is not bread, and our labour for that which does not satisfy.” Our efforts, whether superstitious or scientific, to control the world can only go so far. We also need to make sure we are feeding ourselves with the kind of food that will nourish and strengthen when the troubles we couldn’t see coming hit us, so that we have the resilience to deal with them.
How do we do that? Isaiah says, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat…” If he were writing today he would be telling them “it’s not rocket science” – there’s no deep secret, no expensive or mysterious thing they need to be doing. They just need to put their energy into the things that really matter, that really make a difference.
How much time and energy in this last week, I wonder, have we spent on things which aren’t bread, which don’t feed us, or anyone else – the pointless worrying, the rehashing of old arguments, the diversions and distractions which take our mind of the problems rather than addressing them? Isaiah calls us to make time instead for the things which really nourish, which build up our love and trust, build up our habits of reflection, build up our communities into networks of support which will be there both for others and for us when we need them? And if we think that Isaiah doesn’t really understand how busy we all are these days, the pressure we’re under to meet targets and deal with pointless red-tape, then we need to remember that he was writing to people who were entirely in the power of their Babylonian overlords. Many of them were slaves, with precious little freedom to direct their own lives. Even in those situations, though, he knew there were choices they could make. Their masters might own their bodies, but their minds, their souls, their relationship with God was their own, and that was what would shape their responses to the unavoidable troubles they faced. That was what would shape their ability to live lovingly and honestly no matter what happened to them.
And that brings me back to that story I began with. That old farmer in that little American church knew that if the Martians were invading he probably couldn’t do much about it. But at least he was in the right place, in church, doing something that was building him up, so that’s where he was going to stay. We need to make sure we are in the right place, in good times or in bad, so that we have the resilience to cope, whether with Martians or anything else ; not necessarily physically in church, but in the right place with God, in the right place with one another, in the right place with ourselves, nourished with bread that really feeds us, with habits that really strengthen us, developing a deep, and ever-deepening, trust in God and one another.