Preaching in season and out of season…what to say after the Grenfell Tower tragedy?

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Today was the first time I’ve had to preach and take note of current events – I think all the other times there has been a major event in the news that my Training Incumbent has been around and so she has taken on the preaching on those occasions. But today, it fell to me to preach (as she is away) and I knew that I couldn’t *not* mention the recent terrible tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Already, when I first checked the gospel reading set for today, this verse jumped out at me:

Matt 9 36

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36

And it raised a wry smile initially as this was immediately after the election result was announced.

I had no idea that in the end this would still be the verse I would choose to focus on in my sermon – but for quite a different reason than I originally thought.

Here is a slightly edited version of what I preached this morning:

I don’t know about you but too many times recently I’ve had a bad feeling in my stomach when I’ve woken up to either switch on the radio or check the news on my phone. Recently it’s felt like there has been a tremendous tragedy for us to take in every week. Not least this last week with the terrible fire at the Grenfell Tower in London – made even worse by the fact that it was a preventable tragedy. There is understandably a lot of anger around. An uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach, a mixture of grief and outrage.

In the ancient world, they believed that the centre of the emotions was not the brain or the heart – but the stomach. When you think about it, it makes sense. Our young people have been doing their exams these last few weeks, I can remember the feeling I got just before an exam – it was always in my stomach, a queasy feeling. Or, when you’re thrilled about seeing someone you love, that feeling you might describe as butterflies in your stomach – a lighter feeling of anticipation. Even now, we often say ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this’ or we talk about ‘gut instincts’. In Greek, the language that the New Testament was written in, there is a word, a funny sounding word that is only used a few times, that word is splagchnizomai and it means to be moved from the bowels or for your stomach to flip upside down (as someone rather graphically put it to me!) Our version of the bible translates this word as compassion and we heard it in our Gospel reading this morning:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

Jesus saw the crowds of people coming to him with all manner of needs and he had a reaction in the pit of his stomach. A reaction of compassion, of pity, of love.

Where else in the Gospels is Jesus described as having this reaction? He has this compassion when he sees the widow attending her son’s funeral. Jesus is moved to compassion when he hears two blind men calling out to him for healing. Jesus is moved to compassion for the crowd of 5000 people that have come to hear him speak and have gone without food all day. Interestingly the same word is also used to describe the response of the Good Samaritan when he sees the man lying by the roadside and to describe the response of the father of the Prodigal Son as he sees him at a distance returning home.

The interesting thing about Jesus’ gut reaction of love is that it is always accompanied by action. Jesus has the feeling in the pit of his stomach and then he acts, he heals, he transforms, he feeds.

In the gospel reading we had today, Jesus’ action on having compassion on the crowd of helpless sheep is to send the disciples to them, to do his work of healing and transformation.

Jesus says to the disciples whom he has called by name, ‘Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and as you go, proclaim the Good News ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’. As you go – in other words, set off and while you’re talking about the kingdom, show them what it looks like!

Jesus tells the disciples to ask the Lord to send labourers into the harvest and then promptly reveals to them that they are those labourers! Perhaps we are those labourers!

Compassion means very little without action. The letter of James says ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ (James 2)

We might well ask, ‘where is God in all this?’ when we look at the footage of that burning tower. But in the gut reactions of compassion of people of many different backgrounds and religions we can see an outpouring of love and support in churches, mosques and community centres. We saw it in Manchester as homeless men ran into the bombed arena to carry out injured children. We saw it in the Muslim doctors who worked through the night to operate on the injured. We saw it in the response of ordinary people to the attack on London Bridge.

Where there is compassion and action – there is Jesus – working in and through us to bring wholeness and healing.

Jesus looks on us with compassion, he has an angry gut reaction to the injustice in our world and then he rises to act, with healing in his wings.

Let us each find a way to ensure that not only do we have that gut reaction of compassion but that we also demonstrate that love of God in action – reaching out to those around us in need, being a voice for the voiceless, sharing our resources, knowing that as Jesus sends each one of us, he equips us with his Holy Spirit to do his work.