Sunday, 19 October 2014

The fight is not worth more than a relationship

Today, as I am not infrequently, I was worshipping in Stocksfield Baptist Church. Some slight added significance as our daughter will be baptised there in a few weeks. I was slightly anxious in advance as the sermon was to be on Samson. The preacher was Mark Bonington from the King's Church in Durham. Matters got off to a bad start for me since a newsletter from The Christian Institute was staring at me from a chair in front. (Rather relevantly my wife intervenes at this point and says "The Kingdom is not won in a law court".) I have several issues with The Christian Institute. The assumption it makes of itself that it represents all Christians is rather presumptive when I rather guess the Orthodox and Catholic Christian might have something to say? At times the issues it raises like the persecution of Christians in the Middle East are matters of great moment. At other times they strike me as pure folly. The story of the Ulster Bakers is one such. And this was staring up at me. In a province renowned for its ability to see community willingly setting onto neighbouring community, and with myself nursing a long standing Ulster Unionist heritage, to read a tale of how a volunteer LGBT activist and Asher's bakery are squaring up to a legal battle raised my hackles. I cannot conceive how Jesus would wish his followers to argue about cakes, still less clog up the Ulster legal system with caselaw on the matter. Both sides strike me as cracked. To them the fight is worth more than the relationship. Why should a progressive body of gay campaigners feel there is anything to gain by taking this on? And why do Christians find themselves incapable of solving the situation outside a law court. Just bake the cake and get on with it.

This mindset was an unfortunate preparation for Mark Bonington's sermon. In truth he did not preach an outrageous sermon and indeed it was quite time controlled. For instance there was only one finally before the final finally. The text was the story of Samson and Delilah (not a Tom Jones' song it was pointed out, although was not Tom Jones brought up in Welsh chapels?). It did not go well from my viewpoint. The dangers of nagging women were brought up.  The actual exposition of the text was perfectly straightforward, that God achieves his purpose even when man frustrates and abandons his God.

But what went wrong was what was unsaid. Samson, Delilah, the Jews and Philistines is a contemporary story of nations unable to relate and content to be proud of disproportionate gore. That which the authors of Judges are proud of is exactly what the Middle East conflict suffers from in 2014. The preacher did point out that the setting of the story was Gaza and then failed to mention one syllable of the idea that thousands of innocents died in Gaza this summer at the hands of God's people. I cannot conceive of Jesus standing in front of us and not having anything to say on the linkage.

Why did Jesus walk this earth? Surely it was to say that the fight of the sword was not worth more than the duty of creating relationship imposed upon the Children of God. The problem of the Old Testament is exactly the problem of Gaza today. People who believed that their faith in God did not give them a message of grace and liberation to those who they met, but instead entitled them to dispossess and kill. When you adopt an ethos of this divine entitlement you liberate a cancer and that has been the story of the Middle East since the West's support of Zionism in the 1920s (actually for rather longer with the occasional intermission).  I have no objection to Jews living in Palestine. I am sure Jesus would say all communities should live at peace and grace in the Holy Land. But do you see Jesus saying that it is fine to live on land without legal title to it?

All these thoughts swirled through my hand as the pretty unpleasant tale of Samson's denouement was described. Gouged eyes, bound to a grindstone, he manages in death to kill more than he killed in life including the little boy who he got to advise him about pillars. And of course the immediate advent of Delilah is a tale of a pretty woman who is a prostitute and waylays Samson. Yes, let us get it in for the sex workers along the way.

In the end, I did preach myself a sermon, not the sermon of the preacher, but my own sermon that linked the story of Samson, to the story of Gaza in 2014, the LGBT community and the bakers of Northern Ireland and my utter conviction that religion has to abandon nutterdom. Period. I go to the church, for the people, for the amazing work done for the church's children, for the enthusiasm, for the love, for the evangelical faith, we have good news to offer. But I don't go to have my fears re-inforced, my tribe vindicated. In conclusion for any sermon on the story of Samson and Delilah to be preached in 2014 and not to mention the Arab Isreali conflict of this year is to be marked a fail. It is at the level of Mr Milliband being unable to bring himself to mention the national deficit in his leader's speech at party conference. The duty is to preach a gospel about how grace and faith in Jesus is a tool for overcoming seeming irreconciliable enmity. And on this very day Ian Paisley's memorial service in the Ulster Hall proved that point.

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