Sermon 11 February 2007 – Blessings and Woes

One of the most interesting characters that I have met in my ministry was a Jewish professor in one of the universities that I have worked in. He was often in the chapel and used to proclaim that he was fascinated with Jesus, but could never be a Christian because of what we had made of him.

Specifically, I remember him saying something like this one morning, “Kelvin, you know, I could never be a Christian. You just don’t know how to curse.” You are all so nice. You Christians forget the spiritual power of thoroughly cursing your enemies. Jesus knew how to curse what was wrong. You should be more like Jesus – then I would become a Christian – or maybe, you would have become Jewish”.

And with that he took himself into the chapel to make up ever more obscene Yiddish curses which he directed against the then Tory government of the day whom he held to account for much that was wrong.

He was a good man who knew right from wrong and knew that sometimes the difference between right and wrong had to be named and spoken out loud. He knew a truth which transcends different faith traditions – that sifting right from wrong goes with the religious territory.

Much of the religious tradition that we inherit comes from the practise of people asking designated holy people, usually men what is right and what is wrong, what is clean and what is unclean, what is permitted and what is forbidden.

In its broadest term – the question is, what is kosher – what is permitted? In Islam it is the distinction between halal (permitted) and haraam (not permitted).

Choosing between good and bad, clean and unclean, permitted and not-permitted food and activity is written deeply into so much religious activity.

It still goes on. And it is the clash between the collected religious traditions and the modern world which is causing considerable debate and pain as ancient faith bumps into modernity and as the seemingly black and white judgements of the old religious texts are read afresh in the ever changing rainbow spectrum of modern, diverse times.

Do you need to keep the same dietary food laws in a world where everyone has fridges?

That is not a trivial question – different versions of that question are present in all the world faiths that have been based on written collections of knowledge.

What happens to the People of the Book when the Book gets read differently in changing times?

When we encounter Jesus today in the gospel, we find that he is engaged in the rhetoric of separating the good from the bad. He is proclaiming blessings upon that which is good. And proclaiming woes or horrors or curses against things that are bad.

In our own faith, we give power to people at their priestly ordination to bind and loose. That is related to some of this stuff. The power to bind and loose which is much misunderstood and worthy of much more thought than it ever gets, is all about putting boundaries around behaviour for people. Included within that idea is the notion that it is appropriate for religious people to set limits within which the good life breaks out. The idea is that by making judgements about what is good or bad, permitted or not-permitted, kosher or non-kosher, sin or not sin, we can build an ethical framework that sets people free. That is the idea, though when we start applying that kind of logic to human beings it all goes horribly wrong.

Jesus himself is a master at using this kind of rhetoric for his own ends. In the Sermon on the Plain, for that is what this morning’s gospel is sometimes called, he sets up a structure. Four things he blesses. Four things he curses. He pronounces on what is good. He names what is horrific. (That is the nature of the word he uses – not so much woe, but horror).

Blessed, we learn, are the poor, the hungry, the weeping and those who are hated for their common humanity with Jesus.

Whereas the rich, the full, the laughing and those well spoken of, have horrors to come.

This is not just a balancing exercise, though that is part of it. No, this is sophisticated stuff. Naming the good, cursing the bad. It is Jesus setting out God’s stall. Turning the tables on those who thought that the good things in life were signs of God’s approval.

No, says Jesus. God is on the side of the oppressed, the hurting and the hated.

Jesus uses the rhetoric of blessing and cursing to undermine those who would see the world as shaded only in black and white. He uses his sermon to challenge the complacency of those who thought they had everything sewn up. Those who knew that God was on their side. Those who had made the God of eternity in their own smug image.

The subtlety of Jesus’s preaching could too easily pass us by. Note only that the conventional presumptions of the mob he preaches to, are challenged, undermined and disturbed. It was how he preached. It was who he was.

This week, the primates of the Anglican churches gather in Tanzania for an important meeting. The future of the Communion is far from certain. The primates, our leaders, are being asked in their way to declare what is good and what is bad as though these things still came coloured only in black and white.

It used to be that the genius of Anglicanism was that we could hold together despite whatever views any of us had. A common heritage and will to stay together worshipping God was enough. It seems that our bishops are being forced into a position where they must behave like tribal chiefs giving judgements on behalf of their people as to what is right and what is wrong as though everyone in their Provinces agreed with every word they said.

They meet to determine whether people like me can minister to people like you. Whether the relationship between us is kosher or non-kosher, halal or haraam, clean or unclean, blessed or cursed, holy or horrific.

As a gay man in ministry in the Anglican church, I’m on the receiving end of that this week. And it is an uncomfortable place to be. They sit in judgement from afar with no right of reply.

I find that for myself, the newspaper headlines and the bitter arguments take their toll.

Jesus’s blessings and woes cut both ways. I know what it is to be relatively rich in the global marketplace. I know what it is to be full rather than hungry. I know what it is to laugh whilst others know sorrow. And so woe seems to be coming my way.

But at times like this I know how it feels when people hate you, when they exclude you, when they defame you on account of the Son of Man.

And also I know what it is to be blessed. And utterly loved by God.

You see we are complex people living in a complex world.

We have blessings and curses all muddled up within us.

So, fifteen years on, have I come to share the view of my friend, the Jewish Professor who offered his curses day by day. Well, no. Though I am prepared to accept that there was more holy justice and more spirituality in his incantations than in what sometimes passes for piety from my lips, I remain of the view that cursing people is the wrong way to go. I remain of the view that dividing people into kosher or non-kosher, acceptable or unacceptable, the saved or the damned is a waste of time.

As Bishop Idris and the other primates take flight and go to Africa this week to argue, to fight and to pray, what can I wish them.

I wish them nothing but the blessings of God.

What else is there to do?


  1. Paul Dunlop says

    Hi Kelvin,

    thank you for the sermon. My best wishes for you and the congregation at St Mary’s.
    I’ll see you at sainsbury’s again soon!
    By the way, what’s your position on forwarding this on to friends? I don’t want to if it makes you uncomfortable.

    with warmest regards,

  2. kelvin says

    Paul – Thanks for your comments.

    I’m happy for anything on the blog to be forwarded hither and yon.

  3. Brian McAllister says

    Hi Kelvin
    Just a short note to thank you for your wonderful sermon this morning – the most moving and honest summation of this whole nasty business that i’ve heard so far. I think it should be as widely read as possible. God bless you and thank you for your ministry which has meant so much to Jan and myself.

  4. Kelvin, Even on reading the sermon, there is more to your message than I picked up when you delivered it this morning. The whole business is very sad.

    To quote you – “It used to be that the genius of Anglicanism was that we could hold together despite whatever views any of us had. A common heritage and will to stay together worshipping God was enough.

    However the Angican Communion now appears to be pulling itself apart. I recall in the past that on a previous controversal issue there were some people who would be determined to press home their case if they had not received solid agreement to their point of view. This pressing home of their point of view in some cases had the opposite intent.

    What holds the Anglican Communion is the infinite shades of the rainbow – not dark night and bright day. We must not let views get polarised.

  5. vicky says

    Ah Kelvin, I sympathize with you entirely. It is amazing how people are happy to pass judgement, especially when it is justified as a judgement about saving souls. I agree with you that we gay and lesbian folk within the episcopal Christain traditions face an uncertain time with respect to our welcome from the ‘magisterium’. If it is any consolation, the early Irish Churches had a few saints who used curses to admonish folk who were sinning (one of the worst of which that I read about caused the accursed person to get terrible wind and as a result become unwelcome at the clan/tribe gatherings), but it does rather seem an un-Anglican thing to do. Anyway, take care this week.

  6. Andrew says

    Yesterday, by chance, I met a friend who had attended a non-religious memorial event in the Cathedral for a gay person who had recently died. My friend was deeply impressed that you had permitted the Cathedral to be used for such an occasion. Her comment was “Not many churches would have allowed that.”

    Your decision here exemplifies our open, welcoming approach to all. Long may it continue.


  7. Blessings on you, darling. And curses on those who curse you behind your back.

  8. “They sit in judgement from afar with no right of reply.”

    I’ve seen a similar thing. Some years ago, at a large evangelical church in central London, I witnessed a sermon (supposedly on a passage from Zechariah) be mutilated into offensive rant against Jeffrey John. His absence from that church that morning only made me think of Paul’s denunciation: “not even the pagans do that!”. Fortunately, I was able to email the church leadership and complain, but the negative thoughts don’t really go away – and I wasn’t even directly on the receiving end.

    The perverse desire to split the church hurts everyone, regardless of where on the fence one sits.


    As one who has witnessed your ministry to people of all ages, shapes, opinions, it angers me that you and many others have to feel judged, especially be those who know nothing of you.
    As one who has prayed along side you with my dying father and witnessed your compassion and sincerety, know that you are loved and respected by so many.

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