Sermon – 22 June 2008

For audio, click on the icon below. The text that I had in front of me is below, though I think I went a little off piste once or twice.

[audio:Sermon 22 June 2008.mp3]

It is often said that history is written by the winners – whenever there is a conflict, it is those who come out on top who get to write the story about what happened. There is a lot of truth in that – history is indeed written by the winners. However, what about places where no-one wins. It seems if we look at the middle east today that no-one is winning the conflict there. And in that situation, everyone seems to think that they can write and rewrite history. It is the same in our communion at the moment. Can there be winners in this strife?

The story which we have in the first reading this morning is a story which is told to tell us something about the conflict in that part of the world which we call Holy. The Holy land. The broken land. The lost land. The Palestinians land, the Israeli’s land. Everyone’s holy place. The place which is fought over constantly.

The story of Isaac and Ishmael, his older brother is one which is told to tell us why the two peoples are fighting in the middle east. The fact that the story is old enough to be found in our Bibles suggests that the conflict is old, very old indeed.

The last time our church at its General Synod, was asked to pass a motion about the conflict in the middle east, it was a motion which rather blandly and safely condemned violence on both sides and called on all leaders to stop the killing. This is all very well in its way. But bland motions are easy to pass. So, predictably someone put up a rival motion which called on Israel to leave the Occupied Territories, to pull back to ensure that the Palestinians could achieve the statehood which they demand.

The debate at the synod was not terribly enlightening. People were standing up to speak about their inability to decide because they know so little about the matter – which is shocking enough. What was more shocking to me was the idea put forward by some, that we must try, as Christians to remain neutral – that we could not and never could take sides in a conflict.

This seems to me to be a most dangerous idea – one that has no foundation in our faith at all. Christian pacifism I can understand, even if I would not always go along with it. Christian neutrality though – is that not a contradiction in terms?

God does not seem to do a very good job of being neutral in the bible. No doubt, those biblical writers who thought that they were writing some kind of history wrote about God as though God was on their side. Yet even despite this, the God of the bible emerges as one who is always one to take sides.

We have decisions to make when we read the bible. There is a strain of the biblical narratives in which God is always on the side of the writer and there is another strain in which God emerges as always being on the side of the underdog.

There are passages of the bible in which God is always on the side of the people of Israel whenever they are fighting – philistines, Egyptians, whoever it was, they knew nothing of God. That was all very well until the Israel itself divided into two kingdoms. Yet despite this, there are passages, so very many passages, particularly in the prophets where we hear that God is not so much on the side of Israel as on the side of the poor and needy. Something in that statement resonates with me even down through the centuries. It makes the faith inside me tingle.

There are other examples that can be given. The God of the bible is often the God of the men and not the women – women being excluded or simply bystanders in the holy history of Israel. Yet, alongside that we have the witness to Holy Wisdom, Sophia a way, one of the many biblical ways of gaining an insight into the female aspect of God’s very self.

We must look for the deep truths in the bible. We must look for the truth that makes our faith tingle – and where the biblical narrative speaks of oppression of other nations, of women, of the poor, of the close but unwelcome relatives of Israel – where the bible speaks of this oppression, we must acknowledge it and move on, knowing where we have come from but letting faith in the living God tingle and tremble within us. When the bible is used, as it has been used, to justify racism, slavery, homophobia, we must challenge these views by listening to the deeper truths that we find in scripture. The God who sets people from from oppression and fear.

There are some deep truths in the stories of the bible which will help us to think about the conflict in Palestine/Israel and troubles in the church alike. Some of them come from the strange book of Genesis itself.

Here are three to begin with:

  • God sides with the underdog
  • We can learn how to deal with troublesome brothers by wrestling God.
  • Justice will come in the end.

Firstly, God sides with the underdog – I’ve already said something about that already. God is already committed to those who seem to have no power.

Secondly, we can learn how to deal with that troublesome brother by wrestling with God. In a few weeks time, on the Sunday when Gene Robinson is with us, we will read the story of Jacob wrestling with God rather than fighting his brother. Wrestling with God and saying, “I will not let you go until you bless me”. There is a deep truth to that that is important. There is no conflict which is not spiritual – especially in the places such as the middle east or the Anglican communion where conflict seems endless.

And finally, remember that justice does come in the end. You don’t need to believe in heaven or hell to know that. Just to sit and be conscious of the world at large with hope in your heart.

We need courage, hope and justice to make sense of a world which is hard to live in sometimes. Inspired by the scriptures, let us commit ourselves to pray for the brothers Isaac and Ishmael – the Israeli and the Arab today, and of all God’s children divided by rivalry, jealousy and fear. Let us pray and keep praying, until God’s kingdom comes.



  1. Rosemary says

    And after Jacob has wrestled with God, he meets the brother he has wronged, and says: ‘Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.’ He knows whose face he has seen as he wrestled.

  2. Hi Kelvin,

    Would it be possible for you to include somewhere in the sermons on your blog the scriptural reference for that sunday? Or can you direct me to a site that would give these details?

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