I do not normally publish the text of sermons for two primary reasons. There is usually a podcast available of the audio and a sermon is written in order to be preached and it is seldom that the preacher sticks rigidly to the text in front of him or her.
In this instance this is a revision to the point of a re-write of a sermon I preached a number of months ago. It was preached in Twynholm and Gatehouse churches on Sunday 17 September 2017. More than one person has been sufficiently gracious to request a copy of the sermon and therefore the easiest option is simply to make it available here. With this caveat, here it is.
Listening to, watching and reading the news I was tempted to begin by observing that the world is in a terrible state. I decided not to do that because I do not think there can possibly ever have been a time when it would not have been possible to begin a sermon with these words. There is always something happening.
In a situation such as the world is in there is a real need for the church to say something.
The greatest need in the church in the current climate both in the church and in the world is not for the church to preach to the community and to the world but for the church itself to hear the gospel.
The gospel is not comforting in the sense that it preserves the status quo. It is upsetting. It is unsettling. It is revolutionary and it is disturbing. And we need to hear it. We need to know it. We need to share it.
If we don’t then we are not telling the truth and it is not telling the truth which is the greatest barrier to communication.The reason that our children and spouses and grandchildren and friends don’t listen to us is that we are not telling the truth. The church for the most part is not interested in the truth. The church cannot afford – and it cannot afford to have ministers – who are interested in the truth because the truth offends.
This is what Jesus said. Would you want to hear any more if someone began his message to you with these words?
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
That does not seem at first to sit easily with Jesus’ instruction to love enemies and so on but what Jesus is speaking about here is consequences and necessary effects. He is talking about revolution.
Only someone who had touched the very depth the profoundest level of truth could say what Jesus said. Nothing else matters to him. It isn’t second hand. It is what he knows and what he has experienced.
If you tell the truth then that cannot simply mean saying Jesus said this therefore it is the truth. It has to be I have experienced this and I know that it is the truth. However little I have experienced I know that it is true. I may have merely touched the hem of the garment of the truth but this I know to be true.
When what we are saying is the truth then people may not like it much but they will believe it because it will touch their own experience of life and it will resonate and they will know too.
But when you do as the church so often does does and repeat stuff you are only repeating because you are su[posed to say it and supposed to believe it then your children and spouses and everyone else simply says to themselves, “I don’t believe that ands neither do you. Neither of us does. More fool you for staying.”
And that is where we are. That is where the church is. That is what ministers are doing all over the place.
So what is true about the Garden of Eden then? It is part of a very ancient creation myth. We know it isn’t a true story. We are happy with the scientific accounts of creation. And this will really put off our children and so on.
But actually what puts them off is our inability to demonstrate that we have even thought about the Bible. We are for the most part prepared not to read it at all or not to think about it. So the last time we thought about this was when we drew a picture of it or sang about it or were told about it as children.
In fact your children and grandchildren and contemporaries will get this if we do. This is a story of the imagination. Someone way back in the mists of time experienced God. Maybe just that touching the hem of the garment kind of experiencing God but it was an experience nevertheless.
But it was fleeting as these experiences are. So they know what it was like even for a second to be in communion with God and they knew what it was like the rest of the time to feel separated, normal, far from the divine.
And these stories and experiences were echoed and repeated and then appeared in a story which is told always and only from outside of the Garden of Eden.
And what it really is is revolutionary. If you read this and I mean REALLY read it and you can’t do that here. You have to spend time with it and let it get into your mind and affect your thoughts and fire your imagination then you will see how this story of the Garden of Eden is undermining to religion and authority and it actually opens up the way to God and does not shut it off.
It is a beckoning, not an exclusion. It is an invitation not an expulsion. It is an opening and not a closing.
What the Garden of Eden story does is to tell us that it is possible to be here with God. Yes, the whole story seems at first to be telling the opposite story, making a very different and opposing case but it is not. And at the centre of it is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Humankind is being told here that there is real potential here. There is potential in us to become far more than we think we are.
And it is telling us that when we get close to God we are in a dangerous place where the stakes are very high.
All of this and far more is in that story.
And the whole story is about breaking down divides and boundary dissolving.
And that is dangerous. That is always dangerous. But that is what the church needs to be speaking about because otherwise you have Trump and May and all of the views that they symbolise and represent being able to claim that what they are doing and saying is somehow Christian. When none of it is.
And please do not make the mistake or think that I am saying that Corbyn Cable, Clinton or Sturgeon is the answer. That is the huge mistake. That is the real mistake. It is not sinner and saint, bad guy and good guy, even right and wrong.
May is being demonised by the very people who cannot see that their whole attitude and life-style and life ambition, that they are exactly the same. Trump may be a nutter but millions voted for him and no-one wanted the real alternative which was not Clinton but was Sanders.
But even that is wrong.
Because the real change, the real truth, the real alternative is that there is no answer out there. Just as there is no (and never was any) Garden of Eden out there.
If you find yourself blaming Trump, May, Sturgeon, Corbyn, Cable, the bankers, the politicians, anyone, then you are barking up the wrong tree. It is you. It is always you. It is always you and it is always now.
And hate to hear that as we may well do that is the truth and deep down we all know it. I cannot change the world. I am the world. Recycling, sharing, kindness, love cannot be legislated. It begins when I do it. And when I do it, people will listen when I speak about it.
The only people who are ever really going to find Jesus’ message attractive are those who are revolutionaries, who are looking for radical and deep and profound change.
Unfortunately these are the last people the church at any level wishes to have walk through its doors. Jesus’ message appeals to revolutionaries and to those who are happy to have boundaries dissolve.
And there are two groups of people who are open to revolution and change. Those who have nothing to lose which is why the poor and outcast and sick loved Jesus and warmed to his message.
And those who can see that things really do need to change and who realise that that will be painful and will come at a cost.
When Jesus said,
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
He was not setting this out as an aim. He was telling us that this is the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of the truth.
It does not sit at odds with loving your enemies. It does not sit at odds with doing to others as you’d have them do to you. It does not contradict or deny Jesus’ instruction to walk the second mile.
Anyone who has done any of these things, seriously and at cost to themselves actually set out to forgive someone, to be kind to someone who has wronger them and their family perhaps, who has actively set out to break down barriers and to build bridges will know that there is a real kickback.
Not from that other person but very often from those in one’s own closest circle, one’s own family, one’s own tribe.
Why are you talking to him, doing that for her, eating with that group, no longer wearing that football shirt, letting him, her, they, walk all over you, turning the other cheek.
Actually telling the truth gets you into trouble. The truth divides. The truth makes people leave churches and go where they can continue to pretend that Jesus never said that.
But it also draws people in. It isn’t that Jesus’ message doesn’t work. It is just that when it works it does what Jesus said it would do. It divides. It repulses. It revolutionises. It dissolves boundaries. And it attracts those who recognise the urgent need for revolution and change, not for the sake of the church, no-one cares about that and Jesus didn’t care about that, but for the sake of humanity, for the planet, for our children, our grandchildren, our spouses and our friends.