God of all: Unity in difference

Adapted from the transcript & notes of a Sermon first preached by Rev Dan Balsdon at Bognor Regis Methodist Church on 20th October 2019.
The Readings were Jeremiah 31:27-34 & Luke 18:1-8

Please forgive any typo’s I missed!


As a probationer presbyter, the Church requires me to undertake ongoing study.
At the moment, I’m preparing for a study week with fellow probationers in November which will centre around reflecting on our first year of ministry and thinking about what the Christian gospel looks and feels like in the places I serve.

Part of the emphasis is around listening to multiple voices,
noting where there is resonance and dissonance,
common ground or contradictory convictions.

As part of the studies, I was recently reading a chapter from a book by Black Theologian Anthony Reddie, where Anthony recounts the following analogy…

God sees two men struggling with one another. One of the people fighting is a strong White man who has his foot on the neck of a Black man, who is pinned to the floor.

Both men recognise God and call out to God. The white man, with his foot on the black man’s neck, asks God for strength to continue doing God’s will by subduing this black savage. The black man, conversely, asks God to intervene and save him from possible death.

God replies saying that neutrality and objectivity is all important and as such, God cannot intervene or take sides. [1]

Reflecting on the analogy, Reddie asks, ‘Which person is most content with this response from God?’ The answer, of course, is that person who is most advantaged by the status quo – and the one who is being oppressed has good reason to doubt the goodness of God in such circumstances.

Why do I share that?
Well, because I think it illustrates something that too often in my experience, the church overlooks , human society overlooks, and in our history we have never been good at dealing with.
…Places where there are Conflicting views, theologies and opinions.

Here we have 2 characters,
A white man, and a black man,
both look to God, but have different ideas of how God responds to humanity.
Those ideas conflict and collide.

And the result, in the analogy at least,
is that God can do nothing.
for if God does something,
God is to side with someone,
and God of course must be neutral and objective.

But of course, as Reddies reflections highlight,
if God does nothing,
actually God is doing something,
because the one who has the upper hand, the oppressor, benefits from the status quo being maintained,
benefits from God not intervening.

But more than that,
the analogy falls short because of course,
in pitting human will against God’s action or inaction,
this analogy has a huge hole.
It fails to represent the true nature of God’s character,
and God’s response,
which is always, and forever,
on the side of humanity.
on the side of salvation.
on the side of grace.

As we were reminded in listening to Jeremiah 31,
words which may be familiar to us,
often from part of the annual Methodist covenant service
God is a God who calls us, God’s people,
into a covenant relationship,
and calls and challenges us to live righteous lives.

But alongside that, we are told:

I will put my law within them,
and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. [2]

There is a certainty in those words,
that despite the frailty of humanity,
despite human sin,
God’s grace will triumph,
humankind is claimed by God, as God’s people.
God is on the side of humanity.

A beautiful,
uplifting and hope filled vision of a God who loves us
and remembers not our sin,
but simply calls us his own.

So, if that’s God’s character,
what do we do with the White man and the Black man fighting?
what do we do with the tension that is still left between them,
when both think they are right?

What do we do with the uncertainty and discomfort that arises because my thoughts, opinions and views do not match with your thoughts or opinions or views…

This is a very real issue for society today.
The World is filled with opinions,
life is littered with issues that can, and sometimes do, divide us.

Let’s putt hat into today’s context:

Brexit.
Brexit. Brexit. Brexit.

Opinions on Brexit have divided parliament and the country. Footage from the last few weeks, and indeed only yesterday,
shows the deep seated divisions,
and it breaks my heart to see society so fractured and divided against itself.  

I am certain among us today are people who voted remain, others who voted leave, and others who didn’t or couldn’t vote…
and I’d be surprised if there we’re not at least a few people here who would vote differently if we were to be voting again tomorrow.

And so in the mess of remain or leave,
Brexit or no Brexit,
hard Brexit soft Brexit or in-betweeny Brexit,
we’re left in an uncomfortable uncertainty – where there is anything but a sense of common view on the way forwards.

But Brexit isn’t the only thing.
Issues of climate change are leading to increasing voices that something needs to be done,
including in recent weeks protesters of all ages have been seeking to peacefully, but resolutely make a visible stand to bring the attention of business and government to the issues.
As I watch the news and see conversation on social media, it’s clear the actions they’ve taken are frowned on by some, and celebrated by others.

But only this week, we’ve seen how Extinction Rebellion do not all agree, and so we had factions mounting trains and subsequently getting physically beaten.
Yet again, my heart breaks at the way human society so quickly turns to violence against itself.

We’ve had a week where racism has worryingly become more prevalent and transparent on the football pitch…
let’s not kid ourselves, the reality is that racism is still present and alive in British society.
But it worries me that racism seems to be becoming more prevalent. 

As a Methodist Church,
we have our own divisive issues on which all do not agree…
Not least the current question of our understandings and practices in issues relationships and marriage.

For those who are not fully aware of what I’m talking about,
In the summer a report [3] came out which among other things, suggested the need to re-explore how understand and respond to issues of divorce, cohabitation and marriage, and consider adding to our definition of marriage to allow space for same-sex couples to marry as well as that which is already offered to mixed-sex couples.

We’re now in a period of consultation,
But in the meantime, we find ourselves in a place where there are differing beliefs and contradictory convictions in the church,
floating in a sea of uncertainty about what is right, or wrong.
or how to even talk together about the issues.

So what do we do about all these issues of difference?
how do we live together in such uncertainty?  

The President of conference wrote in The Times a few weeks ago..

“I must believe that communities rich in relationships are the only way forward for our society. We must learn to disagree well, and let love unite us. That doesn’t mean to sell our firmly held beliefs, but to bring open-hearted grace to complex conversations.”

I think those are wise words.
But challenging words.

Because relationships are hard,
and take effort and energy at the best of times,
and more so, on issues of disagreement and discord.

human history – recent and distant,
reminds us that relationships where disagreement is found too often result in attitudes of arrogance, judgement and dismissal of others,
Name calling can begin,
‘remoaners’ ‘humbug’ ‘crusties’ ‘sinner’ ‘abomination’ – I’m sure you can quickly add to your list.

Metaphorical fighting may break out, or it may be literal, like we saw at the train station this week, or with the white man and the black man.
And at the extreme Oppressive, abusive, Xenophobic, Homophobic, Racist and Transphobic behaviour can and has emerged.  

We can end up in a place where we are so caught up in self,
that we lose sight of respect and the wellbeing of the other,
and in doing so lose sight of the God of love and grace we worship.
Where we lose sight of the centrality of relationship to mutual human living.

Or, perhaps we do not of that…
and instead, as relationships become difficult,
we go silent.

Struggling to know what to do with the uncertainty,
we appear ambivalent about the issues.
we can develop a sense of fear of ‘the other’
And appear as if we don’t care,
like the unjust judge we met in Luke 18.

Who appears to have no respect for God or other people,
but in the end, after being nagged by the widow,
relents and delivers justice for her.
In the end, it can be argued, that the judge does the right thing,
but I don’t think the judge gets any good press in this parable.

I think Jesus is saying,
if an unjust judge, who cares so little about God or anyone else can eventually do the right thing,
we who know and love and seek to follow God,
can be all the more certain that God will do the right thing.

So as we live in times where there are uncertainties we cannot run away from, we have a certainty – that God will do the right thing.

And it’s on that certainty,
that I think we as the people God calls his,
need to root ourselves.
The certainty of the character of God,
as one of love and grace who calls his people his,
and will with certainty grant justice as God sees fit.

And so we remember, that we are not God.
It is not our place to be judge.
that role remains with God to undertake.

Our role,
In rooting ourselves in God,
is to start by listening with open-hearted grace.
to hear the views of others, and share our views,
with grace, love, respect, and listening ears.
willing to make ourselves vulnerable at times,
for the sake of valuing the differences of view as much as the common ground.
and to learn with and from each other.

With an intention of understanding each other, rather than convince each other they’re wrong, and I’m right.

to read, study, listen and think,
with a desire not to fight,
but to understand the heart of God,

John Wesley is recorded to have said:

Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?
May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? [5]

I don’t know what all the answers are…
and I don’t know what the future holds…
but I do feel sure that despite it all,
in spite of our common ground and division,
whether Brexit or no Brexit,
agreeing with the prospect of same-sex marriage or not
believing climate action is necessary or not
none of that that needs to get in the way of having a meaningful and grace filled relationship with each other.

Because one thing is for sure,
God is triumphant.
and if we root ourselves first and foremost in our relationship with God – who is judge and love and grace,
God in love guides us, and despite us, unites us.


[1] ‘The Plain Old Honest Truth’ in Acting in Solidarity, Anthony Reddie, (DLT: 2005), p144

[2] Jeremiah 31:33b-34, NRSV

[3] Access the report and many other resources: https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/the-methodist-church/marriage-and-relationships-2019/

[4] The Times, 5th October 2019

[5] John Wesley in his Sermon, ‘Catholic Spirit’

3 thoughts on “God of all: Unity in difference”

  1. Hey Dan, I tried writing a comment on this the other day, but it didn’t appear. Is there a problem with the site? Or was it rejected for some reason? (As a roıgh summary the comment was praising the topic written about, and I will praise it again now! I also offered a bit of a counterpoint on the topic of same sex marriage)
    If the site broke then I’ll send it again, but if it was rejected for some reason, I won’t spend time writing it again. But if it is the case, it would be a nice courtesy to at least let me know! (and why) (Email
    ginepitusu@matra.top)
    Cheers

    Like

    1. Hi ‘ginepitusu’,
      Thanks for taking the time to send this message (and the original comment). As far as I can tell I haven’t seen any other comment come from you, I certainty haven’t rejected any contributions, so there may well have been a glitch somewhere? Sorry about that, not a clue why that would have happened. Thanks for taking the time to engage though! God Bless, Dan

      Like

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