Goodies and baddies

Trinity 13, 3 September 2023, St James Colwall

Jeremiah 15: 15-21; Romans 12: 9-21; Matthew 16: 21-28

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Matthew 16.23

May I speak in the name of the Creator, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

If I mentioned Elliot Carver would you know who I mean? Okay, how about Elektra King? I’m going to make it a bit easier. Ernst Blofeld. Le Chiffre, Dr. No. How about Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan? Daniel Craig? I can nearly hear the mutterings from James Bond experts “He hasn’t mentioned Niven, Lazenby or Dalton….”. I love James Bond films – big budget extravaganzas, always on just the wrong side of credibility. Glitzy hotels, train journeys through snow-capped mountain scenes, beach-front villas, sartorial perfection.

Even if, as one member of the congregation confessed to me, you haven’t seen a Bond film all the way through, you can still quickly grasp who are the goodies and who the baddies. As Sir Roger Moore put it: “[the baddies are ] a jolly bunch of people, all loved by their mothers and all with a sick plan to take over the world or dominate it in one form or another”. Add a touch of megalomania, a penchant for exotic architecture and some form of physical “tell” and the villain is complete. And whilst later films have been slightly more nuanced with traitors within MI6 itself, the goodie-baddie narrative remains the same, set in a world of turmoil.

And into turmoil is where Jeremiah is found prophesising. Our Old Testament reading is an account of the prophet’s attempt to restore the Israelites to the Covenant when they are in exile in Babylon. It seems that the community has lost interest in the old God of Israel, preferring to assimilate with the Neo-Babylonian Empire. They worshipped Baal and sacrificed children in his name. Maybe we see parallels today – we live in societies that seem to reject the religious old ways in favour of new identities, the self, perceived rationalism, consumerism. Commentators note that, despite living in exile, life for the Israelites was fairly good, they had businesses, families and were relatively free. Jeremiah’s messages about divine punishment were therefore not well received. He was physically attacked and persecuted by those he was trying to save.

In today’s text Jeremiah prays to God, celebrating his vocation but voicing his anguish: “know that on your account I suffer insult”. The pain, he says, is unceasing” “Why is my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” And then he cries to God: “Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”.

God is like a deceitful brook. Think about that. This is not a trite movie character venting, this is somebody in real physical, emotional and, I suggest, spiritual pain, crying out to God. God has placed him in actual danger and yet his words are still not being heard.

So, what do we think? If we view this through a James Bond goodie-baddie perspective do we suddenly see treachery? Is God, the one we thought to be good, not quite so? I couldn’t stand here in this dog collar if I thought that. But I think we can relate to Jeremiah’s anguish – there are times when we feel underprepared for what God’s asking us to do, times when those who need our help are the first to spurn us; times when we feel alone. God’s response to Jeremiah comes not from impatience or anger, but from love: “If you turn back, I will take you back. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. For I am with you to save you and deliver you.” Note the response is “if you turn back” – it’s not a command, Jeremiah is not compelled but is assured of God’s support in his task.

I’d like to reflect a bit more on the goody / baddy theme. If your enemy has a gold tooth, a glint in his eye and a finger on a mysterious red button then at least you know where you stand.  But sometimes it’s hard to tell the good from the bad.

Why did Elon Musk, seen by many as a great environmental champion, a green goodie,  deny a shareholder request by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd for an independent enquiry into human rights in his supply chain? In a potentially career limiting question – what about our Bishop Richard? He was suddenly seen as the enemy when he stood up for asylum seekers being housed in The Three Counties Hotel. Yet from a Christian perspective he was undeniable in his truth. Maybe he felt a bit like Jeremiah. What about the consumer choices we make? What does boycotting BP mean for their significant investment in renewables?

The goodie baddie theme suddenly becomes one of personal judgement – and whilst we can agree to condemn or encourage specific practices – goodies and baddies become much more subjective. As a chaplain to Roads Traffic Police in Thames Valley, I saw how challenging it was for them navigating public opinion – they were goodies when you’ve had a near fatal crash on the motorway but baddies for policing speed limits.

At least there are no goodies and baddies in the church, we’re all goodies. If so then why, in the Anglican Communion, do we see many Bishops refuse to share in the Eucharist with those from more liberal, inclusive churches? For many churches, particularly but not exclusively in Africa, homosexuality is the enemy. And for many liberal churches, the battle lines have been drawn.

  So you can see we have moved from the enemy being one that can be tamed, as Jeremiah sought, through God’s will; through the enemy more subjective to each of us, to division within the church. And that’s where Paul’s letter to the Romans has led us. The reading we had, Romans 12.9-21 was Paul giving instruction on how to deal with conflict within their church community: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’. He adds: “for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads”.

Paul was a realist. He recognised that division existed. He didn’t argue that gatherings be curtailed or communion restricted to only certain people, but that enemy sit with enemy out of love. How difficult that can be. And I know this might shock you, sometimes we ourselves can be wrong, we can be the enemy – we can be stubborn, blocking the flourishing of the church and people – and perhaps we need those burning coals to shame us occasionally. Yet as soon as we decide not to share the bread and the wine with each other, the enemy of us all wins.

And so we come to our Gospel reading. And you might be wondering how I can crowbar a James Bond reference into this encounter between Jesus and Peter. Jesus has revealed the manner of his death. Peter argues that Jesus should not have to endure such an undignified, horrific end. Jesus famously responds:

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And this is the nub of this whole discussion of goodies and baddies. We can demonise each other, polarise debates, take sides, fight our wars but what are we hindering? Do they take us any closer to God? Yes, I think there is a Bond reference in there. Bond consistently fought “for Queen and country”, for a cause greater than himself. Our cause, as Christians, is higher still (and one the late Queen championed).

As Christians we cannot abdicate our own humanity. We cannot opt out of things we disagree with. Indeed as Christians we have different opinions and ways of doing things. But if we live our lives, make our value judgements, choose our goodies and baddies, without reference to God then the whole of society misses out and our relationship with the Creator is hindered.

Despite the persecution, Jeremiah went back. Despite the differences, the church in Rome flourished. Despite all, Jesus gave his life.

We may not get the car or, dare I say it, the girl. Or Daniel Craig.

What we get is hope.  What we get is love.

“If you turn back, I will take you back. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. For I am with you to save you and deliver you”