notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Kingdom healing and the beautiful game
Good Shepherd 30/01/2005 (Healing / Communion Service)
1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5.1-12
Tonight on Channel 4 there is a programme about football and religion. It's called Hallowed be Thy Game and it's going to ask the question, is football itself becoming a religion? 
Some people think it is. The programme's presenter Mark Dowd is a Christian, a football commentator and a lifelong Man United fan, and during the closing minutes of the 1999 European Cup Final, when United were 2-1 down, he sat in the Press Box of the Nou Camp stadium and prayed. Perhaps miraculously United scored two very late goals in that match, and won 3-2. 'Was I right to pray during a football match?' Dowd wonders. 'Were people right to refer to football as the modern day religion?'
There might be something it it. Remember Robbie Fowler - when he played for Liverpool, the supporters called him 'God'. In Argentina fans have started up The Church of Diego Maradona, the country's most celebrated footballer. And in the programme Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson says that 'The great thing about football is that it can attract the sort of emotion and passion that becomes a sort of religion in people's minds.'
Another person interviewed on the programme is Mark Roques, a Christian who has written a book called Fields of God . It's quite a strange book, quite ambitious because what he tries to do in it is to explain what he thinks Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God, in football terms. He doesn't believe football is a religion. But he does believe that football and religion have quite a lot in common and that football can help to explain things about religion.
I think his book works quite well, especially if you like football or understand a bit of what it's about. And I'd like to read an extract about it because I think it will help us get into today's gospel reading, which is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, his first attempt to tell the crowds what the Kingdom of God is all about. This extract is called The beautiful game and the ugly game.
Let us try to imagine a fantastic world with perfect football clubs and leagues. All the players love each other and the football is a delight to behold. Deft flicks, elusive dribbling and outrageous scissor kicks are the order of the day. Brazilian ball skills flourish abundantly. Cheeky, friendly banter infuses the very warp and woof of the game. Certainly there is drive and competition as teams struggle to win the FA Cup but there is always fair play, honesty and good humour. Players might clumsily lunge and foul their opponents but good grace abounds. When Derek scores with his blistering thirty-yard piledriver, everyone applauds and claps. When Berty caresses the ball around the park and delivers the killer pass, there are shouts of joy and praise from all and sundry. As Reggie dribbles past four opponents, Ron, the defeated fullback, cries out 'Oh worthy opponent! Your skills have tormented me this afternoon but all credit to Reggie, the Welsh wizard!' All the supporters embrace each other after the game and cakes, twiglets and sausage rolls are guzzled as the party begins. The two rival managers crack open a bottle of champagne and offer a toast to the King of kings. God looks on and smiles. In this magical scenario the Kingdom of God has just thrashed the kingdom of darkness by ten goals to nil.
Let us now imagine a very different world. Dour, faceless managers scream at their exhausted players. 'Get up that ****** wing and take that player out now!' Players torment each other with mocking grunts and scything tackles. Racist chants fill the stadium as hate-filled supporters throw banana skins on the pitch. Suddenly one of the goalkeepers clutches his bleeding face; someone has thrown a coin from the crowd. A fullback screams at his own players. 'You ****** lazy *******. Work harder you *******. In this awful parallel universe the kingdom of darkness has just thrashed the Kingdom of God by ten goals to nil. These two scenarios can help us in a beginning way to understand what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus stood up to preach what we now call The Sermon on the Mount he gave us some important clues as to what the Kingdom of God might be like. And, if we want to keep up the football comparison for a minute, today's reading is all about the people God decides to pick for his team:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek - if you were a manager, would you pick them for your team? They seem like a weak lot.
The merciful, the pure in heart - who'd want them, either? With them playing for you the opposition would get away with all sorts.
And those who hunger for righteousness, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for their beliefs - they don't sound at all promising; seem like fusspots, troublemakers, a liability.
But if the Kingdom of God is really so attractive, like that first football scenario we heard about, then part of its attractiveness is that it is precisely these unlikely people who are in it. The opposition look stronger but they're part of the second scenario, the ugly game not the beautiful one. For them, we could turn Jesus' words inside out, for them, the boot is on the other foot:
Cursed are the strong in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of darkness.
Cursed are those who refuse to mourn, for they will be uncomfortable.
Cursed are the loud and aggressive, for they will lose everything.
Cursed are those who don't care a thing about righteousness, for their lives will be empty.
Cursed are the merciless, for they will receive no mercy.
Cursed are the impure, the immoral, for they will be blind to God.
Cursed are the warmongers and troublemakers, for God will not have them as his children.
Cursed are those who do nothing for righteousness sake, who enjoy popularity in this life while denying God - for theirs is the kingdom of darkness, their rewards in this life hollow.
We are a long way now from just talking about a football game. We are deep into human experience at all levels. And we know that Jesus' words speak to us today.
They bring challenge, especially if we think that some of our behaviour may fit best on the opposition team; but I hope, more than that, that they bring comfort today.
For today we are here in a healing service, and will focus for a time during communion on those things in our lives which we want to offer to God for healing, those things in the lives of loved ones, those things in the life of the world.
And the comfort in Jesus' words is that the unlikeliest team make selection to the kingdom - the little ones, the struggling ones, the wounded ones, those who feel the injustices of the world so keenly that it upsets them deeply.
We might come feeling poor in spirit, but if we come then the kingdom of heaven is ours.
We might come mourning, but if we do then God promises that we will be comforted.
We might come meekly, nervously, with just a tiny bit of faith, but if we come in this condition Jesus tells us to expect to inherit the earth.
We might come hungry and thirsty for righteousness, full of concerns about the world's suffering ones, aching to see wrongs righted. And if we do then God promises to fill us.
This is the healing message of God's Kingdom. It is very, very strange, as Paul recognised when he wrote,
... the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.... God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.
And so it might be that we think the idea that we can be healed - is foolishness. Or that our prayers for healing can help others - is foolishness. But if it is, it is God's foolishness, which is wiser and stronger than everything else.
During today's communion, if you wish to seek prayer, for yourself, on behalf of someone, or for a crisis in the world, you are invited to light a candle on your way up to communion, perhaps stop for a moment and say a quiet prayer. And afterwards we will pray for healing together.
You don't have to do this, and if it's the first time you have then it might feel a bit strange. But that's ok. Because as we've just heard from Paul, God's ways are a bit strange. God's people don't often look or feel like champions. The team God chooses wouldn't feature in most people's First Eleven. But hear Paul one last time:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
And today I would want to add that God chose the wounded ones to be healers. That is what we celebrate together today. However we come to God we can be sure that our prayers for healing really do count.
So, blessed are you ... if you come to God in weakness; for you will discover, in God's way and God's time, God's strength.
 Channel 4, Hallowed be Thy Game, broadcast 30/1/2005.
 Mark Roques, Fields of God, p.xiii