Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Evensong will end in good time for the World Cup Final tonight, and I hope you’ll watch what this culmination of an interesting two weeks, even for those who have little interest in the beautiful game, words which, since first uttered by Pelé have become synonymous with the team of the host nation Brazil. That is a country without illusions about its state and its vulnerabilities, and it seemed that it had few illusions about the World Cup and its dodgy patron FIFA, judging by the demonstrations and outcry about corruption, and construction workers’ safety and the bill of $11bn (or is it $15.5bn?).
But then the football kicked off, and the impression grew that many Brazilians saw their nation as a kind of chosen people in the sport, and the tournament as coming to the promised land of football – surely victory would come, despite the weaknesses of their team, by sheer force of destiny. Coach Luis Felipe Scolari said at a press conference on July 3rd that they had one hand on the trophy. After they squeaked past Chile, he adopted the tone of the revivalist preacher:
We took upon ourselves this mission that we must be champions. If you make a promise you must deliver. This is what the players are doing…There are three more (games) to see if we can reach heaven.
We now know it was not to be heaven but the vale of tears; tears of player and supporter, of young and old, tears of despair and disbelief.
Why talk about football on the Lord’s day? Why spend valuable minutes of a sermon that should be about the glorious gospel of Christ on what a theologian of our own time sniffily described as ‘the aptitude of inflated bladders to bounce and roll, and the tendency of immature males towards mimic conflict’? Thomas Aquinas spoke of the necessity of analogy in speaking of the depth of life and of God; and football – like many sports – is a good source of metaphor: it is manifestly not a matter of life and death, but it mimics those extremes of existence most vividly. Not for nothing do new say that a penalty shoot moves into ‘sudden death’.
What some Brazilians may have believed implicitly about their nation on the field, King David states explicitly about his kingdom. It may be a minor player in the region, yet God has blessed it and chosen it for his own, and now David feels emboldened to say to God, ‘Do as you have promised,’ that is, establish David and his kingdom for ever. Well – it doesn’t happen. David’s family will soon be bloodied by lust and rivalry, and eventually his city of Jerusalem will fall. By the time Jesus approaches that same city of David, centuries later (as we hear in the second reading) it has long been the capital of a subject nation.
If you miss your appointment with destiny there is a crisis. Has God broken his promise? If so, God is not God. Or perhaps it is your perception of God that has been broken, and must be remade and made better. In the Hebrew scriptures, that is the thankless tasks of the prophets, to interpret the afflictions of Israel by saying that being God’s chosen people does not mean that God exempts them from the disciplines of history: make bad choices and those choices will have consequences. So says Jesus, the Son of David, to David’s city: 42‘If you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace. But they are hidden form your eyes.’
Here we have one of the tensions of the life of faith. Among those who take faith seriously, who pray, who seek God’s will in their lives, there are many that feel the hand of God upon them, who sense that things go right for them when they do because of the action of God, who feel that accident and coincidence are not quite that.
It is view of things put most boldly by Morpheus, the unfeasibly cool character in second of those quasi-religious (and remarkably violent) films of the Matrix trilogy: ‘There are no accidents. I do not see coincidence, I see providence. I see purpose. I believe it is our fate to be here. It is our destiny.’ Well, yes, but we should never identify the providence of God with a particular form of life that God, come what may, will preserve for us, whether personally – with a life that enjoys a certain status – or politically – with a certain way of doing civilisation, in our case petroleum fuelled liberal democracy.
When Constantine Christianised the Roman Empire in the fourth century, it seemed to many that here was a kingdom blessed by God that would never pass away. Within a century it was creaking and breaking, as much as David’s had before, and many felt that therefore the God of Jesus was no true God.
While this was going on, in a city called Hippo in North Africa, a man called Augustine responded by writing a great book (and it is indeed a gigantic book) The City of God. He took seriously the work of God here, in this world, and the political project of seeking justice on earth, but he maintained that God’s perspective was that of eternity. Augustine’s earthly city has vanished, only a few stones remain, but the God he knew is alive and works still, calling us to do his will in this our earthly city – where we shall not be immune from the tears of things – while longing for the heavenly Jerusalem, were God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21.2-4).
Inflated bladders the words are Austin Farrer’s, from his 1948 Bampton Lectures, The Glass of Vision.