True hospitality…shifting up to make room, being willing to be inconvenienced…words for Adel Parish Church, 28/6/20

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True hospitality…shifting up to make room, being willing to be inconvenienced. Sermon for Adel Parish Church – 3rd Sunday after Trinity, 2020.

Matthew 10: 40 – end

My great, great grandfather, the impressively named Lowther Ellerby Ellis, was a primitive Methodist preacher in Derbyshire. I suspect he could empathise with those first disciples being spoken to in our reading, which is just the end of a passage telling them of all the hardships waiting for those who spread God’s word.

Between 1862 and 1903 my great, great grandfather (and presumably his family) preached in circuits all over the North of England. Each circuit consisted of many village chapels…travelling between them to preach was done mostly on foot. The pay was meagre, and was decided by his congregation – depending partly on how highly they valued his preaching! (I hope you are not getting ideas…) It was not unusual for such preachers to have to beg to support their families.

His experience was not unlike that of the first disciples: sent out to rely on the hospitality of those with whom they shared the good news; warned that their message would often be ignored, and they might well be persecuted for it. Like those first disciples, my great grandfather perhaps needed to hear today’s gospel…

…Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and who ever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” In other words – disciples are not just talking about Jesus; they are taking God himself into people’s homes and lives.

For my great, great grandfather it must have been an exhausting life. I guess when he preached in a remote village somewhere, he hoped someone might invite him in for a meal, or even offer a bed for the night. But Primitive Methodists were on the whole poor, so this might mean sharing limited food round an extra mouth…juggling already overcrowded sleeping arrangements to squeeze in a visitor. I wonder how often preachers felt really welcome.

I suppose, as a church, we hear readings like this and identify with the disciples…the people with the gospel to share.

But Jesus finishes the passage with a striking phrase “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…will not lose their reward.”  This sounds like an invitation to identify with those hearing the gospel, to think of ourselves as those receiving Christ’s messengers.

When I read it this week it felt like a prompt to look at how we as a church welcome people, and perhaps more importantly we view those we welcome.

Adel Parish Church is a welcoming church. I have heard many times from people who came tentatively and stayed because of the welcome. But I don’t think it’s ever something we can take for granted and stop working at.

I was discussing this with Kate Clarke the other day. She talked about the importance of welcoming people as part of the congregation. In a way that sounds obvious – of course everyone who comes is part of the congregation. But I think she was saying something quite deep about how we see people, and the effects this might have.

I think what Kate was saying is that people can be very unsure of themselves – they might not know why they’ve come. It’s very easy in that situation to feel as though everyone else has faith all sorted…The friendly ‘we haven’t seen you here before’…could subtly divide us, the followers of Christ, from them, the newcomer…

Welcoming newcomers ‘as part of the congregation’ is a very subtle difference that could have a big effect on the church. It seems to me that if we welcome newcomers as part of the congregation…we welcome them as fellow pilgrims, also on a journey. We look on them as fellow disciples of Christ.

If we welcome them as fellow disciples of Christ, we are saying that they could be bringing Christ to us. That in welcoming them in, we might be welcoming Christ, and through Christ, God our Father.

When we see welcome like that, we see not only that they might be changed by joining the church, we also expect that we, the church might be changed by them.

If everyone is a fellow Pilgrim, everyone has something to teach us about God. True hospitality is about shifting around to make room, about moving out of our comfortable normal to accommodate others. It’s about being willing to be inconvenienced. But as Jesus says, if we welcome his messengers, we welcome God into our lives, and the rewards are enormous.

Jesus said if we welcome a prophet we receive a prophet’s reward. If we’re ready to imagine those we welcome could be God’s prophets, we will perhaps be ready to let those prophets change us…and find ourselves blessed by God’s presence.

Apparently during lock-down, with church services forced on-line, many people who are not regular church goers are joining in. I wonder if this is partly because they don’t have to worry about what kind of welcome they will receive…they know they won’t have to explain why they have come…to worry about feeling different.

When we eventually return to something like normality, we need to think about how such people can still be part of our church. Not just because we want to share what we’ve gained from being part of this community – but because whoever welcomes a disciple of Jesus (however tentative a disciple they might be) welcomes Jesus himself.

However welcoming they are – churches will still, for many, be slightly scary places to enter. But if we continue to welcome people as ‘part of the congregation’, they might find it easier to stay. And we will be rewarded by discovering what they can teach us about God’s love.

 

In faith and in doubt…John the Baptist – a Saint worth following. Sermon for our Patronal Festival – Adel Parish Church

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In faith and in doubt…John theBaptist – a saint worth following. Sermon for Patronal Festival, Adel Parish Church.

Matthew 11: 2 – 19

Today, in somewhat strange circumstances, we celebrate our Patronal Festival, and remember our Patron Saint John the Baptist.

I think it’s quite surprising that there’s no epic movie…’The life (and death) of John the Baptist’…after all he’s a larger than life character…his every appearance in the bible a strange and wonderful story.

I’m sure most of you have a picture in your mind’s eye. It may be the baby leaping in his mother’s womb as he somehow recognised the presence of Christ. Or the wild prophet clothed in camel hair, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah…the man who, before anyone else, recognised Jesus for who he was…”look the lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world.”

Or it may be his cruel and rather gruesome end…suffering for speaking truth even to the rulers of the land.

But tonight we heard a different story that’s easily overlooked. And I think it’s a picture that not only speaks into our stories, but also tells us something very profound about the Christian faith. It’s a story of doubt.

John the Baptist didn’t only announce Jesus’ arrival and baptise people. He also pointed out what was wrong in their lives – what needed changing before they’d be ready for God’s kingdom. And he didn’t shrink from criticising even Herod – who had divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife – against Jewish Law. That was never going to end well.

So here we have John – languishing in prison, probably expecting execution would soon follow. Perhaps it’s not surprising that John begins to doubt. He’s fulfilled his role of announcing the Messiah who will bring in a new Kingdom. He had been completely sure that Jesus was that Messiah…but on his own in prison he begins to wonder…if God’s kingdom has come, why is Herod still in charge?

And so he begins to doubt. Was he wrong all along? After all – there’ve been many false prophets. It’s all very well suffering for the truth, but what if he had it all wrong, what if he’d led thousands astray – what if it was all for nothing?

 So John, who announced with such certainty that Jesus was the Lamb of God, is driven to ask him – ‘are you the one – or should we look for another?’

On one level this is an encouragement for us. John the Baptist, the one with all the answers, the one who recognised Jesus when no one else did, is suddenly the one with all the questions. We’re shown that doubt is a normal part of a life of faith. We’re reminded that God uses faltering, fallible humans to carry his message.

I wonder though, whether this moment of doubt and questioning points to Christ just as deeply as the earlier certainty. Does it show that when we doubt and question… then we open our lives to a deeper understanding of Christ?

John seems to have responded almost instinctively to Jesus – knowing him to be from God. But although he responded to the person of Jesus, his question from prison suggests he already had a picture of what the Messiah should do and say…and Jesus didn’t quite fit with that.

Perhaps like many others he expected the Messiah to come in power and might, to overthrow false rulers, to impose God’s kingdom…and that wasn’t what he saw.

“Are you the Messiah?” he sends his disciples to ask Jesus – but Jesus doesn’t appear to answer the question at all. Instead he says, “go and tell John what you see and hear…the blind see; the lame walk; lepers are healed; the poor receive good news…”

This isn’t a message to restore John’s former certainty…it’s a message to alter and enlarge his understanding of Jesus and his kingdom. Yes – I am the Messiah you’ve been expecting – but you’ve misunderstood my ways.

For me this suggests doubt isn’t just a time when our faith falters, but a vital part of our growth as Christians.

At some point we come to a feeling that Jesus is ‘the one who is to come’…the idea of Jesus as Lord begins to make sense. But that first picture is just a tiny fraction of who Christ, the Son of God, the eternal word, is. In this life we’ll never see or understand the whole picture, but it’s by doubt and questioning of the picture we have, that we learn more.

Doubt can be scary. We can feel we are lesser Christians when we doubt. But if, rather than giving up on faith, we dare to ask with John, ‘are you the one who is to come?’ We open ourselves to deeper understanding.

I’ve seen this at work during our ‘Pilgrim’ discussion groups, started in a different world, and continuing on Zoom. As we study bible passages together, we share our questions and doubts, the times when life experience contradicts what we thought we knew of God.

Listening to what others think, just voicing our own puzzlement, we refine our picture of Christ, our understanding of his work.

If we’re open to our doubts, we’re ready to discard bits of our picture that don’t fit with our experience or the experiences of others. If we’re ready to look again at what we hear and see – in the bible – in life – we’re able to grow fraction by fraction, into a better understanding of the one we follow.

John the Baptist – man of faith and doubt – definitely a saint worth remembering.

 

 

‘Every journey begins with a single step.’ Sharing the journey prompted by events in the US…sermon for Adel Parish church 14th June 2020

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Every journey begins with a single step. Sharing the journey prompted by events in the US.

Sermon for Adel Parish Church June 14th 2020

Matthew 9:35 – 10:8

‘Preachers are at their best when preaching about something they’re bad at – because then they know the struggle.’ So said Fr Timothy Radcliffe – Dominican friar, author of many books and wonderful preacher himself.

I offer his wisdom to you today, perhaps as an excuse, as I share the journey I’ve embarked on after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.

We’ve just heard Jesus send out his disciples to ’cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’. I suspect none of us take that as a literal instruction for today. In Jesus’ time, the sick and lepers represented the margins of society…so perhaps we hear it as a call to be healers and restorers on the margins of our society. But what does that mean in 21st century Britain?

I’ve known for years that in Britain, BAME people are marginalised by the system. Growing up in Middlesbrough and working in East Leeds mean that Adel is the most racially mixed place I’ve ever lived. But still, I knew

…I knew about the over representation of BAME people in prison,

…their under representation in positions of power,

…their under representation as clergy in the Church of England

…the scandal of Windrush deportations…

I knew but I suppose it felt too big to be my problem. ‘The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few.’ What could I do? I focused on easier targets…speaking out at the rise of the BNP…criticising the US.              So what’s different this time?

Like everyone I was shocked by that almost casual killing in America – but what really jolted me was a 2018 video that resurfaced on Facebook. A video of a white American woman quietly challenging an audience of white Americans.

“Stand up”, she said, “if you would be happy to be treated the way black people are treated in this country.” No one stood –but their expressions suggested they knew how black Americans are treated – and certainly wouldn’t be happy to be treated that way.

I might have moved on, with prayers for America, and relief that I’m British. But her words stayed with me…made me uncomfortable. Not because I knew and did nothing, but when I realised I’ve never bothered to find out.

I’ve never studied, read more widely…but worse – I’ve never even asked my friends what it’s like to live with the everyday racism that’s part of our society. So last week I did. I asked two of my friends about their daily experiences of living as educated, successful, black women in Britain.

Of course some of you live this every day; others may be way ahead of me; but just in case I’m not the only one struggling, I’m going to share a little of what they said.

“On TV, in work, schools, institutions that govern our lives, we’re not represented. Black role models and history aren’t mainstream. Messages about black people relate to immigration, poverty in Africa, underperforming schools in BAME areas…all negative.

I struggle to find shows, films and dolls where my children can see people that look like them. Another issue is the beauty industry – as a woman I feel marginalised because I can’t find a hairdresser or hair products in a mainstream shop. For black girls growing up…all their friends talk about hair appointments, makeup they’ve bought…but they remain silent because they’re embarrassed at having to go to Harehills to get those things.

I don’t frequently speak about the issue myself as we are either dismissed or people say things that water down the issue, bringing up other forms of discrimination as if to prove that what we’re highlighting really isn’t that important.  I’m made to feel I have a chip on my shoulder. 

As in the argument of ‘Black lives matter’ vs. ‘All lives matter’, people just don’t want to stay with what you’ve raised, they must point to something else.  So eventually you just keep quiet.

Underlying all this is the deep hurt caused by the enslavement of Africans that led to loss of African heritage, black people having no wealth, continued explicit racism and covert messages that black people are not as good. Whilst England remembers the Holocaust every year, it doesn’t give black people the healing that would be brought by remembering their suffering through slavery.

The tragedy of what happened to George Floyd personally brings to the fore all the challenges that I and people with my skin colour face every day – explicit and covert messages from society throughout our whole lives that we are not as intelligent, beautiful, hard working, worthy, as ‘white’ people.

Just two people’s everyday experiences…shocking. Now I have stories rather than statistics, and as Jesus knew so well – stories are what change us.

And I still feel overwhelmed – the harvest seems even more plentiful, what can my tiny bit of labour do? But I do know that when Jesus told his disciples to pray for more labourers – they found they were themselves the answer to that prayer. They were sent out to heal and restore. They were sent out with message that God’s love is for everyone.

Humanity has never found it easy to accept that we cannot love God and hate our neighbour – but that is the message we are given.

So what does Jesus’ commission look like for me today? Well Jesus didn’t just value everyone equally, he challenged a system that didn’t…and I believe he calls me to do the same. And I’m starting with this definition of anti-racism…‘the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it – even in yourself.’

So I’ve listened to my friends – acknowledging that although there are other forms of discrimination and hardship – this is their story, and I’m not qualified to speak only to listen and lament.

I’ve found black voices to listen to – and heeded their advice to educate myself…to listen and read. And if you find yourself on a similar journey – perhaps we can share resources and encourage one another.