Thursday, November 5, 2009

Be Inclusive, Be Courageous and Be Opened

Sermon by Rev Father Steven Saxby – 6th September 2009 St Barnabas, Walthamstow,

This morning I invite you to explore with me three phases that arise from our three lectionary readings. The phrases are “be inclusive”, “be courageous” and “be opened!” I shall say some words about each of these phrases as they arise from our readings as I also encourage us to apply these phrases to our mission and ministry here at St Barnabas. The first arises from our reading from the letter of St James. We do not find the exact words “Be inclusive” in the text but that it what James is talking about. Those here last week will remember that I preached on this glorious little letter of St James and how valuable it is for us today. I hope some of you will have heeded my advice to read it during the week and if you didn’t please do try to make the time to do so this week. One of the reasons it is so valuable is that it is committed to there being no distinctions within the life of the church.

Today’s section of the letter talks about the distinctions that were being made in the church between the richer and the poorer members. James is crystal clear that it is impossible within the life of the church for such distinctions to exist. He says, “do not try to combine faith in Jesus Christ our glorified Lord, with the making of distinctions between classes of people”. James’ message is that all should be included within the life of the church, regardless of their economic status. How do we apply this text and its message of inclusivity to the life of our church? Well, we might say this is a text that need not apply to us. After all, this is not a church attended by the rich, so there is no question of them lording it over the poorer members, parading their fancy clothes and taking the best seats.

On the contrary, I have to say that one of things that attracted me to coming here to St Barnabas was that this is a very inclusive congregation – it includes people of all ages, of various backgrounds, of different ethnicities – and through all of this a vision has been formed of a diverse congregation serving an equally diverse neighbourhood. The phrase “be inclusive” seems ingrained into the life of this congregation and yet being inclusive is always a challenge and requires us always to assess and re-assess our practice as we ask whether we are really providing access, welcome and opportunities for participation to all people. It is fabulous that we are open this and next weekend for the art trail.

That is an opportunity to put our inclusivity to the test as we welcome people from the whole community. And our challenge in being inclusive is to be on the lookout, as St James was, for those who are excluded within the context of wider society. Who are the people oppressed, excluded, marginalised, mocked today? What can we do to ensure they have a place within the life of our church? The great strength of being a diverse church already is that we know there can be room for many kinds of different people here, but we must always be alert to whether we are really following the phrase that arises from the letter of St James, “be inclusive”.
The second phrase for us to explore comes from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and it is “be courageous”!

In our text today we have the exhortation “courage”, meaning “be courageous”, sometimes translated as “be strong”. I mentioned last week that James, like Jesus, was soaked in the tradition of the great Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah, and so, like them, had a great concern for the oppressed, the excluded and the suffering. We find that concern in this passage from Isaiah. It is one of those passages where Isaiah gives hope to the people of Israel. Even though he has told them that they will suffer for their sins, that they will lose their land and life as captives (as indeed happened when the Israelites were dragged off into captivity by the Babylonians); Isaiah also reminds the Israelites that there suffering will not last forever and that God will restore Israel to its land and its former glory.

And what are among the chief things that God will do when he restores Israel? He will first of all attend to those who are suffering and excluded from society. He will open the eyes of the blind, unseal the ears of the deaf; elsewhere we learn of God’s care and concern for the widows, for orphans, and others who are excluded from and marginalised within wider society. In the context of their suffering and captivity the Israelites are given this promise of things to come, they are to be courageous in the midst of their struggles, knowing that the Lord will deliver them from their oppression and that he will take particular care to restore the marginalised, the oppressed and others who suffer.

“Be courageous”: how do these words apply to us today? Well, it isn’t easy being a Christian community here in Walthamstow in the year 2009. We live in an increasingly secular culture. More and more people have grown up with little or no contact with the church. Many in society are hostile towards Christianity. So it does take courage to be a Christian in today’s world and courage for a congregation to reach out into the community, not least, as in our case, when so many in the community belong to other faith communities.

Then of course there is turmoil and debate within the wider church, not least within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Much of this has focused on the topic of sexuality and we find ourselves now in a situation where the Church of England, which has for many years been a place of welcome and inclusion for gay and lesbian people – including here at St Barnabas, is now increasingly seen as a church which is intolerant of gay sexuality because of the way the debate is conducted within the wider church. If we are to be an inclusive church, then our welcome surely extends to all, our fellowship wants to embrace all, regardless of their sexuality. Jesus went out of his way to mix with those who were marginalised in his society, including those excluded by others. He mixed with the despised tax-collectors, with women regarded as unrespectable, even with prostitutes, with political extremists.

Do we not think that if people had been marginalised then because of their sexuality that Jesus would not have gone out of his way to mix with them, to show that they were to be included as part of his radical message of love? I am so pleased that we have Revd Rowland Jide Macaulay with us this morning. Rowland has been a good friend of our family for many years. And he truly is a man of courage, not least as the person who founded the first church providing an open welcome to gay and lesbian people in Nigeria! I am so pleased he is here, not least because a year ago he had to flee Nigeria after he received death threats related to his leadership of his church, House of Rainbow Ministries. Rowland is currently living just around the corner and this week has been celebrating the 3rd year of House of Rainbow but has had to do so not in Nigeria but here is exile in Walthamstow. His is a wonderful story of courage in the Lord and I pray that we may all learn something from him as he worships here with us at St Barnabas. “Be inclusive”, “be courageous” and, finally, “be opened”.

We find these words “be opened” in our gospel reading today. Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has speech problems. He puts his fingers in his ears and puts spittle on his tongue – thankfully there were no swine flu health restrictions at the time – anyway, he does this and then looks to heaven and says, in Aramaic, “Ephphatha” which means “be opened” and the man was healed. In one sense this is a simple story of Jesus healing a man, as he does countless times in the gospel stories but there are deeper levels to this story as well. On another level it is one of those stories where we see Jesus fulfilling the expectations of a messiah. Isaiah promised that the Lord would unseal the ears of the deaf and here is Jesus doing exactly that. Although Jesus instructs the man to tell know one, he can’t help himself.

Like Isaiah predicted, “the tongues of the dumb sing for joy”. Personally, I love that action of the healed man. He cannot contain himself; he wants to tell everyone this exciting news about what has happened to him and to tell everyone about this wonderful Jesus who has healed him. And I wonder when Jesus says “be opened” whether he was only speaking to his tongue and ears and whether he was not also speaking to his heart. So many times in the gospels, it is the faith that people put in Jesus that leads to their healing; the opening of their hearts to Jesus leads to the restoration of their bodies; they are released from their physical suffering by their openness to Jesus as the Son of God. I hardly need to spell out the relevance of those words “be opened” for our situation here at St Barnabas. Our faith in Jesus, our openness to him and what he can do in our lives is the foundation of all we do as Christians. There is no point in us being here if our life together does not flow from our love for Him. If we know his saving power in our lives, we too will want to sing for joy, sing for joy of his love for us, and tell others what work Jesus can do in their lives if they will be open to him. That is why it is natural that as we welcome others in to our church, we will want to draw them into the faith that inspires us.

Our evangelism may be a gentle welcome, a leaflet through the door, a friendly conversation, at times it can be more forthright but it never need be confrontational and above all we must realise that it is by the opening of another person’s heart to Jesus that they will know for themselves what we have come to know and then want to themselves to share it with others. It is easy to lose that first enthusiasm for the Lord, the joy we knew when we were first open to Jesus transforming our lives but that is always the challenge and why we come here every Sunday, to be refreshed, to receive him again in the bread and the wine, to renew our enthusiasm and commitment to share our love of him with others. It is a challenge, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit may we evermore rise to the challenge here at St Barnabas of responding to those three phrases, “be inclusive”, “be courageous” and “be opened”!

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