Fear, Wholeness, Angels and Inclusive Church.
This sermon is about inclusion and the includes an adaptation of some excellent writing by Ruth Wilde from Inclusive Church.
Ruth Wilde observes, the bible is full of things you would not expect. It's rather amazing and at times perplexing in this way. Take angels…..angels in the bible don't sound like what we might all think angels should look like.
Just look up what a ‘seraphim’ is supposed to look like on your computer and you will see what I mean.
Some of the angels in the Bible are extremely strange and a little bit frightening when drawn exactly as described. In Isaiah for example we have angels with six wings – two covering their eyes, two covering their feet and two for flying. These angels also have hands, it seems, as they put the coal on Isaiah’s lips with a hand.
Now, I know that we don’t want to get into the literalism of this Bible story, and there is probably symbolism in the covering of the hands and the feet which is far more important than any literal understanding of the passage.
However, the point I want to make is this one: God’s angels are really not what we expect! And that’s because God is not what we expect.
God is a mystery, beyond our comprehension and different to anything we can really grasp. Although there are many passages in the Bible where God is a comfort to people, there are also many passages where angels have to tell people to not be afraid, and where God appears in burning bushes and the like. Part of the awe-inspiring, fear-inspiring nature of God lies in God’s extreme otherness.
In part I think this is where we get that phrase: the fear of God that I was asked about at the end of the Confirmations we had a while back.
We are of course afraid of all kinds of other things we need not be afraid of.
In a survey by the Charity Scope the majority of people who responded said they were too afraid to speak to disabled people because they didn’t know what to say to them. Research shows disabled people are far more likely to feel isolated in church and broader society as a result. Very often, wheelchair users are spoken over and ignored.
Another group which is absolutely, earth-shatteringly frightening is LGBT+ people. Especially, it seems, to the church. No other group seems to be able to make the church collectively run around like headless chickens!
There are many other marginalized groups who people fear. It is fear of otherness, the stranger. I suggest that if we are able to worship a God who is wholly and completely other, though, we really should be able to cope with and get used to fellow human beings who look, love or get around differently to us.
Fear is a natural reaction to change and difference, but I believe we can do better. Inclusion necessitates a bit of initial discomfort. If we’re not uncomfortable and having to change as a church, perhaps we are not growing and including everyone we should or could.
In my experience churches often long for young people or more diverse congregations, but when different people appear, with all their different needs, wishes and ways of doing things, it becomes difficult.
Today’s Gospel is about Jesus calling people to turn back to God and to become disciples. It is about calling, and I believe this about calling is for everyone – no exceptions.
This is because God calls everyone, and if the church puts up barriers and rejects people whom God is calling, we are not building the kingdom of God, we are not doing what God is doing, and we are not being the church.
Who are we to say who is or is not called by God?
All people are God's people and all people are loved.
I believe love invites us to invest, to stay in relationships, to stay in community, to make a stand in community and work to make things better. I believe in love and I believe in a God who is love.
Inclusion I think means firstly overcoming our fear of difference in order to learn and grow. Secondly, it means realizing that we can’t be the church if we are not inclusive, because God calls everyone. Finally, inclusion means looking to the future, because the future of the church is inclusive. It has to be, or it is not doing God’s work. Inclusion is a gospel imperative.
Jesus mixed with everyone, included everyone and called everyone. His ragtag group of men and women, fishermen and tax collectors were called, despite the judgmental looks from a society which preferred exclusion and comfortable boxes for people to stay in and be controlled in.
The future of the church also must be inclusive - research from the Methodist church for example shows that one of the main things growing churches had in common is that they were inclusive.
Inclusion might feel uncomfortable and hard at first, but it is a huge blessing in the long run. All the churches I speak to who have been on a journey towards being more inclusive say this.
The church has long excluded and rejected people it thought were broken and wrong in some way. Think back a little and what has been on the news recently, people with illness and disabilities, women, people who have been divorced and the black community. I don't believe these people or others I could also name are broken.
Using the idea of all believers being part of the body of Christ - I believe when we damage and exclude parts of the body it is the church which ends up being broken and incomplete.
I hope you have seen and read my short piece in Ovingdean News about the possibility of St Wulfran’s Church formally joining the Inclusive Church Network. Thank you for the emails I have received about this.
Inclusive Church is a network of churches, groups and individuals united together around a shared vision of church as a place that celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate.
I think actions speak louder than words (or badges) and my personal experience of St Wulfran’s is of being welcoming and affirming to all - and what a blessing this is. All of the observations about inclusion I have just been discussing I think are generally understood and supported - though we all have differing views - and that is good. I mean it when I say everyone is welcome at church.
My experience in the past two and half years is that I am able to say with confidence to people with disabilities, people of all ages, genders, those who have been divorced, those who support women's ministry, refugees, people of different nationalities and people from the LGBT community that they will be safe, affirmed and loved at St Wulfran’s.
St Wulfran's has done much work to get to this place.
Not all churches are like this and many people have had very difficult experiences that have kept them from knowing and following Jesus.
I have had some terrible and very damaging experiences.
The PCC agreed to join the Inclusive Church at our meeting this week - as we believe this is who we are as a church community.
I said I would give this sermon and invite any final feedback before applying - so if you have any thoughts or concerns please let me know in the next week or so.
Just to finish, I believe joining this network would be a lovely and encouraging sign, a beacon of hope especially to those who may think church isn't a place where they are welcome.
I also think it would be a great place from where we can make the case for some changes we need to make and the investments needed, for example to make St Wulfran's and our churchyards more accessible to older and disabled people.
I started with angels and I'll finish with a short quote from Hebrews:
The writer says: ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it’.