Sermon given at the Cleveleys Methodists. The reading can be found here.
May moons ago when the earth was young and dinosaurs walked the earth, I went to school in a little village in deepest darkest
Dorset. I don’t know if you have seen the film Hot Fuzz, the comedy about west country life, but that was the kind of place I lived in. Everyone talked like this. I wasn’t a local to the place, being from a nomadic family that for a number of generations had moved around the world and I had occasional interesting encounters with some of the people born and bred in the village. I remember
one day, walking a dog through a field being stopped by a farmer with shotgun in hand, as I was accidentally trespassing on his land, thinking I was on a footpath. He ordered me off his land, saying something to the effect of ‘we don’t like your kind round here’. It was hard as an outsider to really fit in you weren’t really part of that group or community, not really part of that place. Now don’t get me wrong there are many good people around deepest darkest Dorset, but nonetheless, it was frankly, a hard place to be a stranger. I had been judged by the way I spoke. Another time visiting my parents one summer I went to local parish church for a midweek communion. The priest, looking me up and down simply said, “the homeless breakfast is upstairs, please go quickly I have a service in a minute.” He was surprised when I wanted to come to the service and not the breakfast. I didn’t have the heart to tell him off for judging me, by my appearance, but th
at is exactly what he did that day. My mum thought it was hilarious when I got back. You will, I am sure, have experience of being rejected in your own life, singled out, put into a group, due to anything from your race, you gender, your culture or your sexuality or frankly whatever makes you different from another group of people. There is something in our fallen nature that tempts us to look at other people, created in the image of God and give them a label, a sign, a badge an identity often based on nothing more than the way they look, speak or where they are from. We separate people based on who they are or how they look or their culture and based on these rather random and surface details us humans make sweeping judgements about them. I remember seeing this happen in a video of priest doing an experiment. He went out on to the street with his collar on and asked people if he could lend their phone to make a call home. Nearly everyone agreed to lend him the phone. The following day, the same man, now without the collar but in a tracksuit did the same and guess what happened? Only one person gave him the chance to make a call and insisted on holding the phone as well. Dead interesting, isn’t it? When I watched that video, I r
emember thinking that do you know what, I bet I would have judged that priest the same. What would you do? Part of the human fallen nature is to look at people and make sweeping judgements about them based on some precooked notions based on their appearance, demeanour or whatever. We separate people out don’t we? We of course don’t help ourselves when we purposefully give ourselves labels, separating ourselves from others deliberately. I do this. When I look in the mirror, I can clearly label myself into the group of wonderful examples of human beauty and intelligence. I’m kidding! But we do give ourselves labels, put ourselves and others into boxes and all that ever achieves is to degrade our status as beings created in God’s image that we share with all of humanity. Part of our sinful nature is to separate, to pigeonhole.
The church of Christ is not immune to this either. We separate ourselves away from each other, we split off, we argue, in history we can see how our ancestors in the faith start new churches determined to have nothing to do with others in a blaze of self-righteousness. Recently I had a difficult conversation with a brother in Christ in Cleveleys who, speaking about a local church said ‘that lot down there, don’t trust them, they are not true Christians’. I politely disagreed with his sweeping judgement. When I went away and thought about it, to condemn other disciples as not true disciples is a pretty awful thing to do, isn’t it? I think it probably is, yet it is so common place and part of the fallen human condition we just get used to it. We claim others are not true Christians, we deny others the body and blood of Christ, we hinder others from finding Christ, we can insist on our own understanding. Forgive me Lord I can do this too. Disunity, disagreements
and all that is displeasing, I am pretty sure to God. Yet they are so common among the churches. We probably know all about those great historical splits, the great schism of 1054 in the church as the catholic west separated from the orthodox east or the reformation, or dare I say when a certain king who split the English church away just to get married a number of times with murderous consequences. All these splits, despite the rightness or otherwise of why the churches split away, have increased opportunity for disunity in Christianity. How is it that in just shy of 1000 years the east and the west churches haven’t been able to be reconciled? We never hear of the great reunification, do we? Nor will we in all likelihood, this side of heaven. Our fallen world, our fallen nature, leads us to split and label and judge others.
In our gospel reading today we see this as well. Its that wonderful account of the wisemen the magi from the east coming to see Jes
us we see that same labelling occurring. The wisemen, following the star arrive in Judea. Asking around, having read the signs and seen the prophesy of scripture have come to see the messiah. Herod and all of Jerusalem, we hear are disturbed by these people, clearly gentiles, not of the people of Israel, looking for the Messiah. We cannot probably understand just how unimaginable this turn of events was for Herod and the priests and teachers of the law. Since the time of Abraham, God had almost exclusively worked through His chosen people Israel. How on earth had these gentile heathens been the ones to understand the signs of the day? King Herod, the chief priests and the teachers of the law had all missed the signs that are fairly clear in scripture, certainly as we look back to Daniel, to Isaiah, to many of the psalms, and yet these gentiles had got the message and had arrived, ready to see Jesus. These magi, whose label of gentile made the King and his cronies disturbed, had been the ones who had found the signs to look for the messiah and had come to pay homage to their King. Just as the shepherds, labelled as uneducated down and outers had been the ones to see the army of angels singing praises, so too these magi with their label of gentile had been the ones to see the glory of the Lord. God worked not through the groups that o
ne expected Him to work through but through those no one could have imagined He would work through. This pattern continued in Jesus’ ministry, calling the uneducated or despised to be disciples. Eating with sinners and outcasts. Healing lepers and the lame. And being singled out for death because He dared to do so.
Our God, it seems to me, really isn’t so interested in the categories we give ourselves, but rather in the faithfulness of our hearts. This story of an outside group, so unexpected by us fallen humans, welcoming the Lord with gifts and worship speaks fundamentally, I think about this great truth. All our categories and pigeonholes and problems are nothing to the God who judges the heart not the status, who loves His creations regardless of race, gender or sexuality or frankly whatever else. Among the churches, I’m afraid I don’t believe there will be different sections of paradise reserved for different denominations, I don’t think any of our categories with survive judgement day. The only important question will be whether on meeting Jesus you are abl
e to rejoice and worship like the wisemen, or despise and hate and want to kill like Herod. Our categories are nothing more than nonsense.
This is why our churches together group is so very important. It is an opportunity to see other sisters and brothers in Christ, not in judgement but in fellowship; not as different but as similar; not as adversaries but as family. Churches together is an opportunity to do that radical thing of unity that is so foreign in both secular and church history. It’s counter cultural, it’s magnificent in its diversity, it speaks of all the people of God being called by Christ to His kingdom. It’s a chance to demonstrate properly the love of Christ to a broken world, as broken churches come together, worship together, serve together and pray together not for our own sake but for Jesus and for neighbour. Agreement over everything is not a requirement. I am one of four siblings in my family and I can tell you we never agree about anything – you see their problem is they fail to recognise that I am always right! But we are family together and love each other immensely.
In our wider community, we ne
ed to ask that hard question, who is it that we label? Who are the groups that we make assumptions about? Who are the people we cannot share the gospel with because we have made judgements about them? Who are the people who wouldn’t dare darken the doorway of our churches? I remain entirely convinced that these are precisely the people we should aim to listen to and learn from, because if Jesus’ ministry was to happen today in Cleveleys, it would be among the forgotten and the broken that He would be found. Among the groups that feel rejected by our churches rightly or wrongly. Among people the churches too often reject.
At this special celebration of Christian unity, we have a real opportunity to love our town together ferociously in the name of Christ. If we can do that hard thing of true fellowship together as churches. I have every expectation that through that fellowship we will see our town blessed in God’s name in ways we cannot possibly imagine. A unified group of churches, not judging others or each other, but working to love and serve everyone is the kind of force that can change the world and is fertile group for God to perform miracles. Amen