Sunday, 30 September 2018

Welcoming, barrier-removing & looking beyond the in-crowd (a sermon)

[Sermon preached in Hodge Hill Church, 30/9/18; Gospel reading: Mark 9:38-50]

I wanted to preach a nice, warm, encouraging sermon to reassure you all through this time of change, to ease any anxieties and stresses that might be simmering away at the moment, and to underline God’s invitation towards wholeness and peace that we remember especially in this 5th Sunday service…

And what does the lectionary give us? “Cut off your hand… tear out your eye… or have a millstone hung round your neck and be thrown into the sea…” – the good news is going to take a bit of getting to, this morning!

(Just a gentle warning: one or two of the things I’ll touch on in this sermon might for some of you be a little bit triggering – please do find someone you trust to talk to about any of it, if you need to.)

And so to the gospel reading:
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones … it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Stumbling blocks… obstacles… barriers…

Jesus is issuing the direst of warnings – but what is it that has triggered his concern? Reading this passage today, this warning seems to come quite unexpectedly, out of the blue…

Until we remember what has come immediately before this passage – the reading we had last week:
“they had [been arguing] with one another about who was the greatest… [so] he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes … the one who sent me’” (Mark 9:33-37)
Putting stumbling blocks, obstacles, barriers in the way is the exact opposite of welcoming – and welcoming, Jesus has been saying, is what it’s all about:
  • To welcome one of these little ones is to welcome Jesus – which is to welcome God – to receive what they bring and let them change us
  • To welcome one of these little ones is to welcome “in Jesus’ name” – to welcome in the way that Jesus welcomes – which is to welcome in the way that God welcomes – to place them in the centre, to embrace them, to accord them value and worth and love and dignity and honour
To put “stumbling blocks” in the way is to put obstacles, barriers in the way of a beloved child of God knowing that they are valued, loved, honoured; to put obstacles, barriers in the way of their gifts being received and their voice being heard.

And Jesus takes a child and puts them in the centre – talks about the “little ones” as the measure of our welcome – just as Gandhi once warned that “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

And we only have to look around at our society – at our immigration and benefits systems, at where investment goes into education and social care, at who is housed and in what conditions – we only have to listen to the pronouncements of our government and the opinions of our media (close to home, let alone looking further afield to the USA, for example), to get a measure of how we treat our most vulnerable members.

But Jesus doesn’t invite us to point the finger elsewhere – not in this passage, at least – “if any of you,” he says, looking his own disciples squarely in their faces – and we know, to our shame, that the Christian church, both locally and more institutionally, has failed the ‘stumbling block’ test again and again: marginalizing and silencing children; turning away people with mental health struggles; ignoring the gifts of people of colour; excluding and condemning people seeking to live faithful, loving same-sex relationships; perpetrating abuses of power and protecting their perpetrators…
In our intergenerational community-building work on the Firs & Bromford, we employ two people full-time (Paul and Dan) as ‘street connectors’ – seeking out young people and adults in our neighbourhood who care about their community and have got passions, gifts and skills that they can share with their neighbours.

We also employ two people full-time (Lucy and Flo) as ‘barrier-removers’ – to work alongside young people and adults to help them tackle some of the things that get in the way, obstacles to them feeling valued members of our community, barriers to them being able to participate in community activities, and share their passions, gifts and skills with their neighbours.

Our ‘barrier-removers’ sit with people to fill in immigration forms, support people to challenge benefits sanctions, help people access emergency money and food when they have nothing at home, and listen for hours with those struggling with confidence, anxiety or low self-esteem.

The point isn’t to ‘fix’ anyone – it’s to help get rid of some of the ‘stumbling blocks’, or if not get rid of them, to negotiate them so that they are not quite the overwhelming thing that prevents them finding places of welcome, and belonging, and community.

Today’s gospel reading invites us – commands us all, as Christians – to be ‘barrier-removers’; to ‘clear the way’ for all God’s beloved children to know that they are valued, loved, honoured; their gifts received and their voices heard.

This is what, behind the policies and procedures, we mean by ‘safeguarding’: making the paths as safe as we can, for even the littlest and most vulnerable to travel into welcome, and belonging, and community, without the fear that anyone will abuse their power to put obstacles, barriers, in the way.

This is what we meant too when we signed up as an ‘inclusive church’: that we would do everything we could here to remove the barriers that the Church too often puts in the way of people, because of their gender or sexuality, because of their physical or mental abilities or disabilities, because of their ethnicity or age or class

And even the language of ‘us and them’ isn’t helpful here – it’s not that some of us, already included by default, are actively including others – all of us are welcomed guests of our all-welcoming God

'Working on ourselves'

There is, then, a weighty responsibility placed on us in these words of Jesus – a responsibility that demands that we do some hard work as a church, to address the places where we are less than welcoming; and also do some hard work on ourselves, where we are blinkered in our vision, where we gravitate too easily to ‘people like us’, and where we too easily use the bits of power and privilege we have to maintain our own comfort and security – something those of us who’ve started engaging with the idea of ‘white fragility’ have just begun to grapple with.

That ‘work on ourselves’ demands that we try to be as receptive as we can to the challenges that come from our friends and neighbours who know better than us what it’s like to be overlooked, devalued, marginalised – and that we stay with those challenges even when, especially when, we start feeling unsettled, uncomfortable – because it’s in those moments that we will begin to be changed.

Sometimes that might well feel, to pick up Jesus’ shocking image, like we are having one of our limbs chopped off, or an eye torn out…

But “[t]he good news,” as one reader of this text has suggested, “is that Jesus knows we will stumble and expects us to show up in heaven lame and scarred by the inner struggle to be true to our loyalty to God as frail and faulty human beings” (George Hermanson).

Looking beyond the in-crowd

And there is more good news in this passage than that… because we could – and many Christians over the years have – turned that limb-chopping, eye-tearing perfection-seeking into a way of life; we could set the bar for ourselves and our fellow-Christians impossibly high and spend our life constantly hacking away at our failures.

Or we could notice, that in the midst of this gospel reading, even the simple gift of a cup of cold water is apparently enough for someone to enter the kingdom of God.

The disciples, we’re told, have spotted someone who was not ‘one of the gang’, doing something that they had thought was their job to do – casting out demons… “we tried to stop him,” they say to Jesus, “because he wasn’t following us”.

It’s so easy for us to get so caught up in our project, or activity, or building, or group, or whatever that we imagine we need to defend it: “this is ours – we do it like this” – “we’re doing God’s work – it has to be done our way”.

But Jesus gently bursts his disciples’ bubble: “whoever is not against us is for us” – the kingdom of God is springing up and growing through the most unlikely and surprising of people, in the most unlikely and surprising of places, way beyond anything we recognise as ‘church’ or ‘ours’ – don’t cling so tightly, says Jesus, especially when we look around us, wondering anxiously how the Church will keep going when we get old and tired and aren’t around any more to keep it going ourselves…

Look a bit further out, says Jesus, not just within the church but beyond its doors, and we will see, in our neighbourhoods, people of faith and people of no faith, passionate about welcoming and befriending and sharing and caring and encouraging and growing what looks, and sounds, and feels, and tastes just like the kingdom of God because – it turns out – it is the kingdom of God, springing up around us, energised by the Spirit, moving in the power of God that we call love.

When we've used the slightly strange word ‘missional’ in some of our recent conversations, that is what we mean: “whoever is not against us is for us” – when we share life with our neighbours, we discover that God is already there, ahead of us, challenging our defensiveness and control-freakery, and inviting us afresh to the party that we’d slipped into thinking was our show to run.

So let us respond faithfully to Jesus’ command to be ‘barrier-removers’, putting our every effort into getting rid of those ‘stumbling blocks’, those obstacles that prevent people from knowing God’s invitation, God’s welcome, God’s rejoicing in God-given gifts offered and shared.

And let us respond joyfully to Jesus’ invitation to recognise God at work in our neighbours and in our neighbourhoods, an invitation for us to re-discover the kingdom of God beyond us & in spite of us; offered to us as a thirst-quenching cup of cold water, drawn straight from the well of life.