Love and sin

This is the text of the sermon that I preached on Ash Wednesday at St Peter’s Methodist Church, Cross Hills, for the Craven and District Fellowship of Churches. The scripture texts were Isaiah 58.1-12 and John 8.1-11.

This year, Ash Wednesday falls on 14th February, better known as St Valentine’s day. Valentines’ Day – a festival  associated with the celebration of love. Ash Wednesday – a rather more sombre affair, when we are invited to reflect on our sinful nature and our mortality. Perhaps at first glance, it looks as if these festivals don’t have much to do with each other. But they each have something important to say about what it is to be human.

Valentine’s Day gives us an opportunity to remember that all love is a gift of God, rooted in the One who is love. We love, because God loves us first, and the love that we show to others is a reflection of that love that God has for us. Our capacity for love flows from the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God. It wouldn’t be too much to say that we are at our most God-like when we love other people, with that love that Paul writes about in his first letter to the church in Corinth – the love that is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude; that doesn’t insist on its own way or rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. Having the capacity for that kind of love is part of living a fully human life – the kind of life that God created us for.

But our experience teaches us that although we also have the capacity for great love, we also have the capacity for other, darker things too. Individually and collectively, we are capable of terrible things. We have within us the seeds of violence and hatred; of coldness and indifference; of carelessness and selfishness – and much else besides. We are not God. We are not all that is good. And it is this aspect of what it means to be human that Ash Wednesday reminds us of – that although we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are not God. We are his creatures, frail and mortal and dependent, and the tendrils of sin still cling to us, seeking to hold and bind us. Our hope is to be found in turning, again and again, to the One who made us, in recognising and acknowledging our fragility and weakness, and seeking his way, his truth and his life.

Ash Wednesday is all about facing up to the reality of our human condition. It is the bracing opposite of denial. It’s about looking the truth in the face. That’s what Isaiah does in this evening’s reading. Like the people of Israel, we need to hear our sinfulness declared, and to own our part in it. We need to recognize how easy it is to do what looks like the right thing, but for the wrong reason, so that it becomes the wrong thing. How easy it is to look as if we’re seeking after righteousness, and carrying out the forms of spiritual practice, but without the right heart and spirit, so that they are hollow and worthless. Fasting for health purposes is quite trendy at the moment. If that’s the reason why we choose to fast, and we’re honest about it, fine. But if we carry out any spiritual practice – fasting, praying, worshipping, Scripture reading, coming to a service like this – and don’t go beyond the practice, the outward form to the thing that it’s supposed to be fitting us for, we are deluding ourselves. We can come to an Ash Wednesday service, and bow our heads and metaphorically lie in sackcloth and ashes, as it says in Isaiah 58.5, but if we go out from here without being transformed by what’s happened in here, we have missed the point. The point of the fast is not the fast. The point of the fast is that it makes us into people who are hungry for the kingdom of God, and who seek to satisfy that hunger by doing our part in loosing the bonds of injustice, breaking the yokes that bind, sharing our bread with the hungry, giving shelter and clothing to the homeless and needy. Once we’ve faced up to our own sinfulness, our flawed hearts, our tendency to hide from the truth about ourselves by adopting the appearance of righteousness without the substance, we are set free. Free to let God do his work of real and deep transformation within us, that will be seen in the fruit that we bear in our lives.

We see this desperate need to face up to the reality about ourselves also in our Gospel reading. Where is the sin in this story? At first glance, the answer seems obvious. The woman was the sinner. Adultery was – is – a grave sin. In passing, given that we’re told that she was caught in adultery, and that adultery takes two, I can’t help wondering what happened to the man she’d been with. The Torah, the Jewish law, provided that the penalty for such a sin was death for both parties. Perhaps the fact that it’s only the woman who’s brought before Jesus is the first clue that there’s an agenda here beyond simply testing Jesus’s Jewish orthodoxy. The motives of these men are darker and more complicated.

So why have the scribes and Pharisees brought this  woman before Jesus? It goes back to what’s been going on in chapter 7. Jesus has gone to the Temple, to the heart of Israel’s worshipping life, the very seat of God, and begun to teach there. And his teaching has been stirring things up, with confusion and debate in the crowd – some believing that Jesus is the one that they’ve been waiting for; others unsure. Because of the  resulting unrest, the chief priests and Pharisees have already sent the Temple police to arrest Jesus – only to have them return empty-handed, saying, “Never before has anyone spoken like this!” So the scribes and Pharisees have concluded, “if you need a job doing, you need to do it yourself”. There’s no alternative but to test Jesus themselves, in an attempt to come up with a reason for arresting him. That’s the agenda behind this scenario. That’s what’s going on underneath the surface. A woman’s personal tragedy has been caught up into something much greater.

The deep sin in this story is that of the scribes and Pharisees who turn a vulnerable human being into an object, a tool to be used for their own ends. Her sin is co-opted and weaponised against Jesus, in an attempt to force him to make a choice that will result either in a woman’s death, or his own arrest.

But Jesus sidesteps their trap. He refuses to engage with the scribes and Pharisees on their own terms, and instead reframes the whole situation. When he finally answers, his response goes devastatingly to the heart of what’s really going on here – “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” A situation ostensibly about a woman’s sexual sin is revealed to be about something much darker, more insidious and destructive. Just as in the Isaiah passage, it’s about how easily sin disguises itself as righteousness, whilst covering up something deeply ugly.

And brought face to face with their own sinfulness, the accusers can no longer stand in Jesus’s presence, but instead melt away, until the only two people left are the woman and Jesus. She is a sinner. She doesn’t attempt to excuse or justify herself – and neither does Jesus. But in her mute acknowledgment of who and what she is, in the simple dignity of her humility, she receives from Jesus, not condemnation, but grace. She is sent on her way, commanded not to sin again. She is given a second chance.

What was true for her is true for us too. When we don’t try to run away from our sins – when we face up to them, name and acknowledge them, in the presence of Jesus, then we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving forgiveness and grace – a fresh start.

It’s the sins that we don’t recognize, the sins that hide or disguise themselves, that are the most difficult ones to deal with. When we don’t see sins, they cling to us all the more tightly and do their damage. The sins that dress themselves up in other clothes – as righteous anger, as concern for protecting a greater good, as justification for judgmental attitudes, and as giving us reasons that allow us to see other people as objects to be used for our own ends, rather than as children of God like us. The sins that we can find reasons and excuses for. The sins that permeate structures and institutions, and that we are blind to because we are caught up in the same structures and institutions – like those scribes and Pharisees. These are the deeper sins, and they are much harder for us to see and recognize, let alone deal with. But once we start to see them, then we have a chance of dealing with them – by bringing them out into the light, and holding them before Jesus. Then it’s possible for us to receive the unlooked-for grace and mercy of God. In our Gospel story, the scribes and Pharisees melt away. They recognize that they are not without sin. But they don’t bring that recognition to Jesus. They don’t take that next step. And we know that as the story goes on, that sin will build again, in all its hideous evil, until eventually it will take Jesus to the cross and nail him there.

Ash Wednesday gives us the opportunity, at the start of the journey of Lent into self-examination and penance, to acknowledge our human frailty and our dependence on God. To acknowledge our need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, that frees us to turn from the way that leads to darkness and death and back into the way that leads to light and life. This Valentines’ Ash Wednesday, may we pray for our capacity to love to grow alongside our capacity to recognize the truth about ourselves, through God’s bracing, cleansing, healing and transforming mercy and grace.



Art, faith, and seeing with new eyes

Yesterday I went to the opening of an exhibition by the artist and ordained URC minister, Elizabeth Gray-King. It’s part of the Believe in Shipley festival of Christian faith, on now until 2nd October 2016 – if you’d like to see Elizabeth’s work, it’s on display at Saltaire Methodist Church daily, from 2pm to 4pm, during this period.

The exhibition is called ‘Neighbour and self’. Through 18 pieces, Elizabeth Gray-King takes the viewer on a profound meditative journey of how God calls us to love our neighbour, and ourself, both, and equally.

This is the picture that caught my attention most strongly (which is not the same as being my favourite). It’s called ‘Holy Saturday‘:

(you can see this and more of Elizabeth’s work on her website.)

This picture disturbed me greatly. For a long time, I’ve thought of Holy Saturday as a very special day – that liturgically empty day, when God is dead. The day suspended between the brutal agony of Good Friday, and the incomparable, incomprehensible, overwhelming joy of Easter Day, when the world is changed utterly and forever. The pivot point, between then, and now. A blank day, a day of nothingness. If someone had asked me what it looked like, I wouldn’t have had an answer. In fact, I would have said that it couldn’t be depicted, that any attempt to do so would be futile. Best leave it alone, void and mysterious, to be experienced annually  – at least, as far as possible, amidst the insistent, unavoidable mundanity involved in living in the real and messy world.

So Elizabeth’s picture felt as if it was trampling on some turf that I hadn’t even realized was hallowed; forcing itself into a private space that I had hedged round and considered holy and inviolate without even realizing it. I hadn’t wanted a picture of Holy Saturday. And here, all uninvited, I was being given one.

You can’t un-see things once seen. And so, as I wrestled with my totally unexpected feelings of loss and sorrow at feeling a private sanctuary invaded, I forced myself to engage with the picture. As I looked more closely, I realized that I couldn’t tell for sure whether the figure was female or male (the leg looks more female than male, but is the face that of a boy or a girl? is it the edge of a woman’s breast, or a man’s chest muscle?). It is a sorrowful and confined figure – but stirring in its confinement. A hand is clenched in front of a downcast face. The other arm is moving, lifting, perhaps about to point, away from darkness and into light. Rainbow colours are seeping in. The very fabric of the picture is anchored firmly in one corner, but bursting the bonds of its frame elsewhere. The picture quivers with potential, charged with that sense of being on the cusp of great change.

And I was changed. I lost my possessive grip on my sense of what Holy Saturday ‘ought’ to be about. I lost my indignation at what I had at first thought to be an attempt to capture visually a mystery that I cannot pierce. I realized that this was a picture, not (or not just) about the Holy Saturday that we must go through each liturgical year, in order to reach resurrection joy – the Holy Saturday that in my imagination I had privileged and idealized. It is about the Holy Saturdays that each one of us goes through, as we become the people we are called to be. The process involves pain and struggle. Parts of us may need to die, in order for us to be reborn into the world as new creations. Some people go through that process multiple times, each time needing to reach that dark, dead, quiet place before rebirth is possible. For Christians, it is a holy process. In the tomb, God was dead – but death could not hold him. For Christians, in our Holy Saturdays, however we may feel, we are not abandoned. There is no place we can go where God is not.

This is what art does. It can console and comfort, but it can also unsettle and disturb. It challenges, and dispels complacency. At its best, it shows us something about the world, and ourselves, whilst pointing beyond both. It It gives us a new way of seeing. In that respect, it is rather like faith itself.

Mel and Sue, and life after Brexit

So. Farewell, then, Mel and Sue. The news that Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins will be leaving the phenomenon that is the Great British Bake Off at the end of the current series was a second blow to fans of the show. It came hard on the heels of the announcement by Love Productions that it had decided not to renew its contract with the BBC and instead was taking its golden-egg-laying goose to Channel 4.


(C) Getty Images

Love Productions had decided that their property was worth at least £25m. The BBC couldn’t go above £15m. And so hard-headed economics won out. Goodbye, and thanks for all the macaroons.

But what is GBBO? At the heart of its appeal is the chemistry between the four individuals who play the leading roles: Mary Berry, the nation’s granny, always looking for the best even in the most disastrous bakes and unabashedly fond of a little tipple; Paul Hollywood, steely-eyed, perma-tanned silver fox, whose sardonic “Good luck!” puts the fear of God into the doughtiest (and doughiest) baker; and Mel and Sue, the cheery big sisters, not above nicking the bakers’ ingredients, but always there with an outrageous cod-European accent, a morale-boosting quip and even a hand when needed. At the moment, Paul and Mary have not made any public statement on their continuing involvement with the show. But with Mel and Sue’s departure, half of the people who (on-screen at least) make the show what it is will not be part of GBBO 2017.

So why have Mel and Sue decided to leave the Bake Off tent for good? In their public statement, they said, “We made no secret of our desire for the show to remain where it was…we’re not going with the dough.” For them, the show wasn’t primarily about money. It represented something else. It was about the BBC having the vision to see the merit in the apparently ridiculous idea of making baking prime-time TV viewing, and taking and nurturing that idea, giving it time and space to grow into what it has become – something that gives huge pleasure to millions of people, something that it is entirely good-hearted and warm, that celebrates something rather lovely about Britain. Its charm can be discussed and analyzed, but not entirely pinned down. It is far more than the sum of its parts. It is not simply a standardized industrial product, that can be churned out by one processor as easily as by another, with no obvious alteration. It is much more of an artisan creation, dependent on a mix of ingredients, not all of which can be quantified and priced.

For Mel and Sue, moving the programme to another channel alters it fundamentally, in a way that they were not prepared to see. As presenters, the economically savvy thing for them to do would have been to follow GBBO, and swallow their reservations as they trousered a (no doubt) enhanced cheque for their services. But they weren’t prepared to do that. Some things can’t be reduced to cold hard cash.

Their decision seems to be much more of the heart than the head. It’s about principle, not pragmatism. It’s to do with both emotion and integrity. Rational, logical calculation would surely have led them to make a different decision.

But we don’t always make decisions based on logic and reason. Our emotions and our guts come into play much more than perhaps we like to admit.We can weigh up and assess arguments all we like, but at the end of the day our hearts and guts often get the casting vote.

That may well account for the outcome of the EU referendum. Such arguments as there were on both sides of the debate were vague, woolly and questionable (being charitable). Both sides cast around for rational and compelling reasons to support their case, and both failed. At the end of the day, the Brexiteers touched emotions and prejudices more deeply than the Remainers, and were rewarded for their efforts.

But in the post-referendum world, the Brexiteers cannot now be surprised if the EU’s response to the UK is equally shaped by emotion and gut instinct. Countries are made up of people, and people are driven by emotion and instinct as well as by reason and calculation. It is all very well for the Brexiteers cheerily to assert that it is in the interests of EU countries to give the UK what it wants, and that mutual economic interests will drive the deals that are eventually agreed. Perhaps, rationally speaking, the economic argument is correct. But that is no guarantee that it will prevail. It may be that, like Mel and Sue, EU countries will decide that not everything can be reduced to pounds and Euros. You can’t put a price on everything that goes into making a relationship.

Who are we? Minding the culture gap.

Far from settling, the dust continues to swirl in the wake of the EU referendum vote. We continue to be in uncharted waters. There is a vacuum of political leadership in both main parties, and a lack of inspiring candidates who might be able to assume the mantle.

There’s a great analysis of some of the lessons to be drawn from the Brexit vote here. In summary, our culture has been shaped over years by the popular press, which has managed to use the best storytellers to put over their chosen narrative. Myth-busting is not enough to sway people whose views and opinions have already been formed by their culture. Facts are not enough either – when facts are at best contestable, people are always predisposed to select the ones that favour their position and discount or deny the others. So the most important thing  is the culture which nurtures and feeds people, within which they are formed. And shaping and changing a culture happens over the long term, not in a matter of hours or days.

Most of us take our culture, for granted. We don’t see it, in the same way that fish don’t see the water that they live in. But we cannot escape its influence; we are all formed by the cultures that we inhabit. We only tend to see them when they bump up against a different one. It’s the dissonance, the clash, that makes them visible.

But once something causes us to see them, we have an opportunity to stand back and assess them. Do we want to live like this? Is this the kind of people we want to be? What are our values and our principles? Where do we find them? There is a chance for us to reflect and, in the light of our reflections, to make a choice to live differently, more intentionally.

Being grown up is about accepting responsibility for our actions and decisions. And being Christian is about abandoning fantasy and facing reality, as Nick Baines reminds us here.

The culture of the liberal intelligentsia has bumped up hard against that of the poorer and less educated parts of Britain, illustrated here. We need to understand the values that are important in each culture – what is different, what is the same. We need to listen, and learn. And we need to commit to the long-term hard work of choosing what kind of people we want to be, and cultivating the values which we want to live by.


Power and control

Control keyDuring the recent EU referendum campaign, one of the Leave campaign’s relentless mantras was the need for the UK to ‘take back control’. It sounds very attractive, doesn’t it? Who wants to be controlled by someone else?

There’s a link between control and power. If you have power over something or somebody, you can control them. So power is very attractive. It enables you to exercise your will and to have your desires satisfied. Without power, you are the mercy of others.

So by leaving the EU, have we increased our power? Have we taken back control? Are we able to exercise our will and have our desires satisfied?

Clearly not. If we lived in a self-sufficient bubble, able to meet all our own needs without looking to anyone else, then perhaps talk of ‘taking back control’ would mean something. But we don’t. We are dependent on our neighbours for so much: for people to do the jobs we don’t want or lack the skills to do, for the food we cannot produce and the goods we don’t make, for the mutual protection of our peace and security. The idea that we are independent is a myth. We are highly interdependent. And so, because we look to others to meet our needs, they have power over us. They are able to control us.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. We exercise power and control over them too. That’s how interdependence works. Human beings, whether as individuals or as nations, are built to be in relationship. It is not good for humans to be alone.

Mutuality of power and control helps to provide accountability. When power accrues in one set of hands, oppression and exploitation usually follows.

The extent to which the UK will be able in practice to ‘take back control’ whilst maintaining vital international relationships is therefore highly open to question. But even if it does accrue more power to itself, where will that power be located? Not, for practical purposes, in the hands of the millions who voted for it. It will make no real difference to the lives of those who already feel powerless and dispossessed, who are bearing the brunt of the recent years of austerity, the unemployed, the disabled who have seen their benefits reduced or withdrawn, the people living in fear of draconian benefits sanctions, relying on foodbanks and the kindness of strangers. It will be in the hands of the rich and powerful. And how will they use it?

Power, and the control it offers, are seductive and tempting. They are necessary, and dangerous. Without them, we can do nothing. But when we desire them, we are tempted to put ourselves in a place which rightly belongs to God, who is the ultimate source of all power. Handling power rightly requires great maturity and wisdom.

When we look at God, the source of all power, we see a picture of power given away freely. In soaring poetry, Genesis describes God using power to bring everything that there is into being – and then giving power over the created order to humanity. And when humanity screws things up, and continues to do so again and again, does God wield his power to sort things out? On the contrary. God divests Himself of His power, lays it aside, and comes amongst us as one of us. God is born as one of the most powerless of things, a human baby. And when the powers and principalities come against Jesus, he does not seize back control. Instead he allows himself to be put to death on a cross.


Painting on the wall of a cave on Davaar Island, Kintyre. Entitled ‘Christ on the Cross’ and painted by Archibald MacKinnon.

  © Copyright Gary Sutherland and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

And when the power of sin and death proved unequal to the power of the resurrection, Jesus once again gave away power. He returned to his Father in heaven, and then poured out his power on his followers. It was power for a purpose – to enable them, and us, to witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God. Not power for our own purposes. Not even a power recognized by most of the world. But a power that enables us to go out into God’s world, to tell and show people that God loves and cares for them deeply.



















What faith and the gospel looks like

Migrants' church Calais-FranceBased on today’s sermon on psalm 71 and Philippians 1:12-20

This is the makeshift church known as St Michael’s, built by Orthodox Ethiopian Christians living in the so-called “Jungle” camp just outside Calais. There’s been a lot of noise and comment this week about the BBC’s decision to broadcast part of this week’s “Songs of Praise” from here. The Sun and the Mail have criticized the BBC for wasting tax payers’ money and giving publicity to the situation of those in the camp, describing this as yet again the BBC getting involved inappropriately in politics at a ‘sensitive’ time. Many Christians have rushed to the BBC’s defence. Bishop Nick Baines has said that filming “Songs of Praise” at the camp will bring viewers “to a place where worship is at the raw end of life. If we don’t like it, we must ask why not.”

Interesting as all this is, what’s most striking about this story is not the BBC’s decision, but the simple fact of the church’s existence. I try to imagine myself as one of those 5,000 people camped outside Calais. I try to imagine a life far from Calais, perhaps in Syria, or Libya, or Eritrea, where it’s part of my everyday experience to struggle to get food for me and my family; where I regularly face poverty, danger, or violence. I try to imagine what it must be like for the situation to get so bad that it drives me, through a mixture of desperation and hope, to leave behind everything that I know, and to seek the possibility of a new life – a better life, where I don’t have to live in fear for myself or my family, with the chance to work to provide myself with food and clothes and a roof over my head, and I can enjoy a kind of peace that is simply not possible in my land of origin. I try to imagine myself making a perilous journey of hundreds or thousands of miles, with little in the way of money or resources, to a country where I can’t speak more than perhaps a few basic words of the language, sustained by the hope of a better life. And then I imagine myself living in a camp alongside thousands of people in the same situation, with barely adequate food or accommodation. Is my first response to praise God? With no real roof over my own head, is my priority to help build a place where I can come together with others to praise and worship and pray to God?

I honestly don’t know. But it clearly was the case for some of those who’ve made their way to Calais. Amidst the insecurity, the living hand-to-mouth, with so very little, about 30 Orthodox Ethiopian Christians felt that what they needed to do was to create a place where they could sustain their faith and hope by gathering with fellow Christians to give praise and worship to God. Apparently, at its busiest, around 500 people gather there. Wow.

St Michael’s is a powerful witness to the gospel, and the centrality of God in the lives of those who gather in the Jungle camp. It speaks of hope in the darkest places and most desperate situations. It’s a witness being heard and spread across the world through the media. For the people of St Michael’s, the words of psalm 71 are far from ancient and irrelevant, but part of their lived experience – “ In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear and save me. Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go, for you are my rock and my fortress… For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth… But as for me, I shall always have hope…”

St Michael’s says that the people who gather there are people like us. They are whole people, people with not just bodies and minds, but spirits. Their need to proclaim just how important this spiritual aspect of who they are has driven them to construct this makeshift church, held together by duct tape and faith, when others might say they could have been doing something more ‘useful’. And perhaps that’s one of the things that has made the BBC’s critics uncomfortable. It’s much easier to ignore the people of the Jungle, or to condemn them as the agents of their own misfortunes, if we can think of them as ‘other’, different from us – shiftless, lazy, on the make, looking for a cushy life, a soft touch, demanding a right to be looked after which they haven’t somehow earned. This evidence that at least some of them are stretching their hands out to something beyond themselves, to a transcendent God in whom they continue to have faith against all the odds, is unsettling for many people – particularly those who have managed to deny or suppress their own spiritual nature, people who can’t accept or acknowledge that there is a God, and that God is the source of all that we are and have.

I think that Paul would have recognized and rejoiced in exactly what it is that has driven the people of the Jungle to build their church. In Philippians 1, Paul writes to the people of the church in Philippi from prison. We don’t know exactly where Paul was when he wrote this letter – perhaps Rome, or Ephesus. But wherever it is, Paul describes himself as in chains. This seems to have been something of an occupational hazard for Paul – preaching the gospel often brought him into conflict with those in power, and he was imprisoned on more than one occasion. But despite this, the tone of this passage is one of joy.

In verse 12, Paul says, “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” You might think that being imprisoned would have been a hindrance rather than a help in proclaiming the good news about Jesus. After all, it rather restricts the number of people with whom Paul can be in contact. But for Paul,this is another example of what he writes later in Romans, chapter 8 verse 28 – “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The palace guard have all become aware of the reason why Paul has been imprisoned – because he has been proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour. And somehow his situation seems to have inspired others, as it says in verse 14, “…to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly”. It might be that his absence left a hole which others were drawn to fill, or it might be that they were inspired by his example to follow in Paul’s footsteps when they saw just how committed Paul was to his task of proclaiming the Gospel, whatever the consequences might be.

And even the motives of those who preach Christ don’t matter! People are preaching about him from motives which are less than pure: envy, rivalry, selfish ambition, a desire to make more trouble for Paul. Sure, there are some other people preaching out of goodwill and in love. But whatever the reason, and despite his own situation, Paul says that what really matters, what is of supreme importance, is that Christ should be preached. People should have as many chances as possible to hear about Jesus. However it is spread, whatever the means, the most important thing is that the gospel should be proclaimed.

Which brings us back to the people of St Michael’s. Building their church is a proclamation of the centrality of the gospel, of Jesus, to their lives. The church stands as a very public witness to the their faith in him. And I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why the BBC’s decision to go there has upset some people. They don’t want to be reminded that for many people across the world, their Christian faith is at the core of who they are. In an increasingly secularized society, many people are uncomfortable being reminded that faith is more than a private matter. They’d prefer to think of it as a kind of bizarre hobby, something that a few weird people choose to indulge in and which they can safely be left to get on with, as long as it doesn’t interfere with real life. They’d like to think that it is something that is withering away, dying quietly, something that needn’t trouble them or confront them with truths that they would prefer to avoid about what really matters. Church buildings in this country often become just part of the landscape – maybe forming a picturesque backdrop, or they’re relics of a more superstitious and less sophisticated age, a historical legacy with some possible cultural or heritage interest, but no real ongoing relevance.

St Michael’s isn’t like that. It’s got no architectural merit. It’s made of bits of wood, plastic sheeting and sticky tape. It looks wobbly and shabby. It’s a testament to the perseverance of those who built it and worship there, who haven’t given up on their vision of a different life, a vision sustained by their faith in a God who came from heaven to earth to be born like one of them. A God who knows what it is to be poor, to live in a land under military occupation, to have been forced to flee persecution and danger. A God who as a human being taught about a kingdom where there was good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, sight for the blind. A God who experienced suffering and death, and then overcame death itself. A God in whom all people can find hope.

That’s the gospel that Paul proclaimed. That’s the gospel that the church in the Jungle represents. It’s a gospel that has always challenged those in power and authority, who would prefer it to go away. But it’s a gospel that’s needed as much today as it has ever been. The Jungle church is a powerful contemporary symbol of that gospel, which continues to challenge and unsettle the status quo. What matters is that the gospel is proclaimed. And when pictures like that of St Michael’s spread around the world and challenge people to think again about what it represents, then, like Paul, we too should rejoice.

People on the edge

Readings: James 2:1-8; Mark 2.13-17

Have you ever been a person on the edge – on the edge of a community, or a particular group in society? Have you ever felt excluded or different from the majority? If you’re white and British, and have mostly tended to mix with people from the same social class as you, then this might not be something you’ve experienced. But if you reflect further, you might remember circumstances where this does apply to you. Perhaps you have travelled, and spent time in other countries and cultures, where you are very much in the minority. You might come from a ethnic group, or a religious background which is different from the majority. Perhaps you’ve been a woman operating in a predominantly male environment – or maybe a man moving into traditionally female territory. Or you may have experienced being pushed to the edge in other ways. Maybe you’ve been made redundant; or had a marriage breakdown; or been widowed – and found that you’re not as welcome as you used to be in some circles. There are lots of ways in which we might have had that experience of being on the edge. Imagine a school playground, with lots of children running about playing games together noisily and cheerfully – but where there’s also a number of children literally hanging around on the edge of the playground. Many of those children would love to be part of what’s going on but for some reason they can’t break in – possibly held back by shyness, or it might be thoughtlessness or even deliberate exclusion on the part of the noisy majority. What it needs is for another child to notice them and to invite them to join in.

Can you think of a time when you’ve been on the edge? Can you remember what it felt like? As you think about it, think too about whether the situation changed – and if so, how. Did you get drawn in, from the edge to somewhere closer to the middle?

This passage from Mark is all about Jesus going out amongst the people on the edge of his society. He’s been out and about, amongst the crowds, teaching them, when he sees Levi sitting at the tax collector’s booth. In the space of a single verse, verse 14, Levi’s life is completely and utterly changed. There he is, sitting at the tax collector’s booth – then along comes Jesus, who says to him, “Follow me” – and Levi gets up and does just that. Well, we know that he’s not the first person that Jesus has called to follow him who’s responded in this way. So what’s the significance of this call? Why was Levi a person on the edge?

Levi was a tax collector. Now, throughout history paying tax has rarely been popular, and often those tasked with collecting it have been disliked or even hated. However, in Jesus’ time, being a tax collector carried a particular stigma. Levi’s job was to collect taxes, not for the occupying Roman forces, but for Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was a client king of the Romans, ruling Judea on their behalf and with little or no real power of his own. As a result, the Jewish people regarded him as a collaborator with the Roman overlords and he was widely detested. So anyone working for or on behalf of Herod Antipas was regarded as a traitor to the Jewish people, and as tainted, guilty by association. This would have been the view in particular of religiously devout Jews, the ones who believed that keeping the Jewish law scrupulously was the way to earn God’s favour, and persuade God to send his chosen one, his Messiah, to free them from oppression and send the occupying forces packing. So people like tax collectors, people who were seen as maintaining the political status quo, keeping the Romans’ pet king in place, were considered to be beyond the pale, unfit to associate with “decent” Jews.

So for Jesus to call one of these people, considered as the lowest of the low, to be his follower, was a shocking and radical move. Not only was Jesus saying that Levi was welcome to become his follower – he was also bringing Levi into association and fellowship with his existing followers. He was making it impossible for the disciples to keep themselves separate from someone they would have considered as contaminated, as damaged goods.

And this point is reinforced by the rest of this passage. Having called Levi to follow him, Jesus goes to his house for dinner – and the other guests are, horror of horrors, other tax collectors and sinners, other people from the fringes of decent Jewish society – the kind of people the good god-fearing Jews considered to be unfit to associate with. It’s a situation that completely baffles the Pharisee teachers of the law. They just can’t get their heads around why Jesus is choosing to spend time and share a meal with “people like that”, people that so-called “decent folk” would prefer to avoid. And when they ask why Jesus is doing this, it’s Jesus himself who answers them, saying “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The irony, of course, is that the Pharisees too are sinners, even though most of them at this time don’t recognize the fact. The truth is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But in his answer, Jesus is telling his questioners that nobody is excluded from his invitation to the Kingdom of God. He has come to invite everyone – to abolish barriers between people, not reinforce them. The first step to accepting his invitation is taken by those who recognize that they have fallen short of God’s standards, that they have sinned – using Jesus’ metaphor, those who know that they are ill, and in need of a doctor.

So Levi, and his fellow tax collectors and sinners were definitely people on the edge of their society. That is – until Jesus called them, and they suddenly found themselves in fellowship with a whole group of other people who previously wouldn’t have given them the time of day. They called into a new life – a life in community with others and reorientated around a new purpose, to be found in following Jesus together. And in this new community, the standards and divisions of the world are not to apply. As James tells us, “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ are not to show favouritism”. Rich and poor alike are to be made welcome, and treated with the same honour and respect in the community of Jesus’ followers. It is one of the marks that is supposed to distinguish the church from the world around it, which finds it acceptable to treat people differently depending on how much wealth and power they have. But that is not how it is supposed to be in the church. As James says, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, you are doing right.’ And that’s all our neighbours – not just the ones that are like us.

So I ask myself – Who are the people on the edge of my community? Who are those that I don’t naturally associate with, but who Jesus loves and wants to invite to follow him? Do I realize that it’s not a question of “them and us”, but simply of “us”, all equally in need of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness? Can I open my eyes to see the people on the edge, to really notice who they are, and am I brave enough to take the risk to reach out and talk to them? Will I ask the Holy Spirit to help me to do that?

Will you?