On Sunday we were joined by Ann Reddecliffe, the regional ambassador for Inclusive Church, an organisation which connects churches seeking to be places of inclusion, and helps churches think about the barriers which have caused them to be places of exclusion. SBC already has a great heart for inclusion, and our gathered thoughts from September were really encouraging, but it was great to have another voice speaking into the conversation. Ann really enjoyed her time with us, and has shared her sermon notes.
Good morning –Thank you for having me here. My home church is the Cathedral. I am C of E so I guess the first person who needs to be included today is me.
I believe very much in an inclusive church, where church is for everyone, where all God’s children can come and they can belong, be part of the family. I believe in a church where people are not judged when they walk through the door or made to feel excluded because they are ‘different’.
That is not always easy. It means including the people I don’t like, and some people are difficult, or rude or just difficult to have around. But we know they are all God’s children and that means we have to try.
Churches should be inclusive. When I read the Bible, I see inclusion. Jesus never went to seek out the rich and powerful, instead he was criticised by them for spending time with the outcasts and marginalised. Jesus spent time with those who would never have been allowed in a nice synagogue, but when Jesus shared a meal with them and broke bread with them, he honoured those on the margins of society without power. His holiness was contagious.
In today’s Gospel, we heard about Jesus inviting the children to come to him. The disciples tried to stop them coming, but Jesus saw it differently. In a world where power belonged to men and women were just seen as wives, mothers or daughters, children were the least powerful of all, yet Jesus included them and gave them worth and dignity. He rebuked his disciples, who were devout people, they had given everything to follow Jesus, but they were still learning and they tried to exclude others. Jesus taught them a better way.
When I read the Bible, I read of a God who: 'so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned.' [John 3.16 – 18] ‘Everyone who believes in him’ is what Jesus said and everyone means everyone.
Just before He left them, Jesus told the Apostles 'You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. [Acts 1.8 – 9]
The last thing Jesus said to the apostles was the Great Commission, to take the Good News to the ends of the earth. God was no longer just God for the Jewish people. Through His death and resurrection Jesus had paid the price for our sins and that Good News had to go to the whole world. That message is played out in the second chapter of Acts, in the reading we heard this morning when Peter preached in the streets to everyone who would listen and thousands came to believe and join the new church. We are told that there were people from ‘every nation under heaven’ and lists many of them. There are people from north, south, east and west. Everywhere. All are welcome. That is the day the church was born and it was inclusive from Day One.
That was only the start, the disciples took the Good News of Jesus everywhere. Philip went to Samaria and Samaritans joined the followers of Jesus. Samaritans, who were excluded from the Synagogues and forbidden to enter the temple in Jerusalem, could join the church. They were baptised and received the gift of the Holy Spirit – that was all that was necessary to join. The church was for everyone. The disciples didn’t wait for people to come to them, they went and told people about Jesus and saw how God was growing the church.
As we go through Acts, we see excluded group after excluded group brought into the church. We see God acting to bring them into the church, God actively sought out people to join.
In the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, God sent an angel, to get an apostle, to take him to the road where the carriage of the Ethiopian eunuch was travelling. This was God acting deliberately. He was the wrong nationality, a different ethnic group, he worked for a woman (Queen Candace) and he was a eunuch, so ‘not exactly a man’. He clearly was devout and read the scriptures, showing his high level of education in a culture where many could not read, but was only allowed onto the edges of Judaism. But once Philip had explained the passage from Isaiah, he wanted to be baptised and they did it immediately. An Ethiopian eunuch who worked for a queen, that was about as exotic a person as you would find, but he could join the church.
And God carries on…
We are told of the vision that Peter is given when he is on the roof of his house. Of the sheet lowered before him and being told to eat. He must have thought he was being tested and probably felt fairly smug - ‘no, Lord, I have never done that’. Except, God told him a second time and then a third time. Then Peter gets the message, he isn’t being tested, he is being ordered, so the right answer is ‘Yes’. Peter had a choice, to play it safe and obey the laws, like he had always done, or obey God and do something new.
As a result of that encounter, Peter is willing to invite the gentile servants of Cornelius into his house and not only eat with them, but let them sleep the night under his roof and go with them the next day to the house of Cornelius. All those things were forbidden in the Jewish law of Moses, but God told him to do it. Peter was willing to obey God, and the Holy Spirit filled the household of Cornelius and they were all baptised into the church.
We are gentiles, like Cornelius and his household. We are only included in the church because Peter was willing to put obeying God’s instructions above keeping the rules he had always known. When God is doing something new, God rewrites the His own rules. But what about a murderer?...Yes, says God. I bet the church in Damascus was not happy when Ananias turned up one day with Saul, soon to be renamed Paul. God told Ananias ‘go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ Needless to say, Ananias was apprehensive about it, but we know how that turned out too. Paul took the Good News all round the Mediterranean and onwards.
At the start of this sermon I spoke of getting you to include me, but I know that there are churches in this area where I am not welcome because I am gay. There are churches who would not be happy if I walked through the door for a Sunday morning service, because they are not inclusive. When I got pushed to the margins, I found Jesus was already there. That is where Jesus always is. Jesus does not need money or earthly power, it is about people and about God’s love for each of us.
We have to take the Good News to everyone, without exception.
We can look at the barriers for people to come to church. We need to think beyond ramps for wheelchairs and hearing loops. We need to look at what is in our hearts and think about what it feels to walk into a different church for the first time.
I know one person who was on benefits and had little spare money commenting ‘I can’t go to that church, they’re all posh’. She had an image of people all putting £20 notes into the collection and she could only manage a few coins. She was worried about the collection plate and people seeing how much she could give. That was why I liked the way Leigh introduced the collection here, everyone contributes in their own way, and it is not always money.
I was told of one person who was looking for a new church, so they got to the church early and stayed outside to see who went in. When they saw a family of people of colour, they went in too. Could the church have done better at showing the people in their congregations, so it would have removed that anxiety?
My father lost his sight in his later years. He retired early and became a disability campaigner. He went to his village church and the welcomers were very good at getting him a seat and things like that. Someone always took him up for communion. He knew the prayers and responses after so many years. All good, but how do you sing hymns, when you can’t even see the hymn book? You sing the ones you know and don’t sing the ones you don’t know. However, sometimes there are different words sung to a familiar tune. As far as my dad was concerned, he just sang what he thought everyone else was singing. And they never told him, so he could join in the worship. That is what an inclusive church is, somewhere that lets the elderly blind guy sing the wrong words, so he can join in.
It is the same with dementia friendly services, trying to use words and music that is familiar, to help people connect to God and to each other. You can’t do things like that every time, but you can do it sometimes and let people know what you are doing. Dementia friendly carol services may be full of Away in a Manger or We Three Kings but it is the long-ago memories that are often still there for people.
We don’t have to be perfect. When someone walks through your door for the first time, they are probably not thinking about theology, more about what the people will be like – will people be friendly, will they fit in, would they want to come back? Being inclusive is about what is in your heart, more then what is in your head.