|Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012
For a change, I'm going to start the sermon this morning by asking you to do some of the work instead of me. We don't want to let anyone else know that you are helping me: I have a reputation to uphold after all, and there's not much of it, so I need to hold on tightly to the little there is. So, shh! Please be discrete. OK. Now, without letting on what you are doing or letting anyone else know, I'd like you to have a quick look at the other people who are with you in this church right now. Good, I don't think anybody noticed. You can go back to sleep now.
It may have been that the people you saw closest to you are your family members, your partner perhaps your friends. If you'd looked a bit further out you'll have seen a lot of people who don't fit those categories, in fact, people who are very different to you in so many ways.
Even in this moderate sized church congregation, take the standard sociological statisticians categorisations, there is an astonishing variety here. Our ages vary from a few months, to a few years short of 100. Most of the decades that people can be alive are represented among us. Some are working, some retired, unemployed, students, or otherwise occupied. We are married, single, divorced, widowed, partnered, in love, out of love, looking for love, settled in love; parents, grandparents, carers and cared-fors. Our roots are from all over this small island, and then some: from the Caribbean islands (and everybody from there seems to trace their roots back to a different one), from the countries of West and Central Africa, from the shores of the Baltic and the Mediterranean, from Malaysia and China and Taiwan, from South America, Sri Lanka and India.
But enough of this. Let's talk about words instead. Words are slippery customers. You think you've got this language thing sorted, your vocabulary nicely expanded and then the things go and change their meaning. I'm not really concerned with the way words change given the context, you know, the way that , say 'nice' means something different in 'that's really nice', 'oh, that's nice'; it's a bit 'nice' isn't it. I'm thinking about the way words' meanings change over time.
A hundred years ago we would have been gently complimented to be called 'gay'; 50 years ago, mortally offended; now, well, the word is settling down almost to descriptive indifference. 'Black' as a racial description was considered entirely negative till the 1960s when a generation took it back and made it a matter of pride; now it too is settling down to being a largely neutral descriptive term, or at least as neutral as any word used to describe race can be. Most of us here would probably be taken aback if somebody said 'you're sick'; but for the youngest of us, that could well be a compliment. Same too wicked or bad. But perhaps that's all so last year. What would I know?
Diversity first a technical term in evolutionary biology, soon became a buzzword for the Cool Britannia years; I found out at a church meeting a year or so ago that for some people 'diversity' is now a dirty word. The problem with diversity, apparently, is that it makes a point of pointing out the differences between us- which is a bad thing to point out- rather than the fact that we are basically all the same, which is a good thing to point out. Thus, diversity is a dirty word. But I think the opposite is true: realising how diverse we are simply brings into much sharper focus what brings us together, and in a church, what brings us together is Christ. I think that we should be revelling in our diversity precisely because of what it tells us, and everybody else, about Jesus.
Let's have some more words.
Chalk and cheese. Fire and water. Poles apart. Hyperion to a satyr. Macedon and Monmouth, as like a dock as a daisy. These are all words that could be used to describe the people of a typical Christian fellowship if you take Christ out of the equation. For most Christian congregations, although we may come to love the people we worship together with, they are like our family: we don't get to choose who they are. We might choose the church we go to, but we can never choose who else goes to it. We may never meet the people we meet here anywhere else, except, occasionally by accident.
It is a very important point that there is little we do have in common, when we first come here at least, apart from (mostly) living close to this building.
Listen again to the letter to the Ephesians.
In Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart.
Paul is talking there about how Jews and Gentiles- the chalk and cheese of the ancient world, peoples forever poles apart- can now come together in Christ. But the breached barriers could be any of the dividers we customarily use:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
A Christian community of sameness does Christ no favours: a Christian community of diversity sings his praises.
If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
How much easier that perfection is to find in diversity.
The day you came into the world, the world changed. You wouldn't have known it: your world changed that day in a big, big way but the big big world you came into also changed. Who knows what the effects of that change are, were or will be. There are 7 billion people and counting in the world today, so chances are the changes you will make will be pretty insignificant, though you never know what the brush of your butterfly wings may lead to.
Do you remember the day you first entered this church, the parish church of St Francis Barkingside? Did you notice it change at that point? Perhaps not: you were joining this story in the middle, but I can guarantee you it changed. Because of you. Because you were different from the other people in this church. Perhaps you sat in somebody else's seat. I hope you did. We can all learn lessons when we find somebody sitting in our seat. Eventually the people here may have come to know you better, to appreciate your good sides, to try to live with your less good sides, to appreciate that although you were not them and you had changed their church, you had taught them something about Jesus. That Jesus calls all sorts of people to him, not just the people like you, not just the people you like, but a whole world full of frustrating and difficult, weird, bizarre, wonderful, amazing, and above all different people.
It's just possible the person whose seat you stole came to like you too. I do hope so.
Fr Andrew Fenby