Tag Archives: assumption

Listen… Learn… Love

Sermon preached on Sunday 5th September 2021, introducing the Pastoral Principles of Acknowledging Prejudice and Speaking Into Silence ahead of the Living in Love and Faith course to be run at St James’ Church, West End in October 2021. Using the lectionary readings of James 2:1-10, 14-17 and Mark 7:24-37

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Loving God; creator Father, redeeming Son and sustaining Spirit. Amen

 On the bottom of my emails I have a quotation of Martin Luther King, which says, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter“. Of course, for King the silence was to do with the discrimination of black people, mainly in America, but also around the world, where people’s skin colour was deemed to be the only necessary indicator of sub-humanity and therefore gave others the right to mistreat, subjugate and even kill a black person with no recriminations or sense of guilt.

At some point, someone, somewhere must have pre-judged this human being who stood in front of them, a mirror of shape and form of themselves, but a different hue, and persuaded others that this was the case. They must have had power and authority that enabled them to do this, and took others silence as acquiescence and so it became accepted as the norm which people passively accepted and taught their children and children’s children that this was how it was. If anyone did protest, the power of common psyche overrode any objections, and silence was easier than speaking out. A silence that speaks volumes.

Some of you will have heard me quote the poem from Martin Niemöller about the Jewish Shoah in World War II, ‘First they came for the Jews’ in which a person remained silent whilst the Jews, the communists, the trade unionist were taken without anyone speaking out, until it came to their turn, and they realised that ‘there was no one left to speak out for me’. In many cases this silence was because of fear; fear of the Nazis and the power that they wielded, fear of being the one who spoke out; fear of going against the norm.

One question that is often asked is what were the Christian communities or individual doing whilst both of these unspeakable chapters of human history were taking place? For many Christians their position was actually dictated by scripture. They searched the bible and found passages that supported their stance, particularly when God made a covenant with Abraham in regard to circumcision, ‘Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or bought with his money… that very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised; and all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him (Genesis 17:23, 26-27). Here was their evidence that God condoned slavery

Many Christians saw this as meaning that slavery was morally acceptable. In fact, a Methodist preacher George Whitfield said, ‘As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house’. George Whitfield himself owned slaves and campaigned for slavery to be reinstated in the American state of Georgia after it was abolished there in 1751.

Maybe we consider it ironic or preordained that it was the Quakers who were early leaders in the campaign to ban slavery. The Quakers, whose worship of God involves sitting in silence, not to prevent anyone from speaking, but to listen, to hear more clearly God’s ‘still small voice’. And of course, Jesus himself exhorts people multiple times in the gospel to listen closely to his message, when he says, ‘He who has ears, let him hear’. It’s the listening to each other that helps us understand more

We know that you can’t claim justification of your actions using snippets of scripture, passages that reflect the context in which the people were living at the time, because you then fail to see the bigger picture and overarching message of God’s love for each and every individual, born and created in his own image. Moreover, prejudice comes when scripture is abused rather than used.

In his epistle, James is writing from a Jewish background at a time when most Christians came from a Jewish heritage. He was also writing in a very partial age, filled with prejudice and hatred based on class, ethnicity, nationality, and religious background. In the ancient world people were routinely and permanently categorized because they were Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, Greek or barbarian, or whatever. His message was that this kind of partiality has no place among Christians.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point
has become accountable for all of it
James 2:10

When we treat people differently because of their appearance, their background, their lifestyles and their sexuality, we are picking and choosing how we hear and interpret the message, creating prejudices that are taken as up and regarded as the only truth, and if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, many of us won’t even realise it because it has become our norm and excuse to remain silent about these things.

It’s then that we have to make a greater effort to listen to each other, to not make assumptions, but to welcome the opportunity to gain understanding. To apply that knowledge and change things where they need to be changed. Jesus demonstrates this simple fact when his assumptions were challenged. When what he considered the norm, that his mission was only to the chosen children of God, the Jewish people, was set aside when he heard what the Syrophoenician woman had to say. He listened and heard her faith and responded to show that no-one was to be excluded.

One thing that we are being asked to listen to and hear right now is how prejudice and silence have meant that another group of people have also been excluded and suffered at the hands of the church. The LGBTI+ community, and I’ll spell it out for you, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex + community.

Central to our faith is a belief that each of us is unique and that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God… but as a community and as individuals they have been abused by the church, denied inclusion, forced to deny their very individuality and identities, even forced to undergo therapy and medical interventions in silence and in fear… and few people have come forward to speak into that silence.

More often than not it is because people don’t know, don’t understand or don’t want to challenge what they believe is the norm. We mustn’t be those people. The norm is only the thing we want it to be. We need to hear their stories, we need to listen to their injustices, we need to take up the challenge of inclusion, we need to love each other in the same way that God loves us unconditionally.

For the Syrophoenician woman it was her faith that persuaded Jesus that things had to change, for the deaf man it was his inability to make himself clearly heard that persuaded Jesus to step forward and help him. For us it is the recognition that God doesn’t see the colour of our skin or our gender or our sexuality; what he sees is what is in our hearts; he sees us for ourselves and not how others want us to be; he sees us as individuals, his marvellous creation, beloved and precious in his sight.

As an individual I have, over many years, made a conscious effort to listen to LGBTI+ people, to hear their stories, to reflect on my own upbringing, to read the bible, to pray, in order to discern what my response should be, trying to be as faithful to God’s Word as I can. It wasn’t always straightforward; it took time, and I did have to consider the views of others. However, I’m now comfortable with trying to help others to take that same journey.

And so, this October, I urge you to join in the conversations through the Living in Love and Faith course we are running, to understand more, to put aside assumptions and prejudice, to have the courage to start the process of breaking up the silence.

To listen…to learn… to love one another… just as God loves us, wholeheartedly and unashamedly.

Amen

The Living in Love and Faith course will run at St James’ Church, West End, starting on Thursday 7th, and continuing on 14th, 28th October and 4th, 11th November between 7.30pm and 9pm. Each session has short videos and there will be break-out groups for discussion and Bible study. You are welcome to join us.

Label Jars Not People

Labels are for Jars

A short note before my latest post below – as it seems a long time since I last posted anything. However, having just seen our church though a time of interregnum, I am looking forward to getting more chances to post regularly again. Here, on our return to Ordinary Time in the church a consideration of why we should only sport one label.

Based on Luke 8:26-39 and Galatians 3:23-29

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Designer labels, fashion labels, medical labels, religious labels, personality labels – labels we give ourselves and labels that are given to us. The government asks me to label myself every time I fill in an official form – am I male or female, am I white or black or of a different hue, do I smoke, do I drink, or would I prefer not to answer.

Then there are the socially constructed labels, of rich, poor, educated, uneducated, gay, straight, old, fit, fat, attractive, funny, boring, vegetarian or vegan.

However, each answer that I give creates algorithms that are designed to place me in various boxes in order to qualify me, tax me or sell me something – and you wonder why you get those adverts pop up for Slimming World or Saga holidays, or have you sorted a funeral plan out yet… that was only after I had my ‘big’ birthday the other day!

But what it all boils down to defining who we really are the only label that should be relevant is that we are children of God, and every person on earth carries that label

As we heard in Paul’s message to the Galatians; In God, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one. In baptism, we are all clothed in Christ. Only a couple of weeks ago, a member of our congregation, Sophie was baptised, clothed in Christ and welcomed into the family of God and she may carry many labels throughout her life: student, dancer, musician, graduate, scientist, fashion model, firefighter… the possibilities are endless. But the most important label she will have is child of God. And I pray that every person who looks upon her will see that above all else.

The trouble is, and I don’t just mean for Sophie, but for all of us, people rarely see just that. Take for example the sight that greeted Jesus and his disciples as they stepped off of the boat in the country of the Gerasenes. No official welcome, but a dishevelled, vocal creature who is obviously mad… rubber stamp, mental health issues.

On the one level, yes he is naked, screaming and obviously suffering from a disturbance of the mind, but had he chosen to live among the ‘unclean dead’ as the fundamentalists would have seen it or was he driven away from society to take refuge in a place whose claim to humanity was a tenuous as his own? Either way, his life is lonely and pitiful.

But, unlike those who have labelled themselves as righteous, keepers of the law and created a world of rules and laws and labels, into which only certain people can fit in, the demoniac is under no illusion and the irony is that only the ‘mad’ man recognises who Jesus is.

Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’
Luke 8:30

When Jesus asks him, what is your name, there is a sense of calm and relief amongst the noisy shouting and dreadful back story as narrated. The question treats the man like a human being for the first time in goodness knows how long. and although he can’t remember what those who once loved him used to call him, Jesus’ question marks a turning point in the story and the man’s life, as he restores the human image to the man, as he is to restore it to the whole of humankind.

No wonder the law keepers were fearful and trembling. The ‘mad’ man was desperate enough to welcome change, however drastic, but these ‘sane’ people are comfortable with their illusion of life and did not want it challenged.

In the Galatians passage, Paul tells us without Christ, we are all in the condition that the demon-possessed man was. We were chained up, naked, living in a world of illusion and artifice, but now we can be ‘clothed’ with Christ, at peace and made whole again.

Why though were the people of Galatia writing to Paul, what labels were they still wearing, which ones did they need to cut off and discard? Apparently, another branch of Jesus followers had come to town with a different message than Paul. The Galatia church was primarily Gentiles, non-Jews. Paul believed that all people were to be welcomed without conditions. Welcome Jesus into your heart and off you go. However, these new preachers believed that the only path to Jesus was through Judaism, which required circumcision and adherence to Jewish laws. Two very different messages. What were the people of Galatia to think?

Paul replied that the law was a prison, and Jesus was the key that set humanity free. The law was in place to keep people in line until they could experience that faith that sets us free, the law that is written on our hearts to tell us right from wrong. And if anyone knew about the law being a prison, it’s Paul. In the name of the law, he had led stonings; murdered the followers of Jesus, instilled fear and drove people underground. He hunted and killed the followers of Jesus for living out their lives as God had called them to do, to live authentically in their identity as children of God.

In his prior life as a Pharisee, Paul saw people simply by their legal status: legal or illegal. If you were illegal, you were put in prison, banished, killed. They did not have humanity or identity. There was no grey area, no grace, no compassion. Just judgement and conviction.

After his conversion, Paul understood the damage being done by this way of thinking. He understood the importance of baptism, that the label of child of God is the most important label and the only one that mattered.

Following the Jewish laws was not necessary, following Jesus was. But it is much more difficult. The appealing aspect of the Jewish faith for so many was that it provided clear ethical directives. Follow the 613 rules about everything. From worship to clothing, to what to do if your neighbour’s ox falls into a ditch on a Tuesday or someone wearing a polyester blouse, then it was off with her head! Check things off the list and see that you are living properly.

Paul uses the word paidagogos, translated as ‘disciplinarian’. A paidagogos was the household slave charged with keeping the children under control. He was to a certain extent an educator – we get our word pedagogy from it. But he was mainly a custodian – a jailer, if you like – who ensured the children behaved properly wherever they were. The law was therefore like a babysitter, a guardian designed to keep people in line under the threat of God, but also under the threat of the death squads like Paul had ran.

Living in Christ was different though. Jesus was by all accounts a good and faithful Jew, but he began questioning these laws that didn’t match what his heart was telling him. The law said no healing on the sabbath. So, he was supposed to let someone suffer until the law said he could end that suffering?

Jesus saw what was underneath the outward appearance and behaviour of the man living in the tombs because love sees people differently. How then do we see people? When we label someone as homeless, that may well be an accurate description of their state of residency, but the label of homelessness reduces the entirety of someone’s being to one adjective that seems to overrule all others. A homeless person could be an artist, a cancer survivor, compassionate, or a comedian, but the label of homeless is all that they are seen as. Most certainly they are no longer seen as a child of God.

The person serving in a restaurant or shop, who can’t get our order right might be labelled stupid or lazy, but what if they are tired from having been up all night studying, grieving a death or breakdown in a relationship, or struggling with their finances and having to do multiple jobs. Most certainly they are not a child of God, if we give them an angry, exasperated glare.

To so many, we add our own preconceptions and judgments when we apply a label to them. As Muhammad Ali, the boxer, once said. ‘There is only one true religion, and that is the religion of the heart. God never named it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. Man gave the titles, and that’s what separates and divides us. My dream is to one day see a world that comes together to fight for one cause — the human cause…’

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
Galatians 3:28

The human cause then is surely what the message of Jesus is all about? The human cause; ensuring that the hungry are fed and the lonely are visited and all people are able to live in peace and justice and love. Because the labels that we put on one another mean nothing compared to the label of child of God that surpasses all else. Love one another, do not pass judgement. Look at every person you meet first as a child of God, and then wonder if all those other labels really matter.

Amen

Labelling People