Who has pottered by this way, then?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

God on the margins

Sermon for June 19th 2016, 4th after Trinity. Given at St Nicholas, West Tanfield

In the news this week:
The killing of 49 LGBT people and wounding of over 50 more in Orlando, Florida
The EU Referendum campaign continues
Jo Cox MP is murdered in Yorkshire

Gal.3:23-29    Luke 8:26-39

God on the margins

A man on the margins of his society, an outcast, infamous locally, scratting around outside the town where the dead were buried and near unclean animals – pigs. And where does he end up? Restored to his right mind and sitting at Jesus’s feet, attentively listening to his teaching. Someone on the margins ended up at the feet of Jesus, hanging on his every word and finding acceptance.

St Paul’s letter to the Galatians includes a similar message of acceptance, but the context here is the Christian community. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female are one in Christ. Both readings deal with how human society so often finds ways to divide people, or find ways to cut individuals off from their community, but God’s way is to bring people together and draw them into God’s love.

St Paul’s letters to the early Christian communities frequently address a particular knotty cultural conundrum: how to get the balance right between living in the real world and being distinct from it. When it came to the culture around them, the Church had to decide the extent to which they were IN or OUT.    Just as the early Christians lived amid an imperfect culture, we live in an imperfect nation and currently live as part of an imperfect political union, the EU.  But before I come back to the EU referendum, let’s think about the results of human division and exclusion.

Orlando, last weekend saw a mass killing, the biggest in US history, a hate crime which targeted LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Questioning and Intersex) people. In this country, LGBTQI people are more accepted than ever before, but their acceptance is still not universal, they still face challenges including violent hate-attacks, discrimination, or being made to feel abnormal. Their history is painful. Their sense of exclusion and being considered outsiders, on the margins is still all too real. And our Archbishops have this week urged us to speak up for them and defend them from discrimination as part of our Christian calling.

And then, here in Yorkshire we had the murder of Jo Cox MP, someone who committed her life to defending the poor and vulnerable: people on the margins. She had worked for Oxfam and spent time in war zones and she worked tirelessly as a constituency MP in Batley and Spen, the community she grew up in, looking out for the vulnerable and poor in society. In parliament she was an advocate for children with autism and child refugees – notably those from Syria – and she collaborated across party lines to address the gap in educational attainment between London and Yorkshire and the Humber. We may not yet know all the facts about the motivation for her murder, but what we do know is that it happened as Jo Cox was out among her constituents listening to their concerns, and working hard on their behalf. In her maiden speech to parliament in June last year, Jo Cox said of her constituency:

“While we celebrate our diversity,
what surprises me time and time again
as I travel around the constituency
is that we are far more united
and have far more in common with each other
than things that divide us.”.
That’s a vision which echoes St Paul’s words to the Galatians, in which he challenges them to overcome the cultural barriers of gender, social class, religious baggage and ethnicity to live as a united Christian community, sharing fellowship because the unity found in Christ is stronger than anything which divides them.

The rhetoric of our national political debate, especially in the media, often relishes division, demonising opponents and spreading a message of fear. Certainly, both sides of the referendum debate have featured fear and self-interest as arguments. But as Christians, we are called to view the world through a very different lens.

I am not in the business of telling folk how to vote, only encouraging them to vote, but it is worth framing the referendum question like this: when it comes to our relationship with the EU, how do we, as followers of Christ, best shine as a light in the world? How best can we change the society and culture we are part of to favour the needs of those on the margins: the poorest, the most vulnerable and those whose needs are easily overlooked – the sort of people Jesus would have sought out?  I urge you to think and pray in these terms as part of your deliberations.

So what do we learn from those on the margins of society? Well, unlikely as it sounds, they should actually be our role models. The man from whom the Legion demons were cast out ended up sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening attentively, restored to new life, and that’s our calling, too.  But imagine for a moment what that must have looked like to those who knew the man as he was before: this disturbing, weird outcast, now sitting at the feet of Jesus. The people’s reaction was to ask Jesus to get out of town and fast: they were frightened; didn’t like it at all. Fear of the outsider, of the ‘other’, is hard to let go of.

The thing is, this is a direct challenge to each of us. I bet for each of us there is someone, or some group of people we find it harder to love that others. There might well be locals, families, types of people of some kind whom we just don’t like, just don’t get on with, and if they turned up in church, we wouldn’t go out of our way to welcome them, and might secretly hope they wouldn’t start to come regularly. We’d find it hard to love them unconditionally. This is human. Which is why we need the grace of God & the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us to love as God loves us.

We need to actually see ourselves as outsiders, to get a proper perspective. We none of us have earned our own salvation: we’re not heaven-bound by right, or by being deserving. It is not earned – it is God’s gift to us through Jesus, who lived a perfect life of love which led to being shunned, shamed, hated, tortured and killed. Jesus himself, on the cross, was the despised, rejected scum of all humanity in the eyes of the world.  To follow Christ is to follow God the ultimate outsider: in Jesus, God came to the extreme margins of human existence and met us there.

We need to seek out the marginalised and love them unconditionally, in the name of Jesus the outsider. We need to be out there, demonstrating God’s love in word and action, especially to society’s less-favoured: fighting their corner, showing them that their rightful place is here - within God’s loving family, the Church.  And as a Church community we should be inspired by the way today’s Gospel reading ended: the man went on his way proclaiming the great things Jesus had done for him. When we love as Christ loved us, when we ignore social & cultural barriers between ourselves and others, when we truly invite God to transform us into a community of love, the result is that the Gospel spreads, the Good News of Jesus gets loose.  And when that happens, there are no margins, because we haven’t set a boundary: there is only an inclusive, loving community which puts all human models of society, all political structures of nationhood or community in the shade.

Whether we end up IN or OUT of the EU, let’s ask God to help us build that kind of community here in this parish, Benefice, county, nation, continent…. and beyond. Amen.

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