Father David's sermon on Pride Weekend
“Whoever listens to you listens to me and whoever rejects you rejects me”
Yesterday members of the PCC had an away day. For any of you not familiar with church jargon, the PCC is the Church Council, the elected body that is responsible for the life and property of the church.
We spent yesterday exploring what our role and responsibilities were, thinking about who we are as a church and as individuals, and what our priorities need to be. The PCC has a balance to keep, between legal requirements and management tasks, such as looking after the building and making the books balance, and working to further the mission of the church: encouraging and equipping everyone associated with St Saviour’s to play their part in serving the community and showing God’s love to the world. It’s no good having a beautifully kept building and immaculate accounts if our pews are empty and we are having no effect on our local community.
Archbishop William Temple famously said that “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
Like the seventy in today’s gospel reading, each of us is sent into the world to live out our faith and to proclaim the Good News of God’s love. We had a very fruitful conversation yesterday about the sense we had of that Good News and what it means to proclaim it. We talked about being welcoming, being enthusiastic in talking about our faith, caring for creation, standing up for justice, serving those in need and working for true inclusion where the gifts of all people were welcomed and celebrated and where such things as identity, disability, and background not only were not barriers to being welcome, but were not barriers to taking a full and active part in the leadership and ministry of the church.
We ended the day by praying together, committing to God the work we had done, and heading off to live our lives and hopefully put some of it into practice. It was a first step on an ongoing journey, but we are doing what we can to make sure that we all as a church are on that journey, that we are all able to go out as Jesus sends us to proclaim his peace and his Kingdom.
It was with a sense of progress, achievement, that I walked to Canada Water Station, where several people got on a bus home and I went off to catch a train. We had a sense of God’s mission and were ready to go out into the world and be listened to.
I was quite taken aback then, when on the platform somebody coming from the previous train took one look at me and called me “Scab” as they walked past me, presumably a reaction to my clerical collar as there was little else they could have known about me in that brief moment.
I felt, momentarily as a lamb in the midst of wolves. I was upset. Here was I minding my own business, doing no wrong, simply being a visible witness to the church by the way I was dressed and receiving abuse for it.
What to do? Wipe off the dust from my feet? Remind myself that the one that rejects Christ’s messenger is rejecting God? Granted I hadn’t actually had chance to say “Peace to you” but it was clear that what I represented was not welcome.
Yesterday in London was Pride day. And I presume, though I cannot be sure, that that encounter was a response to that. When people are celebrating 50 years of the fight for liberty and acceptance of LGBT+ people, perhaps a black shirt and a clerical collar is not the most welcome sight. That felt quite ironic as an openly gay man who was on his way home from a meeting where I’d talked with members of my church about their belief in the importance of full welcome and inclusion, but the person who insulted me didn’t give me chance to explain that. So what could I do but “let my peace return to me”?
Only it didn’t, I didn’t feel at peace at all. And I realised that part of why that comment hurt so much in the context of people travelling home from Pride, was the truth behind the assumptions. If it was entirely unjustified then fine, let it go. But it wasn’t. My collar does make me stand out as representing an organisation that has caused hurt and injury to multiple groups of people, harming them or rejecting them under the cover of church order, church discipline and church unity. Too often the body that has meant to have been the messenger of peace, our body, Christ’s body, has been the instrument of rejection, trauma, and abuse.
It’s not just gay and transgendered people who have been harmed. We still argue about whether women can minister equally in the church, we patronise those with disabilities, keeping them on the margins and failing to see their gifts, we fail to safeguard the vulnerable. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is about to enter its final week of examining abuse within the Anglican church.
In that context I found myself wondering who was the wolf and who was the lamb and what really was the message I represented to those on that platform.
“Whoever listens to you listens to me and whoever rejects you rejects me” says Jesus in our gospel reading. Who have I, who have we, who has he church failed to listen to? Who has it rejected, and how often have we rejected Christ in the process?
From our Old Testament reading we here “it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies.” As our general synod meets this weekend in York and continues to turn summersaults over its approach to issues of inclusion, to many people’s eyes it is continuing to show the church to be so out of touch and hypocritical as to not be worth bothering with, In that context, we best not be too quick to decide that we’re standing amongs God servants and not his enemies.
Don’t get me wrong. The work our PCC did yesterday was good, important: We have good news to share, wonderfully good news of the breadth and depth of God’s love and acceptance, but all too often it’s neither the message the world hears nor the one it sees demonstrated by our church’s actions. If our message is going to be heard we need to speak it with boldness and clarity, we need to listen with openness and humility to those who have been hurt and rejected, and we need to be prepared to stand up to those whose actions undermine God’s message of love for all.
Speaking truth to power is a hard thing. Owning the church’s mistakes and saying sorry for them is not easy. But Christ says to those he sends “I have given you authority… over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”
If we are on the side of the God of love, what have we to be afraid of? We only need fear when we collude with those who would set narrow boundaries and keep others out. Many of us are here despite the rejection and pain we have experienced at the hands of the church. Many of you have told me you found welcome at St Saviour’s having faced rejection elsewhere.
“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” says God. Through one another God brings us his comfort and his healing. May God give us the boldness to speak his comfort and his healing to those the church has bruised and broken. Or as our collect put it: “Almighty God… give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God”