Preached at St Nicholas' Church, Battenburg Avenue, this morning.
Let me start by saying how glad I am to be with you this morning. I know you’ve been waiting quite a while for a new Team Rector – and it’s been a five month wait even for me. But here we are – together at last!
I am just at the very beginning of the process of understanding what God has been doing in the place over the last few years, and more importantly, what he may be calling us to do in the future. As part of that process, I’ve decided to stick with the set readings that we are given in the Lectionary – rather than start a sermon series on a given theme. That may come in the future – but for now, I want to invite us all to listen to God as he speaks to us through the regular rhythm of the church’s year, through the lectionary.
Those of you with computers will perhaps have read last week’s sermon on my website. And you’ll perhaps also be aware of the controversy it generated! That’s great! I love an argument…not, you understand, a personal slanging match-type of argument – but a real, earnest debate about things of substance. I certainly hope that you’ll never hear me say that I’ve understood everything there is to know about God. God is someone we need to discover and encounter together – and I hope that by publishing my sermons, we can wrestle together with what God may be saying to us.
Around the argument itself, was a central theme – arising out of last week’s lectionary – that God is the God of blessing – not of curses. I spoke about how he longs to bless us with every good thing. But, based on the parable of the wise and foolish builders, I also wanted to make clear that God gives a choice…a clear choice….between building on the rock of His way of doing things, or building on the sand of trying to go our own way.
Let’s turn to today’s Gospel reading, and ask what else God may be saying to us. I’m going to focus on just the first part of the reading we have heard…because if I try to do the lot, we’ll be here till after lunch!
At the beginning of the reading (in Matthew 9.9-13) we see Jesus calling Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him. It’s a story that we’ve heard so often that I think we sometimes lose sight of the significance of this statement. Jewish Rabbis did not normally seek disciples among the likes of tax collectors – who at best were seen as collaborators with the Roman occupiers of Judea, and at worst were known to be dishonest men who lined their own pockets out of the taxes they gathered. But here is Jesus, gathering around him a right old rag-bag of followers. Not the sons of the wealthy, well-to-do, regular synagogue worshippers – but tax collectors, political activists (like Simon the Zealot) and manual labourers like Simon and Andrew, the fishermen. These were not learned people who had studied the Scriptures, they were ordinary, every-day folk, some of whom had a decidedly shady past – but all of whom, quite obviously, had an openness to hearing God’s call on their lives. They were all people – ordinary people - who had heard Jesus’ call to follow wherever he led…and who were open enough to do just that.
So the first challenge to us, is to ask ourselves how open we are to that same call. Jesus still speaks today – through the pages of Scripture, and through his living presence in His church – and I believe he still says, “Follow me!”. Each of us is asked to think about how we are responding to that call. Are we as open to his call as those first disciples were? Are we as ready to lay aside all that we have known, all the things we have assumed that would always be the same – our job, our homes, our ‘life-plan’…and surrender it all to the Lord of the Universe who says “Follow me”? Jesus says to us, through the pages of Scripture, “I am going forward…I have a plan for this world, and for the whole of creation. But it’s a plan I want to put into action through the people I have created, loved, redeemed and filled with power. I invite you to be my hands and feet to dying world…follow me where I shall lead!”
But there is another aspect to this call – and that takes us to the second theme of this reading. This calling of the normal, the lost, the complicated, is one of Jesus’ very first public acts. And, as we read in verse 11, “when the Pharisees saw this, they said to the disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” Jesus’ response their incredulity was to say, “Those who are well have no need of a doctor…I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners”
At first reading, if we are not careful, we could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus is dividing the world into two classes of people…the righteous, and the sinners – as if he is saying that there are some people who have already got their relationship with God sorted…who he doesn’t need to worry about.
But that is not, I think, what he is saying. For one thing, Jesus also ate with Pharisees (on other occasions) so he couldn’t have been saying that they were the righteous. There is no doubt at all that Jesus’ mission was to the whole world…and everyone in it. John 3:16 famously describes God loving the whole world, and sending his Son so that the whole world might be saved. Paul, then, famously elaborated on this idea, saying that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom.3:23).
It rather depends on what we think the Bible means by the word ‘sin’ doesn’t it? So let me try to explain what I think of, when I see the word. I take, as my starting point, that God, by definition, is the most holy, most pure, most sinless being there is. If he was anything else, he wouldn’t be God. God is, by definition, the yardstick by which we measure sin. Got me? Therefore, anyone who does not measure up to God’s perfection, God’s absolute sinlessness, is by definition, and in the Bible’s technical language, a sinner. Mother Theresa? Martin Luther King? Ghandi? St Francis, St Nicholas and St Mark? All sinners (as they would themselves freely acknowledged).
So this definition of sinner – in its most precise sense…I fear….rather includes you and me as well! None of us, however much we pray, however many good things we do, however many times a week we come to church, none of us is capable of being as sinless as God. So, by definition, we (as Paul says) are all sinners…and have fallen short of the glory of God. The only way that we can become ‘the righteous’ is if God, by his grace, makes us righteous…but that’s a topic for a whole different sermon!
The second point of this reading is to say to us; we should not be surprised at who else Jesus calls to follow him. If Jesus can call me…with all my un-God-like-ness, all my sin…then I should not be surprised at who else he calls. It is not for us, like the Pharisees, to sit in judgment and imagine that we can decide who is righteous and worthy, or who is a sinner. Of course we are all capable of recognising sinful behaviour – or to pick up from last week, we are all capable of discerning who appears to have their life built on sand, instead of rock. But how someone behaves now, has no bearing on whether or not God is calling them now as well. Just as Matthew, the money-grabbing tax collector was called.
So, I say, we must not be surprised when Jesus calls people who are not like us, as well as calling us. Jesus will call people who don’t like the same music as we do, who don’t learn in the same way that we do, who don’t worship in the same way that we do, who don’t have the same likes, dislikes, tastes, hang-ups, pre-conditions, prejudices, social background, economic circumstances, family context, sexual preferences and theological understandings as we do. Jesus calls us all to follow him, and to be transformed to be more like him. Jesus calls people to be his hands and feet to a dying world…and also his eyes, and ears, and mouth, and limbs, and wobbly knees, and appendix! It takes many parts to make a body…and we are the body of Christ.
So that’s going to mean that we need to be adaptable, and flexible, in our approach to how we encounter the other people that Jesus calls to follow him – and to how we help them – with us - to respond to his call. To that end, I believe, we are going to need to think hard about what it means to be part of His church in this Parish.
Let me offer you an image which helps me to begin to get a handle on how flexible we need to be. It’s a image, or if you like a vision, of a ‘multiplex church’. I’m sure that most of us, at one time or another, have been to a multiplex cinema. When you walk through the doors of such a place, you are confronted with a whole range of choices about what to watch. “Hmm…” you say, “what shall I watch…comedy, horror, action, love story?” And the film you choose to watch will ultimately depend on a whole range of factors…your personal preferences, who you are with, what you’ve enjoyed, or hated in the past, the time of day, what you’ve been reading recently…and so on.
Well, I want to suggest to you, that the church should be like that. We should be able to offer people a wide range of ways to encounter God – as wide as the preferences of people themselves are. There are many more ways of holding a communion service than the one we are holding here this morning. You can do it with bells and smells, you can do it with rock music or folk music, you can do it with robes, or without them, you can do it with noise, or in silence. There are many other ways of worshipping God than with hymns. You can use silence, or arts and crafts, or you can raise your hands to the sky, or you can immerse yourself in the glorious richness of a scripture-soaked choral evensong. You can do it over a meal, or in a housegroup. Or you can meet in a pub, and chat about God with some good friends, over a pint of Old Peculiar. Or you can meet, as your Ladies Breakfast Group did yesterday, over warm croissant and good company. You know those bumper-stickers that say things like “Firemen do it with long hoses” or “Policemen do it in a hurry”, or “Rock-climbers do it in high places”…? Well Christians do it in an infinite variety of ways!
And in each case – the challenge for all of us – is to make each way of encountering God as good as it can be. So I’m not talking about watering things down. I don’t want to create services which are a porridge of lots of different stuff – a porridge which frankly becomes tasteless the more you try to pack in. I’m talking about putting on a banquet of different flavours and dishes – which are individually cooked to the highest standard they can be.
That is my vision of what a healthy church should look like. And in some ways, we are already on that road, in this parish. Here at St Nicholas’ for example, I gather that Bev has been introducing some new ways of worshipping God – Taize-style worship, for example, or the chance for a discussion, instead of a sermon, or a chance for silent contemplation, instead of a regular hymn sandwich. And while some of you have enjoyed those new and different encounters, some of you have been less sure…and have opted instead to worship at one of the other churches in the parish on those occasions. And you know – that’s fine! It’s brilliant. “Multi-plex Church” doesn’t mean that we’ve all got to like the same thing, or find the same kind of worship helpful for us. But it does mean that we need to celebrate our diversity – the wonderful diversity of being in the incredibly diverse people that God has made us.
And it also means one other thing…
When I go to a multiplex cinema on my own, I usually opt for some kind of science-fiction or action film. But if I go with my family, I usually have to compromise a little. For some reason, that I utterly fail to understand, Clare and Emily just don’t get as excited about Star Trek as I do. So, we compromise. In order to have a great night out, as a family together, I have even, on occasion, been known to go to see a chick-flick…like Bridget Jones Diary! And, you know what, when I do, I usually surprise myself. I usually – not always – but usually find that I’ve actually quite enjoyed the experience. I’ve even been known to cry at the end!
So I suggest to you that as we begin to develop a more multiplex approach to church ourselves – don’t be surprised if God surprises you! Perhaps if you will try a different way of encountering God, that encounter might just turn out to be pretty wonderful. Or perhaps you might be willing to suspend your normal preferences, for the sake of inviting someone else – someone who is not a regular worshipper of God – to come and try something new.
So…let me sum up.
Jesus called Matthew, the tax collector, and a whole motley band of labourers and people he encountered in the countryside and towns. And he still calls ordinary, everyday, hurting, laughing, normal people, like you and me to follow him. He calls us to live transformed lives, which reach out and touch those around us with the good news about God…the good news that he loves us, and cares about us, and has a plan for the world he has made. He calls those like us, and he calls those who are unlike us – and he asks his church to be the place where everyone he calls can find a home, and in which everyone he calls can find a sense of purpose and fulfilment as a member of the body of Christ. And let’s be clear about this…there is no-one he doesn’t call.
So let us ask ourselves… are we ready to answer his call?