Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Not for the righteous...

John 3. 13:17: Not for the Righteous...

Preached at a Parish Communion service, at St Mark's, on Sunday 21st September - just before a Parish Conference on the future of our Parish life.

"It is those who are sick that need a doctor...not those who are well."

That's how Jesus responded when the religious establishment around him started to complain that he was spending rather too much time with the scum of the earth (as they thought). There was Jesus, this prominent Rabbi, whom people were flocking from all around to meet - choosing to spend his time in the company of tax-collectors, prostitutes, manual labours and the like.

"What are you doing?" asked the Religious leaders. "Why don't you come and meet with us instead?"

"Because you don't need me." Jesus answered - meaning of course that they themselves didn't acknowledge him - they didn't think they needed him. "But these folks, these 'scum of the earth' as you think of them - they are hungry for me. I have come to call not the righteous...but sinners"

The word 'sinner' is a word that can easily get us tangled in knots. One way of understanding it is to go back to the ancient Greek word that is usually translated as 'sin'. The word is 'hamartia' (ἁμαρτία) - and the nearest way of translating it is to talk about 'missing the mark', or 'not quite getting it'. When Jesus says that he came for sinners, we hear him saying, instead, "I have come for those who have missed the mark - who haven't got it yet".

Jesus' words echo across the centuries. He challenges us. He makes us wonder whether sometimes we too can be a bit like the Pharisees. Jesus prompts us to ask, whether we can sometimes be just a bit too comfortable with our religion, and a little too unconcerned about those who are not part of our circle of friends; our circle of believers. Crucially, Jesus, I think, asks us to think about whether the way we act, here in our churches, is a way that will help others to 'get it'...or whether we are quite happy to carry on secure in the knowledge that we've got it...and that it doesn't matter about the rest.

Last week - as the regular St Mark's folks will tell you - we tried a bit of an experiment here. We had a baptism service - and we were very conscious that many of the people who would come with the baby would not be every-day church-goers. In fact, many of them had possibly never even been in a church before. So, instead of the normal Sunday Eucharist, we introduced a number of new and slightly risky elements to the service – video, upbeat songs, and a dressed-down Vicar.

The result, I think, was very interesting. Our baptism guests seemed much more engaged with what was going on . It was an experiment - and a successful one, I think. There was at least a chance that those who had never quite 'got' the idea of church before, at least had the chance to encounter God in ways that were contemporary and familiar. Maybe, just maybe, some of those who have so far missed the target - failed to 'get it', as far as Jesus is concerned - maybe they just began to scratch the surface of possibility.

Later today, at our Parish Conference, we are going to be thinking about what other changes we might need to make - if indeed we are serious about helping other people to 'get it'. How, for example, can we improve our parish publicity? How can we help the elderly, or the sick, to join in with our community life? How can we get better at sharing the love of Jesus - that we have experienced - with children and young families. And what changes might we need to make to our buildings; changes that will help people to 'get' what we are about?

These, and many more, are the kind of questions that I'm hoping you'll begin to answer for yourselves during our discussions later on. And out of it, I hope that we will begin to truly grasp what it means to be a church which exists not for itself, and not even for its members. We are a church that is called to be salt and light to our community. We are a church which is called to reach out to those who haven't 'got it' yet, not only to those (like us) who are just beginning to get it. We are a church which is called to be a beacon - no, a Lighthouse - of Love, in streets that often know pain, despair, and loneliness. We are a church which is called to minister to the sick, not only to the healthy.

One last thought, before we move on. We are also a church that is called to show the rest of the world that living as Jesus called us to live really is a viable alternative. In so many parts of the world, the solution to all conflicts is to take up arms against a perceived use violence and hatred as a means of settling disputes. But Jesus offers us a very different way of being – a way of forgiveness, and reconciliation. A way of dealing with the hurt and pain that human beings inevitably inflict on each other…and then of moving on. Not because we are clever….but because God is gracious.

Today, we have a new Choir here at St Mark’s…and today, I think, we have a good story to tell. Its a story of having grappled with difficulties – of facing up to issues - and having used love and forgiveness as a way of going forward. I'm really optimistic that today marks a new start for everyone who was hurt by the events of the past - and that is something we should celebrate... something we should be able to tell people outside the church about. Its a story of growing reconciliation, of learning through suffering, a story of hope. Ultimately its a story of resurrection - of new life springing out of death...and that's a story worth sharing.

In a little while, after we've taken communion together, the choir is going to sing "God be in my head" - a song which they have chosen, to reflect their wish that God will be at the centre of all they do and sing together over the coming years. Let us all make that our prayer as well.

So let us be glad. Glad that God is in our midst - and glad that God has invited us to share Divine Love with our neighbours... all those who haven't yet 'got it' out there in our community. Whether it is through a reconciled choir, through our new community cafe, through a creative think about the way our churches feel, or through the new chance to explore faith together on the Journey of Faith course, through the Welcome service at St Faiths, or the Alternative Worship at St Nicholas - we have reasons to be glad. Reason to celebrate. Reason to give thanks to our Father in heaven.


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