from St Faith's
A sermon... and a
The challenging sermon reproduced
provoked an equally hard-hitting response from Ruth Winder, a member of
our congregation. What she has written is reproduced at the foot of the
Further contributions on either side of the debate (or from somewhere
in the middle!) will be warmly welcomed.
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Otherness of God’
Fr Mark Waters: 9
There are some hard sayings in the gospels with which we have to come
to terms. We got one this morning at the start of the passage I have
just read from Luke.
‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and
children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my
Of course we need to understand the semitic mind - the Jewish approach
to language, which uses this sort of extreme images: light and
darkness; truth and falsehood; love and hate – primary colours with no
half-shades. A way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’. So to ‘hate’ in
this context, means to love less. To be a disciple I must love my
family and friends less, and others more.
This is still a radical and challenging thing to say. Most of us spend
much of our lives concentrating on our families and their needs and
welfare, and looking after our friends. So why should we make family
and friends second place?
Because the call of faith is outwards:
- from what we know, to the unfamiliar.
- from what is comfortable, to what is disturbing.
- from what is like us, to what is unlike.
- from the self, to the OTHER.
- from the private world, into the public world.
Why should this be so? Because God is other. God is utterly other. God
is the most other, other. We entreat him with our most intimate
endearments. We call him with the most familiar names. But, though we
believe that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, God is
ultimately unknown to us.
The nearest we can get is to follow Jesus. To look at his life and to
see how he lived. And Jesus lived by going out to the other. Giving up
the comforts of home, reaching beyond the embrace of family and
friends, Jesus spent his days going further and further OUT towards
otherness, to what was not him - from the private world to the public
world in order to be the otherness of God there.
Out to the otherness of the lonely, and the suffering. To the otherness
of the Gentiles and the conservative Jewish leaders. To the otherness
of the Romans and their Pilate. Ultimately out to where we will all go
one day - to the otherness of death. Why? Because it is by engaging and
embracing the other that we begin to build the Kingdom – not by staying
with our own concerns.
This way of faith is hard for us to comprehend, let alone copy. On the
whole we religious people are a pretty conservative lot. We know what
we like, and we like what we know. So we stick with it. We stay with
us-ness instead of otherness. We create an annual round of churchy
familiarity. We set up a church out of our samenesses, instead of
responding to Jesus’ call to create the kingdom – a new reality built
by bridging the gap between ourselves and others.
Sameness is death. We see people seeking sameness, and refusing
otherness in all the conflicts around the globe. We see it in
tribalism, in the gangs emerging in poor urban areas in this country.
We see it in the way different groupings in the Anglican church are
tearing it apart by their refusal to follow God’s call to embrace
otherness. People desperately trying to shore themselves up to protect
themselves from their fear of alienation and aloneness by building
relationships with those who are copies of them, and by hating all
I have spent much of this week running a training programme for those
who are OTHER.
There was Lyonel. A young Congolese father of two children. His
brother-in-law had been the Foreign Minister in the Congo when they
came for him and gunned him down. Then they set about searching for the
rest of the family. Lyonel got out just in time. Although safe now here
in the UK, the fear came back into his eyes as he retold his story. And
our government still haven’t given him leave to remain. He still lives
in fear of being forcibly returned to the Congo.
There was Lizzy, a middle-aged, mild-mannered nurse from South Africa.
She had been a member of the ANC. She had thrown stones. She admitted
that she had once burned down a shop. She sang a song to us about her
experience of fighting apartheid, and of the Christian choice she had
had to make about whether to join the armed struggle or to allow the
evil of violent racism to continue in her country of birth.
There was Amer. A highly intelligent, gentle but powerfully built man
who has managed to find work as a carer. He was just six years old when
Colonel Gadafy assassinated his father. The same Colonel Gadafy with
whom Tony Blair and George Bush have fairly recently made friends to
ensure access for the West to the Libyan oil supplies. All five Libyans
who were with us last week are still frightened. They all have family
back in Libya and Gadafy has spies in this country intent on
identifying those who continue to oppose his regime.
Nearer to home there was Erinma. Of Nigerian ancestry, but born in
Britain, she has lived most of her life in Moss Side in Manchester
where we were holding our training. She has five children of her own
and three step children from her husband’s first wife. She fears for
the future of those children and so she has launched an organisation
called Carisma to fight gun crime in what journalists call the
‘triangle of death’ where she lives. Erinma doesn’t call it that. To
her it is home. And she is not going to be forced out. She is
organising the community to fight back against the drug dealers and the
gangs, and to give the young people in that community a chance of a
meaningful and dignified life.
This otherness, and all sorts of other otherness, is all around us in
our society. But it rarely gets into our churches. Instead, we
often seem more concerned not with otherness, but with us-ness,
our-ness. This shows itself in all sorts of superficial ways. We get
complaints when we don’t have a procession at the beginning of an
all-age service, or if a hymn doesn’t’ suit us, or if anything disturbs
our comfortable round of what we know and feel comfortable with.
If Lyonel, and Lizzy, and Amer, and Arinma came to our church today
they probably wouldn’t say much because they are much too polite. I
guess they would watch our choreographed liturgy, and listen to our
splendid organ, and take part in our wordy services. And they might
look at our annual round of events and notice how many of them are
about church rather than community – more about us than about the other
– and hear our self-congratulatory comments about our respective
churches and their traditions. And I wonder what they would think? I
imagine they might be thinking to themselves – ‘why don’t these people
get a life – a Christian life!’
We don’t find otherness – the other – in our private world, in the
world of our particular likes and dislikes. Otherness is in the public
world – which is where the church belongs. And most churches stay very
much in the private world. Endlessly baptising what is us – which in
the end risks falling into idolatry, God in our own image.
But the church isn’t here to baptise our familiar things - the things
which we think are holy - our catholic tradition and our sweet music.
That’s why Jesus’ exasperated words are so strong, ‘To follow me you
must love these things less!’ The church is here to call us out to a
public world in which we have a prophetic role to play. And that role
is always about engaging otherness because that’s how we become more
like God. I came to bring you life, said Jesus, life in all its
I felt ashamed of myself this week. I listened to the stories of the
people I was with and I realised something about how tiny the world is
that I mostly inhabit.
And I thought about St Mary’s and St Faith’s and I asked myself how
together we might possibly become a church which connects more to the
other – the other people around us who have stopped coming to church,
and how we might connect more to the other in the world in which we
live. A world which is tearing itself apart with conflict. A world
which is killing its atmosphere and choking its people. A world which
is increasingly divided between those who – like us - have far too much
and those who have far too little.
But where to start? I think the starting point might be much closer
than we think. We might start with each other. Because until we’ve
recognised the other in the people we sit next to Sunday by Sunday I
guess we won’t be ready for the otherness of the world.
Last month marked my tenth anniversary of moving to Liverpool and
therefore the tenth anniversary of my being a part of our two churches.
And I have had a growing awareness that, with a few exceptions, I know
very little more about most people in our churches than when I arrived.
And I guess you know comparatively little about me.
In the magazine this month Fr Neil asks more of us to come to more
social events, because its important for us to get to know each other.
I couldn’t agree more. The problem is that our social events don’t help
us get to know each other. Usually the same people sit with the same
people. We do the same things almost every time. And when we get up to
leave these events, apart from a surface familiarity and conventional
niceness, we are still comparative strangers to each other.
Of course I know there are people here who have been acquainted for
many years, whose children have grown up together, who have shared many
things in the life of our churches. But sometimes that too can lead to
an easiness and familiarity which is more like family than the
otherness which Jesus talks about.
This last week I was exposed to the otherness of Lyonel, and Lizzy, and
Amer, and Erinma and they were exposed to the otherness of me because
we practiced some intentional conversations. Instead of trading in the
usual pleasantries which often pass for conversation we were asked to
share with each other some of the deeper things which make us who we
are: how we got to where we were; what our journey of life and faith
had been; why we do the things we do; what drives us; what our passions
are. Not private information, but something about what goes to make up
our public selves. It was a profoundly empowering thing to do and
something which quickly builds relationships and a sense of community
and clarity and purpose.
The primary task of being church is to build strong, robust,
accountable relationships with each other to enable us to be the Body
of Christ together in this place. That’s our primary task, but we spend
little time intentionally doing that. We spend many, many hours with
each other over the course of a year, but they are largely focused on
task. We miss out the bit of relationships which ask, ‘Who are you? Who
really are you?’ Instead we run swiftly on to task – what you can do.
And I guess that we have long since stopped expecting that we might
learn something new from each other, something which might give us some
surprising and different intimations about God.
I have a question for you. Was Jesus a nice man?
Jesus was not a nice man. He shouted at people. He call them hypocrites
and all sorts of names like ‘whited sepulchre’ and many other things.
But he also prodded and poked, and relentlessly and systematically
challenged his disciples, and those others who followed him, in order
to draw out of them the gifts which God had given them with which to
build the early church. We need to pay each other sufficient respect to
be able to do the same here!
Jesus calls us out. Out from our individual concerns and petty
grievances. Out from our largely private sense of faith. Out to a world
in which we discover the love of God by bridging the fear and
strangeness which separate us from each other. We could do no better
for the future of our two congregations than start practicing this art
of really get to know each other here, because I don’t think that we’ve
even begun to tap the shared potential in our two congregations. We
need to listen intently to each others’ stories - our struggles, our
hopes and our dreams. This would help us to discover something of the
God-given, Spirit-filled strength which comes from really engaging with
each others’ reality. And it is this, and this alone which will help us
engage with otherness beyond these walls.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate
father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and
even life itself, cannot be my disciple’.
Otherness of God’ - Reaction from a Sinner
Ruth Winder: October
Well Mark, you certainly drove your message home with this one. My
immediate reaction was one of indignation bordering on anger, which is
why I decided to take my time in responding for fear I might say
something I might regret, or be as offensive as some parts of your
I am only too aware of my shortcomings, as I am sure the rest of
our congregation are. For my part that is why I belong to church,
in order to continue to be aware, and try to atone to some small degree
I have been at St Faith’s for almost thirteen years now. During the
last ten of those years I have seen a vast change in attitudes and
acceptance of ‘OTHER’, to use your word. In no small measure this is
due to the hard, often difficult, but always dedicated work of Fr Neil,
and Fr Dennis.
This is not me ‘creeping’ by the way: there are times that I do not
agree with things, but I accept them as part and parcel of being a
member of a quite diverse community, of which I am shamelessly proud to
Over the years I have found comfort and succour within these walls, and
often, overwhelmingly, connected with my spiritual source. I have
learned to listen to my life on a daily basis and to understand reasons
why and why not. I still have a long way to go, but I will keep on
The sickening plight of large parts of the world I am only too aware
of, but you know Mark, it just makes me feel impotent. I, as well as
others, will, and do, help all we can. We cannot take the ills of the
world solely on our shoulders, this is political, and it behoves all
faith leaders to become much more vocal with world leaders before any
great inroads are made. I must say I was pleased to hear the Archbishop
of York speak out last week: where was Canterbury? Then I was disgusted
just as quickly to hear see our Prime Minister sitting on the fence
uttering “We need to be diplomatic”. There is nothing diplomatic about
Regarding the community: by and large if what we offer is church-based,
the community doesn’t want to know, unless it is useful to them, which
proves itself on numerous occasions year in and year out, However we
still try, despite the negativity, and some of us saying it’s a waste
Granted on our social occasions people sit with friends, but why not?
That doesn’t mean that they ignore everyone else, and I would be so
bold as to say you are no different in this sense. There is one sure
way to guarantee speaking to nearly everyone at our functions, and that
is by working on them; it is very satisfying seeing people socialising
and enjoying each other’s company, whilst being entertained and fed by
their fellows. I can say that, although it sometimes is a bit
energy-sapping, it is good fun, and people always show their
A good case in point of the ‘one-ness’ in this church is the occasion
of my daughter Judith’s wedding in February this year. It was the most
wonderful expression of one-ness you could get, thanks to Fr Neil for
beautiful nuptials, the choir and organist for beautiful music, Chris
and Dennis for exceptional video and photographs, the ladies of the
catering team and others for fantastic food - the list goes on. Thanks
be to God, for St Faith’s and its people.
So you see Mark, you have stated your case very well, but you know very
little about us. We know all we need to know about each other. We are
still working at building strong, robust accountable relationships to
be the body of Christ together in this place, and, I would say, we are
paragraph 6 in your sermon I would ask that you read and reflect.
I make no apologies for having a reasonably comfortable life, enough
food to eat, a happy and loving family, a good husband, loyal
friendships, and the care and respect of my fellows. These are things
that have been hard won in this country, remember; it hasn’t all been
handed to us on a plate, our faith has been won by bloodshed and
sacrifice. Our freedom has been given by the sacrifice of our
forefathers in two world wars.
I remember the operations my grandfather was still undergoing for skin
grafts for First World War injuries, when I was a child, and I
remember my father’s cries in the night from the nightmares he had for
years, after the things he witnessed at Belsen etc during the second
war. So please don’t think we are complacent about our lives, our
faith, or our sweet music. I’m afraid you are largely preaching to the
converted, some of whom are a bit weary of being berated about things
over which we have little or no
Referring now to a previous sermon, when you asked if we had bothered
to visit any other faiths: personally yes, several. Although I can’t
see sitting for an hour in a Quaker Meeting would serve any valuable
purpose, I’m afraid my mind would be on what I could positively be
doing if I wasn’t sitting there. As for a Friday afternoon visit to a
Mosque during Friday prayers, I would be delighted. I find other
people’s traditions fascinating, and respect them as I would expect
ours to be respected. You organise a group to go and I will be there, I
do not intend trawling Toxteth alone.
I am Anglo-Catholic - that is why I am where I am. If I ever have a
desire to change, I am well aware of my options – options which are
open to others unhappy with our traditions.
I could go on, but before this turns into a novel I will finish by
saying: this is not meant to be offensive, just honest, and after
mulling things over on and off over the past two weeks, I am pleased to
get it all off my chest and stand up to be counted, as a sinner with an
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