Sermons from St Faith's

A sermon... and a response!

The challenging sermon reproduced below has 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 sermon.
Further contributions on either side of the debate (or from somewhere in the middle!) will be warmly welcomed.
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‘The Otherness of God’

Fr Mark Waters: 9 September 2007

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 disciple’.

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 difference.

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 fullness.

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’.

‘The Otherness of God’ - Reaction from a Sinner

Ruth Winder: October 2nd, 2007

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 sermon  are.

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 at least.

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 be associated.

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 listening.

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 Mugabe.

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 of time.

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 appreciation.  

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 getting there.

Drawing your attention to 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 control.             

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 opinion.

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