Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Diverse and Inclusive Church

A Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, and prior to the Parish Annual Meeting

Texts:  Acts 11.1-8, Revelation 21.1-6 and John 13.31-35

After our service this morning, we will gather together to conduct the essential business of our Parish.  We will elect our churchwardens and some new committee members.  We will consider a few tweaks to our parish constitution, review our finances and think about our buildings.  As part of that meeting, I'm going to invite you to briefly consider the progress we have made against the Five Year Plan that we set ourselves back in 2009.

When we made that plan together, four years ago, we agreed that we wanted to be a church for North End that was a praying, learning, serving and visible church that would be diverse and all-inclusive.  As you will see, I hope, we have made some considerable progress towards many, if not most, of the specific goals we set.  We set ourselves some targets, especially in the areas of being praying, learning, serving and visible - and I am really proud of all that you, with some help from the Clergy, have achieved.  I think you have the right to feel justly proud that the vision set before us four years ago has been largely and significantly achieved.  In our Annual Meeting, we will look - briefly, I promise! - at the targets that we set ourselves, and think about what comes next.

However, whilst we can rightly have a degree of pride about the things we have achieved together, today's lectionary readings come at a good moment for us.  The readings you just heard were not chosen by me.  They were the readings that just happened to be set for this Sunday of the year.  But as is so often the case, God manages to speak to us even through readings that were agreed years ago, when the lectionary - the list of readings for each Sunday - was first agreed.

In these readings, we are offered a vision of the Church which is very challenging indeed - especially, I suggest, for a church which aims to be 'diverse and all-inclusive'.  First, we heard Peter's account of how God challenged him through a vision to open the Church of Christ to people who were not Jews...those known as Gentiles.  This was a huge challenge to Peter.  As a Jew himself, he had been brought up to believe that Gentiles were fundamentally different to Jews.  They were not God's 'chosen people' - and they were treated with suspicion.  They were people who were not like Peter, and people that Peter would not normally associate with.  And yet God was challenging him - even commanding him - to include such people in his church.

Next, in the vision of John from the Book of Revelation, we are invited to peer into God's future for the world.  It is a world in which God himself dwells with all mortals, and when there will be no more crying or pain.  It's a fantastic vision of God's love for all humanity.

How are we to respond to these readings, I wonder?  Especially we who set ourselves the task of being diverse and all-inclusive?  How are we to extend God's love to those in our community who are not like us?

Who are the people that God may be calling us to include into our diverse and all-inclusive community?  Of course, we already do have a wide variety of people who belong to the life of this parish.  I am so proud of the way that you, as congregations, already do welcome people who are perhaps a little bit different from typical, average, residents of North End.

We have some non-English members...though I wish we had more, because God is not an Englishman, and other cultures help us to see God with different eyes.

We have some members with learning difficulties or physical disabilities...most of whom I know feel loved and welcomed - but there are many more who find our services difficult to understand, or our buildings too difficult to enter.

We have some young people, many of whom sing in choirs or attend Sunday Clubs, or serve at our Altars.  But there are literally thousands of young people in this parish who have very little or nothing to do with our churches at all.  Apart from school assemblies, some of them have no idea what the church can offer them...largely because we are not, ourselves, as clever as we need to be about providing opportunities for them to engage.

We have people in our churches from many different economic backgrounds...but I sometimes wonder why the poorest members of our community don't feel that the church belongs to them.  Could it be that, for someone surviving on ever reducing benefit payments, church feels just too expensive to belong to.  We need, I suggest, to find ways of really blessing the poorest in our community, and of creating more ways of giving that are not about money - more opportunities for the giving of time and talents, for example.

We have a few people in our churches who express their sexuality in different ways from the average, typical, heterosexual person.  But recent pronouncements from the national Church, especially about marriage, are making Gay people feel that they are not welcome in our churches.  We need to work harder, I suggest, at helping all people to feel loved and wanted.

We have a very few people in our churches who would prefer to worship in different styles than our rather traditional Anglican worship.  All three of our churches, in subtly different ways, provide basically the same kind of traditional liturgy on a Sunday morning.  But there are people in our parish who travel long distances every Sunday to worship in other parts of the City, because they find traditional liturgy to be alien.  But it is a challenge for us to change what we do, or to offer something different...mainly because all three of our churches hold their services smack in the middle of Sunday mornings.  I wonder whether any one of our churches might think about having an earlier, contemporary service for young families and younger people - with a more traditional service at a later time.  It would mean a sacrifice, for some of us, of our lunch-hours and of our habits and patterns...but perhaps that sacrifice is being asked of us?

So, this, I believe is the challenge laid before us in the coming years.  How can we really and truly become a church that is diverse and all-inclusive.  How can we move to a position where young people, disabled people, poor people, gay people, black people, children and families can also be welcomed into our worship and our community life?  Not just the occasional example of such groups, but a real, vibrant, living breathing community of diverse human beings!

As we review our Five Year Plan today, I'm going to be asking you, as the Annual Meeting of Church Members, to commission your PCC and Church Committees to begin the process of planning for the next five years.  As they do so, it is my plea that they will hold the challenges of today's readings in their minds and hearts.

Let me give the last word to Jesus.  In our Gospel reading, we were reminded that Jesus taught us that Love was to be the foundation of our community life.  If we are known to be people who truly, madly, deeply Love one another, whoever we are, wherever we come from, whatever we bring or can't bring to the life of the Church, then the rest of the world will truly know that we are Christ's Disciples.