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Sunday, 27 September 2009

In or Out?

So which football team do you support? Or do you prefer rugby, or cricket – what’s your sport, and who’s your team? Do you play for a local team? Or did you, when you were younger?

It’s great being part of a team, isn’t it? Or perhaps being part of a group, or a gang of friends. At least it can be. But suppose you are left out? Suppose you’re the one who is always the last to be chosen because you’re hopeless at games? Suppose you’re the one they jeer at and laugh at?

Here’s another suppose. Suppose you were part of a group whose function in life was to do nice things for people – perhaps you did shopping for old people, say, or you knitted blanket squares for charity. And your group got together each week to catch up on what you’d been doing, and perhaps have a meal together, or generally have a bit of fun together. You’re a group, a gang, and it shows. People know who you are. They like you.

But then supposing you suddenly discovered that someone else was doing the same nice things as you were. The specky, nerdish kid that nobody likes. He was also fetching shopping for old people, or knitting blanket squares for charity, or whatever it was.

I wonder how you’d react. Would you think, oh, that’s nice, good for him. Or would you think, here, how dare he? He’s not one of us, what does he think he’s doing? We’re the only ones who do that job!

I think both Jesus and Moses came up against this attitude in our readings today. “How dare they! They’re not part of our group – tell them to stop!” For Jesus, it was when one of the disciples discovered that someone else was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but it wasn’t anybody they knew and, as far as they were concerned, he had never met Jesus and he wasn’t One of Them. “We tried to make him stop,” explains John, “but he wouldn’t!”

But what was Jesus’ reaction? “"Don't stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he's not an enemy, he's an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

And something very much the same has happened in our Old Testament reading, too. Moses has got fed up again – Moses frequently gets fed up! This time, the children of Israel have been grumbling because they don’t like the food. God has been supplying them with Manna – nobody knows quite what that was, but it was a basic food source for them while they were wandering in the desert. Anyway, although they hated being in slavery in Egypt, they are beginning to miss all the fish, and the melons, the leeks, the cucumbers, the onions and the garlic. Well, I don’t blame them, really – I think I’d miss those things if I couldn’t have them! But not worth being a slave for! Anyway, God is a bit cross with them and says that okay, they want meat – fine, he’ll give them so much meat they’ll get sick and tired of it! At this stage, Moses doesn’t know how on earth God plans to do this – later, we learn, it was flocks of quails, which are a type of rather delicious game bird – and it all seems a bit much, so he gets his 70 elders, his team leaders, together to pray. And while this is happening, the Holy Spirit falls on the elders, and they begin to speak forth God’s word.

This was unusual in those days – the Holy Spirit didn’t come to people as a matter of routine, in the way that he does today, so when it did happen, it was thought to be a mark of God’s favour. And there are two of the elders who, for whatever reason, haven’t joined the gathering. Their names are Eldad and Medad, and they have stayed in the camp – but because they are elders, the Holy Spirit has also fallen on them. Oh dear. So, of course, someone comes running up to tell Moses, and his heir, Joshua – the same Joshua for whom the book of the Bible is named – says “Well, aren’t you going to stop them?”

Moses, I think, roars with laughter. “Are you jealous for me? I wish that all God's people were prophets. I wish that God would put his Spirit on all of them.” A wish that, of course, came true at Pentecost.

But do you see? It’s all about wanting to exclude people, isn’t it? They’re not part of the gang, so they can’t do what we do. They mustn’t be allowed. They must stop casting out demons in Jesus’ name, or they must stop speaking forth God’s word in prophecy.

Oh dear.

Not good.

Well, yes, we know that in theory, but do we know it in practice? It’s all too easy to exclude people, isn’t it? For a wide variety of reasons. Primary school kids sometimes form gangs whose whole idea is to exclude the opposite sex: No Girls Allowed; No Boys allowed. That’s relatively harmless, of course – but then you get the ones who exclude people whose skin colour is different, or who perhaps have some kind of disability. Or who are of a different religion – it is a very short step between reckoning that they’re mistaken in what they believe, to reckoning they, themselves are bad people for believing it.

None of this is nice; it’s the road to ethnic cleansing, to genocide, to the Holocaust. A road humanity has trodden all too often, and will probably tread all too often in the future.

But almost worst is when it happens in the Church. You will probably know better than I do the story of what happened when Black Christians first came over to this country with the Empire Windrush and its successors, and it’s not pretty. But that’s not the only form of exclusion, even if it is the most obvious one.

It’s what about the other Christians? People who worship God differently. People, who perhaps, disagree with us about certain issues. We are altogether too apt to say “Well, if you don’t agree with me, you’re not a Christian!” I know I’ve been guilty of that in my time. We try to limit God – who is in, who is out? Who’s in God’s gang?

But God doesn’t. We’re not Christians because of what we do or don’t believe; we’re Christians because God loves us and has sent his Son to die for us. We have responded to that, but that’s not what has saved us – God has!

There is a man in America1 who, for a variety of reasons, has decided to spend this year worshipping in a different church every Sunday, not just Christian churches, either, but Jewish and all sorts. I’ve been following his blog for the last couple of months; I can’t remember how I first found it. It’s fascinating reading his journal, and watching his faith grow and develop. A couple of weeks ago he went to a church that he found constraining – they were, for his taste, too negative, too full of “Thou shalt nots”. And after some thought – and argument with people from that church who commented on his reflections – and a Sunday spent worshipping in a Church that was rather more to his taste, he has this to say:

“I don't care who you are, what you've done, who you voted for, how often you read the Bible, or what your political stance is on gay marriage or abortion. I don't care if you are gay, straight, or bisexual. I don't care if you've had sex with a thousand people or you're forty years old and saving yourself for marriage. I don't care if you are Methodist, Catholic, Muslim, or you sat next to me at the Church of Scientology. GOD LOVES YOU. Not because of what you can do for him, but because he's freaking God, so he doesn't need you to do a damn thing. He loves you because he made you. He created you to be the jacked up person you are, and he loves you in spite of your flaws. You're the Prodigal Son. So am I. And God is running toward us with open arms. Nothing else matters except his desire to welcome us back home. And he's waiting. Despite the thousands of rules Pharisees will lay on you to convince you that you're unworthy of God's love, God says you are worthy because of the sacrifice Jesus made two thousand years ago. Period. Bottom line. End of story.”

To which I could only respond: “Amen!” And, that being the case, how dare we exclude anybody? They may not worship God the same way we do; they may look different, or behave differently. They may have quite different views about all sorts of issues that we think are important. But, as Jesus said, “Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

And then Jesus went on to give a warning: “On the other hand, if someone –however insignificant they might seem – is believing in me and you put up a road block and turn them back, you’ll be made to pay for it. You’d have been better off being dumped in the middle of the bay wearing concrete boots.”

You see, it does matter. We are all part of God’s kingdom, and woe betide us if we try to exclude anybody, or try to make someone else feel they don’t fit in. God is Love – and woe betide us if we try to cut anybody off from that love. Just because they aren’t on our team doesn’t mean they’re rubbish players!