After some weeks of incredible football and an intense match last Sunday evening, where England played their hearts out against the team that were always tipped to win, to end up at a penalty shootout and come second in the tournament seemed to me to a pretty good result. Not only that, but even more importantly, the way the whole team have sought to live with integrity, solidarity and ownership of their decisions is an example we need to see more of.
So it has been devastating to witness yet again the systemic racism that is present, and seemingly becoming more prevalent in society. To ‘blame’ England’s loss on a trio of gifted footballs because they are black is abhorrent and should have no place in our society, I hope you would agree.
But how will we respond? How do you stand against racism in your living and daily activity in your community?
This morning I feel convicted to recognise that to do nothing, to ignore or let it pass by in the hope things will change, or that someone else might do something about it, is the collude with the racists themselves. To do nothing is to deny the truth that all people are made in the image of God.
Rooted in Christ, we can have confidence that despite worldly opinions, the invitation to God’s table is for all. So let us stand up, speak up and live with confidence in justice, dignity and solidary for all God’s people.
Before going to theological college, I spent 6 years managing a Christian bookshop. It had been something of a dream of mine for all my teenage life. I had a passion for business, for resourcing God’s people in mission and ministry, and reaching out beyond the margins of church.
The place often felt like a signpost, as well as selling goods we saw a growing ministry of pastoral care – welcoming all sorts of people from many different backgrounds with many different stories to tell. We would point people to support, spiritual, physical, economic, we would offer conversation about life and faith, sometimes we would pray with people, and one of the joys of this ministry was that through it God was at work and we saw a number people begin following Jesus.
It was through this pastoral ministry that God began to reveal to me a calling to a vocation as a Methodist minister. But one of the things that surprised me most when running the bookshop was not these opportunities for mission, ministry and pastoral care with those on the margins, but the conversations I had with ‘already Christians’.
Running the bookshop meant I was serving a wide and diverse range of Christian people, fellowships and churches. And I saw that as a great thing, an opportunity to learn from others, discover more about God’s church and celebrate our common faith.
What surprised me, as just how un-loving God’s church can be from within. I was amazed the first time I was criticised for stocking anything but the King James Bible – on one occasion I was told I was the antichrist for stocking a particular book (I can’t remember what the book was now! – just the accusation!).
I don’t think it’s wrong to have conviction in faith, but I do think we need to as God’s Spirit to watch over us that we don’t get to a point where we are so convicted of our faith that we show no openness to the diversity of faith present in God’s people.
In Colossians 3 we read the following verses, which come from a larger section where Paul is seeking to enable understanding of what living together as Christian community looks like.
8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
As the letter to the Colossians unfolds, the message of the gospel – the Good News -Jesus Christ – is being unpacked and given clarity. Christ is all and in all. Human labels that divide are superfluous to the power and grace of God.
One of the things that often saddens me is that Church, and society, spend so much time and energy highlighting our differences, and allowing that to lead to division and jealousy.
If we are kingdom people, worshipping Christ who’s kingdom we are welcomed into through God’s love and grace – surely it is our common faith in Christ who is all and in all that we should hold our main focus on.
John Wesley, who’s ministry contributed to the birthing of Methodism, was himself well aware of the way opinions led to division, and in one of his sermons argued that differing opinions need to be held in perspective with common faith, and that differing opinions should not lead to the cessation of fellowship.[i]
Friends there is much that has potential to divides us. Views on political and public health measures during the pandemic; contradictory convictions around communion, sexuality, gender & marriage; Brexit; immigration. The list could be endless, and these things are not things we should entirely ignore. But I think should be approached with the a recognition from all that by the love and grace of God human made division is wiped away – Christ is all and in all.
For me, these verses challenge me to hold our common faith in the un-boundaried love and grace of God at the centre of my relationships. Not focused on difference and division, but on the kingdom of God where Christ is all and in all.
[i] Sermon 19: Salt and Light, John Wesley’s 44 Sermons. Epworth Press, 1944
Throughout August I will be encouraging us to reflect on things we have learn and are learning through lockdown about self, God and being Christian community.
On the 1st September 2016 we moved to Queens Foundation, Birmingham where I was to begin my training. As we’d only got a small, 2nd floor flat for the 4 of us, college had offered us a garage, and, at first, we parked the car in it.
On the 2nd September 2016 we took a trip to the supermarket. We got back, unloaded and I shut the garage door – it was quite stiff to shut, but I kept pushing, thinking, I must get some WD40 for that… until I realised I never locked the car…or shut the boot. I went to re-open the garage door to discover that the boot and garage door were now hitting each other – I couldn’t open the garage door beyond a few inches.
I spent about an hour trying to work out how to solve the puzzle. In that time, I met various other students and members of college staff, their first introduction to me was seeing a stranger trying to break into a garage…thinking back I’m not surprised those conversations started with some suspicious looks.
Eventually, I managed to reach through the top gap of the garage door get some rope tied to the car boot, then reach through the bottom gap and pull it down to get the garage door open. The car boot had a few scratches, but at least I’d got access.
Before lockdown, my experience of church communities is that our default way of people accessing ‘church’ was by attending a church building. Within these buildings we hold services of worship, community drop-in’s and coffee mornings, prayer groups and bible studies, toddler groups and quiz nights.
As lockdown came in access to all these things was stopped. Our buildings we’re locked as part of the nationwide effort to reduce physical gathering and push down the spread of COVID-19.
So during lockdown, our default way of accessing ‘church’ – by gathering in a church building – was suddenly blocked from us – just like my car was when I foolishly shut the garage door.
This led to two things – firstly – creativity. Utilising post, email, phone, blog posts, YouTube, video and telephone conferencing and more. Creatively developing lots of different ways for people to engage with church without the building. – to be a scattered church
Secondly – it led to greater self-responsibility. What do I mean?
Well I mean that because accessing ‘church’ has not been about gathering in a building, individuals have had much more responsibility themselves as scattered church for nurturing their faith and relationship with God. The format moved from what could perhaps slightly crassly be described a passive attendance to active engagement. People had their own space and freedom to choose how to engage, how to be church.
Not only that, but people who for one reason or other were much more cut off from the worshiping community, for example living in care homes, working on Sundays or caring for relatives, feel they are included and connected to the worshiping and spiritual life of the church community in ways they never did before.
In the gospels we read the familiar story of people bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them. The disciples try to stop it – children, it seemed didn’t matter. But Jesus rebukes them and says let them come to me – the kingdom of God belongs to them too.
It is a passage that’s often used within infant baptism, that vulnerable, innocent children are welcomed by Jesus.
But I wonder, if we take a step back from the story itself, and see it in light of Jesus wider ministry, healing the blind and crippled, spending time with tax collectors and zealots, the excluded and the vulnerable, this passage may take on even more meaning for us.
I wonder if this passage might challenge us as worshipping communities to reflect ourselves on where we might, intentionally, or un-intentionally, be excluding people from being a greater part of the community.
Developing an attitude of access
Lockdown has forced me to look differently at our church communities and makes me wonder if we may have fallen into the trap of letting buildings become too central to our common life together. It makes me wonder how passive we’ve allowed that life to become – and how it unhelpfully and unfairly excludes those who for one reason or other, cannot access it.
But it’s also show me that there are simple ways to begin to redress that balance and build a more accessible and inclusive community. That there are ways access can be achieved for those who are excluded – in part by having a little less focus on buildings, and a little more on discerning how best to connect with people where they are, not where they are not, with our focus on the kingdom of God.
And it’s also shown me the fruit that is borne when individuals have more active self-responsibility for their worshiping and spiritual life.
What may all this mean for the future?
I sense a strong challenge from God – challenging us to not build up ours walls in a way that they keep people out, but to build up one another in a way that allows us to bring people in.
What walls may we need to allow God to break down so that we can grow into a more inclusive and active community that keeps the kingdom of God at the centre?
As part of Bible Month 2020 we are unpacking the short story of Ruth, a story of finding hope and finding home in the midst of vulnerability and loss. Find out more here.
Growing up one of my favourite films was Toy Story. I loved the idea that my toys lived in a world of their own every time I left the room.
In the first film, Buzz is a new toy who enters Andy’s toybox community as an outsider. Buzz believes he is a real space ranger, not a toy, and believes he can fly. Throughout the film Buzz is on a journey of discovering who he really is, while the rest of the toys are on their own journey of learning to welcome difference into their community.
In Ruth 3, we found Ruth visiting Boaz at night, hoping he would give her a home, long term security and survival for her and Naomi.
Naomi and Ruth had lost much, their husbands, their security, safety. They were grieving. They were struggling for hope. The nature of the culture of the day meant they were vulnerable to the nth degree.
But Boaz is not the immediate next-of-kin. There is someone else who is a closer kinsman, and in keeping with the culture, has first rights to act as next-of-kin to Naomi and Ruth.
At the start of Ruth 4, Boaz takes centre stage. It’s his turn to take action. He speaks to the closer next-of-kin who does have first rights to act.
Now Boaz, perhaps, pulls a bit of a sly move here. I think as readers of the story we’re encouraged to see Boaz in a positive light, but it could also be said he’s possibly a bit manipulative here, or self-seeking.
Maybe he really did like Ruth and wanted her to be his wife, and twisted things in his favour. Or maybe he saw an opportunity to obtain land and so did what he had to do to get it.
So Boaz meets this closer next-of-kin, at the city gates, in public, with 10 of the city elders with them. He says to this man, – “hey, you know Naomi, she’s back, and she’s selling the land that belonging to our kinsman, Elimelech. So, I thought I’d tell you about it here and now in front of all these witnesses. If you will redeem it, do, but if not, tell me and I will redeem it.“
The unexpected discovery that Naomi own’s some land is a surprise, it was Elimelech’s, perhaps left during the famine and never returned to. The fact she’s selling the land is probably a sign that Naomi has lost all other hope, and selling the land, that would, one would think, offer long-term fruitfulness, is the only way for her to survive in the short term.
The man says to Boaz “yes – I will redeem it”. Then Boaz goes on, and claims that by taking the land, he must also take Ruth, the Moabite, and maintain the dead man’s name. This would mean any children they had would be named for Ruth’s dead husband… and that they would, in the end, inherit the land.
The man says – “I can’t redeem, it will; damage my own inheritance. You redeem it.” Does Boaz use Ruth’s foreigner status to his advantage? Or does he use this to overcome the fact that there was a prohibition against marrying a foreigner – because by becoming next-of-kin he can legal marry Ruth despite that.
They have a son, Obed, who Naomi cares for – in some ways he becomes a son to Ruth, Boaz and Naomi – Obed becomes symbol of the restoration of hope – because there can now be descendants.
No longer is Ruth an outsider, she’s found hope. She’s found home. And not just with Boaz, but with the community.
Ruth and Boaz marry, all the people and elders are at the marriage, and bless Ruth – ‘may she build up the house of Israel’ they say (Ruth 4:11). Ruth is now seen as a member of the Israelite community.
And that’s where Buzz and Toy Story come in. In life we often encounter people who are strangers to us. People different from ourselves.
As Churches – Christian communities, I believe God call us to be a community that reaches out in love to all. To welcome in the name of Christ those we perceive to be, and not be, like us. Cowboys or Space Rangers. Slinky Dogs or Potato heads. Barbie dolls or dinosaurs.
To help each other discover who we are – made in the image of God – to work out if we are real or just a toy, if we can fly, or fall with style (if you don’t understand the references – do watch the film).
To make space for all people to find hope, through faith in the God who is a God for all.
To discover that the community of faith is the place in which all people, no matter background or belief or race or gender or sexuality or ethnicity or self-confidence – can find home and belong.
Church – God’s challenge to us, regardless of lockdown, regardless of what gathered community is going to look like in the coming weeks and months, is to make sure that this call from God is the reality found among us. A community of hope. A community that points to the home that can be found when we discover we belong to God. A community that reaches in love to all.
God works through the unexpected. God works through the stranger. We are never without Hope. In God, we find home.
As part of Bible Month 2020 we are unpacking the short story of Ruth, a story of finding hope and finding home in the midst of vulnerability and loss. Find out more here.
If you’ve watched the film Titanic, you will probably remember scene where Jack is handcuffed to a frame of the ship with water rising around him. The music builds, the water rises, and as hard as he tries Jack cannot get himself free and all hope appears to be lost…but then Rose appears, and despite the risk to her own survival as well as the survival of Jack, she will not give up. Axe in hand she aims, strikes and they are free. The danger is not over, but there is hope, they can now seek safety.
Ruth 2 opens with Ruth and Naomi without anyone to provide for them, so Ruth decides she must act. With Naomi’s permission she heads out to gather the leftover grain from the harvest fields.
And just by chance, just like in any good soap opera the newcomer turns out to be related to someone else, Ruth ends up gleaning in a field owned by Boaz, a relative of Elimelech – Naomi’s late husband. What are the chances!?!
Now we need to remember Ruth was a Moabite in an Israelite world. An outsider, foreigner, minority. She was vulnerable in so many ways. She had little status in the community, except perhaps that achieved through her relationship with Naomi. She had little right to be out gathering grain in the field, so she hangs behind the others in the fields, ensuring she takes nothing that others have the right and privilege to take.
Ruth may have taken action to seek survival, but she refrains from pushing the cultural boundary limits too far…
But Boaz, on learning Ruth is with Naomi, goes to Ruth and tells her – go nowhere else, you can gather in my fields. And don’t hang back, you can keep close to the others – and my men will leave you alone. (IE – they will not take advantage of your vulnerability, they will not molest or rape you). Let’s not beat around the bush – that’s the reality of just some of the vulnerabilities Ruth is facing.
Yet despite the vulnerabilities, she stepped out for survival, and Boaz welcomes her. And not only that, he tells her to drink from the water that is there for his staff. Not only does Boaz provide, he offers hospitality beyond expectation.
We live in a time where our own vulnerability has changed or has been intensified. We also live in a time when light is being shone on the systemic and institutional vulnerabilities society forces upon minorities, including black and minority ethnic people.
The vulnerability we see Ruth facing, and Boaz’s response, might offer us a challenge in how we approach issues of difference – be it race or ethnicity, or opinions and preferences.
In this episode of the story, we can see how God begins to provide not only means of survival, but hope and home for Ruth and Naomi. God puts Boaz in the right place at the right time to use his power and privilege, and working through Ruth’s own determination, brings provision for the future.
Ruth seeks survival, and Boaz sees Ruth. Not Ruth the Moabite, but Ruth the human being. Boaz makes space not simply for her survival, but gives her some sense of equality with his staff, his people. We might say, invites her to be part of the community – to begin to find a home. And in doing so, Ruth’s survival seeks, and finds, hope.
One of ways this chapter might speak to us today is to challenge us in recognising the potential of the power of God, and the power of God’s Spirit within us.
As we see in Ruth’s character, we have power to seek hope. God’s Spirit in us calls us to challenge cultural boundaries, to stand up against those things that oppress us and threaten our survival and identity as human beings.
As we see in the character of Boaz, we also possess power and privilege ourselves, and indeed responsibility as God’s people, filled with God’s Spirit, to contribute towards the survival and seeking of hope and home of our fellow human beings.
I encourage you to reflect this week…
How may God’s Spirit be challenging you to use your power or privilege? For self, for others, for God?
God Bless you all today with the power and hope God’s Spirit has already placed within you.