Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon
Isaiah 6: 1-8 and Luke 5: 1-11
My sister sent me an image online recently of different angels described in the Bible and how weird they are. It made me laugh out loud. I would recommend that any of you who are curious just google ‘seraphim’ and see what comes up! Some of the angels in the Bible are extremely bizarre and a little bit frightening when drawn exactly as described. In the passage for today, we have angels with six wings – two covering their eyes, two covering their feet and two for flying. These angels also have hands, it seems, as they put the coal on Isaiah’s lips with a hand.
Now, I know that we don’t want to get into the literalism of this Bible story, and there is probably symbolism in the covering of the hands and the feet which is far more important than any literal understanding of the passage. However, the point I want to make is this one: God’s angels are really weird! And that’s because God is really weird. God is completely unfathomable to us and different to anything we can really grasp. Although there are many passages in the Bible where God is a comfort to people, there are also many passages where angels have to tell people to not be afraid, and where God appears in burning bushes and the like. Part of the awe-inspiring, fear-inspiring nature of God lies in God’s extreme otherness – extreme weirdness.
On the other side of the spectrum of fear, there is a person using a wheelchair. Terrifying! In all seriousness, a majority of people in a recent survey said they were too afraid to speak to disabled people because they didn’t know what to say to them. It might seem funny in one way, but in another, it’s really not. Disabled people are far more likely to feel isolated in church and society. Very often, wheelchair users are spoken over and ignored.
Another group which is absolutely, earth-shatteringly frightening is LGBT+ people. Especially, it seems, to the church. No other group seems to be able to make the church collectively run around like a headless chicken with its knickers in a twist! Sensible churchgoers and otherwise loving parents are sometimes reduced to name-calling bullies in the presence of LGBT+ people.
There are many other marginalised groups who people fear. It is fear of otherness. If we are able to worship a God who is wholly and completely other, though, we really should be able to cope with and get used to fellow human beings who look, marry or get around differently to us! Fear is a natural reaction to change and difference, but we need to get over it. Inclusion necessitates discomfort. If we’re not uncomfortable and having to change as a church, we’re not doing inclusion right. So many churches long for young people or more diverse congregations, but when different people appear, with all their different needs, wishes and ways of doing things, the congregation goes into meltdown and shuts them out or places them in a safe box where they can’t change the church in any real way or have any real influence on the ‘way things have always been’.
Today’s readings are about calling, and I’ve been asked to speak to you about how calling is for everyone – no exceptions. That is 100% true. I would even go as far as to say that if we are not being inclusive, we are not being the church. We are not really the church if we exclude. This is because God calls everyone, and if we put barriers up and reject people whom God is calling, we are not building the kingdom of God, we are not doing what God is doing, and we are not being the church. Who are we to say who is or is not called by God? Anyone can be called by God – not just to take part or get in the church, but to lead in the church too. We must break down barriers, not put them up.
Inclusion means firstly overcoming our fear of difference in order to learn and grow. Secondly, it means realising that we can’t be the church if we are not inclusive, because God calls everyone. Finally, inclusion means looking to the future, because the future of the church is inclusive. It has to be, or it is not doing God’s work. Inclusion is a gospel imperative. Jesus mixed with everyone, included everyone and called everyone. His ragtag group of fishermen and tax collectors were called, despite the judgmental looks from a society which preferred exclusion and comfortable boxes for people to stay in and be controlled in. The future of the church also must be inclusive, because, if it is not, it will die. Young people do not want to have anything to do with a church which does not involve and include all people. Recent research from the Methodist church showed that one of the main things growing churches had in common is that they were inclusive. There were other factors, but they all had inclusion in common. It is not just the right thing to do; it is the pragmatic thing to do too.
Inclusion might feel uncomfortable and hard at first, but it is a huge blessing in the long run. All the churches I speak to who have been on a journey towards being more inclusive say this. Some churches have been through difficult, even painful times, but they all come out the other end being blessed by angels in their midst they didn’t even know were there. The church has long excluded and rejected people it thought were broken and wrong in some way, but it is the church which is broken and incomplete without all of its members (as Paul would have it). Paul himself most likely had a disability – something he terms the ‘thorn in his side’, so he will have known what it was like to be different and to be considered less than others. It is the church which is less, which is not whole, which is not really the church when it excludes certain people from the call of God. I am so pleased that you and many other churches are now taking seriously that call and working for the greater inclusion of all God’s people.
Ruth Wilde is the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church.
You can watch Ruth preach this sermon at Holy Trinity here.