Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday in Advent, 10th December 2017

1 Kings 22:1-28, Romans 15:4-13 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=379774448 for the text of the lessons

I went on Friday evening to a church meeting. ‘Tell me something new,’ you will no doubt say. ‘That’s what you do – you’re a Reader, for heaven’s sake!’ True – and moreover, the speaker at the meeting was a vicar. But it’s worth telling you about, I think. The thing which struck me, even before the speaker opened his mouth, was the crowd of people who had come to hear him.

As well as the ‘usual suspects’ that belong to the church, there were almost half as many again – I think there were about 70 people there – quite a few of whom I either didn’t recognise at all, or who I knew were people who had some background of going to church but who don’t, so far as I know, belong to any of the local churches now.

The topic was definitely to do with church. It was billed as a curry evening (originally a ‘men’s curry evening’, but I’m glad to say, it got widened out to include ladies too), with a speaker, Revd Dave Tomlinson, from St Luke’s, West Holloway [http://www.saintlukeschurch.org.uk], and his topic was ‘Everyone is Welcome’.

Dave Tomlinson – and he is ‘Dave’, (what with being a Scouser and that), does a ‘Thought for the Day’ slot on the Chris Evans breakfast show on Radio 2 called ‘Pause for Thought’, and has written some quite well-known books, for example ‘How to be a Bad Christian’ and ‘The Bad Christian’s Manifesto’ [2012, 2014, Hodder & Stoughton], and now ‘Black Sheep and Prodigals’, which has just been published. He sets himself out to be a vicar for people who don’t think of themselves as religious, people who might say they were, in the new-age phrase, ‘spiritual but not religious’.

What he says is that Christians are, in bare essentials, following a spiritual practice, what he calls ‘a way of approaching life’, based on the life and teachings of Jesus. [Tomlinson D., 2014, The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, London, Hodder & Stoughton, p.245]. What they’re not necessarily doing, though, is belonging to a particular church or following particular theologies or rituals. There shouldn’t be, he says, any barriers or ‘qualifications’ required before one can become a Christian.

It certainly seems to be an approach which gets people interested, and indeed, got them in, got them to turn out, on a cold Friday night. In a good sense, it was evangelism – although I think most of those who came would have already called themselves Christians, but not actually coming to church in a number of cases.

In a very real sense, you could say that, in another age, Dave Tomlinson could have been regarded as a prophet. You know, a prophet, meaning someone through whom God speaks. Not in the sense illustrated in our Old Testament lesson, where the king of Israel and the king of Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Jewish people, when they were contemplating trying to take back from the Syrian invaders the town of Ramoth-Gilead, consulted four hundred prophets, who all said that the attack would be successful and they would capture the town.

However, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, the southern kingdom, rather oddly asked if there was a ‘prophet of the Lord besides’, that they could ask. It implies that the 400 so-called ‘prophets’ that the story mentions, were not real prophets, speaking the words of the one true God, but were rather more in the way of magicians, soothsayers, inspired more by folk superstition than by God. So instead of them, they dug out Micaiah, who was a real prophet, and he warned the kings, correctly, that the attack they planned would end in disaster. They didn’t take any notice.

Dave Tomlinson’s approach is perhaps more in line with our second reading, from St Paul, in his letter to the Romans. He doesn’t specialise in predictions, military or otherwise: instead, he tries to impart truth, without fear or favour. It doesn’t matter what denomination you are; Paul and the disciples’ mission to spread the gospel, the good news of Christ, didn’t just go to their fellow-Jews, but also to other groups, to the ‘Gentiles’, the non-Jews – and all, both lots, would be equally welcome to follow Jesus.

It’s a very important message. Today, the second Sunday in Advent, is the day when traditionally the church remembers the prophets: like Micaiah, and Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and all those. But it might be good also to celebrate and listen to modern-day prophets, like Dave Tomlinson, because his approach looks to have been very productive, on Friday night’s showing: people actually did bother to turn out and listen to what he said – even people who don’t usually come to church.

The key, according to Revd Dave, is for Christians to be caring – to love their neighbours – and for them not to set much store by superficial distinctions and divisions. I think that there are lessons there for us at St Mary’s too. People have said that we’ve done a good job in moving away from a time when St Mary’s was run as a sort of club, where strangers weren’t really welcomed, to the warm, friendly place we now are. That’s good; but how are we to keep up the momentum and engage with our parish community so that we will still be around as a church to proclaim the Gospel when we relative oldies are long gone?

Dave Tomlinson says he’s not especially bothered by how well ‘qualified’ people are in relation to Jesus Christ. He gives everyone, confirmed or not, Holy Communion if they want it. He doesn’t regard every word in the Bible as literally having been dictated by the Almighty. He is willing to accept anyone, however ‘sinful’ they may have been. Famously, he conducted the gangster Reggie Cray’s funeral, for example.

But it’s plain from looking at his church’s website that he doesn’t regard any one style of worship or liturgy as being the be-all and end-all. They do sung Evensong just like us. I think that they might agree with us that there’s a lot to be said for worshipping in a way that is familiar, that we’re used to – and that we think is worthy. If you are forever tut-tutting about banal words or suboptimal rock music instead of sublime harmonies, you’re being led away from bringing yourself to the Almighty and instead getting distracted by earthly trivia.

What we do here is to build on familiar foundations. Many people come here and, even if they haven’t been to church for a long time, may well remember a hymn or some of the liturgy, from their schooldays, or university chapel, perhaps. I think that’s all good.

I think that it’s important also, where newcomers are concerned, to make sure that everyone ‘knows the drill’: when to stand up, when to sit down; is there a collection? Do you have to wear any special clothes? – and so on. (Only I have to dress up!)

This all comes from the idea of being welcoming and inclusive. Of course, Jesus didn’t actually build any churches, so in his eyes, the concept of ‘bums on seats’ in churches wouldn’t have meant much to him. But for us, it is important. If we are going to reach out to people and bring them into our church family, we need to show that we are truly open and inclusive to ‘all sorts and conditions of men’.

Revd Dave Tomlinson was one of the founders of the organisation called ‘Inclusive Church’. Although it was founded as a reaction against the sad events which led to Dr Jeffrey John first being offered to be Bishop of Reading, and then having it taken away because of his sexual orientation as a gay man, Inclusive Church now goes much wider.

Its statement of belief says: “We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

When a church joins the Inclusive Church network, it is encouraged to put up a sign outside to tell people that, inside, if they come in, they will really be welcome. For someone who feels they are in some way different, perhaps because of race, or sex, or disability, it’s very reassuring to see that there’s a clear offer of hospitality on the outside of the church.You don’t have to ‘risk it’ by going in somewhere where you might not fit in.

Well, you might be wondering about where this church meeting that I went to was; this curry session, addressed by Revd Dave Tomlinson, which attracted so many people including people who’ve drifted away from the church: where was it? It was, as you’ve probably guessed, just down the road, in our sister church, St Andrew’s, in Cobham.

When I was a member of the PCC there, there was a motion for the Church to affiliate to, to join, the Inclusive Church network. I spoke as passionately as I could in favour. Apart from the person who had proposed the motion, I was the only one. The vote was 22 to 2 against. Now that they’ve listened to Dave Tomlinson, I wonder if some of the stalwarts down the road will revisit that decision. Because, you see, I think that the message, the message of Jesus and the prophets, that God welcomes us all, that all are welcome, is still vital. What do you think? Should our PCC think about it, as part of our vision for social engagement? In all humility, I hope so.

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