One of the many new experiences I’ve had in recent weeks was being thrown out of my own church. It happened on a Saturday night, as Billie and I were strolling back to the Church car park after a beautiful performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius at the Town Hall. For those of you who don’t know it, this glorious piece of choral music is a setting of a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman#. Its subject is the anxiety of a man approaching death who is worried about the judgement of God which he believes he is about to face. Newman uses this premise to meditate on the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, aspects of which I disagree with, as a good Anglican should. But the poem is ultimately about the triumph of mercy over judgement and with God’s reassurance and post mortem healing of the sinner. With this I profoundly agree. So these thoughts and Elgar’s heart warming music are going round in my head as we approach St Matthew’s.
From inside the Church I can hear loud music and amplified voices and applause and through the porch doors I can see flashing red stage lights and a crowd of people. It looks a bit like a night club. I move closer, to look through the window and see what is happening. Then a voice beside me says ‘Where do you think you’re going” and a big, tough looking guy steps between me and the Church door. “I just want to have a look at what’s happening inside my church.” “This is a private function, sir,” he says. “Don’t worry,” I reassure him, “I’m a member of staff here...” “This is a private function Sir, and you need to leave now!” he says, firmly turning me away and pointing me back into the street. I found out later that it was a Labour Party fundraising event. Perhaps some of you were inside, blissfully unaware of my encounter with the inflexible bouncer at the door. I felt a bit put out, but the guy was only doing his job.
I remembered this incident as I was reflecting on today’s bible readings. Firstly we heard about the healing of Naaman the Syrian, with the aid of the Jewish prophet Elisha, after the remarkable intervention of a little Israelite girl servant who had compassion for her captor. Then we heard the gospel story of Jesus’s healing of ten men who, like Naaman, had leprosy, or some other dreaded skin disease. All of the suffering people in these two stories experienced God’s healing and liberation, in spite of the ethnic and historical divisions and religious rules which would normally have denied them access to God.
It is somewhat poignant to be thinking about Naaman’s healing in view of current events in Syria, where the devastating civil war recently reached a climax with the deployment of chemical weapons against the civilian population, resulting in widespread horrific injuries and the death of people who were already suffering and in desperate need of peace and relief. It was a kind of man-made epidemic#. The international community’s deliberations on if, when and how to intervene were complicated by the proximity of Syria to Israel (which had worked in Naaman’s favour), and therefore the potential repercussions of any military intervention in Syria on the stability of the whole region. With the UN Chemical Weapons disarmament team now in Syria we can only hope that the situation will improve and that the descendants of Naaman will receive the healing, liberation, peace and security they need.
Our gospel story is also set in uneasy territory, with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and the betrayal and rejection he would experience there, walking along the border between Samaria and Galilee. He must have had a lot on his mind but his concern at this moment was not for himself but for the healing and restoration of the ten suffering men who cried out for his help. Jesus asked no questions about the race or religion of any of these men, or what sins they had committed, or whether or not they had repented of their sins. He simply sent them on their way to the priests, who had the religious authority to officially declare them “clean” and accept them back into society.
As soon as they demonstrated their faith in Jesus by setting off in the direction of the Temple, they became clean: all ten of them. And here is where the story gets interesting, as nine of the healed men continue walking, heading for religious respectability, but one breaks ranks and runs back to Jesus to thank him and to praise God. The man is a Samaritan, and so the fact is that there would have been no point in him going to the Jewish priest, who could have declared him cleansed of his skin disease but would not have declared him cleansed of being a Samaritan. In that sense he was still unclean, still unacceptable to God in the eyes of the religious bouncers at the Temple door. So he turned instead to Jesus who had healed him and in turning he recognised in Jesus a greater source of power, authority and compassion than the Temple system with its bouncers and its priests. The words and actions of Jesus showed that the whole system was flawed and was actually getting in God’s way. Ultimately he would allow the system to judge him, in order to completely expose and dismantle it, but that’s a story for another day.
In conclusion, I wonder how today’s readings, about the unexpected healing and acceptance of people thought by the religious to be unclean and unacceptable, might be relevant on this important day when we meet to think about the future of this church and the kind of leadership it needs. St Matthew’s is already a very open church where all kinds of people are welcome. This was nicely illustrated for me as I was writing this sermon in the vicar's study over there. It was around midday and homeless people were sleeping on the front two pews, while around them, wedding couples were posing for their professional photographers. Then there was the wonderful Blessing of Animals service last week, which saw St Matthews packed to the rafters with all kinds of animals and their equally varied owners.
St Matthew's is also well known for powerfully and effectively taking up the cause of LGBT people, when most christians were indifferent to their exclusion. But to be a little provocative, we might ask "what about other excluded or marginalised groups?" What might be achieved if St Matthews took up their cause with that same passion and energy? And what about our next door neighbours? Do we even know them (as the quotation from Mother Teresa in our liturgy challenges us), the thousands of people who live in this parish, all of them with spiritual and physical needs, but seldom, if ever, seen inside the Church? We may not have bouncers on the door, but are there cultural barriers which are just as effectively keeping people out?
These are just some of the questions which you may want to consider at the Parish Consultation Meeting which follows this service. May God inspire and guide you to make wise decisions about the future of the church and the kind of leadership it needs to become all that God calls you to be.