Pentecost 21 Matthew 25:1-13
Video available on YouTube
One of the things I do to relax is read The Church Times. This most British of church newspapers invariably puts a smile on my face.
Like the cleric from Basingstoke who amused himself making Lego cathedrals. The Lego Company, pleased to have a collared disciple, made organ pipes specially.
Like the numerous clergy who have love affairs with trains. My theory is that things that go where you plan them to go are very appealing to those whose day-to-day experience is the opposite.
And then, on page seven, there is the cleric with his rhinoceros. The parish priest of Dalton-in-Furness had created a fiberglass five-foot-long rhinoceros using wood and carpet rolls. He intended it to be a mould for future models that would be displayed around the town.
Why rhinos in Dalton-in-Furness? The explanation must surely be a spiritual treatise, or at the least a fund-raiser to repair the church roof? Yet no such justification is forthcoming. Simply, the rhino defies reason.
And that is the point. There is no reason. Attracting people to church, feeding the poor, or changing the world does not motivate the rhino’s creator. He made it because he just made it.
What I enjoy about this story is visualizing the priest, Allan Mitchell, working away in his vicarage parlour on something totally disconnected from normal church life. There he crafts a horny statue that has seemingly no point.
One of the wise little sayings about the Anglican Church is that at its best it tries not to be a club for the like-minded but a symbol that all can and do belong. Reverend Mitchell is such a symbol. His counter-cultural love of rhinoceros, making them, and not seeing any conflict between this and his priestly vocation, is a wonderful reminder that in the ecology of God there is a place for us all.
Sometimes the kiwi Christianity in which I’m immersed frightens me. Leadership is hailed and hallowed as professional, educated, pastorally competent, and hard working. These are the values that silently predominate even as we preach a gospel of inclusion. Where is there room for the oddball, the maverick, and the rhino lover? Eccentricity needs to be valued otherwise we might lose it.
Mind you eccentricity is also hard work. Ask any bishop or archdeacon that has received complaints, placated disgruntled parishioners, or mediated between warring parties. Its hard work dealing with the wondrous and wacky ways of clerics, and the expectations of those they labour amongst.
Similarly there are parishes that seem to specialize in attracting the strange and the bizarre among their clientele. Such folk brighten and enliven the otherwise dull blend of Anglican homogeneity. Yet make no mistake, such parishes are hard work. For inevitably it seems some people talk well beyond what tolerant listeners can endure, while others act in ways that are inappropriate or misunderstood. Facilitating any meaningful communication between the colours in the parish mosaic can be a task worthy of Van Gogh.
Yet, at the end of the day, this uncontainable spectrum of variance and vibrancy is what makes church communities so interesting and unforgettable. I’ve worshipped with a giant trapped in a woman’s body, with a time-traveler from the 16th century, with Jesus Christ’s aunt, as well as many of more mundane pedigree. I’ve worshipped too with criminals and cops, with animals and those less well behaved, and with the harried and the harassed.
It is truly a privilege to open one’s arms wide and say without any hesitation that all are welcome. All are welcome to enter, participate, and commune. All are part of God’s ecology.
For, as some churches say quite starkly, Jesus is the host and we are his guests. That’s why I will continue to oppose the conditional welcome to receive communion. “It’s only for the baptized,” I’m told. Or “for the committed” another tells me. This is club-think. The ‘I’m-in-you’re-out’ mentality reflected in numerous biblical passages, including those today. It’s the ‘you-have-to-believe-to-belong’ brigade.
Well, I do believe. I believe that God’s love is not restricted to those who we think are acceptable. I believe that the love called God does not share our fear of difference that wants to judge and separate. I believe that God’s love is so broad that there are no boundaries or conditions. God deals with the dissenters and doubters by welcoming them. God welcomes the Lego makers, the train enthusiasts, the rhino crafters, and the time travellers.
This is immensely encouraging and hopeful. For it means, even when I acknowledge all my foibles and failings, all my beliefs or lack of them, God still welcomes even me.