Sermon: The faith of the outsider

Preached at Lambeth Mission and St Mary’s – my first time back after 23 years.

Ordinary 9C – 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Galatian 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

Just before Easter we had a visit from the Mystery worshipper.

Have you ever come across the Mystery Worshipper? It’s a feature on a satirical Christian website called Ship of Fools. It’s a bit like those restaurant reviews you see in the news papers, where a food critic visits a restaurant and then writes a report, telling you whether the food was great or it was dry and overcooked and indifferently served.

Well the Mystery Worshipper is like that, only it’s churches that are visited, not restaurants, and its not food that is reviewed, it’s the experience of worship.

I must admit, I’m quite a fan of the Mystery Worshipper. I’ve read many of the reviews over the years and its always been interesting to read about his or her experience of worship in a variety of churches. Until its one of your own churches that is on the receiving end!

Just before Easter one of the churches in my circuit was visited by the Mystery Worshipper. I have to say I wasn’t leading worship, and it’s not a church for which I have pastoral care, though I used to. Unfortunately it was one of those services when everything that could go wrong went wrong.

Instead of the usual organist, the musician was a pianist who had never played for that congregation before, plus some of the hymns chosen were unfamiliar to the congregation. So you can imagine what the singing was like. Well, don’t imagine, I’ll tell you what the Mystery Worshipper said: “everyone just sort of bumbled along, only picking up the melody in the last verse or so.”

It was a visiting local preacher who was obviously struggling a little with some of the practical arrangements in a church that was not his own. For example, there was great confusion about reading one of the psalms, whether it was responsive or not, and as a consequence the reading was all over the place.

This was all laid out in great detail in the Mystery Worshipper’s Report. She even faulted the welcome she received; although she had obviously been greeted and spoken to before and after the service, she felt it was odd that nobody asked her name.

So all this was reported in embarrassing detail. There were things which the Mystery Worshipper got quite wrong, particularly regarding the status of the preacher and his connection to the congregation and I had to write a reply pointing out the factual errors. But I can’t dispute the description of the service or the poor impression it made on the visitor.

Naturally I brought the report to the attention of the minister of the church, who wasn’t aware of it and we agreed that there should be a conversation with the church stewards! Criticism is not always easy to take, but we felt that for all the embarrassment of having such as poor report in the public domain we should accept it as a gift and an opportunity to see that church through the eyes of an outsider. In the long run, it may even be that the Mystery Worshipper has done us a favour. But it doesn’t feel much like that at the moment.

There is a postscript to this story. You may or may not be aware that at the beginning of May, the MethodistChurch launched a project which is intended to help congregations be more welcoming.  I quote from the press release:

The MethodistChurch in Britain wants to develop a “culture of welcome” in local churches with the launch of a new online resource.

The free online resource – First Impressions Count – is a workshop designed to help churches reflect on the welcome that a visitor experiences when they first walk through the door. It aims to tackle the intimidation and anxiety that a newcomer might feel when entering a church for the first time

Ed Mackenzie, Evangelism, Spirituality and Discipleship Officer, said: “It can be intimidating to visit a church for the first time, and the welcome a visitor receives has a huge impact on whether or not they choose to return. First Impressions Count is designed to help churches improve their quality of welcome, and takes account of a culture increasingly unfamiliar with Christian faith and worship.”

Sounds great! I haven’t had a chance to look at the material yet, but our experience suggests that it is just what we need. And then at the bottom of the press release, there are some links to the Ship of Fools website. “Read… examples of bad welcomes…” Well you can probably work out which  church was mentioned.

So now it seems that we are an example to the whole connexion of how not to do things! Thanks, Methodist Media Team!

I mention this not just because it is good to have an occasional rant and get things off your chest, but because it chimes with today’s lectionary readings. All three readings recognise the presence of the outsider in the community. All three readings recognise the challenge that the outsider brings. 

In our first reading King Solomon is dedicating the temple he has built for God. In front of an assembly of all the elders of the people and the leaders of the tribes, the ark of the covenant is carried by the priests into the holy of holies. As they do so a thick cloud fills the temple, the sign of God’s presence. Solomon makes a speech and then turns to God in prayer.

It’s a long prayer that takes up 30 verses and the lectionary reading is only a small portion of the whole. The gist of the prayer is a plea that God will hear all the prayers and petitions that will be offered in and ‘towards’ the temple; Solomon elaborates by mentioning a whole variety of circumstances: drought, famine, war, even exile in a foreign land; he asks that in the midst of all these situations, when the people pray God will hear and act.

And then, in verse 41 the prayer takes an unexpected and surprising turn. “Likewise…  when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.”

In other words, the brand new temple in Jerusalem is an open place of worship for all the people, including foreigners, whose prayers even “toward” the place will announce the universality of God’s covenant-love and will remind the Israelites that they are not the only ones who call upon the mighty name of the Lord.

No doubt there were those at the time who would have excluded the foreigner and been happier if the outsider had stayed outside. Solomon reminds them and us of the wideness of God’s mercy and therefore the danger of exclusivism in our relationships to God.

Our second reading finds Paul giving the Christians in Galatia a dressing down. The background is an issue that was particularly pressing for the early church: do non-Jews (i.e. Gentiles) need to become Jews in order to become followers of Christ? In other words do they need to follow all the precepts of the Old Testament law, which for men included becoming circumcised? There were those who were telling the mainly gentile Galatians that that was exactly what they needed to do; that, in effect, unless you’re like us you’re not a real Christian and you’re not really saved.

For Paul the gospel itself is at stake. He doesn’t mince his words: If anyone proclaims a gospel contrary to the gospel of inclusion and unity, “let that one be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9 NRSV) The inclusive message of the gospel – that all, Jews and Gentiles, are saved by faith – is in danger of being limited by cultural and ethnic perspectives. Those who were once outsiders are now insiders, and welcome for who they are.

Our Gospel reading puts Jesus face to face in an encounter with such an outsider – a Roman Centurion. Centurions were lower ranking officers, who had proved themselves capable in combat and able leaders of men. What they were not renowned for was their piety – and particularly not piety for the Jewish religious tradition. And of course this centurion is there for a reason – he is part of the occupation forces that maintained Roman rule.

In short, a more unlikely and unexpected example of faith you would be unlikely to find. Even Jesus is amazed!

Unlikely but not unique. The Bible contains many other examples of the faith of the outsider, as Kathryn Huey observes:

“The centurion reminds me of the Syro-Phoenician, pagan woman in Mark 7 who breaks in on Jesus’ vacation time and insists on a healing for her little girl. Or Ruth the Moabite (the enemy of God’s people!), who stubbornly refuses to leave Naomi and return to the safety of her home; instead, her faithfulness and love lead her on a journey toward becoming an ancestor of King David, and of Jesus as well. There’s the insight of the centurion in Mark 15:39, witnessing the death of Jesus and exclaiming, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Or the thief on the cross next to Jesus who has no time to make up anything to anyone, but trusts Jesus enough to throw himself on his mercy (Luke 23:42).  In this same chapter 7, we’ll meet another uninvited outsider, the “woman in the city, who was a sinner,” who burst into the… Pharisee’s dinner party in order to show her great love… [and] faith, by anointing Jesus’ feet with her tears. That outsider is followed by the woman in chapter 8, the one with a haemorrhage who thought she only had to touch Jesus’ cloak…  to experience a healing from her long suffering, to be brought back into the circle of the community. Goodness! Who let all these people in?”

In recognising the faith of the outsider; it seems to me we’ve gone beyond what Solomon envisaged, of foreigners turning in the direction of the temple and offering their prayers to the God of Israel. This is more than about welcoming the visitor and the stranger. It is about recognising that the presence of the outsider is a gift. For the outsider may bring a fresh and sometimes surprising new perspective to life and faith. Which if it is recognised can bring about refreshment and renewal.

At their best, our multicultural church communities testify to this as we have learned to receive wisdom and insight from different cultures and traditions. This was one of the reasons why some of us formed the Euangelion music group here a little over 25 years ago. Songs and hymns from the world church were starting to be published and we wanted to incorporate these into our worship. We also got members of the congregation to teach us songs that they had learned ‘back home’ and included them in our repertoire. 25 years on many of these songs have entered mainstream worship. Some are even included in the latest Methodist hymn book Singing the Faith – and you don’t get much more mainstream than that. The reason we sang these songs was not just because we wanted to broaden the base of our congregational singing, but also because we recognised themes that were not so common in the hymns we already had. Songs about liberation and freedom; songs about the city; songs that expressed our desire to be a community of pilgrim people on the move. So we sang ‘siyahamba’/ we are marching in the light of God and ‘siyahambayo thina’/on earth an army is marching and ‘it is a great thing to serve Jesus – walking in the light of God’. And I believe we still need to sing and hear these songs today.

Because this eclectic mix of cultures and traditions represents who we are. Many of us were ourselves once outsiders, strangers, visitors, and we have found here a spiritual home. Some like me stayed for a short while and moved on, others have remained. (Some of you look like you have been here a long time!) So a readiness to welcome the stranger should be part of the very DNA of this church, and so should a willingness to accept and receive the faith of the outsider.

This needs to be clearly stated at a time when many people are arguably becoming more inward looking, more exclusive, more intolerant. It does not help that our Government advances policies that drive divisions between people of differing economic means and create a culture of ‘us and them’. Others such as the EDL and BNP seek to divide people on the basis of colour, culture and creed and will exploit tragic and highly unusual events such as the murder of Gunner Lee Rigby to advance their cause. I was astonished to watch the television news last night of BNP leader Nick Griffin carrying a placard saying ‘ban the preachers of hate’. Evidently it takes one to know one.

Contrast this to one of the most hopeful stories of the week – the mosque in York, where EDL demonstrators met not with a counter demonstration or threats of violence but an offer of tea and biscuits. Here was a community refusing to allow itself to be falsely labelled as terrorists and extremists, and saying, in effect, this is who we are. Here was the faith of the outsider in action.

When faith calls to faith interesting things start to happen. As Dirk Lange writes: “Faith propels communities and people forward onto paths untrodden, into places unheard of, across many culturally and religiously imposed boundaries, and in that movement, faith is also discovered, the faith of others, and together, ways of reconciliation and peace are created.”

So I want to close with a brief prayer and a piece of advice. My prayer is this:

May God continue to meet you through the stranger and amaze you with the faith of the outsider.

And my advice is: show hospitality to strangers, for you never know when it is the Mystery Worshipper in disguise.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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