Sermon St Barnabas 2015
In his most famous speech Martin Luther King said
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation when they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
Last week a much lesser known figure from American evangelicalism but one who has been hugely influential in his own land and over here made a declaration which would have come as an equally profound challenge to many.
The preacher Tony Campolo, now 80 years old, announced that it was time for all the churches to fully accept gay couples.
Part of his argument for what in his circle is a radical change is that marriage is about far more than procreation, and indeed has a strong spiritual dimension.
You will remember St Paul’s list of fruits of the Holy Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self- control. Campolo argues that marriage is an ideal place for such qualities to be practised and developed- the Church of England agrees about this spiritual dimension, putting it this way in the marriage service, with an invitation to the whole congregation.
We pray with them that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen them, that they may fulfil God’s purposes for the whole of their earthly life together.
Campolo sees the very same process at work in gay couples so asks why the disapproval?
Martin Luther King and Tony Campolo can be seen as examples of progressive or inclusive movements within Christianity, but I am wary of both terms. One reason for that is that both smack of the secular humanist myth that the church is doing well when it catches up with the rest of right thinking society. An opinion that can be expressed with hostility or in a slightly patronising manner like a 10 year old being struck with wonder because great grandma has mastered emoji.
I know it will never catch on- but I prefer the word expansive to capture this movement within Christianity. This opening up of horizons and boundaries.
Not only because it is more accurate than inclusive and progressive but also because it can remind us – and Tony Compolo gets this- that it is not a recent development within Christianity, but of the very essence. An act of recall.
For all its emphasis on remembering and connecting with the wisdom of Christ and the Bible- at the heart of every act of eucharistic worship is the phrase.
Do this in remembrance of me.
The church is terribly prone to forgetting its core vision.
It is often stated very solemnly from pulpits that the point of the church season is to give shape and pattern to the Christian Year. Maybe it is more basic than that.
We just need a hell of a lot of reminders about what our faith is all about- ones that stop us putting everything in little boxes- like race, sexuality, gender.
In recent weeks we have celebrated Pentecost- the fire of God filling the disciples with Vision and energy to proclaim God’s love in word and deed. Then came Trinity Sunday, when we are forced to contemplate the profound mystery of a God who creates, redeems and sanctifies. A God expansive and generous indeed, who knows no barriers to his love.
And today we have our Patronal festival. Not only do we remember St Barnabas- mentor of St Paul and missionary- because this church is named after him.
We remember him in gratitude for who he was. Someone who was caught up in that expansive vision himself. A man of generosity and courage, with a well earned reputation for giving encouragement. Remember those fruits of the Holy Spirit again?
Love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control.
And that beautiful passage from the book of Job was so well chosen to illustrate St Barnabas’ character.
When the eye saw, it approved; because I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper… my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.
I was father to the needy and I championed the cause of the stranger.
Not bad yard-sticks to live our lives by.
And think of all those examples of Christian forgetting which would not have happened if the expansive God who inspired such insights had been brought to mind?
The God of our Gospel, John 15- whose greatest commandment was to love.
But we mustn’t neglect the other side of the patronal festival- We don’t just celebrate our patron saint but the church and that is us. We have to recollect and celebrate ourselves.
One of the other fundamental aspects of our Christian Vision is that we all play a part. The Greek word translated as church means assembly. It’s the people- all of them who come in response to the generous invitation of God.
Remember the parable of the Father who rushed to meet his errant son as soon as he saw him coming home. Think of the crowds on the Galilean shore who just wanted to get close enough to catch a glimpse of Christ.
So that means all of us. The newly confirmed, the established, the very young, the old, the sure, the hesitant. All who find themselves drawn by the generous, overflowing and expansive heart of God.