DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


Rejoice in Fuzzy Edges

I don�t often preach on a text, but here I make an exception. From the unspoken thoughts of the sick woman in Matthew's Gospel we glean the words: "If I can only touch his garment I shall be made well" (9.21).

The first church of which I was in charge had begun life as a community hall. Built about 1960, it had a sanctuary area at one end that was divided off by a folding screen. I remember it being like that because it happened to be the place where my future wife worshipped, and I had occasionally attended services there when we were courting.

But by the time I took over in the late 1970s, it was no longer a dual-purpose building in quite the same sense. An extension had been built at right angles to the hall. It formed an L-shape, with the church as one arm of the L, and the hall as the other. The two were linked by the vestry area, situated in the angle where the original screened-off sanctuary had been.

One consequence of this arrangement was a certain ambiguity in peoples� minds as to where the church began and the hall ended. One day I met a lady at the house of another parishioner and was duly introduced. "Oh yes," she said, "I come to your church."

Now this surprised me somewhat. We had a regular congregation of about 50, so even someone as bad at recognizing people as I am knew all my little flock by sight and by name. And I was sure that I had never seen this woman before in my life. All was soon explained: "Every week," she went on, "I come to the bingo." For the uninitiated, this a numbers game in which there are small prizes for a winning combination.

This was not even bingo run by or for the church. It was a straightforward commercial letting of the hall. But in my new friend�s eyes, it happened at St Wilfrid�s. There was no was no distinction between the religious and the secular activities that took place in the combined building.

You may feel I should have been shocked and dismayed by this cavalier disregard for the difference between divine service and a sociable flutter on bingo. In fact I was rather amused and indeed cheered by it. Here was a woman, who clearly never went to church except for weddings and funerals, but who nonetheless felt an association with the worshipping community by dint of her weekly presence in the hall. I came to think of her - and the many others like her - as "touching the hem of the garment", the fringe of the robe.

Since New Testament times, the seamless robe of Jesus, which the soldiers at the crucifixion gambled for rather than tear it, has been a symbol of God�s united people, of the one church, unified in God�s sight even though divided on earth by human pride and ignorance. And the sick woman in Matthew's Gospel, the one who touched that garment, stands for all those who, though not full participating members of the church, nonetheless are associated with it.

Her illness made her ritually unclean and prevented her from taking part in the Jewish worship of her day. Recognizing the holiness of Jesus, she would not have dared to approach him face to face. But her inner conviction that "If I can only touch his garment I shall be made well" was sufficient to bring her healing, and to elicit Jesus� words, "Your faith has saved you."

There are many today who for good reasons and bad are unable or unwilling to encounter God face-to-face in the worshipping congregation. That makes it important that we encourage and enlarge our "fringe", so that as many as possible - like the bingo-playing lady in my first parish - can have indirect access to Christ�s saving grace by association with us.

These thoughts have been prompted by a recent festival held in our local church. Visitors came by the hundreds to admire the flowers and the displays, and to enjoy the art exhibition and the hospitality. Some will have been faithful and committed Christians. But many more will have been using the opportunity to approach God obliquely, as it were to touch the hem of his garment, and so to receive his blessing.

We cannot begin to imagine the importance of such encounters, nor the value of all those activities that we organize as a church and which encourage contact with the fringe of the robe.

I have to warn you that this is not a fashionable teaching. You will often hear harsh things said about "fringe Christians" and their lack of commitment. The ideal of the English parish system, whereby every soul living within its legal boundaries is deemed to belong to the local church and to be entitled to its ministry, is routinely despised as unbiblical and ridiculed as unworkable. Sharp boundaries are encouraged and total commitment is demanded.

But Matthew's Gospel tells a different story. The harsh demarcations of first-century biblical religion, with its fierce rules about who was "in" and who was "out", who belonged and who didn�t, were scorned by Jesus. He quoted the prophet Hosea: "Go and learn what this means, �I desire mercy and not sacrifice�."

And he practised what he preached. It was the cautious and diffident outsider, who dared to touch the hem of his garment, who received salvation.

So don�t try to draw tight defining boundaries around the Church. Rejoice in fuzzy edges. Encourage a wide fringe and a broad hem. Don�t be more demanding than God himself. And we shall all be the better for it - the old-faithfuls, the new Christians, and those hovering outside.

"For", as an old hymn by Father Faber puts it so well, "the love of God is broader than the measure of man�s mind; and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love were but more simple, we should take him at his word; and our lives would all be gladness in the joy of Christ our Lord."

We make his love too narrow by false limits we ourselves devise. And we magnify his strictness with a zeal Jesus would not own.

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