The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s177g13   Sunday 10  9/6/2013  Leeston

'a large crowd ..'  Luke 7.12

Actually there were two large crowds, the first that followed Jesus and his disciples ὄχλος, and the second, the one following the bier with the dead young man, also ὄχλος.   My Google translator defines ὄχλος as 'mob, crowd, rabble, commonality, canaille, hoi polloi'.   Since I didn’t know what canaille meant, I looked it up in which defines it as 'riff raff, pack of dogs' - which sheds new light on that statement of the Syrophoenecian woman: ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’   (1)   There seemed to always be a pack of dogs being fed around Jesus - clearly there were lots of crumbs.   We are surely meant to notice the two large crowds and their similarities.

And what I say today follows on from what I said last week, that faith is characterised by friends.   Clearly Jesus had friends.   The religion he proclaimed attracted ordinary people, they flocked around him.   They felt safe, affirmed and included.   His was not a religion which excludes all and sundry, leaving people anxious, challenged and marginalised.

And this was no deception.   The great unwashed had nowhere else to turn, and I suspect no particular desire to become religious.   They saw in Jesus a person who offered them acceptance - and who else ever did this? - and so a glimmer of hope - for themselves - as well as for a world wracked by divisions.   And this, in the name of God!

Clearly the man who had died also had friends, and it is this that Jesus affirms.   Again, the shear bulk of people who followed the bier had nothing to gain from their mourning.   It was simply right to acknowledge a friend who had died.

Recently Pope Francis spoke about atheists being redeemed, to the shock and horror of the Vatican. (2)  But what are we redeemed from, and for?  What are we saved from, and for?   If we take these words seriously, then we are redeemed by the blood of the lamb from a religion that sets us apart from others, one that leaves us, and others anxious, challenged and marginalised.   Because we are saved from this sort of religion we, and all people, can feel safe, affirmed and included.

So the orthodox who question the Pope's statement about atheists being saved have failed to realise the truth of this, that atheists are already saved - saved from an exclusive religion - indeed saved from THEIR exclusive religion.   It is the orthodox who are not saved, because they don't actually have friends.   Those who surround them are often looking for a benefit via a supposed spiritual osmosis.  An article by Ray Casson reflects the clerical mystique (3) which bewitches the 'faithful'.

Faith then is characterised by the powerless, the marginalised and the alienated who find themselves befriended.   Faith is not characterised by the number of social climbers, toddies, and 'I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine' type followers.   Faith is characterised by the number of people who have nothing to contribute finding themselves befriended.

People who might as well be dead .. in terms of what they can contribute to the cause.   And Jesus raises the dead son to life.

Why did Jesus bother?   He wasn't asked to do this - no one expected anything of the sort to happen.   They were all weeping - they had no faith as we might traditionally define it.  This really is the beginning of Jesus' ministry in the gospel of Luke, and this comes after the healing of the centurion's servant, which we read about last Sunday.   It is the working out of the beatitudes - significantly towards foreigners and the riffraff, the commoners.  

And we, like the riffraff who followed the bier of this dead young man, follow Jesus crucified.   Suddenly he who was dead is alive.   How do we benefit? except to realise that something significant has happened here.   We are NOT called to laud Jesus, but to see and rejoice at the divine befriending of the riffraff - the dead - the unclean - in the estimation of the devout and the orthodox.

No one's faith caused the raising of this young man to life, it was the rabble who followed.

And so the question this story raises for me is, what is more important, the faith we hold or the friends we have?   The faith Jesus would have us hold is something which is attractive to people, something which inspires them to also have friends.   It is surely this that is at the centre of our faith and discipleship.   Surely this is the mission of the church.

It is clear to me that an awful lot of people are looking for this, yet we, myself as much as anyone else, get sidetracked into just supporting the church.   As ministers we measure our success in how many people are baptised into the church rather than into society and come to our holy (ex)communion services.   We spend our energy upholding our rich Anglican heritage and it is indeed rich.   But while we do this we are not listening to others and their experience of the divine.  

When I take baptisms I sometimes cast my gaze around the church and in my homily ponder, what is the most important part of the church - the altar, the bible, the font, the pulpit, the cross, the holy communion.   I usually end by saying that some deluded people even think it is the vicar :-)   But, of course, the most important thing in the church is the people.   Jesus dying on the cross is God genuflecting toward us, and all people.   It is you and I and all people that are the most sacred objects in the universe.   And by logical extension it is us that are the most sacred thing in the universe, regardless of the faith we hold, the name we use for God, the form of worship we use to glorify God, or the person with whom we choose to share our intimate affections.   And if it is us who are the most sacred things in this universe, we do well to listen to others, lest we miss someone else's perception of the divine.

This is precisely the ethos of the hospital, where there is hospitality for all regardless of the faith held, the name used for God, the form of worship used to glorify God, or the person chosen to share intimate affections.   I find it interesting that these things are insisted on by the secular authorities as a condition of funding, perhaps to the chagrin of some church people.   The concept of a spiritual hierarchy is so ingrained in all of us, it is something we have been taught, and is probably the hardest thing to abandon.   So perhaps some encouragement from St Paul might be in order:   'We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day'  (4) and: 'For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him .'  (5)

I have been thinking that it is the internet which is becoming the medium for people to explore and express their faith in an egalitarian and spontaneous way, and surely this is conducive to a spiritual maturity that we should welcome rather than fear.   For I reflect that it is the internet which has the huge crowds rather than churches.   Yes, the church won’t gain followers by people exploring and expressing their faith on the internet, but neither did Jesus benefit from the crowds that followed him.   What God wants, and what the church should be content with, is people being friends, respecting all people as sacred.

(1) Mark 7.28
(4) 1 Corinthians 4.13
(5) Philippians 3.8-9