Dear friends, greetings.
Greetings to you who are in Christ, and those who choose to be just looking;
Greetings to you who have stepped into his shoes, and those who are sticking to your own comfy slippers;
And greetings to you who love God, and those who are just loved by God.
Why the special words?
I have taken the unusual step this weekend of writing down a sermon – word for word.
I say unusual because this is not our normal style at Inspire Church – we know here that the way we become a dynamic, learning congregation is not by having a preacher and a pulpit six feet above contradiction but by discussion and debate, weaving our stories with Bible stories, letting the 1st century Palestinian context speak to life in 21st century Manchester, and above all learning by action and reflection.
So why the special words? Two reasons.
Firstly, today we come to the end of our teaching and learning series on Luke’s gospel. Ever since the last week in November we have been putting ourselves in the shoes of those who met Jesus in his journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem via Bethlehem, Egypt, Galilee and Samaria.
Retreading the steps of Jesus from advent to Easter by opening up a gospel from start to finish has become a very special discipline for our church each year, reminding us of why we are here, what our lives as followers – or bystanders – can be all about, and rooting us in the good news when too often we seem surrounded by the clamour of bad news and the competing claims of a world so filled with information now that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees as we try to forge a path through life together.
And for me this series has been particularly special as so many of us have shared the burden of leadership – of opening up the Bible passages we have been looking at, of stepping into the shoes of the characters we find in Luke’s gospel, of putting our own experiences into the mix, sharing our own journeys as followers of the enigmatic but ever gracious Jesus.
So let me start by thanking Bethan and Liz and Linda and Clare and Janet and Steve and Richard and Andy who have so wonderfully opened up our scriptures here from the front. And let me thank Michelle and Jo and Amy and Hannah and Ruth and Emma who have done the same with our children and young people. And let me thank everybody who has shouted out, or broken out, or spoken out – even those who have walked out – for it is all of us together that make us a community of learning and who have brought Luke’s gospel alive over the past 5 months.
So my words today will attempt to summarise a very small amount of what I think we have learned together during this time. Of course, I will never do this justice, in part because our experiences have been too diverse and too rich to ever recapture, but also because – in the words of the old hymn – there is always more light and truth to break forth from God’s word. Never can the light be captured, never can truth be contained.
But the second reason I am writing down some special words today is because this week marks a special anniversary in the life of Inspire. According to my records, the 22 April 2005 was the date of our first community consultation about what to do with our old church building.
It was 10 years ago this week, that as a congregation we threw our doors open and invited members of the local community in. We shared our ideas for turning the building into some kind of community centre and we listened to theirs: a place for young people; a place for older people; a place for Woodcraft folk; a place for a community radio station; a place for a café. These were the ideas that people shared 10 years ago – before Inspire was even called Inspire.
And so I want today to also pause for thought and think about how far we’ve come in those 10 years. Half of which were spent planning and plotting and fundraising and negotiating while the diggers dug and the builders built. The other half of which we have spent nurturing and negotiating and working and worrying and celebrating and stressing as church and community have come together to include and inspire our friends and neighbours in what is surely one of the great success stories in a neighbourhood that has been exposed to some of the worst social and economic challenges that our country has seen. And we’re not out of the woods yet.
What I’d like to try and do then this morning is to weave together these two things. To take some of the big themes that have emerged out of our learning and sharing together about the Gospel of Luke with some of my reflections about where we find ourselves – where we are on our journey – and where we are going – with the whole enterprise, the movement, the church and community centre, that we call Levenshulme Inspire.
And I want to try and answer three questions:
What kind of place are we trying to make?
What kind of community are we trying to become?
And what kind of window are we trying to throw open on the world?
What kind of place are we trying to make?
Perhaps we didn’t really know what we were doing when we threw the doors open for that first community consultation. But although many churches regularly invite the community into their space on the church’s terms to run their community activities, I think it is very rare for a church to say to the community – look, here is our building, it’s not in great shape but if you want to join us we can turn it into something we all share.
The fact that the council then closed the only other real community centre in Levenshulme soon after our consultation made our offer all the more compelling. But what kind of place has such a radical offer led to and where did it come from?
On Friday we held our thirty-fourth quarterly board meeting of the Inspire Directors and we welcomed 2 new directors: Joe Raymond – Scottish Joe as some of you will know who runs his business from the business centre upstairs helping companies that are in trouble – and Khalsoom Akhtar who runs the super popular Shahnaz Group for older Asian women of whom about 35-40 meet every week to get out of their homes and have a good catch-up, eat together and learn something too. (It reminds me in some ways of the old Women’s Guild that was the life and soul of this church for many decades during and then after the war).
Amidst our board discussions we were regularly reminded of the myriad ways in which the building is used throughout the week. For work clubs and enterprise courses, for yoga and armchair aerobics, for Capoeira and cookery classes, for toddler group and for no fewer than 10 different activities for older people every week now. And you’ll notice out of the window that the Inspired to Grow project has now started up again too – this, like many other activities in the centre originally inspired by a church member, now fully run by church and community members alike.
And when we think about the hundreds of different people that now use the centre every week, from every different colour and class, from every different faith and sexual orientation, people with health problems, people with work problems, people with immigration problems, people with family problems – people with no problems at all! When I think of even one individual who I can picture in my mind having a cup of tea in the cafe or perhaps perusing Levenshulme’s biggest notice board, I think of the people we have been learning about here in church – the people that Jesus met along the way.
Scottish Joe, charismatic Khalsoom, open-hearted Mary, MoreTalk Matthew and Mubin, special Stephen, comic Clare, evangelistic Andy – the list could go on and on and on. Are not these the kind of people Jesus met throughout the gospel of Luke? Aren’t these the same kind of folk that we’ve been encouraged to step into their shoes? Isn’t it actually people like you and me that Jesus seemed to come and meet?
This is the place we have created. This is the community we have become. A place where the ordinary folks that Jesus went out of his way to encounter can gather day in day out to share their joys and troubles just as they did with Jesus way back when. A place where people from every different background can rub up alongside one another and realise that in Jesus’ eyes they’re not that different from one another after all. Yes we’ve all got our quirks, yes we may not actually see eye to eye about much, but the bottom line is we’re all muddling through life and we all need one another’s support some days and Inspire is the kind of place that you can find it.
But this doesn’t just happen.
There aren’t too many places where the various characters from Luke’s gospel all show up every week. And we can’t take for granted – either as a church or as a community centre – that such a rich cross-section of South Manchester society will find this place the kind of place they want to come to forever. For it’s not always been this way. In fact we owe an enormous debt of thanks to Jane and Bethan and Jean and Kate and Muriel and Susannah and Colin and Alice and Sarah and Paul and Bob not to mention Jarmila and Cassie and all the volunteers who make this place the radically welcoming place that it has become.
For this is what for me has stood out as a theme over the past months more than anything else at all: Jesus’ radical welcome. All the way through Luke’s gospel we have seen Jesus encounter person after person with the same radical welcome:
Levi the despised tax collector – come, follow me.
The Roman Centurion who couldn’t be bothered to go and see Jesus himself – your daughter is healed.
Mary the woman with a dodgy background – you will be remembered forever.
The mad guy who had to be chained up – go back to your community and show them how you’ve been healed.
The foreign leper – restored to his wider community.
The bent-over woman – walking tall again.
The list goes on.
Are these not the people of Levenshulme?
Don’t we see ourselves in these people Jesus welcomed?
And what were his conditions for their welcoming?
What demands did he make on them for their salvation?
None. Nothing. Nada.
Don’t you remember the fury of the Pharisees when Jesus healed the crippled man on the sabbath? You can’t do it like that. It doesn’t work like that? He’s not like us and needs to be treated in a particular way. Rubbish says Jesus.
Don’t you remember the mystification of the disciples and Jesus anger with them when they would not welcome the little children. Oh, they’re not ready yet, their turn will come when they’ve passed their exams and taken first communion. Rubbish says Jesus – they have got the kingdom right here right now.
Radical, unconditional welcome.
Last month, as part of the church without walls thing being organised in Levenshulme we organised for 3 posters to be made which spoke of this radical welcome.
The first said: There will be no levy on your orientation here.
The second quoted Thomas Merton: The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.
And the third said, from Luke’s gospel: The kingdom of God is within you – warts ‘n’ all!
We put them up around the centre, but we also put them up around Levenshulme. Although I did my very best to secure them fast to the signboards I’d been given permission to use (and the places where I hadn’t), within 24 hours they’d all gone. Part of me wonders whether we designed them too well and people stole them as artworks. But I’m more persuaded by the argument that they were taken down by members of the community that couldn’t accept what they said. (They certainly didn’t blow down by themselves).
That the church might be a place that welcomes gay people confronts a stereotype that some people would prefer to maintain. Just as the Pharisees knew, it’s much easier to live with the certainty that the church is an antiquated rule-bound institution that can be quickly dismissed than to face up to the possibility that sexual orientation is no barrier to God’s love and Jesus’ call on our lives.
What if we did, in Thomas Merton’s words, love people as they truly are, perfectly themselves? And what if, as Luke’s gospel tells us, that the kingdom of God is not to be found at an altar or in a holy place but right inside us, if only we took the time to look. These are the disturbing messages even for the most tolerant that sit at the heart of our radical welcome.
If we can’t accept them then we form clubs and cliques for like-minded people. But if we enter into the world of true, unconditional warts ‘n’ all acceptance then it means we must accept and also offer Jesus’ radical welcome.
And it gives me huge, huge joy to see that this is the kind of place that Inspire is making. A church which is open to all – not just to attend but to participate too. A community centre which grows from strength to strength as it extends that radical welcome further than the church can and ever will. Which brings me to my second question – what kind of community are we trying to build?
From place-makers to community builders.
We have already seen that extending radical welcome is not an easy task. It makes demands on us to look beyond our carefully chosen friends, to question our own identities and to extend love to those we’d rather pigeon hole. Although Jesus removes any bar to entry, the threshold of acceptance still needs to be crossed. Radical welcome is not the same as indifferent liberal tolerance. And community-building is even harder.
When we held our first community consultation 10 years ago, the church was made up of around 10 or so people – all over-60 bar me, though age was no measure of energy or trust. And Pat, Joyce, Pete, Brenda, Connie, Tom and of course Andrew and Dorothy were really those first disciples who put their faith in God and committed to doing something different.
Would we ever have believed that 5 years down the line we now have over 120 people on our church e-mail list, more than 60 of whom attend at least once a month and – here’s the best bit – around 25 are under the age of 16. The radical welcome of those first disciples that was then passed on through Ruth and Roz and Bethan and Janet and Ian and Pauline and Syl and Dave and Jo … and the list goes on and on. That radical welcome has become the basis for a community of believers that today is flourishing. Praise God!
In a denomination that looks on the verge of terminal decline, people often ask us about the secret of success. How can it be that our church is growing when so many around seem to be struggling to survive? I don’t think there are any simple answers.
Perhaps it’s the importance we place on welcome? Perhaps it’s the fact that we believe that participation is more important than perfection? Perhaps it’s the fact that we don’t depend too heavily on a paid minister? Perhaps it’s just the Holy Spirit? Who knows?
But one thing I’ve always been very keen to impress here, is that turning up on a Sunday morning is not really what we’re about. Of course, that helps, but we come to be empowered and enriched and then to go out again. We come to find fellowship and support, but not to create a holy huddle. We look out for one another, but we’re not on each other’s case. We’re a church not a club, we’re a congregation not a cult.
But I think there’s a point in any church’s journey when it starts to plateau. When our numbers reach a point where we know that even if we don’t turn up one Sunday morning then we know there will still be a good crowd. We reach a point where we settle into comfortable huddles over tea and coffee, we quietly assign one another informal roles – we don’t have to worry about having a chat with him, Roz always does that; I don’t need to worry about children’s church, Michelle takes care of that etc etc. And however open and welcoming we like to think we are, we start to give off subliminal messages to one another and these messages are all the more obvious to visitors. This is how we do things round here. Unspoken roles rather than unusual relationships. Unintended routines rather than unexpected encounters. Unwritten rules rather than untold truths.
And forgive me for saying it but I think we’re falling into some of that here.
Of course we’re not as bad as so many churches, how could we be, we don’t have any pews, there’s no choir or roof fund to argue about, we haven’t even got a full-time minister as a focus for our grumbling.
But when did we last feel so excited about our congregation that we told a friend about it and suggested they came along to try it out?
Of course we’re not in a situation where the congregation’s so big you have to get their early to get a good seat and neither are we the kind of church where you go out of guilt that if you didn’t turn up the whole thing couldn’t happen.
But when did you last wake up one Sunday morning and think, do you know what, I don’t feel much like it now – there’s lots else I could do – I could even lie here for another hour or so – but I’m going to get up and go to church because there might be someone there today who needs my fellowship, God might have some special purpose or prayer or teaching that he wants me to hear, and do you know what, I might just find healing.
This is not a guilt trip. You know how hard I have railed against Inspire Church being a burden for anyone. When that is the case for me I will walk away. When I have heard any of you complaining about the pressures of church involvement we have moved to stop them immediately. As a church congregation we are here to worship, to pray, to break bread, drink wine, eat together, learn together, share fellowship and empower one another to be good news in the rest of our mission-shaped lives. We are not here to manage, organise or service a club. There is no room for guilt and grumbling.
When we look at some of the characters Jesus met in Luke’s gospel I think we can learn a lot about what it takes to build community.
Community building isn’t a condition for salvation, community building is instead an out-working of finding faith.
When we think about the man who Jesus relieved of a legion of demons, what did Jesus do when the man wanted to travel with him? He sent him back to his own local community? What did Zacchaeus say he’d do as a response to his own transformation? He said he’d pay back those people he’d taken money from in a bid to be restored to his own local community.
Community-building begins with us. It begins with the people we see every day. It begins with those same people that come in and out of this centre every day of the week. As a church we shouldn’t expect to build community with anybody else – God has called us together for a reason, we are it! We need one another and everybody has got something to give – from the youngest to the oldest. That’s why we all need to show up on Sundays.
When I think of Mary – the sister of Martha – you know, the one who was sitting at Jesus feet when Martha was busy in the kitchen. Or when I think about the other Mary who washed Jesus feet with her hair. Or when I think about John the Baptist or the disciples themselves. What stands out for me is not a casual regard for Jesus but a conscious commitment to him. They showed up!
As I told you a few weeks ago – I’m a bit of a Martha, I like to keep busy. But sometimes my busy-ness is nothing short of a distraction from community-building. I’m sometimes happier coiling up cables than hearing about somebody’s week. Sometimes we use our roles to manage our relationships. Of course there’s a place for this. And someone needs to do it. But we need to make a conscious commitment to community-building.
Both Marys went out of their way to serve Jesus. John the Baptist and the disciples put their lives on the line for the sake of the Jesus community. They were consciously committed.
So when I ask about the kind of community we are trying to become. It is a consciously committed community. A community that acts to build relationships, a community that extends a radical welcome yes but it doesn’t stop there. It’s a community that shows up through the good times and the bad.
So, we are trying to make a place that extends a radical welcome; and we are trying to build a community that is consciously committed. Let me turn finally then to my third question.
What kind of window are we trying to throw open on the world?
If the early chapters of Luke’s gospel introduced us to the theme of universal salvation – of God’s radical welcome – then the latter chapters uncovered the more political dimensions of Jesus’ ministry.
Even from the outset, Jesus challenge to the Pharisees was politically disruptive. Constantly questioning the rules which they used to maintain their personal power and prowess. It is no wonder they got increasingly angry. As time went by and he turned up in Jerusalem and it became increasingly clear that this ‘kingdom of God’ that he talked about was unlikely to bring about the new world order they were all hoping for, Jesus moved from being a mild irritant to being all the more subversive. His turning the tables in the temple proved something of a final straw and – as we remembered just a couple of weeks ago – he was crucified as a political rebel.
But the window Jesus threw open on the world gave us a glimpse of a kingdom neither of this world nor of a world to come. It gave us a glimpse of the kingdom of God that is within us.
I’m conscious that as I stand here today we are just weeks away from a General Election. An election in which it seems every vote counts and which might matter terribly for a community like ours. This is why a few weeks ago we took time out from our service to draft questions for our prospective MPs that in a couple of weeks’ time we will take to our local hustings and present as a church.
Once again, I am conscious that there are not enough churches that would tolerate this level of political engagement and I’m delighted we’re the kind of church that isn’t shy to talk about peace and justice in our world. But there is something about our engagement – both as a church and as a community centre – that just doesn’t seem disruptive enough.
Engaging with political parties is one thing, hosting councillor surgeries, running hustings, even being the HQ for the baths and library campaign – another high point in our recent history – these are all important. But they are not politically disruptive in the way Jesus was politically disruptive.
Whoever wins the next election in many ways is irrelevant. Austerity economics prevails and cities like Manchester (however apparently devolved) and neighbourhoods like Levenshulme will remain on the receiving end. Even the Labour party has said that it will make another £0.5 billion cuts to local government.
Putting things in a wider perspective. With 1% of the world’s population now holding over a third of its wealth and with levels of inequality getting worse and worse especially in cities like Manchester I don’t see how our centre can survive, limping from grant to grant, as the community around us sees benefits and wages worth less and less year in year out.
Just as 10 years ago, we have to realise that we must keep changing or die. So what does this change look like?
The change we need to be
In the 21st century our world is once again becoming increasingly fragmented. The big corporations, big banks, big governments, big countries, big organisations, big political parties that dominated the last century are slowly but surely disintegrating. Think about the big manufacturing companies, now they are being replaced by lots of smaller companies, carefully linked together in complex supply chains. Think of the big energy companies – EDF, British Gas, EOn – all being overtaken by much smaller brands, more light on their feet, generating more efficient, cheaper local energy. Even big banks are slowly being overtaken by new currencies – bitcoins, timebanks and the like. The membership of political parties has fallen from the millions to just 300,000 people across all 3 main parties and in their place we now see smaller parties, campaigning groups and the like. Even big government is being dismantled and privatised before our very eyes.
Yes, we still have our Googles and our Starbucks and McDonalds but each of these is facing growing threats from smaller, what they call insurgent companies and technologies. McDonalds and Starbucks survival now depends not on big corporatism by lots and lots of decentralised franchisees.
This is the time for political disruption. Never before has the kingdom of God within us meant so much. One of the most compelling aspects of Jesus’ life – in fact it was the reason his people ultimately turned against him – was that he shunned trying to take hold of big power. He didn’t want to be like the Romans. He didn’t see the aspirations of the Jewish leaders as worthwhile. Ultimately he saw power not in terms of the state or a kingdom of control but instead he saw power in sacrificial love and the kingdom of God within. This is a politically disruptive idea.
It was the idea behind Martin Luther when he took on the big church back in the 16th century and prompted the reformation; it was the idea behind congregationalism and our own church heritage in the 18th and 19th centuries; it was the idea behind Christian socialism and the whole Labour movement in the 20th century; and it will be the idea that defines whatever we do in Levenshulme now in the 21st century. But what does it actually mean? Let me suggest 4 things.
First, as a church, I can quite easily see that in the next 10 years our United Reformed Church denomination will disintegrate. I do not look forward to the prospect and I have every hope that we find new ways of collaborating and sharing together across the reformed and free church traditions in England. But we are going to have to learn more and more to stand on our own two feet just as was the case in our earliest days as a congregational church. Given our recent history at Inspire I have no fears about this, but we should worry for our brothers and sisters in other churches less used to working independently. And we should be worried about how we build solidarity between churches and stand united in Christ in doing God’s mission. Here we must not lose our ecumenical roots, not least in our local community.
Second, in our fragmenting economy we need to care a lot more about the kinds of jobs we are all doing. On the one hand we see people working every hour that God gives simply to make ends meet. Rich people burning out keeping up with the Joneses; poor people dying ten, fifteen years earlier than their near neighbours on account of the unhealthy lifestyles forced upon them by low pay and menial activities. And those in between finding their own incomes squeezed and their hours pressed, their families stressed.
At Inspire and in Levenshulme more widely we need to take on this logic by nurturing a neighbourhood with different kinds of jobs. Starting with our own staff team we are struggling to find patterns of work that support individual lifestyle choices and not the other way round. Paying the living wage, trying to be flexible so that people can balance work and family life, treating one another as humans not robots, making time for lunch together to talk and share.
But through our Work Club, our enterprise support and our business centre we need to spread these practices more widely and also support people to create new jobs and new businesses that better reflect the kind of economy we want to see. Jobs that have both economic and social purposes. Businesses that promote clean and sustainable living. Work that is meaningful and constructive. What if we could make Levenshulme an altogether different kind of place to work – a thriving local economy that gained a reputation for being a great place to run a business.
Thirdly, we have to look again at our sustainability. The money economy is not serving us well: constantly chasing cash and grants to make ends meet. And this isn’t going to change any time soon. But over the next 10 years couldn’t we find ways of slowly weaning ourselves of cash? What if – building on our very successful volunteering programme – we set up a Levenshulme Timebank or scaled up our Tag-Pass-It-On scheme into some kind of South Manchester Pound? What if we clubbed together with others in the neighbourhood to get into our own neighbourhood energy generation and became a completely carbon neutral neighbourhood just as they have done in neighbourhoods in Germany and Sweden? And what if we moved to a situation where our café became a hub for local food production and became supplied entirely by locally sourced products?
And finally, and potentially most disruptive politically, how about we give up on the big state altogether. Do we really think that a Labour victory next month is going to make any difference? And what if the Tories get in again? Either way, I just don’t see that our national politics is going to be anything but a drain on our interests for the foreseeable future. This means two things.
First, much as it pains me to say it, we need to start organising our own local welfare state. How we look after the sick, the elderly, the unemployed, our new arrivals and the like will increasingly become a matter for us to organise in our own city and in our own neighbourhoods. There is a huge amount of thinking and hard work to be done here and now is not the time to get into that other than to say that Foodbanks are not the answer. We’re going to have to get ourselves differently organised and not look to our national politicians and parties for help.
So secondly, we will need to find new forms of social and political organisation in Manchester and more locally. This is why I am so interested in the new Neighbourhood Forum that is developing. We don’t need to copy to defunct models of political organisation and decision–making we have at the moment, we can be far more participative and deliberative – just as we try to organise ourselves in church and more widely at Inspire. But that will not be enough, we need to find new forms of political organisation that will break up the one-party state that is Manchester and give our neighbourhoods a proper voice in the way this city works.
Now do you see what I mean by politically disruptive?
So let me draw this talk to a close. I began by saying I wanted to weave together some of the ideas and themes that we have drawn out of Luke’s gospel in recent months, with some ideas and thought about our church and community centre at this landmark moment in our short history. So let me answer those questions I set at the beginning:
What kind of place are we trying to make – a place which is radically welcoming!
What kind of community are we trying to become – a community built on conscious commitment!
And what kind of window on the world are we trying to throw open – a kingdom of political disruption, starting from within, small in size and scale but strong on solidarity and social justice.
It is my hope and prayer, that we can all join Jesus on this journey from Jerusalem, via Levenshulme, to the ends of the world.