Thinking Anew – Reaching beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’
Photograph: Getty Images
It’s normal for Jesus to casually rupture the accepted order of things. Tomorrow’s gospel reading from Matthew 21 depicts a man with two sons who needs one of them to work in his vineyard. He asks the first son if he will go. The son replies rather rudely that no, he won’t; but later he changes his mind and he actually does. Meanwhile the man asks his other son if he will go. The son willingly agrees but, as it turns out, he doesn’t make it. Which of these sons is doing the will of the father? Better to talk the talk or walk the walk?
There is an ancient impulse within Christianity to disrupt simple binaries – insider/outsider, man/woman, black/white, rich/poor . . . the list goes on. Repeatedly Jesus subverts the status quo, leaving us blinking in the stormy sunshine of our surprise. This reading continues to challenge the assumptions we so easily make about others: “‘The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of you lot’, Jesus warns the temple elders, ‘Wake up!’” As the Church we keep forgetting this left-field kingdom dynamic. It dawns on us (whenever we pay attention) that we can have no idea who will be standing next to us in the kingdom of heaven.
For the past year our parish has undertaken a deep focus on “inclusion”. Our desire is to intentionally welcome and affirm all people, regardless of economic status, gender, physical or mental health or ability, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. What this means, in practice, is that we are on a continuing journey of self-reflection with a view to recognising in everyone the face of God. We are seeking and (in faith) finding ways of “enlarging our table”, trying to make space for true participation from those who are missing.
Inclusion is just the start, the foundation on which participation is built. It’s not so much a case of making others feel welcome in “our” space, but of humbly seeking a way to receive the gifts and insights of the stranger, without which we are impoverished. If I am to belong, I have to be missed if I am not there. We are missing so many people in the Church, and it hurts. Yet if I am to belong, I need to be able to be honest about who I am. The Church – at her best – has a heart-longing to hold this kind of sacred space, though we so often get set in our ways.
I recently heard a talk by disability activist Rev Katie Tupling. She expressed her growing frustration at church discussions around inclusion. Why is it always the disabled person who is the project, the object of inclusion? Why can’t the church herself commit to being different? Until this happens the same old excluding stories will keep being told.
Katie was also exhausted by how consistently people with disabilities were “othered”: referred to as “they” by those who were discussing inclusion, even when she herself – a wheelchair-user with cerebral palsy – was part of the discussion. Always “them” – the needy disabled ones, and “us” — the capable welcoming ones. She described the sensation this gave her: like sitting around a dinner table as a guest and discovering that you are actually also on the menu.
Jesus persistently emphasised that for his people there is not a “them” and “us”, only “we”. French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has a beautiful phrase to describe the recognition of this – “the word of God in the face”. Each of us, from the teenager with Down syndrome to the man in the supermarket queue, every face we encounter – however beautiful, however degraded – invites us to engage with the compassion and tenderness of God towards all that he has made.
Ironically these days find us having to mask our faces much of the time, obscuring literally “the word of God in the face”. Yet this is the season of harvest, and the harvest depends upon God’s grace. Despite everything, we can believe that God’s harvest will be plentiful in the fullness of time.