Friday, 4 April 2014

Prayers after (Same Sex) Marriage: A suggested order of service

 You've all seen Rev episode 2, haven't you? That's why I've written this...

A Suggested Draft Order for Prayer and Dedication after the Civil Marriage of a Same Sex Couple*


*NB: The Church of England has a recognised Order for this purpose when the couple concerned are a man and a woman, and that Order should be used in those circumstances. There is no analagous provision for couples of the same sex: instead, clergy are encouraged to make appropriate pastoral provision. This draft order draws heavily on the existing Order (copyright Archbishops Council), and makes some suggested adaptations, but it is not an official or authorised liturgy. It is suggested, however, that it may be of use as a basis for discussion with the couple concerned as to what would be appropriate pastoral provision in their particular circumstances.

Introduction

God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.

A hymn may be sung here, or after the next section.

The minister welcomes the couple and their family and friends, using these or similar words:

N and N, you stand in the presence of God having contracted a legal marriage earlier [today], to dedicate to God your life together. We pray with you that God may empower you to keep the vows you have made to one another.

Edited: Personally, I  might want to include the next bit, an adaptation of the Preface. However, as Peter O points out below, it could be construed as illegitimate under the present guidelines. Since the point of this draft is to offer a contribution that should be fully acceptable, I offer an alternative below. I don't commend this bit as above reproach, but am keeping it here for honesty, as its what I'd like to say - and frankly, I'd prefer to use this version at opposite-sex marriages....

[The Bible teaches us that marriage is a gift of God's grace, a holy mystery in which two people become one flesh. It is God's purpose that, as two people give themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, they shall be united in that love as Christ is united with the Church.
Marriage is given, that two people may comfort and help one another, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is given that with delight and tenderness they may know each other in love, and through the joy of their bodily union may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives.]

An alternative paragraph could be:
[We thank and praise God for bringing you together,
God is the creator of all joy and gladness,
pleasure and delight, love, peace and fellowship.
God loves all that God has made, and declares it to be good.
God's Holy Spirit is known by the fruit of love, joy and peace.
In Christ, God shows his love for us in that while we were still far off,
God met us in His Son and brought us home.]
Is it your wish today to affirm your desire to live as followers of Christ, and to come to him, the fountain of grace, that, strengthened by the prayers of the Church, you may be enabled to fulfil your marriage vows in love and faithfulness?

The couple reply: It is.

A hymn may be sung here.

Collect

Almighty God,
You have taught us through your Son
that love is the fulfillment of the Law.
Grant to these your servants
that, loving one another,
they may continue in your love until their lives' end.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
Amen.

Readings
At least one Bible reading should be used, and other readings, poems, may also be used here.

The Dedication

The couple face the minister, who says

N and N, you hve committed yourselves to each other in marriage
And your marriage is recognised by law.
The Church of Christ understands marriage to be a lifelong union
For better, for worse
For richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish
Til parted by death.
Is this your understanding of the covenant and promises that you have made?

The couple reply: It is.

Have you resolved to be faithful to one another,
forsaking all others,
so long as you both shall live?

The couple reply: We have.

The couple will already be wearing their wedding rings: it would be appropriate for them to keep them on their fingers, since they are already married, and for this prayer to be said over their hands:

Heavenly Father,
may these rings, we pray, be to N and N
symbols of unending love and faithfulness
and of the promises they have made to each other:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

The minister says to any family and friends present:

Will you, the family and friends of N and N
support and uphold them in their marriage
Now and in the years to come?
All: We will.

A hymn may be sung here

Prayers: these might well be said by a friend or family member, or even by the couple themselves.
Prayers in a church context should usually include the Lord's Prayer.

A hymn may be sung here.

Conclusion

A final Bible reading (in the manner of a dismissal gospel) or poem may be read here.

A blessing of the whole congregation would be usual here, but may be considered contentious in case it is misinterpreted as a blessing of the couple per se, which is contrary to the Bishop's guidance at this time. It may be advisable to use a form that makes the congregational nature of the blessing explicit, for example by using the inclusive 'us' form:

God the Holy Trinity make us strong in faith and love,
defend us on every side, and guide us in truth and peace;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
be with us [you all] and remain with us [you all] always.
Amen.

If even this is considered inappropriate, I would suggest a form of the Peace:

We have celebrated the love of N and N
and we now celebrate God's love for us all.
Peace, in Christ, to all of you.
All: and also with you.

The exchange of the peace may follow, and form an informal end to the service; or the service could end on those words, and the minister and couple process out.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Champagne Easter

Who is going to be using champagne in the chalice this Easter?

A few years ago I published an article in the Church Times reflecting on how much more embedded the Christian feast of Christmas is in our culture compared to Easter, and suggesting some ways in which we might make Easter more celebratory in ways that chime with our culture.


At the end I made four suggestions, saying


"I want us to make the Easter story just as ubiquitous, just as loved, just as owned by so many as the Christmas story.

1. Let’s make more of Shrove Tuesday. It comes at a cold, dark, miserable time of year. Lent is still a widely recognised and owned cultural phenomenon, but the Church looks depressingly pious unless we balance fast with feast. In the parish of St. Gabriel’s, Heaton, where I was a curate, we built on the expertise and contacts developed through a summer holiday club week by introducing a Mardi Gras weekend. On the Saturday before Lent we held a Mardi Gras children’s activity day, and on the Sunday morning a Carnival Eucharist. Pancake parties are better than nothing, but in this age of foodies they may need to become a bit more sophisticated in some social contexts.

2. I first came across Easter trees in the Netherlands over a decade ago. A few bare twisted branches are decorated with blown and painted eggs, small birds, or anything you like. Ideally the branches are of pussy willow so they already have their catkins, but the decorative twigs you can buy now would also work well. This would make a good family or Sunday school activity for Easter weekend. Decorations could be devised which reinforce the story and are cheerfully bright and attractive (perhaps Mexican crosses and butterflies).

3. I have heard of a cathedral letting off fireworks from its roof at its dawn liturgy. This is a great idea. Fireworks are ideal imagery for Easter. They literally lift your gaze and heart, exploding into dramatic and exultant life. Dawn could be problematic with noise in many locations. Also, the core audience attracted by fireworks, families with youngish children, are unlikely to attend at 5am. But fireworks on the Saturday evening could be a winner.

4. Finally, our Easter morning Eucharist should be seriously distinctive. A note of extraordinary celebration needs to be struck, preferably at the heart of the Eucharistic liturgy. My suggestion is that on Easter day we use champagne as our communion wine. Champagne is part of our cultural shorthand for celebration. Its use chimes perfectly with the Easter message of the reckless extravagance of God’s love, and with imagery of the wedding feast."

Since then, I have heard of quite a few churches doing number 4, and have done it myself. People LOVE it! And the celebratory 'pop' of a champagne cork at the preparation of the table is brilliant. I highly recommend you try it this Easter.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Sex and Marriage

Christianity,  feminism, marriage and same sex marriage

Let me say something blatantly obvious. So obvious it shouldn't really need pointing out: but something I have not heard anyone say out loud in this whole marriage fiasco that the Church is getting itself into.

The controversial thing about same sex marriage - as distinct from same sex relationships, same sex civil partnerships, or even plain old same sex sex - is that if sex takes place within marriage, it isn't sinful. Not all marriages (or other relationships) involve sex, of course. But it is the sex that is controversial.

Those who take an unhealthy interest in other people's sexual sin have had a mantra - all sex outside of marriage is wrong. Marriage good, all other sex bad, is meant to be the rule. (Its a rule few people observe, but the point of this sort of rule is idealism rather than realism).

And that, of course, is why the idea of a couple of the same sex marrying each other, if you think gay relationships are always wrong, is a problem. Thats why the Church authorities - who argued vigorously against Civil Partnerships when they were first mooted - are now desperate for clergy in those partnerships to stay there, rather than get married.

If 'Marriage is good, all other sex bad', then anyone married and having sex (with their marital partner) is by definition not sinning. So if you want to continue to define gay sex as sinful, you have to argue it isn't really a marriage.

But why do we say that in the first place? In the story of Adam and Eve, they never went through any form of marriage. If it was so important, don't you think the Bible writers might have mentioned it? (At least, if you believe that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation). There is an awful lot of sex in the Bible, much of it quite disordered. Giving a slave girl to your husband to bear children for you? Mmm, that Biblical ideal of marriage...

Marriage is a feminist issue.The thing is, sex is a powerful human urge, that can lead us to destructive and selfish behaviour, as well as forming powerful kin-bonds. For most of recorded history, the point of marriage law has been to regulate sex. It has been legislated for primarily to regulate the ownership of children and thus inheritance and property. Because women bear the children, and before DNA tests men couldn't be sure of their paternity, controlling women's sexual activity became an economic imperative for the landowning classes. Not to mention the fact that women were themselves considered a form of property. Those with little other property didn't want someone else making use of what was theirs.The fact is, much 'common sense' morality surrounding sex is an internalisation of these property interests.

And the ironic thing is, in the middle ages the Church was at the forefront of challenging this. The  Pope repeatedly clashed with heads of states, as both claimed the right to regulate marriage. Kings wanted to control it because of the dynastic interests and property rights involved. The Church radically claimed that this was about two people, and that they had to give their free consent. Further, the Church began to raise sex in importance, claiming that having sex was effectively giving yourself in marriage. It was a radical and controversial idea, that if a man had sex with a woman, they should get married (or even WERE married), even if they were of different social classes. The fact that consummation became part of the legal definition of marriage perhaps indicates that sex was not, in fact, a key part of many dynastic marriages. But it was important that marriages involved sex if marriages were about establishing legitimate heirs.

Marriage was a contract more than a relationship. Until relatively recently, it was possible to sue someone for 'breach of promise' through the British courts if they pulled out of an engagement. The assumption was that the other party reneging on an agreement to marry damaged the goods or brand you were selling. Partly, at least, that was because it was assumed you may well have had sex with your betrothed on the basis of the contract to marry.

Believe it or not, the Church was championing women's rights in the context of its days. He told you he wanted to marry you, and slept with you? You might be pregnant and become destitute? Right then, he must marry you. Even if your family had hoped to do better for themselves.

It is sad that a doctrine of marriage that once was designed to uphold the interests of the people involved against powerful other interests that saw them as pawns, is now being used to do the opposite.

I could say more. The medieval worldview saw everything in hierarchical terms. God at the top, ranks of angels precisely graded by status beneath, then men, women and children (in that order, and in their various degrees), then birds, animals, fish, plants, rocks. Everything had its place. In this worldview, it was 'natural' for men to subordinate women, just as it was 'natural' for humans to exploit the planet. If this is your understanding of how the world is, the worst thing about gay sex is men subordinating and being subordinate to other men, rather than exerting mastery over women.
(Lesbian sex is also seen as wrong, because women are not submitting to men, but its not as important because women aren't as important).

I've been married for 17 years, and I'm very happy to recommend marriage as the ideal form of human relationship. The trust, commitment, mutuality and fidelity of a good modern marriage are ideal conditions for human flourishing. It's for that very reason that I want as many people as possible to be able to avail themselves of it. But the marriage I want to recommend is not a property transaction. It's not about a dominant and a submissive partner (a view associated worldwide with higher levels of domestic abuse, according to research conducted by Dr. Susannah Cornwall). It's about mutual love, commitment, delight, tenderness, self-giving, and, yes, sex which is all of those things too. Against such things, there is no law.

The first line of every marriage service I conduct is:
'God is love, and those who live in love live in God.' I find it hard to see the sin in that. So opening up marriage to same sex couples is indeed a radical step, redefining what they are doing as God-given and a cause for rejoicing. It is clear that the Church as an institution is not quite ready for that, but it isn't getting any choice: gay people are getting legally married.

It's fascinating, as a historian, to see Church and State still arguing over who gets to define marriage. But marriage laws predate the church by many centuries. History says that the Church has only ever won its case by persuading the State that it has the moral high ground. I'd love to see the Church get back on its real high horse, campaigning vociferously and in every nation for the interests of two people in love to trump political unease or vested interests. Any chance?

Sunday, 9 March 2014

My faith and George Herbert's poetry

I am currently writing a series of articles for the Guardian website, in a series called 'How to Believe'. In them, I am discussing my faith in conversation with George Herbert's poetry, which I have loved since I first encountered it in sixth form. As someone said on twitter, proof that God can work even through A level set texts.

The first three (of a series of six) are now online:

George Herbert: the man who converted me from atheism

How can we measure the immeasurable?

If God is love, then can God also be love, heat and passion?

Update (15.3.14): number 4, on prayer, is now at

Why do we pray? What is prayer?

Friday, 31 January 2014

The New Girl Guide Promise


The New Girl Guide Promise: from static duty to dynamic faith.

This evening, I was a guest at our local Girl Guides. And I heard the new Girl Guide promise being made for the first time. Not only was it the first time I'd heard it, it was the first time Guides in this unit had become members with the new promise.

Oh, yes? I thought. This is the promise that got rid of God, and replaced it with some vague stuff about 'being true to ourselves'? The one that General Synod are debating the week after next? How ironic, that my visit as vicar coincided with it being used for the first time...

But then, I heard the new Guides rehearsing it. And I was struck by what it had actually changed, and why. Because I hadn't actually realised, in all the rhetoric and fuss about 'duty to God' being replaced by 'being true to myself', that the sentence doesn't end there.

What the promise to do my best to do my 'duty to God' has actually been replaced by is 'to be true to myself and to develop my beliefs'. Well now - that is rather different.

Hearing these young girls promise that, I was struck by a profound sense that this new promise was actually very fitting indeed, and a huge improvement. Not just because it avoids the charge of hypocrisy (and here I hold up my hands - I was an atheist Girl Guide who perjured myself with the old promise!)  - after all, one at least of the girls making the new promise tonight is a regular member of our church.

No, the improvement that struck me is that it replaces a static sense of duty with a commitment to development. It is now much more akin to the promises made at baptism or confirmation.  

'To do my duty to God' is a promise that embodies a very static, hierarchical view of God and our relationship with him/her. The implication is that this 'duty' is a given, and our only valid option is to obey and do what we are told. Whereas the new promise embraces an understanding of faith and life as something that is, ideally, always growing. I'm still not entirely sold on 'being true to myself', but the more I think about it, the more I love the promise to 'develop my beliefs'.

In fact, this is a far more significant and far more religiously profound promise to make. It commits the new Guide to taking faith seriously, whatever their current beliefs. It commits her to working for her faith development, to accepting, and desiring, that her beliefs will change and grow.

In the church, we spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to achieve culture change from maintenance to mission, from a consumer view of church to a participant view, from a static receptive idea of being a member to a dynamic proactive one. Even among the clergy, we strive - often with little success - to create a culture of continuing professional development, life long learning. The change we want to see is one from seeing faith and discipleship as static reception, to dynamic growth. This change of promise has achieved that at a stroke. It would be not only churlish but perverse for the Church to reject it.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Rethinking Advent to Candlemas

Here's an idea:

This year I was struck again, as I am every year, by how odd it seems to preach on the Baptism of Christ the week after Epiphany. Especially since Candlemas - when Jesus is 40 days old - comes weeks later.

So I started wondering if we could move the feast of the Baptism of Christ to the Sunday before Lent. Then, the calendar would follow the dramatic narrative. Jesus is baptised, hears God's confirmation of his identity and call, and immediately goes out to the desert for 40 days and nights.

And then a colleague on twitter (@trinheadmaster) mused that we could do with some Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Candlemas, and I agreed. But then I thought - if we were to move the Baptism, why not move Candlemas to the Sunday after Epiphany? It is currently 40 days after Christmas because that fits when Jewish babies were presented in the Temple. But how many people find that a meaningful resonance nowadays? And if we moved it, then we would have a solid 'Season of Jesus' Childhood', made up of 2 weeks of Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas.

We often bemoan the fact that nobody takes Christmas season seriously in our society, and that Advent has effectively become Christmas. I wonder if giving the period of 4 weeks after Christmas a solid focus on Jesus' childhood  might revitalise this post-Christmas period. We could even make the following week focus on that childhood visit to the Temple for good measure.

And what, then, of Advent? The idea of four weeks of fasting has long gone, however much some may miss it. And there are few churches that manage to avoid singing carols in Advent - and those that do are generally seen as stodgy and even (ironically) as not getting into the Spirit of Christmas. And having missed Advent Sunday this year - I was away - I really did miss it, but was immediately plunged into a whirl of carol services and the like.

On Twitter last year, there was a very spirited debate about the pink candle in the Advent wreath. Apart from those raised in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, nobody had the faintest idea that it was meant to symbolise a lightening of the Advent fast for 'Gaudete Sunday'. Nobody fasts for Advent anyway, so lightening the fast is pointless. And mine was not the only church that vaguely assumed it must be meant for Mary, being pink!

So I wonder...what if we reinvented Gaudete Sunday, and used it to split Advent into two? The first two weeks could be very properly kept as Advent, focusing in particular on the Second Coming of Christ, and the Four Last Things. It would not be ridiculously hard to keep most Christmas events until after the 2nd Sunday in Advent, whereas refusing to hold any until after Christmas day itself seems absurd and impractical. But then after the 2nd Sunday,  the last two weeks could be very properly refocused on excitement and anticipation about the coming of Christmas.

So, I seem to be proposing a modest rewrite of the liturgical calendar between Advent and Candlemas!

1. Advent is divided into two fortnights.
Advent 1 & Advent 2: Traditional Advent themes of Judgement, 2nd Coming, etc.
Advent 3, Gaudete Sunday is reinstated as the beginning of Christmas season - looking forward to Christmas. The weeks of Advent 3 & 4 are thus properly filled with Carol services etc.

2.Candlemas is moved from 2nd Feb to the Sunday after Epiphany, and possibly the week after that is focused on Jesus' later childhood. The 3 or 4 Sundays after Christmas thus become a 'Season of Jesus as a Child', encouraging a longer period of focus on the reality and implications of the incarnation. After this there is a period of Ordinary Time.

3. The Baptism of Christ is moved from the Sunday after Epiphany to the Sunday before Lent.

What do you think?

(post edited slightly to correct an error and explain why Candlemas is currently 2 Feb).

Sermon: 'Whoever welcomes this child...'

Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

First reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-17
Gospel reading: Mark 9:33-41


Imagine – at the end of a particularly fractious church council meeting, Jesus walks into the room.
'What', he says, 'have you been arguing about?'

Silence. No body wants to say, 'whether to replace the photocopier with a cheaper model' or 'what hymn book we should buy' or even 'that we'd all like to get more people to come to church, but everyone's too busy to volunteer'.

And Jesus looks round the circle of chairs, and smiles, gently and sadly. He knows exactly what we've been arguing about, and we feel our faces go hot with embarrasment.

Or we might even imagine arriving in heaven with a big crowd of other Christians, and Jesus standing in front of the crowd and saying: 'what on earth were you arguing about on the way?'
'And', he might add, 'did it get in the way of telling people about me? Did it put people off following me? Did they get confused as to why there were two, or three churches, let alone several faiths, each swearing they had the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Or did you argue goodnaturedly, while working side by side to get the job done?'

Both our readings this morning show a group of people, followers of Jesus, arguing about who is the greatest. Who is the best disciple - who was going to sit at Jesus's right hand in this promised Kingdom he kept going on about? And Paul is horrified to discover that the Corinthians are arguing about whether he, or Cephas, or Apollos, or even Christ himself, are the best person to follow.

We can only imagine how the Corinthians felt when they first heard Paul's letter to them read out. I wonder, did they all go silent with embarrasment, and vow to get on? Or did some, at least of them, go away from that meeting muttering to themselves, in little twos and threes: 'well that's all very well, but Cephas is here with us working hard and who does Paul think he is, telling us off like that?' 'Its all very well telling us to agree, but Stephanus and Julian are just plain wrong and its our Christian duty to tell them so'. Or even, 'humph. I'm a bit offended to tell the truth that Paul doesn't remember baptising ME. Don't think I'll bother going there again'. And so on.

We don't know the Corinthian's reactions, but we do get to hear how the disciples react when Jesus asks them what they are arguing about. They are deeply embarrassed. They might still be thinking, inside 'Well I am better than Judas, anyone could see he's not to be trusted', but they have the grace, at least, not to try to justify their arguments to Jesus.

And Jesus, knowing of course exactly what they have been arguing about, sits them down and brings a child into the centre of their inner circle. He hugs the child – the child is getting the best place at that table, is closest to Jesus – and says: 'whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and not just me, Jesus the person, whoever welcomes one such child welcomes God the creator of everything, Yahweh, God.'

We tend to see this as a fairly sweet little scene. Jesus and the children – you might remember watercolour paintings of Jesus surrounded by small children from all around the world, from your Sunday School days? And which of us would want to argue. We know, don't we, that children are important, that they are not just the church of tomorrow but part of the church of today, and so on. We love seeing babies and small children brought to church. Although we sometimes hear horror stories of parents with small children being told off for the kids making a noise in other churches, I'm sure we'd all be fairly sure that wouldn't and shouldn't happen in our own churches. Yes, we welcome children.

The gospel reading doesn't say what age the child was. I wonder what age you imagine? In my head, the child is perhaps 3 or 4: a little blond haired pre school cherub, just like in those watercolour paintings. Who could possibly not want to welcome such a sweet, innocent little thing?

And the gospel reading also doesn't say where Jesus got this child from. So I wonder...

What if, instead of a washed and brushed little infant, proudly handed over from her mother's arms, he was a 12 or 13 year old street urchin? Perhaps the reason he was in that house in Capernaum was that he'd been creeping round the circle of disciples trying a little light pickpocketing, or hoping to pinch the loaf of bread waiting on the table for their tea?

If we imagine Jesus dragging forward a frightened and belligerent little street urchin, who is perhaps flashing a knife ready to try to slip away from these threatening grown ups now he's been caught, the challenge to us is much greater.

Over the last week I've discussed these readings with a couple of members of the Belmont congregation. Talking about this reading, one of them told me a story of when she and her husband were acting as wardens for a Quaker meeting house in Bolton. One day, two or three young tearaways skidded into the entrance hall on their bikes. The 'welcomer' on duty duly approached them, and asked what they were doing there. 'It said Society of Friends on the door', said one.
'Well', she snorted, 'We're not friends for the likes of you.'

Would that happen here?
Well...another true story.
A few weeks before Christmas, one of the members of the Belmont congregation arrived to open up for morning prayer and found a gang of teenagers, about 15 or 16 year olds, smoking and spitting on the front steps. 'Good morning lads,' she said. 'But please don't make a mess on the steps. This is a special place for you and everyone to come to, not somewhere to make a mess of'. They stayed where they were.

So she invited them into the church. They stubbed out their fags and shambled in, and she cleaned the steps and then made them drinks and gave them chocolate biscuits. Eventually, one of them growled at her - ' do you know Mandela has died?'. It was the morning after his death. And it turned out that that was why they had come, incoherently and not quite knowing what to do when they got there, to the church. It had felt like the right place to be. She invited them to come and light a candle in Nelson Mandela's memory, and they did so. Then they left, and their parting shot was 'We're gonna pray for peace.'

I only heard this amazing story a few weeks later, just before Christmas, when I received a Christmas card addressed to the vicar, with a £10 note inside and an apology for making a mess, and their thanks to the lady who had cleaned up, let them into church, and given them food and candles to light.

When I asked the lady concerned why she hadn't told me, I learnt that she had mentioned it to one or two people, but had been roundly told off for letting that sort of person into church, regardless of her personal safety or the safety of the church. And when I told others that this was what being a welcoming church meant, someone eventually said, 'But we don't want the wrong kind of people coming.'

'What on earth do you mean, the wrong kind of people?' I said, trying hard to keep my temper. 'Well,' they said, 'You know. People who are just coming to nick the collection, or be disrespectful'.

Iwas horrified at first, but then grateful for their honesty. I'm sure we all, in our heart of hearts, have people we are really very glad we don't have wandering into our churches. Of course, we tell ourselves we would be welcoming if they came. But I wonder, if you're really honest with yourself, who would you really, prefer NOT to welcome into your church?

A bloke who turns up topless and covered in tattoes? Baptism families who don't seem to know what's going on and talk all through the service? Someone who smells of drink and stale urine? Maybe even someone from your family, or your work, or your street who you just can't stand?

Who are you secretly glad doesn't come to your church – you love them, you know God loves them, but you'd rather you went to the church down the road thank you very much!

And imagine again: Imagine – at the end of that particularly fractious church council meeting, or even an ecumenical discussion group, Jesus walks into the room.
'What', he says, 'have you been arguing about?'
Silence.

And he looks round the circle of chairs, and smiles, gently and sadly. He knows exactly what we've been arguing about, and we feel our faces go hot with embarrasment.

And then he nips out of the church door, into the street – but before you can breathe a sigh of relief, he's back, and that person – the one person you'd rather not see in your church – is firmly led in by the arm. Perhaps they're even kicking and squirming, fighting to get away. And Jesus plonks them down in the middle of the church meeting. He looks around the circle, looking each of us in the eye for a long moment.
'whoever welcomes such a person in my name', he says, 'welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes the God who sent me.'

Amen.