I recently came across the idea of a life verse: that is, the idea that there is a Bible verse for each of us which encapsulates who we are, and guides our journey of faith. I rolled my eyes. Straightaway, two verses hit me. From Jonah: “It is indeed right for me to be angry, even unto death.” And from Psalm 139: “You knit me in my mother’s womb; I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” We like our pastors to be nice — but I can’t promise you that. For I have been fearfully and wonderfully made: as an angry prophet. And like Bartimaeus, my faith has opened my eyes; and as I look around, I see too many practices in our churches which deny too many people their full and God-given humanity.
Long ago, Jesus took a child. He placed him among the disciples and told them to pay attention. Today, too many of our churches segregate people by age. Children and adults are denied the opportunity to grow each other’s faith and learn from each other. Children are boxed and dismissed as ‘disruptive’ or ‘cute’; and children’s ministry, let’s be honest, is treated as second-best: rarely the work of the senior pastor, rarely requiring a solid theological education. And so I am angry — and I look to the time when every senior pastor, like Martin Luther, like John Calvin, takes special responsibility for children; when every service is overflowing with young people; and when every church allows people of all ages to shape its theology, culture and practice.
I commend Sanctuary for the ways children are listened to and included in our worship service, at our meals, and in our processes. I love hearing and publishing their big questions and testimonies through our newsletter and our Lent books. But we still have a way to go. We have a dozen teenagers in our network, young people who will grow up and move away in the very near future. And so we urgently need to grapple with baptism: When do we offer it? What are we looking for? At what age is it meaningful? We have a youth group, which serves not just our own kids but kids from the wider community: but for it to continue, we’re going to need some commitment from our church families, and we’re going to need some vibrant leaders to step up. Failing that, we’re going to need to ask serious questions about how we will mentor and guide our young people in this hypermobile, hyperbusy context: for it doesn’t all happen by osmosis; and we’re going to need to grapple with what we can offer those kids outside the church who are curious about faith. And so there is work to be done in building up the children and young people of this community: inviting them to the waters of baptism; providing them with life-giving opportunities to hang out; and equipping and guiding them as they grow into maturity.
Long ago, the Apostle Paul commended the women he described as ministers, co-workers, church leaders. Today, too many of our churches overlook or minimise women’s gifts; too many church leaders use patronising, dismissive or even mocking language to describe women and women’s activities; too many women diminish or deny their own calling because they have witnessed the extraordinary pressures placed upon women in ministry. And so I am angry — and I look to the time when every church nurtures the gifts of every person, seeing them not as ‘male’ or ‘female’, but simply as people made in the image of God, and in whom the Spirit is alive and at work.
I commend Sanctuary for accepting without question a woman as pastor, and a majority-female leadership team. But we still have a way to go. Too many of our women lack confidence. They have been told too many times in too many ways in too many places that their opinions are worthless. Despite being faithful disciples and deep thinkers, many of our women have told me that they are too fearful to speak in public and to offer a reflection. And so there is work to be done in building up the women of this community: overcoming the cultural conditioning that tells women to be silent; discovering the grounded confidence which faith brings; and helping each one find her voice.
Long ago, the church was notorious for whom it welcomed. Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female, rich, poor, eunuch and not: they all united around Christ’s own table. Today, churches are more often notorious for whom they exclude. And so I am angry — and I look to the time when we truly understand that Jesus came not to condemn but to save: to save, and to gather every person into the arms of love. For on that day, we will welcome people of diverse genders and sexualities and neurologies and mental health situations and social classes; and we will welcome them as they are, seeing in every person glimpses of the beautiful and kaleidoscopic image of God.
I commend Sanctuary for the ways people with autism and other different abilities are fully included here; and for the ways our LGBTI+ friends are welcomed. But we still have a way to go. Our core group remains white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, from a very limited age range, life stage, social class and educational background. We don’t reflect the region, and we don’t reflect the fullness of God’s great and glorious image. And so there is work to be done in building up the diversity of this community, not for the sake of calling ourselves diverse, but so that we learn more about God, and more about love; and so that we become a more powerful witness to God’s all-encompassing hospitality and grace.
I am grateful to you here at Sanctuary for hearing me out. I know it can be risky to gather around an angry prophet, and to aim for a vision of God’s culture: but I reckon it’s a good risk to take. I’m also grateful to the people of our sister church, South Yarra Community Baptist, who taught me to channel my anger into creative change, and who equipped me and sent me here. I am grateful to the people of our Baptist Union of Victoria who are building bridges across theological, political and cultural chasms. And I am grateful to all those outside the church, in whom I see the face of Christ.
As your pastor and prophet, I cannot promise to be nice, but I can promise you this: even as I call you to account, and pull, push, prod, point, and beckon you into God’s glorious future, I will love and serve you as I love and serve God: with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength, with all my mind … and with all my anger. Amen. Ω
A reflection given to the Baptist Union of Victoria on the occasion of my ordination, Saturday 20 October 2018, expanded for Sanctuary, Sunday 28 October 2018 (Year B Proper 25, BP25) © Alison Sampson, 2018. And yes, angry prophets often smile.