Hastings Pier is being rebuilt! Having been closed since 2006 due to safety concerns, and suffering severe fire damage in 2010, it’s great news for Hastings residents to see the pier finally under re-construction.
Hence the ‘Exclusion zone’ signs at the entrance. Construction sites can be dangerous places, not least on a pier that’s been falling apart for 7 years. No unauthorised persons – construction workers only.
Not a safe place for passers-by.
I know another place, where fallen, broken people rather than falling architectural structures are under re-construction – a place that can also be hazardous at times, where toes can be stepped on, or cut from treading on broken eggshells.
The church. God’s kingdom. His people. His community.
But that’s part of the beauty of it. The church (and God’s kingdom) is a place where damaged, dysfunctional people will find a refuge, where we will be accepted and forgiven and shown incredible kindness, even when our brokenness and deep-seated pain might sometimes cause us to lash out with unkind words at others in our own community.
Standing with each other through the disagreements and disasters of community life, through the questions and doubts of faith, and the joys and pains of life.
Forgiving; expressing the Father’s grace to each other. Passing on what we’ve received.
Together being built into a human temple of praise, a haven of healing for the hurting, a refuge for the rejected.
Unlike the pier, God’s kingdom is an inclusion zone.
The church is an inclusion zone.
The Father has always invited the lost and lonely, the battered and bruised, the freaks and the foreigners, all of society’s pariahs, to come and be close to him. In Jesus’ parables, and throughout the Bible, we see a bias towards the outsiders, the marginalised, to those who have been treated as inferior by the state, by society – and especially by God’s (apparent) own people.
Often, ‘outsiders’ are closer to God than we realise. Closer than even they realise.
They’re invited, included, welcomed into God’s kingdom.
But of course, sometimes the church isn’t like that. God’s people sometimes forget they’re meant to be an inclusion zone; sometimes we put up unnecessary barriers and obstacles to the very people who are closest to the Father’s heart, making us an exclusion zone, like the pier.
Barriers like these:
- Endless debates about peripheral matters.
- Words, ideas and modes of expression so antiquated, they give the impression that God is old-fashioned or simply a relic from a past era, although he’s timeless and way ahead of us.
- Failure to engage with current issues relevant to the world outside church.
- Failure to reflect the love and mercy of Jesus to those outside the church. As Brennan Manning put it: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
- Inward looking attitudes and preoccupation with maintenance of the institution, as was the case in Jesus’ time…
Everyone knows Jesus wasn’t always meek and mild, and perhaps his most famous outburst of anger was the one from which we get the English expression ‘turning tables’. But have you ever wondered why Jesus got so furious at the money changers and bird sellers that he started hurling the furniture about?
What could have prompted such outrage, inciting this peace-loving messiah to make a crude whip and start chasing these tradesmen out of the temple?
Way back when (some 700 years earlier), the prophet Isaiah foretold the day when Israel’s temple would be open to everyone, including foreigners and eunuchs (that’s people who… oh, you already know – ok).
There would be this great diversity, and especially those who had been seen as ‘outsiders’ would be welcomed in. And the temple would be this thronging place of celebration, where outsiders as well as those who saw themselves as the ‘in-crowd’ (God’s chosen people) would be able to find the joy of worshipping God and praying together1.
By the time Jesus came around, the outer courts were the one part of the temple where these ‘outsiders’ could come in and worship the true God. So it was a very special place, signifying God’s open arms to the marginalised and all those seen as inferior.
This was meant to be an inclusion zone.
So when Jesus came along and found that this one part of the temple that was meant to represent the Father’s welcoming arms to damaged and marginalised people was instead being used for (possibly) exploitation, (certainly) selfish financial gain and inward-looking maintenance of the institution, making the area an exclusion zone, this made him really mad!
So much so, that he had to go away for the night, reflect with his Father on what he’d seen, and come back the next day to take appropriate action in a self-controlled way2.
Full of fury…anger…rage… and yet a thought-through, self-controlled response to this violation of God’s invitation to outsiders.
As he turned the tables and scattered the cash, he quoted the Isaiah passage: “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’, but you have turned it into a den of thieves”.
Or, put another way, “This is meant to be an inclusion zone, but you’ve turned it into an exclusion zone!”
Jesus is always passionate about outsiders and angered by actions and people that hinder others from getting close to him. Which is why he (verbally) attacked the Pharisees so vehemently.
God’s people, not any building, are now his temple, but God hasn’t changed. He remains passionate about his temple, his people, being an accessible place of worship, celebration, joy, that all will feel free to come into: different races, ages, sexualities, cultures and classes.
As ever, God defies religious logic and Christian pre-conceptions. He remains closest to the broken-hearted, the rejected, the…..you know the score by now.
And to be fair, the church is engaging better than ever with those who are disadvantaged and marginalised, straining under escalatingly harsh socio-economic times, with church-founded initiatives such as food banks, Street Pastors and homeless night shelters springing up across the UK, as an expression of the Father’s compassionate heart.
My own experience of church here in Hastings & St Leonards has been largely very positive, with many potentially marginalised people of all sorts finding faith and participating in the life and worship and community of the church. I’m very proud of both St Leonards Baptist and St Matthew’s churches for this inclusiveness.
Let me just leave you with a few questions…
Q Who are the marginalised today?
Q Who has been marginalised most by the 20th / 21st Century UK church? Maybe you’d think of other groups, but I’d say that gay and lesbian people have been excluded more than any other people.
Q Could God be closer to many of these individuals than we realise – than even they realise, in some cases – simply because it’s in his nature to get alongside the rejected and marginalised?
Q How is the church doing at being an inclusion zone to excluded people now, in 2013?
Q What are the modern equivalents of money-changers and bird sellers that are hindering access to God’s worship space – what teachings / attitudes / practices?
Q If you’re part of a church, how is your church doing at removing these obstacles? What needs to change?
Answers on a postcard….or in the comments box below….or better still, discuss with your church and your heavenly Father.
If you’re someone who’s experienced exclusion by the church, if it’s possible for this one Christian to apologise on behalf of the wider church, then please accept this apology. Please forgive and please know that God is close.
And if you’re not a Hastings person and you’re over this way in the future, come and see our wonderful new pier (from 2015), and visit one of our churches for (hopefully) a warm, inclusive welcome!
- Isaiah 56
- Mark 11:11-17