Welcoming the good samaritan

Inclusion is a lovely warm word. Who could deny it’s necessity? OK, go on, then, do it. Be inclusive. Now what? 

Inclusive Church was born out of a concern that was recognised when Jeffrey John did not in the end take up his the post of Bishop of Reading, back in 2003. The founders of inclusive church were very worried at the way that unearthed all kinds of exclusivity in our churches. At that time, Inclusive Church was mostly focused on the issue of diverse sexualities, and how as Christians we ought to be learning from Jesus, and how he opened his arms to everyone, regardless. It seems to make perfect sense, doesn’t it? 

“We are here… for everybody, no barriers, no problems, no exclusions.” Except that we know, and if we were the cynical type, we’d say, “yea, right…” Being inclusive is not straightforward. That is very clear. 

Inclusive Church grew out of a concern at how churches were not what they needed to be, and in the past 16 years the organisation has gone on to develop a way of looking at inclusion that goes way beyond ‘mere’ sexuality to recognise that an inclusive church is a place that lives the gospel message for everyone. Ethnic, sexual, gender, ability, wealth, faith tradition, age, you name it: any distinction we have in the secular world is utterly unnecessary in the church of Jesus Christ. 

I have been approached by people seeking this inclusive church. Where is it? Who runs it? When does it gather for worship? Sadly, for some, who have been turned away or have been made to feel unwelcome, a church that is inclusive is (forgive the pun) the Holy Grail. Or, perhaps less mythologically, a home, a place to be comfortable with who you are before God, and with other ordinary people. Inclusive Church is, of course, not a place. It is a meaning, and Inclusive Church is a means to find a home with God. 

All churches want to be inclusive. It’s only natural. We want it, but there can often be something in the way: often in our hearts. Our hearts can encourage and also inhibit how we feel. 

So many of the parables told by Jesus can be interpreted in nuanced ways, and reveal subtleties upon further prayerful reflection. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is especially rich in new vistas when revisited. 

We know it so well. It takes us into familiar territory. It is rich in inclusive imagery. Even the term “Good Samaritan” has come to mean — you could suggest — exactly what it means to be inclusive. You could just say to someone, “Inclusion means behaving like the Good Samaritan” and leave it at that. But let’s not. I want to wander the route of the parable in our hearts. Here are some nuances that rise up to meet me as I walk the Jericho Road. 

First, there is a man. He’s beaten up and left for dead. Even this can be missed: the world can be filled with threats. The world is a place that challenges us in even our simplest lives. A simply journey into the city, a wander in the dark, a careless excursion into uncaring places can bring danger. This is not trying to scare anyone, but we all know that we need to have our wits about us at times. 

So, the man gets jumped by a bunch of thieves who half kill him, and then two important men wander by, famously “on the other side”: the priest and the levite. Both are significant religious characters, significant in the in the temple at the time. Both would have been very concerned about their purity and that of others. What if they were on their ways somewhere that required their absolute purity. We know a bit about how purity and cleanliness was important to the Jewish faith then (and now). Why if they’d been on their way to celebrate an act of sacrifice, and the whole community relied on them being pure. Recall the final words of James 2:1-13: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” It is always assumed that they are somehow guilty of turning away. Or, maybe, with a little further reflection, we could consider a subtext of challenge to the way the law was understood. Just as, in other places, Jesus challenges the pharisees when his disciples feed themselves on the sabbath, perhaps the implication here is that the priest and levite were putting the demands of temple law before the needs of humanity. 

Should they have stopped? We hadn’t thought of it from that point of view before perhaps. People have reasons. And nobody is perfect. Mercy before judgement. 

Even so, the good old Samaritan turns up and we all know how significant that is because he was considered an alien: not a real Jew, and, in fact a bit of a splitter from the pure Jewish faith. Someone who as a child you’d probably have been told never to associate with. We know he is so helpful, caring, and, neighbourly, but that’s the point of the parable, isn’t it? The Inn Keeper too: presumably he didn’t throw up his hands in horror that a Samaritan was dumping this guy on his doorstep, even though he did pay his way. The Inn Keeper just opened his door and let him in. (Here’s a minor diversion… inn keeper… nativity… Luke 2:7. That needs to be looked at, perhaps?) That is hospitality. Ever done that? Opened your door to someone who was covered in blood, and made your house into a hospital ward for the night? 

So, Priest, Levite, Samaritan and inn keeper. The main protagonists. The robbers are just there to help the story arc, but perhaps we are forgetting to look at things from the point of view of the man who was beaten and left for dead. He says nothing, does nothing except bleed everywhere. And we assume he was OK in the end. The parable doesn’t really deal with him. What if we get down into the ditch with him? If we assume he is Jewish (and why not?), then as he’s lying there he is saved by someone who is not good to be with if you are Jewish. The Samaritan, alien, unclean and heretical. He is kind of the alien that you don’t want to know, and yet here he is, stooping down, putting you on his donkey, carrying you to the Inn and then paying for your recuperation. 

My question is this: who would you NOT want to be rescued by? Is there anyone in your world that you think now you would struggle to be touched by? Who is there who makes you go a bit iffy when you might have to be with them. 

We all have them, and that is what we struggle with when called upon to be inclusive. 

We can make all these lovely syrupy sounds about our hospitality, and tut at the priest and levite, and then say, of course, I’d help anyone in need. But there is always someone in our lives that we balk at being with, and being able to tackle that is what it means to be inclusive. 

Being inclusive is about change of heart. It is not necessarily about change of belief, and it is certainly not about changing anyone else belief. Inclusion is how we approach being with people who we’d rather didn’t save us. Hearts aren’t easily changed, of course. You can’t change hearts with pep talks, protests, podcasts, Facebook rants, tweets, or a really good sermon. Hearts require spiritual formation through habits and practices that directly address the issues of the world that keep us from seeing and welcoming each other. 

I was once reading the banns for a couple at a morning Eucharist, and afterwards a lady came up to me and asked how I’d feel if one day I was allowed as an Anglican priest to read the banns of a same sex couple. Quick as a flash I said I’d be overjoyed. “Well I shall leave the church,” she said. 

At that moment, she was samaritan to my dying man, and I had to tell myself: inclusion includes her as well, and it is not my place, my role or my duty to change her mind. It is simply my place to continue loving her, listening to her, to be with her. And pray that she includes me. Being inclusive means including people we don’t understand or get along with; people who cause us grief and make us squirm. We include people because that shows God’s love: the deep message the Gospel. 

It’s the message of James 2:1-13 as well. Welcome people for their humanity, not their clothes. Be ready to put them at the front: those people who you wouldn’t want saving you: the stranger in your midst, the unknown and difficult person. 

You don’t need to change, you just need to be open to meeting God in all kinds of strange places. And in strange people. Inclusive church becomes a valuable way to think to help with this change of heart. It is in some ways very much like the fair-trade movement. Faith communities often ‘join’ fair trade in order to guide them and encourage them in their desire to trade fairly across the world. 

Inclusive church is similar, but as a way to help with ensuring you are not put off by the stranger, and can indeed welcome them: those whom you might find difficulty in being saved by. Who knows the hour Jesus comes? But to be ready, all we need to do is be with everyone. And that means working especially hard at being with those we find difficult. 

So, joining Inclusive Church is not about a label or a badge of membership so much as it is about a way of looking at people. It is something that you look back on and realise that you have become: inclusive. It is not a place you can set out to find, but a place you recognise when you get there. Along the way, by being part of Inclusive Church you can share with others, be encouraged that its not always easy, but ultimately know that the journey is worth the effort.