The day before I got a phone call asking if I would consider becoming the minister of Fitzroy, I was chatting to a friend about who might be whackey enough in our entire denomination to call me as their minister. I suggested that I might get a phone call from Fitzroy to which he responded, “But you wouldn’t go there... they talk to Catholics...”
Tonight I presume that you are those he was talking about. I count it a privilege to be invited by you, warmly welcomed by you and to be now... heaven forgive me, speaking to you. I am not sure what damage we are doing to each other by gathering together to share our faith in Jesus around singing his praise and reading the Scripture but hey someone will find something wrong with this moment that I call blessing.
My friend’s comments were not a surprise to me and therefore sadly did not disturb me. I have heard all the rumours about Fitzroy. My predecessor Rev Dr Ken Newell found that because he spoke to Catholics, many within Protestantism negated everything else that he and Fitzroy believed. The blatant lies that are nothing short of the most outrageously imaginative fiction have no bearing on the truth of the Biblically based spiritual strength of that congregation. My friend actually believes that his comment is a virtuous Christian stand when really it is nothing short of sectarianism, the sectarianism that has divided us for so many years and caused so much hurt and pain in our communities. Yes, he and we might never have pulled the trigger but in our dehumanising of one another we are pointing our hearts.
Sectarian stereotypes, caricatures and labelling. It allowed people in our small community to so dehumanise that they could carry out the most violently heinous of acts upon fellow citizens. Many times in the aftermath the killers were also dehumanised as animals. Jesus lived in that world too. Your theme for the week has been “you are witnesses of these things” from the end of the Gospel According to Luke. Tonight’s reading was from the beginning of the same Gospel where Jesus reads Isaiah in the synagogue kicking off to his own ministry to give the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed their freedom and full humanity. In between those verses we are witnesses to Jesus ministry of interrupting dehumanisation with the loving warmth of grace. There are a range of people that Jesus walks around that were dehumanized. The tax collector, the leper, the prostitute and the Samaritan woman are all people dehumanised by the centre of social, political and religious power in Israel. Time after time we are witnesses of Jesus crashing down those barricades to bring grace, redeem, save, rehumanise those who have lost the preciousness of their humanity, made in the image of God.
My favourite Irish theologian, who walks very happily between his mother’s Catholicism and his mother’s Protestantism is U2’s Bono and he speaks of interruptions of grace. God interrupts our lives by his grace to rescue us. God interrupts history by ending apartheid or the Troubles. We join God in bringing his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven by becoming grace interrupters. It is what Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds and many of you from Clonard and Fitzroy have been doing for years. Let us not grow complacent. Our community still needs rehumanising. As witnesses of Jesus ministry we must move on. We must be interrupters, rehumanisers in our own communities and across those “peace walls” and “barricades” that the spirit of the age builds up.
In rehumanising I am not talking about conforming. Neither do I mean denying our differences theologically. My friendship with Father Gary Toman at Queens has been a real encouragement in my faith over recent years but I know that Gary went away perturbed many times at the seeming anarchy of everyone getting their chance to interpret Scripture and have a plethora of positions on baptism and communion etc. I on the other hand am a contrary wee Ballymena man who could never live under a Majesterium! We made each other more Catholic and Presbyterian and were happy to feed the soul beneath our different creeds.
Neither can we deny the hurt that we have caused each other. We carry deep wounds physically, emotionally, mentally, culturally and need to bring those before a grace that can interrupt our pain so that we can by grace reach out to those who we feel have caused that pain. Jesus never said that grace would be an easy thing to give. He just called us to follow him into our world to do as he did.
One of my favourite West Wing clips is when after an attack on Americans in Gaza fictional President Bartlett is expected to launch an immediate attack to assure the American people that they are strong and safe. He refuses a revenge strike and instead, against even his own staff’s advice, says he is going to seek peace. He looks at his critics and says, “I am trying to find a way to make peace... and when I do you can go on television and explain why you were against it.” To my friend who wouldn’t want me to come to Fitzroy because he didn’t want me to talk to you I would like to say that when we make peace I’d like him to stand in the fulfilled Kingdom of God and tell Jesus why he thought that was a bad idea!