Running from strangers

Apr 13th, 2008 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney Parish, on Sunday, 13th April 2008

“They will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” John 10:4

There were usually sixty or so at church on a Sunday evening: upright, respectable, country town Ulster Protestants. The men wore dark suits and many of the women still wore hats to church. Amongst such a congregation, it was inevitable that the young woman would stand out. Her hair was dyed orange and in spikes two inches high; she wore a short dark jacket and leopard skin patterned skin tight trousers.

Most Sunday evenings, the young woman would not have been so conspicuous. If the service was Evening Prayer, you went into your pew and remained there for the whole service, (and in a church that would seat five hundred you might not be near anyone when there were only sixty people there). But once a month there was a service of Holy Communion on Sunday evening, which meant people came out of the pews to come to the front to receive Communion.

The line of people formed as the Communion began. This was in a town where many church members thought you could only go to Communion if you were “good living” and many good living church members didn’t go to Communion because they didn’t consider themselves “saved”. All in all, it meant that the communicants were a fairly select group, and a woman in her twenties with her orange punk hairstyle and her leopard skin trousers was probably not typical of those you might have expected to see. Another young woman was with her; shorter with dark hair, she and her friend looked around for clues about what was going on. When I handed them the chalice, they looked up for advice.

A couple of weeks later, I was out visiting in one of the huge estates on the edge of the town. There was a wind that would cut through you and no shelter in the big areas of open land between the rows of houses. If anyone wanted lessons on how to reduce the chances of a creating community and how to make people feel cut off and isolated, the estate would have done the job perfectly. Going from door to door was demoralising, there were maybe two hundred families on our parish lists, but hardly any ever came to church and few people wanted to see a clergyman on their doorstep. If I called on a Friday afternoon, people would come to the door with their purses, assuming I was the tick man, the money lender come for his weekly payment.

On a bitterly cold December afternoon, I knocked at a door. It was answered by a woman with unmistakable orange hair. A baby’s buggy was in the hallway as I was shown into the kitchen, the only room that was heated. The dark haired companion from the evening service was sat at the table.

Tea was made and sandwiches. The bread was spread with thin margarine and filled with tinned ham cut into irregular slices. I tried to decline the sandwiches, but my orange haired hostess said her ma would not be pleased if she had not given the minister tea and a sandwich.

The woman lived in the house with her baby. Her husband was in prison; in fact, their marriage ceremony had taken place in the prison because he was not allowed out even for such an occasion. The dark haired woman was her sister in law, sister to the man in prison. They spent most of the time together because the estate was lonely and there wasn’t much else to do.

They had come to church because they were Church of Ireland and they had wanted to find out what it was like. They hadn’t understood the service: the words were funny (it had been the old Prayer Book that evening) and they didn’t know why we did the bit with the bread and the silver cup. I tried to explain, but what did a twenty seven year old Englishman educated at two universities, who lived in a nice semi in a nice part of the town, have to say to someone struggling with very gritty realities?

They said they might come to church again, but, if they did, I never saw them and with a thousand families to look after in the parish, I never called at the door again. Twenty years on, I wonder what happened to them.

The young woman and her sister in law and the many, many others like them come to mind each time I read John Chapter 10. Jesus is the good shepherd of his sheep and he has entrusted the flock to the care of the church and the church has lost most of them. Perhaps we have tried and not succeeded to hold on to the flock, maybe we haven’t tried as well as we might.

If we were to put ourselves into the place of the orange haired young woman, or in the place of anyone for whom the church is unfamiliar place and Christianity is something from National School days, how would it feel to come into a church service? How would it feel to try to cope with all the words that the church uses? Wouldn’t the church be like a stranger to them?

What is it that Jesus says about being a stranger to the flock? “They will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” If the church has become a strange place for people, they will avoid it.

If I had the answer as to how we make the church a place where Jesus’ voice is heard, a place where the flock is again gathered in, I would be famous (though, given church stipends, probably not rich), but what I do know is that what matters is that when people come here they find friendship, warmth and a sense of community. Those are things that depend on all of us If people come to church and feel it is like the voice of a stranger, then it is the responsibility of all of us to change things.

The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and it is the responsibility of all of us to know those who belong to our flock. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”, says Jesus. It’s our task to share that life with all whom we meet—especially those with orange hair and tight leopard-skin trousers.

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  1. The Good Shepherd may well know his sheep, but sometimes the flock refuse to move over and welcome a lost sheep into the fold.

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