“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:2
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-odd years on, I wonder what happened to them.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” grumble the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospel reading. The young woman and her sister in law and the many, many others like them would probably have been considered to be amongst the sinners were the Pharisees with us in our own time. But how does Jesus respond? “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Jesus entrusted his 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, sometimes, 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?
Jesus is concerned with every single person; he is not content with 99 per cent. How can we show that same concern? How can we make sure there is a place for everyone? How do we look for 100 per cent? ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost,’ says Jesus.
Looking for those we have lost doesn’t come easily; it invites grumbling about the sort of people we might meet. If a young woman with orange hair and tight leopard-skin trousers walked into our church, how easily would she blend in? “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Perhaps the repentance needs to be on the part of the church for losing the people whom Jesus entrusted to us.