Acts 2.41-47 and Luke 10.25-37

In recent weeks the most common question that I’ve been asked has been, “What will you miss about being bishop of Dudley?” So here are my top ten things:

  • The warmth of the people.
  • Slow cooked grey pays and bacon.
  • The ‘tell you direct’ honesty of parishioners.
  • Walks on the Clent Hills during bluebell season.
  • Being involved with the amazing charity CHADD serving some of the most vulnerable in our community.
  • The Chiltern Line.
  • My fantastic PA, Helen.
  • This museum and its vision.
  • Friendships with other faith communities.
  • Walking through Netherton tunnel.

And there is so much more.

And I wonder if you would like to know what I won’t miss?

Faggots and cold black pudding!

I am particularly grateful for our neighbours from other faith communities for being here today and for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community for providing a curry for us all. It has been the greatest honour when those of you from other faiths have called me ‘our bishop’. Thank you. I am hugely grateful to each and every one of you for how you have formed me as a bishop over the last five and a bit years – you’ve been bostin.

In this incredible museum we are transported back in time to a different era of the Black Country, to see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the iron, and taste the fish n chips of yesteryear – times of hardship and care, of neighbourliness and close knit communities, and, also, certain codes of how to be a community defined in Peaky Blinders. In our gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus draws us in to explore hardship and care, and what it is to be a neighbour. We are transported to a dusty road in the Judean desert, a place of danger and risk with lots of twists and turns as it climbed over desert hills and descended into wadis. But we are also given a glimpse into the codes of being a community in Jesus’ day because across the story fall the strict Jewish purity rules.[i]

Two of those rules were that Gentiles and dead bodies were unclean. An observant Jew couldn’t touch a Gentile, could not eat with one, and certainly couldn’t touch a dead body without, in a sense, catching the impurity.

The priest had perhaps been doing his religious duty in the Temple in Jerusalem and he was trotting home on his donkey to Jericho. He was keen to get home. He was a good man. And then he sees a man lying in the road, stripped naked, not moving, possibly dead. His religious code forbid him from touching a Gentile or a dead body. He can’t tell if the man lying in the road is a Gentile or a Jew. He can’t tell if the man lying in the road is alive or dead. And according to the rules of his community he can’t come within five feet of death or he himself will become impure. So here we have a man who has spent a fortnight praying in the Temple and is at the very height of purity. If he touches the man lying in the road, and the man is dead or a Gentile, then he’ll have to turn his donkey round and ride back up to Jerusalem to cleanse himself again. So, what does he do?

He asks himself the same question as the lawyer, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, and his answer is ‘not that man today’. He takes the easy route, but it comes, and this is the point, out of the deep codes of his faith.

The next person is a Levite. He’s a little lower in the pecking order and he’s on foot. He too is sincere about his faith. Perhaps he saw the priest pass by and assumed that the priest had worked out that this was a dead man or a Gentile. He asks himself the same question as the lawyer and the Priest, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, and his answer is ‘not that man today’.

Then who comes next? Jesus’ original hearers, having heard about a Priest and a Levite, would have been expecting the next level down in the religious hierarchy of their day - an Israelite, ie a layperson. But here comes the twist in the parable, because Jesus always likes to put a twist in his stories.

Back in history there was a schism between Jew and Samaritan and there was a distrust between them. Think a thousand times worse than between Wolves and the Albion! So when Jesus speaks about a Samaritan he is speaking about a person who is loathed. And this Samaritan follows a fairly similar religious life as the other two and finds that he needs to make the same decision. He should really pass by on the other side.

But he is moved beyond measure. He asks himself the same question as the lawyer, the Priest and the Levite, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and he has this explosion of compassion within him. It blows the rulebook away – this man needed help. And he needed it there and then. The Samaritan is living out the theologian Miroslav Volf’s definition of hope: ‘Hope is love stretched into the future’.

The robbers had said, ‘what’s yours is mine’.

The Priest and Levite had said, ‘what’s mine is mine’.

But the Samaritan said, ‘what’s mine is yours’.[ii]

And there is the clue to unlock the rich lawyer’s question, ‘who is my neighbour?’

Our neighbours are anyone in need of me. Our neighbours are every person made in the beautiful image of God. Our neighbours are those we have a tendency to label as the other. Our neighbours are those who inconvenience us and those it would, frankly, make life a lot easier simply to ignore. Our neighbours are even those we think are different from us. Our neighbours have an identity.

We build friendship with our neighbours that enable us to face times of difficulty together. We discover in our neighbours, more often than not, peace and joy and love. We find paths to understanding and reconciliation with them. Our churches mustn’t be clubs for the privileged few, they must be places that create space to foster being a good neighbour. They must never be places that put up walls, but always places that build bridges into communities. They must be places of welcome and safety. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor and theologian killed by the Nazis, challenged us when he said, ‘Any community of Jesus that wants to be invisible, is no longer a community that follows him’. All are welcome at the table of the Lord, to ‘devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. From this study and bread breaking and prayer, wells up our calling to bandage the wounds of the hurting and care for those in need.

That’s why you find Christians in this borough running the Black Country food bank where people like Dave asked for food last week because his wages are simply not enough to support the needs of his family.

That’s why you find us running a charity that provides the women’s refuge where people like Lynn told me about the delays in getting Universal Credit for herself and her three kids who had escaped from the violence of her partner.

That’s why each week in Halesowen, refugees like Omar are given support. An Iranian Christian, who told me about how he had crossed from Turkey to Greece in an overcrowded boat, fearful that he would drown.

That’s why we stand with people of other faiths when the far right want to stir up hatred in our town.

That’s why a thousand, thousand acts of kindness and generosity are offered each year by Christians in this borough.

That’s why our churches are places of mini-miracles where vows of baptism and marriage made and honoured, forgiveness offered and received, and times of mourning and loss placed in the palms of God’s hands.

Simply, because that is what Jesus would be doing. ‘Christians should share their joy’ writes Pope Francis, we should ‘point to a horizon of beauty, and invite others to a delicious banquet’.

We’re not to pull a fizzog or have a cob on. Don’t be a half-soaked bab or begin blarting. No more clarting about saying you’ll get on with it sometime. Loving God means getting out there, sharing our faith, and serving our neighbours – both their needs and through creating spaces where good conversations can happen. It’s time, it always is, to sing God’s song again, as we bless the Lord oh my soul and sing of his holy name. And until we meet again, it’s just, ta-ra a bit.

[i] Material about the Good Samaritan parable drawn from the writings of Kenneth Bailey and Richard Holloway

[ii] From a tweet by Jo Bailey Wells