The one with the racists…

There are some things in life that you think are just ‘wrong’, right?. We’ve all got that list in our heads in some form or other. I’m not talking sin or illegal. I’m talking cultural habits that people around us love, but we hate with a passion. You know the kind of thing I mean: watching Strictly, barn dances, socks and sandals, dance music, eating hummus, supporting Leeds United (ok, that last one should be illegal!)… It tends to be summat and nowt, harmless, a bit of banter that brings colour to life. But what about when we start to do the same with people? You see, that can get a bit more tasty.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Just wrong…

Because, as I stated to explore last time, Jesus was well known in first century Judea as a wrong ‘un: a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. If ever anybody fell in with the wrong crowd…

I mean, tax collectors were bad, right? They screwed their own people over for a slice of the Revenue’s pie. They rejected God’s covenant for the instant gratification of a cut of their mate’s giro. And sinners were called sinners because they were…well, you know, sinners. They broke the Lord’s commandments flagrantly and without shame. Often in their very line of work. And yet it was to these people that Jesus gave his time. To Matthew and his mates that he became a mate (Matt. 9.9-11). Them that he came to rescue (Matt. 9.12-13).

Matthew’s house: surprisingly similar to Spoons in Cleck…

As I said last time, I’ve been thinking carefully recently about what it means in our context to follow a Saviour who came for tax collectors and sinners. A Saviour who was a friend to those society rejected. And I’ve come to a shocking conclusion. I reckon it means I too should be a friend to tax collectors and sinners. To invest in them, love them, show them Jesus. Nuts, eh?!

And here’s the thing: I don’t primarily mean my mate who spends his working week in the HMRC offices. Because in our context it means I’m going to have friends who don’t fit into our societies’ nice little boxes.

You see, I am a friend of racists. Proper, open racists. People who won’t buy stuff because Asian people are selling it. They might look over their shoulder before they say it. But they’ll say it all the same.

And I’m a friend of junkies. Of alcoholics. Of people who shout, and swear, and smoke, and fight. Of people who are…well, you know, sinners.

That’s not because I’m special. I’m not some hardcore Christian, specially gifted to reach those who a large, and vocal, part of our society rejects. My friends are just normal people. They’re sinners. Like you, and like me. It’s just their sins are not always the respectable ones that our society accepts.

And I love them. Some of the things they say I disagree with! Some of them we have debates about. But it’s not summat I go on about a lot. They’re my mates. I like them. And, ultimately, it’s not their biggest problem. They need Jesus, and his gospel. And so I don’t want to hold them at arm’s length until they clean up their views on ethnicity, or their bloodstream, or (perhaps most shockingly to some) their language. I want to invest in my friends and tell them of the glorious good news of a Saviour who died that racists, junkies, and nutjobs might be holy and blameless children of their heavenly Father.

You see, Paul tells us that, ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Rom. 5.8) Not after we’d cleaned ourselves up, and gone all respectable. And that means that I’m as needy as they are. The only difference is that, unlike those religious leaders in Matthew 9, because of God’s grace I know I’m sick. In ways that you will never know. And I don’t even want to know what goes on in your head! But Jesus came not to call the righteous (that’d be a one sided conversation!), but sinners. The gospel is for sinners. And unless we’re prepared to stick our messy, sinful hearts into the messy, sinful lives of those around us, they’re not going to hear it.

You’re context might be different. Maybe it’s the multi-millionaire tax dodgers and the crooked bosses who are the tax collectors (literally) and sinners in your community. We don’t tend to get too many of them in Cleck. But whatever our context, the bare facts are these: Jesus died for sinners. Jesus came for sinners. Not for the righteous. If you say you follow him and yet your only friends are the righteous (or those who think they are), then there might be a good chance that you’re doing it ‘wrong’.

Welcome to Cleck!

Cleckheaton is a belter of a place to live. The bloke who wrote the Mr. Men grew up here. It’s got good transport links, within easy reach of Leeds, Manchester, Bradford, Huddersfield. I can testify that it’s got some great pubs, a place where you can get a banging pie and chips, and a top live music venue (if you like tribute acts!). But perhaps the biggest claim to fame (it’s on all the signs when you drive into town) is that we have the world’s biggest Indian restaurant! Which would be perfect, if only I liked curry…

But Aakash is more than just a restaurant (and if you really don’t like curry, they do a tasty chicken and chips). It stands as a monument to the gospel need of my town, my valley, my county. You see the building that houses Aakash used to house an old Congregational Church. With space for 2000 people, it wasn’t small either. It reflected the gospel life in the Spen Valley that had bloomed in the 18th century revival.   

Now I’m not one to get sentimental about old church buildings. A building is a building. If it outlives it’s usefulness, ditch it. I’m just conscious of the symbolism. Conscious of the fact that the vast, vast majority of people in my town would rather enjoy a tasty korma than taste and see that the Lord is good. Which is probably true for your town or city as well.

But the truth in our town is that, not only do most people not want to hear the gospel, here there’s not much opportunity for them to hear it even if they did. It’s why we planted Spen Valley Church here just under two years ago. Because two years in, the vast majority of people I speak to in the town have never knowingly spent any amount of time with a bible-believing Christian, or heard the good news of salvation in Jesus. And I speak to people in that situation every day. The opportunities to share the gospel with people are seemingly endless, you just have to walk out the door.

But that opportunity brings it’s own challenges. As a church we have 14 members. There are 17000 people in Cleck, and 50000 in the Spen Valley. The harvest field is huge, the workers are very few. If we’re going to take this opportunity we need people to come and join us. To get stuck into life here. To join with us in an opportunity to share Jesus.

But the Aakash has something to say to that as well. Although people in Cleck do go there, Aakash is full when the car park is full. People drive in, have their fill, and leave.

After all, who wants to live in a fairly run down post-industrial Yorkshire mill town? Who wants to come and invest in it’s people?

Maybe people who follow a bloke who came from a poor, northern town that nobody wanted to move to. A bloke who spent most of his ministry walking around two bit northern towns, and had compassion on those very northerners, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. A bloke whose compassion drove him to a cross in order to be the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And a bloke whose compassion drove him to command his disciples that they should, ‘ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.’ (Matthew 9.35-38)

One of the aims of this blog is to shine a light on what ministry in a small Yorkshire town is like. But also to shine a light on the opportunity there is to share the gospel in towns like Cleck all across Yorkshire and the North of England. To say, ‘Come over and help us’. Because we can shuffle the sheep who already have a shepherd as much as we like. But unless they hear the gospel, those without a shepherd in Cleck, in Yorkshire, in the north of England, are just going to happily crack on with eating their korma…