Posted by: owizblog | April 28, 2016

On Being In A Stew And Getting Out Of It: Sermon, UCB, 24 April 2016

Acts 11:1-18

1

The oddest memories can be unearthed by the process of writing a sermon. Looking at the passage we’ve just heard from the Book of Acts, my mind suddenly went back to the late autumn of 1975, my first term at university. Now, North Wales may be slightly off the beaten track, but Rhyl and Caernarfon are hardly more remote than St. Andrews; my life might have shifted from one seaside to another – and I was still coping with the weirdness of having the sea to the east, and not to the north! – but I didn’t have the sense of coming from an obscure backwater to a metropolis.

The university, though, was different. Universities are. They are meant to be mixing-bowls of cultures. Students from all over the world flock to the United Kingdom because of the excellence of the education our universities offer – and they are, generally speaking, shockingly badly treated by the government, especially the Foreign Office.

Foreign students in number should be the glory of any university, and they, along with staff from all over the world, enormously enrich not just the institution where they study and work, but the whole culture of the country in which they are placed, and the experience of every other student, even from just down the road.

Education should be about throwing open the gates of the mind, encountering new things, asking questions, seeing things in new ways. At eighteen, I thought I was ready for all of this. I didn’t imagine my first, and possibly greatest challenge would be a plate of stew.

It wasn’t even a particularly exotic stew. I’d have been ready for that. I had my first ever beef curry when I was four, in the Chinese Restaurant that used, I think, to be in the Gallowgate, not a mile from here. I’m pretty sure that this was a beef bourguignon – and I’d had that before, too, probably at a wedding. Was there a wedding reception in the sixties or seventies that didn’t offer a choice between Beef Bourguignon and Chicken Chasseur, with a vegetarian option of the ham salad, and just don’t eat the ham…?

No, the new, challenging and unsettling thing about this stew was that it was served with salad.

stew

As I say, we were sophisticated people in North Wales in the seventies. We had been to the edge, culinarily. We knew that you could eat stew, not just curry, with exotic stuff like rice, instead of potatoes. But the kindly lecturer, and his sophisticated, continental wife who were generous enough to open their home periodically to ten or twelve students, clearly either didn’t know or didn’t care that there’s a prohibition somewhere in the Old Testament against mixing stew, which is hot food, with salad, which is cold food, on the same plate. Why? Well, do you need to ask? One is hot, and the other is cold. That is how God made them. And you can’t mix them. If you do mix them, generations of your ancestors will weep in heaven, and society will start to crumble.

Of course, maybe that’s what these people, this learned lecturer and his sophisticated wife, wanted. Maybe they were bohemians, or anarchists, or something, who wanted to subvert society. To be honest, a bit of me at eighteen thought “I’m up for that!” A much bigger bit of myself thought “What have I got myself into?”

I’m parodying myself now, a bit, but I do vividly remember the feeling that evening that suddenly, all the newness, and change, and openness to fresh thinking that I had thought I was exploring that first term at uni was really just paddling – and that I’d suddenly fallen into deep water fully-clothed.

And to put that into context – that evening, I was probably dressed much like this…

70s

I glanced around, and saw that perhaps two others of the ten or so of us were clearly suffering the same disorientation, as they were presented with plates of salad and suddenly had a delicious stew decanted onto them. “Is this a joke…?” followed by “Does she realize what she’s doing…?” followed by “This is weird…” followed by “This is not right…” followed, inevitably – since we were students – by “This is delicious…!” followed by “It’s still not right… what would my mother say…?” followed by “Now I’ve seen everything…” followed by probably the most interesting and important thought of the evening: “Actually, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t seen everything. In fact – to paraphrase Al Jolson – I’m starting to think that I ain’t seen nothing yet…”

And as a counter to all of this, that perhaps three of us were thinking together, was the fact that everyone else in the room was fine with it. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that there might have been a cultural taboo against serving stew with salad on the same plate. They would have thought such a taboo absurd.

2

The disorientation was profound. It actually lasted several days. And it consisted of several components, several bits.

That I’d thought that I, with my almost-Afro hairstyle, and my purple flared cords, and my stylish, to-die-for takn top, was a citizen of the world, and here, I wasn’t.

[Slide: Sermon]

That I’d thought that the view from North Wales was the God’s eye view of the world, the world the way it was and should be.

That I’d thought without realizing it that I was an open-minded, tolerant, cultured little being, with much to learn but all the open-mindedness and tolerance and culture to learn it.

And I had been a much smaller being than I thought.

That this was moving out into the big, wide world, then.

And there would be more of this, and more different, and more unsettling than I could imagine.

That people whose lives, and practices, and assumptions about how you do things would still strike me as profoundly good, and kind, and supportive, and loving, and welcoming people, who would in these respects put me to shame, and raise the bar for my own humanity.

And – since I was there to study Hebrew, and Theology, and the Scriptures – that God was in this, and that a part of what was unsettling me was that God was clearly vastly bigger than I’d ever imagined, and that I was going to have to rethink my sense of call, and my sense of what my life was going to be about if I was serious about pursuing my call, following where I seemed to be being led.

sheet

3

And what I want to tell you this morning is that I am sure that variants of all of that – except for the studying Hebrew and Theology bit – were components in Peter’s response to the summons to welcome a Gentile and his family into the Church without having them become Jews first, for the first time in the history of the Christian faith, and components, too, in the vision that Acts reports him as having had, of being presented with a buffet meal of all the sorts of things that Jewish folk are forbidden to eat, and told that God was fine with him eating it.

I can’t imagine how horrified he must have been.

But if one of the formative experiences of my time at university was two platefuls of boeuf bourguignon served with salad (yes, I had seconds – in fact it might have been thirds) then one of the formative stories of the early Church is Peter being told, not that there is no law against having salad and stew on the same plate; it’s that there is, for him,  no longer any law binding him from enjoying everything that God has sanctified. He now sees how God thinks. (And Luke says it in just exactly that way: God is nothing like as narrow-minded as Peter has been up to this point. God is nothink like as narrow-minded as many people are who think they have the mind of God.)

To allow that these, Gentile people are as acceptable as they are as he is the way he is, is a huge transformation of the meaning of faith. That they, as different as they are, are to be welcomed not despite the differences, but because of them, is a redefinition of God. It isn’t God who can’t cope with difference. It’s often us.

[Hymn: SGP 198 Let us build a house…]

[Gospel: John 13:31-35]

4

I’m a Commissioner to the General Assembly this year, so once I came down from the ceiling, I knew exactly what the huge thump at the letterbox had been.

book

It was my Blue Book, the compendium of Assembly Committee reports arriving. There are ways of doing things in churches. There is procedure and bureaucracy and due diligence and process. One of the glories of the General Assembly is that every year some of this – and in some, good years, most – gets distilled into something vibrant, living, even inspiring. And that’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

So, too, in the Book of Acts.

cornelius

What Peter does, in accepting into the Church and baptizing a family who are not Jewish, and who haven’t been required to come into the Christian faith having accepted what up to that point has just been assumed, and unexamined – that everyone in the Church is subject to the Law that makes the Jewish people who they are – is revolutionary. It redefines absolutely everything. And there are people who say that it shouldn’t have been done, even that it can’t possibly be done. In just the same way, there were people who said that you couldn’t ordain women to the Eldership of the Kirk, and that you couldn’t ordain them to the Ministry. And that was done, and it’s turned out that the clear justification for it, in retrospect, is that the Spirit has worked conspicuously in the Church through the ministries of women.

Thank God, there were people who were willing to say at the time that the Spirit would work in that way, and was already working by calling women to a ministry the Church wouldn’t let them enter.

And they changed the mind of the Church.

5

And that’s exactly Peter’s argument. Here were these people. The Spirit fell on them. Was I going to withhold what God had obviously already given?

The Church goes where the Spirit leads. But not always very quickly. And that’s interesting, because it suggests that God’s Spirit is already operating way beyond what we consider to be the bounds of the Church. So either the Church is sometimes happy to leave God’s Spirit out on a limb (and the Spirit is happy with that) or the boundaries of the Church, as the sphere of God’s love and Christ’s call and the Spirit’s work, are much wider than we think. If there are boundaries at all.

Now, you can do what Peter does, and simply say “The Spirit led us here. We didn’t expect it, but there you go. The Spirit is always doing surprising things!”

Or you could look back, and say “Actually, this isn’t surprising at all. This actually goes straight back to Jesus.”

6

Did you hear the reading Len gave us, a few moments ago? I mean, really hear it? Jesus, in John’s Gospel, just before his arrest and crucifixion:

‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

We’re so keen to find out about each other, aren’t we? It’s such a hard thing to accept others before we’ve found out all we can about them. On holiday, I’ve been welcomed at church doors, sometimes with a shy smile or a simple hello, or sometimes with a “Where are you from?” or a Where are you staying?” But I’ve also found myself in church settings where I’ve been grilled, interrogated, and had the sense that I’m being checked to see just how I might or might not fit in.

And I’ve found myself thinking “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!”

And you’ll remember Monty Python’s answer to that!

inquisition

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!!!”

So much dissention, exclusion and cruelty has been inflicted by Christians on Christians and on others, by the awful preoccupation we sometimes have with who might or might not be acceptable to God. That’s none of your business, says Jesus. He says it in so many words in Matthew’s Gospel. Judge not, that ye be not judged… And John’s Jesus says it here. Your business is to love and accept each other.

And that means to accept the differences, and to accept the challenging diversity, the things we don’t understand about each other. No hiding from truth. It’s as dishonest to pretend that everyone is straightforwardly nice, and easy to get on with, and uncomplicated, as it is judgmental to insist that everybody be like me, or get out. And there’s nothing loving about allowing others to manipulate or bully or deceive us. To love someone as they are is to love the whole complicated truth of who they are, and to acknowledge all of it.

But that doesn’t change the bottom line – that the Church, led by the Spirit, goes out into the world, and is constantly challenged to see what it means, to say that God loves all of this.

If our love here in Christ’s Church is not an inclusive love, ready to be surprised at finding the Spirit at work in the most unexpected places and people – then we can hardly claim to be Jesus’ disciples, now, can we?

 

 

 

 

 

 


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