TO A WORM IN A HORSERADISH,
THE WHOLE WORLD IS HORSERADISH
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter 2010
RCL appointed readings: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
I have been ordained since 1981 and have been seriously involved in the church since 1976. In that time, our Church has dealt with a number of issues, all of which created a lot of upset and anguish. In the 1970’s the proposal to ordain women was met by many with the statement: “If they do that, I’m out of here.” About the same time, it was proposed that we return to the ancient practice of including children at communion, to which the response by many was, “I’m out of here.” I had parishioners in one parish who said they would leave if we even had a children’s talk during a service! Then there was the Book of Alternative Services, to which many responded: “I’m out of here.” More recently, the proposal to include and appreciate the contributions of homosexual persons was again met by the response, by some: “I’m out of here”). Even the relatively simple notion of passing the peace was met with the same approach – people opting out of the life of the Anglican faith community instead of finding ways to accommodate new things.
It’s like a litany in which the automatic response to any proposal is: “I’m out of here!” (Try chanting it). Truth is, it’s not very Anglican to be so reactionary.
The fact is that the Anglican Church of Canada has moved forward on a lot of issues over the last generation or so. Some people left because change happened, while others left because they grew frustrated that our vision was not large enough and we weren’t changing quickly enough, and some may not have liked all the conflict, but stayed, believing that, despite its flaws and failings, the Anglican Church is still an important vehicle of God’s grace to the world.
The lesson from Acts this morning offers a glimpse into what life was like for the early Church, those Christians in the first generation after Jesus’ departure. In today’s lesson, the disciples are trying to sort out what to do about Peter, who as usual has stumbled forward in faith into very deep water. In Joppa (near Caesarea), Peter had a vision (he also described it as a trance) in which he saw a huge sheet full of various animals being lowered down to him, like a huge feast being presented to him out of the blue. In his vision he heard a voice saying to him, “Arise Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter, like any observant Jew, responded that many of the animals being presented were “unclean,” that is, forbidden by the Bible to be eaten. Yet the voice insisted that Peter disobey the scripture he had been raised on and partake fully, with the statement: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
What followed was an encounter with a Roman soldier named Cornelius, which shows that even at that very early stage, some members of the very authorities that had crucified Jesus were already converting to Christianity (or “The Way”). When Cornelius approached Peter, Peter stated the typical Jewish attitude at that time, which was that he was forbidden to even associate with Gentiles – Gentiles were seen as unclean, ungodly barbarians. But Peter’s vision had already dramatically changed his view of such things, so as Peter enters the house of Cornelius, he proclaims, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for those first followers of Christ, virtually all of them from a Jewish background, as Jesus had been, suddenly faced with hostility and rejection from people of their own faith, and also dealing with an influx of new people of dubious background, and needing to make hard decisions. The Jewish sense of clean and unclean, who was in and who was out, was extremely definite. The Torah and the customs of the Temple and synagogue were ingrained in them.
Today’s reading starts with Peter being called up on the carpet and criticized for allowing Gentiles (many Jews referred to them as “dogs”) to enter the fold. After Peter shares the vision he had and the conviction that this is God’s direction for the Church, not his own, it ends with the disciples being silenced, and then expressing joy and praise that God’s gifts are being shared on a much wider scale than they could have imagined.
In the end (as Acts 15 records) the apostles held a Council and decided on keeping only a few of the hundreds of laws and regulations which their religion had demanded. They walked away from the old, and began creating a new vessel for the new wine of the Spirit. It must have been a painful, stressful decision, but if they hadn’t made it, Christianity would have remained as a Jewish sect, and Christianity would not have become a universal faith.
From the beginning of the life of the Christian Church, there has been a history of struggling to integrate new people, new ideas, new ways, in the face of traditions that were considered foundational and unchangeable. When Jesus said “there shall be one flock and one shepherd . . .” we get some idea of the universal scope of his vision. Yet every day we see some evidence of Christians choosing to make that vision much smaller.
Years ago I got into a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness on a street corner and challenged his views of scripture and faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses is a religion of competitiveness and exclusion, which celebrates the idea that only a very few deserve the glory and the rewards, and that salvation is something earned by efforts like standing on street corners. To me, it contradicts virtually the entire New Testament witness. He seemed to be a keen believer in hell, so as I departed, I told him that for him, hell is going to be to encounter people like me in heaven!
The New Testament, especially the teachings of Jesus, reveals a very different attitude. Far from saying that only the lucky, or the select few make it, Jesus told stories about how people who were failures and flops and fools were actually finding the Kingdom of God, while the zealous and righteous were not. Especially in the story of the Labourers in the Vineyard, Jesus revealed how God welcomes all, and that life is not about getting ahead of or more than someone else, it is about enjoying the privilege of being in the vineyard of God’s creation, and it is about celebrating everyone’s gifts. Instead of worrying about whether someone else is getting more, we are freed to enjoy what we have. Instead of resenting those who come new to a situation, we celebrate the fact that God cares for all.
Over the last generation especially it is like the world has opened up and much of it has descended on Canada. Canadians are dealing with a huge influx of people of other faiths and racial and cultural backgrounds. It’s not just our issue; I heard recently that in the next decade or so 100 million Chinese will emigrate to Africa. The world, everywhere, is changing.
Recently Douglas Todd wrote in the Vancouver Sun about the changing demographic landscape of Vancouver. He referred to Statistics Canada report, which was titled “Projections of the Diversity of the Canadian Population.” That report predicted that Metro Vancouver and Toronto would be more than 60 per cent “visible minorities” by 2031, and explored how Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism are by far the country’s fastest-growing religions. In another article dated March 10/10, Todd quoted Stats Can projections suggesting that the Muslim population of Vancouver will triple by the year 2031. There are 72,000 Muslims now; there will be 230,000 then.
We too have our “growing pains.” That can seem like a very dark and frightening place to go. Many are tempted to cling more tightly to the old and familiar; many will persist in outdated attitudes toward people of other cultures and races. Even the term “visible minorities” has become a meaningless and racist term.
Old Yiddish saying: “To a worm in a horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”
Growing up in Regina, I didn’t see much of the world at large, and my world was pretty small. It contained almost no racial minorities; virtually everyone in my world was Caucasian. Even so, people managed to find and focus on the differences rather than looking for connections, so even though it was a fairly homogenous city, there were still divisions to exacerbate: between Roman Catholics and Protestants; Christians and Jews; aboriginal people and whites. Recently an article in the Sun suggested we may be genetically predisposed against people of other races. All I can say is that the Gospel requires much more of us than a kneejerk reaction, whether it’s genetic or not. As we continue to celebrate Easter, and approach Pentecost, it’s an appropriate time for Christians to recognize the call to connect with a much higher reality, which we call the Spirit.
The United Church of Christ (USA) celebrates Immigrant Rights Day on May 2. Granted, it’s American, but it’s interesting to see people celebrating something that many others experience as a threat.
I have had the experience of having people of other faiths – Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim – come to church seeking to find ways to connect with Christianity and specifically with Jesus. A clergy friend of mine recently described a situation in which a large number of Sikhs presented themselves at the altar rail at a church where Bishop Michael was presiding. He had been invited to a special event in a parish in Surrey. Numerous members of the wider community attended, as well as many people of the parish. The priest of that parish had worked hard to establish good relations with the people living around the parish, many of whom were Sikh. At Communion, many of them came forward to the altar rail, obviously expecting to receive Communion. Michael didn’t have time for a debate or to check for historical precedent – he simply had to decide what to do on the spot. His decision was to accommodate these people, who, in discussion after the service, expressed their love of Jesus, but also acknowledged that they could not be baptized because that would cause disruption in their cultural community. What would Jesus do? At the feeding of the 5000, I can’t imagine Jesus checking the religious credentials of everyone present with a view to excluding some. His aim was obviously to accommodate all who had been drawn to him. I believe Michael did the right thing.
The old is always passing away; the new is always presenting itself. Early on, the leaders of the Christian Church learned how to discern the way forward. Again, if they hadn’t, Christianity would not have made it out of 1st Century Palestine, and we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.
For some the word accommodation means compromise and betrayal of principle, while for others the word means hospitality, and sharing the same roof. We are moving toward Pentecost, that festival when we remember the way the Spirit brought a huge diversity of people together, enabled them to communicate and understand each other, and broke down the old barriers of race and religion and culture.
So in the face of massive changes that no doubt threaten many of us — What to do? As the lesson points out, when dealing in the realm of the Holy Spirit, it’s never obvious, because the answer is not so much political or social as spiritual and personal. So there is no formula, but there is a way. It’s not easy, but it’s also not complicated. It’s a kind of disposition or attitude:
First, steep yourself in the person of Jesus. I am often shocked at how little many Christians seem to know about him, and what weird and sometimes hateful, oppressive things people assert in his name. Recently, Anglican leaders in Uganda have supported a government policy condemning gay people to death, and I cannot imagine Jesus anywhere in that ugly scenario except among the victims. People like Marcus Borg have written books like Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pointing out the need to look again at the person who inspired Christianity to come into being. Christianity, I would suggest, needs to look a lot more like Jesus than it usually does, both at the parish level and at the larger institutional level.
Second, in your prayers, in your spiritual practices, in your communications with God, be open for what God may reveal to you, and have the courage to ACT on it as Peter did. Ask yourself whether you are being true to your own personal vision, and whether the church is operating with any meaningful, inspired sense of vision.
And, as Jesus taught, let love be the guideline in everything you think and do. Love each other. You can do that – it’s in you. And simply do your best to extend that love in the form of respect, considerate behaviour, understanding and compassion, into your dealings with all people. As our Baptismal Covenant reminds us: respect the dignity of all human beings … seek and serve Christ in all persons, and love your neighbour as yourself.