A Bigger Table: True Diversity

Sun 29 July 8.30 and 10.15

Welcome to the third of four talks looking at the challenge of building a bigger table: this space where we are invited to come together in our common humanity and share our lives. We have seen that a table was one of the most-used means for Jesus to connect with people and, when God chose a means of mediating his constant presence with us, he chose a meal around a table to do so and we will be partaking in this powerful action in a moment as we eat together around a shared table.

John Pavlovitz, whose book was the inspiration for this series holds to four core values: Radical hospitality, Total authenticity, true diversity and agenda-free community – and today we’re considering true diversity.

In a society where you were judged by the people with whom you ate, we discover Jesus again and again sitting down with – well, everyone and anyone! Diversity might be a modern word, but it seems entirely appropriate to use it in the context of Jesus’ ministry. We see him engaging with the young, the old, men, women, the healthy, the sick, the dying, the single parents, the bereaved, gentiles, fishermen, the religious Jews, the rich the poor, tax collectors, those deemed unclean by Jewish law, sinners, devout, upright people, the Roman hierarchy, prostitutes, married, single, those in work, those out of work, the  divorced, lepers, – even the dead!

But there was one group which struggled greatly with this: the Pharisees and the religious elite whose sole aim, it seemed, was to hold to the traditions and maintain the law. ‘Good things’, you might say, but, according to Jesus, they had missed the point – big time!

These Pharisees considered it was their task to keep the table small and protected from those they considered unworthy and unclean – which, in their view, was most people. But Jesus embraced diversity, and this wound up these religious leaders who accused him of eating with sinners and whose anger eventually led to his death. So, if we are followers of Jesus, I guess we also need to make sure we are not like those for whom he reserves his strongest words.

Pavlovitz says: Every church on the planet claims to desire, seek and welcome diversity – until real, messy diverse diversity shows up at the door looking for a home, and then there’s suddenly no room at the inn. Most faith communities have a diversity threshold, a limited level of difference that they will tolerate comfortably. Few churches are actually as open as advertised.’

Now, from a human perspective, that may not be surprising because, in many ways, churches are no different from any group of human beings who gather together. Every one of us comes to the table with a million imperfections, biases, wounds and experiences which have shaped us to act and think the way we do. And alongside all that baggage we are all trying to coexist in close quarters. That most societies function to the extent that they do is, actually, quite a feat. But what of the church? Yes, we too, bring all that baggage with us around the table but do so with a desire (however weak), to reflect the character of God.

And it’s not easy is it? Let’s not kid ourselves that, just because we claim to follow Jesus, we are all automatically capable of responding in his likeness or assume that faith automatically breeds love for those who are different. In reality it’s often a bloody battle in the trenches as we try and bear with people whom we find unbearable and love people we find unlovable – but that’s what we are called to do –– that’s what it means to build a bigger table – and that’s what Jesus did.

As I have written in my Parish mag introduction this month, we are living in a time where our conversations are becoming more polarised and polarising and where diversity (that place where we welcome and even celebrate difference), is increasingly a dirty word. Our all-or-nothing discourse is designed to generate contempt for the other simply because of their… well, their what? What are these things that challenge true diversity?  In his chapter on this subject, Pavlovitz majors on: colour, gender and race and, I suspect these are pretty universal areas of conflict. We could list hundreds of issues which challenge the possibility of diversity and, therefore, shrink the table but let’s look at these three this morning.

It seems clear to me that racist attitudes and action have become more widespread since Brexit and Trump. People who once kept their thoughts to themselves now feel emboldened to voice their prejudices. Even from Christians, even people in this church, I have heard the most awful racist comments.  Racism is an attempt to shrink the table and it is not what Jesus did. It’s bizarre that we who claim to follow a dark-skinned, Middle-Eastern rabbi, can begin to judge others by the colour of their skin or the country from which they come. The final words of Jesus were to ‘Go into all the world and make disciples’. Disciples are brothers, sisters, friends and fellow-workers. How can we begin to share the good news with people of whom we have an innate dislike?

I thought it insightful how many people at the World Cup in Russia were saying how surprised they were by the welcome and hospitality they received from the Russian people. Why were they surprised? Because they had been sold a racist narrative by the media and only when they engaged with the reality behind the labels was the stereotype challenged. Yes, stereotypes can reflect some truth, yes, not all Russians will be warm and hospitable but, as far as I’m aware, Jesus never lazily lumped whole people groups together into dehumanising caricatures – he treated every individual as special, unique and loved by God – and so should we.

Sexual orientation is still an enormous barrier to true diversity in the church and an excuse to exclude people from the table. How welcoming are we to the LGBT community in Liss – because there are plenty of them around. How welcome do they feel when they come into this place? Last week we spoke about total authenticity. How far could a gay person be authentically themselves in your presence before you would want to push them off the table? And what could we do to demonstrate our radical hospitality: that all are genuinely welcome (which is the straplines we’ve used on our website for years)?

Fortunately, most (not all) churches have changed over the last 10 years or so and are at least willing to admit some people are gay without labelling them ‘sinner’. It’s a step in the right direction but many of these churches are fine as long as these people don’t ‘practice’ their homosexuality (which is an awful expression). When Jesus shared table fellowship with prostitutes and tax collectors – do you think he asked if they were practicing? Of course they were – that’s one reason he was there! But his table was big enough.

And don’t get me started on transgender. Again, I have been shocked by the tone of discussion and the language used about trans people. surely our response should always start with love and compassion. Unfortunately, what I hear seems based too often on fear and ignorance. The church, rather than offering a place of acceptance and love around the table can, by its language, end up discriminating against people who already face enormous discrimination. Transgender people suffer above-average suicide rates, depression and mental illness which, according to the The Lancet medical journal, primarily arises in response to the discrimination, stigma, lack of acceptance, and abuse they face. What would Jesus do?

Did you know the first recorded Gentile convert to Christianity was someone from a sexual and gender minority? Philip, a leader of the early Church, baptises an Ethiopian eunuch even though Jewish theology would not then have deemed him worthy of it due both to his status as a foreigner and a eunuch.

To rush to judgment about what it is to be transgender is, I suggest, a pharisaical approach to human experience. Yes, I realise that the debate on some of these issues has moved faster than some of us can keep up with; the language may be new; you may have many questions, but none of that gives us permission to use the language of exclusion and hate. Rather, we should stop and listen and seek to understand: understand the hurt and the damage that can arise when people feel they have to suppress their true gender identity. Let’s start with compassion. Let’s invite people to the table – to hear them, listen to their stories, to get to know them as people – which they are!

These are all enormous issues which society and the church have been wrestling with for ever. But beneath the accusations and the anger and the hurt are… people. Not a black person or a Muslim, not a lesbian or a transgender person – but – a person. Waiting to be loved for who they are. Jesus knew that.

Jesus had table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes and, just in case we interpret those words too narrowly – we also have the cover-all expression: ‘sinners’. What are the people with whom you struggle? People you are aware you exclude from the table, people you find yourself despising, hating, ridiculing, treating as less than yourself? Let’s be honest, I expect most of us can insert a few labels – I know I can. But as I’ve been working through this series my own attitudes have been constantly challenged and I am seeking to do better – to be better.

What would it take for you to consider sharing meaningful space with ‘those’ people on your list? To sit at a table with them literally or metaphorically? I don’t mean just Sundays, but Monday to Saturday – surely that’s where this stuff is worked out in practice. It’s fairly easy to stand beside someone in a church service for an hour but that alone doesn’t mean that we are invested in each other’s lives (as we should be) and enjoying the unique – and messy – oneness that comes from our unity in Jesus Christ. The moment you walk out these doors is where the rubber hits the road.

One of the reason labels can be so damaging is that no label is sufficient to fully represent another person. If you are straight – does that label sum you up? If you are a man – does that describe all you are? If you are rich, is that who you are? If you vote Labour does that define you? If you are single is that the final word about you? No, no, no. Every one of us is formed from a million experiences and influences and, to make it even more complicated, we are all still changing. The question is: ‘into what?’ or, more importantly for a Christian: ‘into whom?’

Are you still with me? Maybe you didn’t think belonging to the church came with such conditions – all this talk about community, authenticity, diversity and hospitality seems too messy and dangerous and may not be what you signed up for. If you signed up to come to a church service once or twice a week and then just walk out the door without it radically impacting the rest of your life Monday to Saturday, then you have probably missed the point of the church – big time. If, however, you are here because in some way, however small, you want to follow in the footsteps of Christ, then I hope we can take these challenges seriously.

The underlying question we all need to ask is: Did Jesus by his words and actions seek to create a bigger table, practice radical hospitality, seek total authenticity and true diversity? If not, then you can ignore everything I’ve said. But if he did, then there are implications: yes, tough, messy, difficult implications – for us personally and as a church.

But the rewards far outweigh any effort we may put in. At a bigger table we can lay down our guilt and shame and be authentic and honest. At a bigger table everyone is welcome, accepted and loved. At a bigger table we meet with God because, as we spend time together we see the image of God in the other. If we are all made in the image of God then maybe there’s something of God to be discovered in other people that can never be found anywhere else. Are we able to see that other person as a once-in-a -lifetime expression of humanity who can, if we allow them, offer us something unique – as we seek to share our uniqueness with them.