Vicar's Sermon - 17th September 2017
Romans 14. 1-12
This sermon is about cabbages and calendars but before we get to them I must introduce to you a friend of mine whose mane is Pat.
Pat Keifert can only be American. You just have to look at him and you know that he’s from the other side of the pond. Maybe it’s the big cowboy hat that he carries with him – it belonged to his grandfather I believe – that gives the clue to his nationality, or perhaps it’s the fact that whenever I meet him in Durham (because he is helping with some work in the Diocese) he is en route to somewhere else so he carries all his luggage with him. Yep, Pat is American through and through.
Except ‘being American’ is a complicated business. If we think our self-identification on census forms is pretty nuanced (white, white-Irish, Black British, Black-Afro Caribbean and so on) just imagine what it must be like in the melting pot of the USofA!
Pat is ‘Italian American’: brought up to go to church alongside his Catholic grandmother he jokes about a family tree that reaches back to the Mafioso. But even that is not enough – because Keifert isn’t an Italian name: half the family were German Lutherans and it’s in the Lutheran church that Pat has exercised his ministry.
Well, this Italian/German American, named after the patron Saint of Ireland (and so quite comfortable drinking Guinness) was describing to me one of the churches in which he has served. In passing he said something like this ‘Of course, there’s no way a German Lutheran would allow the Stars and Stripes into their building, at least not in my part of the States’.
Now if you’ve ever been to America and attended worship there you will know that most churches will have the Stars and Strips hanging in a prominent place in the building – often in the Sanctuary. To English eyes it seems somewhat odd. So for Pat to say there was ‘no way’ the flag would find its way into a German Lutheran church struck me as pretty interesting so I asked why…..I should however have known the answer. National Socialism – the particularly German experience of the Church being captured by the State in the period that led up to the Second World War. The fact that the lines between Church and State became so blurred that the Lutheran Church in Germany became complicit in the horrors of Fascism. The lesson was learned the hard way: German churches will work with Government for the good of all but they will not surrender their identity to the Nation State. Putting it bluntly: Being Christian is more than being German.
Identity. That’s what it’s about. Way back then, in Germany, there was such an identification of the church with the ‘fair haired blue eyed’ German ideal that the church’s Christian identity was nearly lost. But there were some that resisted.
On my book shelves I have this little book: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I bought it back in 1982 and I have a poster of the picture on the front cover (which is one of Picasso’s) on the back of my study door. Life Together is about identity. It was written by Bonhoeffer for students training for ministry at Finkenwalde. These were students who were to serve within the ‘Confessing Church’ – those unhappy with the capitulation of the mainstream churches to Hitler. In the book Bonhoeffer talks about prayer, both prayer in community – how the seminarians are to conduct their common prayers - but also as individuals. He writes of how the study of Scripture is to be central to community life. He speaks of how the day is to be structured and so on but his very first chapter is entitled ‘community’ – I don’t often re-read books but I have read this chapter in this book any number of times.
Hear these words:
Christianity means community though Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this…We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.
What determines our fellowship is what another is by reason of Christ.
Bonhoeffer goes on to say that one of the greatest dangers for any Christian fellowship is that we are inclined to project our wish dreams onto it – the church must be like this, that or the other. No, he says: Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian Community is a hindrance to genuine community…He who loves his dream of a community more than the community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter even though his personal intentions may be everso honest and earnest and sacrificial.
The person who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realised by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly…. He becomes an accuser of the brethren, then an accuser of God and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
I find these words to be incredibly powerful and full of insight. Christian fellowship, says Bonhoeffer (drawing on his knowledge of the scriptures) ‘is not an ideal that we must realise; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognise that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.’
Which brings us to cabbages and calendars. There they are in Romans chapter 14: vegetables and dates in diaries – the battle ground for some Christians to take chunks out of one another. Food had certainly been one of the main identifiers of Judaism: dietary regulations, kosher/non-kosher distinguishing the observant Jew from the person who was beyond the pale. The observance of this festival or that perhaps less contentious, I don’t really know. But in his letters to churches beyond the borders of Israel Paul tries to help new converts to see how their faith is both continuous with the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (how they have been brought into the story of God’s dealings with humanity) but also how, in Christ, they can be free of the requirements of Jewish Law because their identity is no longer to found in the observance of the law but in Jesus.
But this a hard sell because as human beings we want to bring more to the table ourselves (and I don’t mean cabbages at this point). I may well sing ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling’ but actually I struggle with God’s grace and forgiveness, I want Him to recognise just how good I am, how moral and hardworking and faithful and ‘heavens’ I say, ‘I’m doing far better than that person over there and…’ God will have none of this: ‘You are part of this community, my family,’ He says ‘not because of what you have done but because of what I have done.’ We cannot look across at the person in the pew or in the other denomination or in the church on the others side of the world that does things so very differently from us here in rural Teesdale and judge them or look down on them. As Paul puts it ‘we do not live to ourselves’. When we make ourselves the centre of our lives we’ve lost the plot. Rather, Jesus is to be the focus of our lives and we relate to all other people (both those of faith and those of no faith) through Him.
Thank God that in this country at least those days of fiercely strict divisions between Protestant and Catholic, Free Church and Established church have given way to a mutual respect and tolerance amongst Christians that sees us working together across old divides for Jesus’ sake. But each of us might take to heart this rather obscure passage about cabbages and calendars in Paul’s greatest letter. He knew what he was talking about. He knew the human soul. He knew the pitfalls of common life and He knew that in Christ we have all been reconciled to God…but also to each other. Jesus is the one that holds us together: not the way we read scripture, not the way we celebrate the sacraments, not the way we conduct worship, not our colour or our wealth or our gender, not our morals or nationality – only He unites us: everything else is secondary And only when we see our neighbour as Jesus sees them can true Christian community be formed.