The Challenge of Accommodation

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church,  April 24, 2016

Acts 11:1-18; John 13:34-35

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The verdant spring of bursting green and fluttering orange fills us with the glorious goodness of all creation. It beckons us out of our ice-mud funk into the greening power of new life. Hildegard of Bingen, a brilliant botanist, theologian, composer, mystic and abbess of a monastery in the 1100’s, wrote, “Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars. Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. Now, think. What delight God gives to humankind with all these things.”

Two days ago was Earth Day, a celebration that was begun in 1970 to draw awareness to the plight of creation and inspire us to care much better for it. Although our Christian tradition is mixed in its care of the earth, Genesis 1 affirms the goodness of every living being and its crucial connection to the rest of creation. After the creation of each part of nature, Genesis tells us “God saw that it was good.” The heart and essence of every part of the earth and all its creatures, including humanity, is goodness. When we consider some parts of creation to be expendable, valued only for our consumption and their economic worth, we lose sight of their invaluable contributions to the ecosystem. We forget our own Christian teaching about the intricate goodness of each part of creation.

Listen again to the words of Hildegard of Bingen, a prophet beyond her time, “We shall awaken from our dullness and rise vigorously toward justice. If we fall deeply in love with creation, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.” Even 900 years ago, there was concern about a disregard of creation.

Our temptation to divide creation into valuable and worthless has been extended to humanity. The caste system of India, which declares the lowest caste of the Dalits as the Untouchables, is one example. Only by coincidence of birth, an entire group of people is considered unclean and expendable. But before we jump to point accusing fingers, we must ask ourselves, “Who are the untouchables in our society? Whose welfare do we often dismiss?”

Peter’s world was structured around untouchables. His culture considered certain foods and certain people unclean. To associate and eat with them was to defile himself. And then he had a strange, unsettling dream. A net filled with every unclean creature imaginable came down from the heavens and Peter was told to eat them. When he protested, he was told, “Do not call profane that which God has made clean.” At that moment, he received visitors, inviting him to go to the home of a Gentile. His neatly divided world fell apart.  As he began to comprehend God considered all creatures clean and worthy, he knew that this included all people of various cultures. He also realized that God did not require people to change from their own cultural practices to follow Jesus.

This was why Peter’s message to the early church leaders in Jerusalem was so controversial. Both Peter and Paul were telling the Jerusalem leaders that others did not have to adapt to their culture to become Christians. They did not have to follow the dietary laws, they did not have to be circumcised, they did not have to follow the cultural norms that kept strict divisions between slaves and free, men and women, Jews and Gentiles. This was the source of the intense conflict in the early church until they were finally able to agree that the gospel of Christ Jesus could be accommodated to other cultures. The different cultures themselves were not unclean—they were good and accepted by God.

The history of Christian mission is largely one that forgot this crucial lesson. Instead of accommodating to other cultures, missionaries required the peoples of new lands to accommodate to the missionaries’ culture. Judgements about the worth and goodness of people’s traditional practices were once again made. The words “primitive,” “superstitious” and “of the devil” justified the elimination of First Nations languages, music, religious ceremonies, and cultural practices. Christian missions returned to the narrow division that the Jerusalem leaders made between clean and unclean, worthy and unworthy.

This question of accommodation is still controversial to this day. What are the non-negotiables of the Christian gospel? How much can be changed to accommodate different cultures, different lifestyles, different beliefs? Can we live out Peter’s statement that God shows no partiality? Where is our comfort level with difference?

I had a roommate at seminary who became a minister to the street workers in Hawaii. Her name was Pamela, but her nickname on the streets was the Condom Lady. On one cold Christmas Eve, she started a fire in a garbage can in a back alley to warm the street workers. She then put a board over top of another garbage can and set out the communion elements of the bread and the cup. Once everything was ready and people can begun to gather, she told the story of Jesus’ birth and shared communion with the prostitutes. While she offered them the means for safe sex and a place to recover from addictions, she didn’t tell them that they first had to change before receiving the body of Christ. Rather, she told them that God loved just as they were. Contrary to the opinions of others, they were not expendable, nor did they deserve to be used and desposed as garbage. Pamela’s unorthodox expression of the gospel of Christ allowed people who would never enter a church to receive God’s love.

Are we open to the expression of the gospel in ways foreign to us? When we invite people of different cultures into our faith community, do we expect them to change and accommodate to our cultural practices, to our music, to our way of doing things? Or are we open to accommodating ourselves to their cultural expressions of the gospel? Do we want them to become like us? Or can we find a new way of being together that might honour both their ways and ours? Peter told the Jerusalem Council that the Spirit told him “not to make a distinction between them and us”. In other words, he knew that he had to accommodate the gospel to them, rather than making them like him. What might this mean for us, today?

Next Sunday, we will be dedicating the Star Blanket, which Marion McKay has been making. It will become a permanent reminder of our commitment to walk in solidarity with Indigenous sisters and brothers. We have invited Rev. Connie Budd, Cree elder from Norway House and the North End Stella Community Minister, to tell some of her story, and we will be having prayers in Traditional languages, as well as in English, that will acknowledge the Traditional teachings of the four directions and respect of all of Creation. It will be a type of interfaith service, in which Traditional teachings will strengthen our own Christian understanding of the sacredness and worthiness of all of Creation, as we share the body of Christ with the elements of bannock and grape juice.

Questions of accommodation are not easy and require careful discernment. Peter set forth some non-negotiables of the Christian gospel that helped the Jerusalem Council in their discernment. It must center on the resurrected Christ, and acknowledge the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, given to us by the God of our ancestors. It must also refuse to divide up our world into the clean and unclean, worthy and expendable, good and evil, for God shows no partiality. According to Genesis 1, all of humanity is created in God’s image, and this creation is good. Hildegard of Bingen takes this one step further to suggest that “Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of Divinity.”