A reflection offered on Sunday May 19th 2019 based on Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35
You’ll think it strange but for me, the most memorable occasion of hearing this text from the book of Acts was for me, from a Food Services Officer at Springhill Institution.
Almost every public institution is a microcosm of larger society. This is especially true in Canadian prisons – minority communities are over represented largely as a result of poverty and systemic racism (but that’s another sermon)… they are also places that reflect the incredible diversity of religious expression and practice. It was in prison where I met my first Rastafarian… as was the individual and eventual group of guys that occasioned this memory…
Its not a short story… as it was not a short relationship…
We’ll call him Melvin. Melvin arrived at my office shortly after he arrived and, in his words, ‘had a bone to pick’. “I don’t eat no pork. I need a pork free diet. What do I gotta do to get a pork free diet?”
At the time the only dietary accommodations the Correctional Service offered were religious diets…
“What religion are you? Are you Muslim?”
“No, I ain’t no terrorist.”
“No, man I ain’t that neither.”
“Well” I said, “are you Rastafarian?”
“What’s that? Do they not eat pork?”
“No, they don’t eat pork or beef.”
I shared with him what I knew of the tradition, how it was rooted in the Islands, was connected to Christianity and so on… I didn’t tell him about the ganja – that came later!
“That’s what I am” he said, ‘I am one of them.”
So, after a lengthy talk about the requirements of the religion, according the CSC Guide for Religious Diets, Melvin and I head down to the kitchen with the diet form in hand and I passed it to the Food Services Chief and he says, “A Rasta what…?”
(Now you know why I kept Rasta’s name as it was when he came to live with us…)
The Chief of Food Services then proceeds to quote Acts 11:9 to me ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ … and I quickly quipped back, yeah and Jesus said “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another… so give him his meal.”
No, I didn’t.
I wanted to – but I didn’t, because I knew that my primary responsibility was to maintain relationships in both directions.
And that was how I met my first Rastafarian, and in the words of the Food Services Officer, became responsible for creating the first Rastafarian community at Springhill Institution…
What followed was a sometimes very difficult relationship with Food Services staff as they and I learned of the requirements of various religious traditions… and sometimes rocky and challenging relationships with various inmates and groups of inmates who were broken and hurting and had hurt others and were filled with grief and shame…
Over the years, as my relationship grew with some of those African Canadian young men, many of them from the Preston or Africville areas of Nova Scotia, I and they learned, that many of them had come into their practice of not eating pork culturally. No one could exactly put their finger on one reason or a specific point in time – but it was a deeply ingrained practice within certain families within that community…
Eventually, about a year before I left Springhill to enter into the corporate world for a short time, the Correctional Service revised their diet policy to include Diets of Conscience… so that those who were vegetarian or vegan or did not eat pork or beef or drink cows milk would not have declare themselves as Hindu or Muslim or Jewish in order to have their diet accommodated.
Some of those men continued in the religious tradition they had claimed upon entering prison – as did some of the Rastafarians, benefiting from the teachings and leadership of the Rasta that we eventually engaged to lead them – but others of them gave up the façade of religion… Melvin was one of them.
When the Diet of Conscience became policy, Melvin, a lifer, who had been the leader of the Rastafarian group solely for the purpose of maintaining his diet came to me and simply said ‘Thanks man…”
I think he was saying thank you for staying in the relationship.
I think he was saying thank you for listening to his pain.
I think he was saying thank you for doing what I could to help him speak his truth.
I think he was saying thank you for the efforts I put into creating and maintaining community.
I think he was saying thank you for my efforts at putting love into action.
Jennie, early this week in an attempt to be helpful sent me some wonderful ideas for this sermon.
She wrote: “You could do a “you are what you eat” thing, with the unsustainability of a lot of the large-scale meat farming, and the need for more renewable plant-based food worldwide. There’s the whole “not what goes into your mouth, but what comes out of it” thing, but maybe you can have the twist that it IS what goes into your mouth, and where it comes from, that makes you “holy” or “clean”.”
She is so much more than a pretty face and beautiful voice! She is also a prophet and her words disquieted me.
I love this planet. And yes, I agree that large scale beef farming is unsustainable – but I am not about to give up my beef (medium rare thank you very much).
Yes, I do love this planet. And yes, I agree that fossil fuel consumption is contributing to climate change – but I also appreciate the convenience and sense of safety and comfort that comes in driving my big gas guzzling pick-up truck…
Love is not easy. Justice is even harder.
We had a saying amongst our chaplaincy community: “Chaplaincy is all about relationships. And it’s all relationships.” It could just as easily have been, “Chaplaincy is all about love. And it’s all love.”
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another…”
Loving your neighbour is not the least bit radical, so long as you can give your own safe definition of who your neighbour is.
But, this love that Jesus is talking does not give us that luxury.
This love that Jesus is talking about is not some airy fairy pie in the sky sweet sticky feeling… no, it’s the hard difficult, in the trenches work of staying in relationship.
Yes, it is speaking your truth. Yes, it is setting boundaries and stating your needs. Yes, this love is about calling for justice, demanding your meal so to say, but it is also about listening deeply to the other, and yes, listening even to the very earth that we inhabit…
This love that Jesus calls us to, this love that is more about what comes out of our mouth than what we put into it, this love is about listening not only to our own story of pain and hurt but listening as well to the story of the other and working together toward right relationship. That is in fact much of the work of the whole of the book of Acts – the story of creating and maintaining the early church community.
This love that we are called to can (and should) leave us feeling uncomfortable in the middle of the gym floor as blankets are removed and we hear the atrocious stories of cultural genocide.
This love that we are called to can (and should) leave us feeling distressed when a Queer ‘friend on Facebook announces that they feel a need to focus on relationships with femes as a result of the pain they have experience at the hands of cisc-gender men.
This love that we are called to can (and should) have us occasionally loosing our appetite when we sit at the table and consider the ways we have misused the land, and bottled its water resources.
This love that we are called to can (and should) leave us disquieted as we stand at the pump filling that gas guzzling pick-up truck.
This love that we are called to can (and should) leave us constantly questioning and evaluating our choice on how we live – for that is what it is to be in authentic relationship… just like those little lawyers in Anne’s story.
This love calls us to be in relationship: in relationship with our own pain and hurt, our own mistakes and failing and with others and their failings and mistakes and pain and hurt…
This love calls us to stay engaged in the difficult conversations – the difficult conversations about diets, and greenhouse gases, harm and hurt, misogyny, climate change and racism and indigenous rights and, well, you fill in the rest…
This love calls us to stay engaged even when its uncomfortable… when our own inner hurts are bringing tears to our eyes… when the steak seems really tough… when we want to change the channel… yes, even when we are at a loss for words – even then we can simply be still and listen…
This is love: not letting go. Not giving up.
When I’m done talking we’re going to sing a song that most of us have sung or heard at least once or twice… but I wonder, have we really considered the implications of the words we sing?
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love…”
Jesus told his followers, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Presumably then, the 33% of Canadians that identify as a part of a faith other than Christian should be saying,
Those Christian, they bloody well love everybody, those Christians. They’ve got no idea! They treat scum like royalty. They want to open the doors and welcome in everyone. They forgive indiscriminately. They want a second chance for every lowlife loser. They don’t seem to know when to stop. I mean, I’m all for love your neighbour and love your family and all that, but charity is supposed to start at home, and these Jesus followers, they are just fanatical about it. They don’t seem to know when to stop.”
Tragically, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Hindu, Trans, Muslim LGBTQ2+ or Indigenous Person ever describe a Christian in that way…
Perhaps we might have got it, if instead of just saying, “If you love like me then everyone will know that you are my followers,” Jesus had said,
If you love so generously and extravagantly and outrageously that you stir up scandal and controversy and get denounced as fanatics and lunatics and sympathisers and bleeding hearts, then everyone will know that you must be one of mine.
May it be so. Amen.