I was in town the other day and passed a homeless man sitting on the ground outside a shop. He wasn’t begging: he was just sitting there, in quiet destitution; a sad, pitiable sight. A woman coming towards me looked at him, then looked at me, her face signalling contempt, scorn and hatred for this man – it was a very powerful moment – not a word was spoken, but the message was very clear: this man was less than human in her eyes. There was no compassion and no empathy: the shared bond of humanity was laid aside.
Human beings have a tendency to need people who are other than themselves: to need a ‘them’, as opposed to an ‘us’: being able to despise ‘them’ makes ‘us’ feel better. The results include racism, sexism, discrimination against disabled people, gay people, older people, people with different accents, and class and religious descrimination. I can clearly remember my beloved Granny being terribly upset because my brother was marrying a Roman Catholic: this was 40 years ago now, but coming from someone who I loved, it was deeply shocking to me.
And here, in the pages of the New Testament, we find an example from 2000 years ago: Peter was in trouble because he had shared a meal with people who weren’t circumcised. From Peter’s account of his strange dream about a sheet full of ‘unclean; animals, which he was told were no longer forbidden, it seems probable that his meal included eating food that wasn’t Kosher – food that was considered unclean. He had eaten with ‘them’, and the people who considered themselves ‘us’ weren’t at all happy. And of course, the ‘them’ people in this passage are actually ‘us’ – we who are Gentiles, the latecomers to the heavenly banquet. We, members of the Church of England, are now the ‘us’. We need to ask who is our ‘them’? Whom do we disparage, deride, exclude? Who is it that makes us uncomfortable? Who is it that we regard as less than human?
We need to remind ourselves that we are, indeed, latecomers to the table. The Jewish religion, from whence our faith sprang, is much, much older than our own faith. The Roman Catholic church, from which we parted company 400 years ago is also much older than the Church of England. Humility is required, when we think of the privilege we have in being enabled to join in that old, old story of faith. We tend to assume that we’re at the centre of the world of faith, that other denominations, other religions, somehow revolve around us, or are peripheral. Today we are reminded that we are the ‘also rans’, the latecomers, people admitted to faith only after argument and heated debate; 2000 years ago we Gentiles were welcomed by some, tolerated by others, and were an unwelcome development to still others. This is part of the story which we tend to pass over; it should be celebrated, and it should be foundational in our outlook and in the way in which we conduct ourselves – not just as a local church, but in our institutions and governance. We are the afterthought. There is no doubt that this changes our perspective and undermines our self assurance and self-importance.
Recognising the humanity and ‘OK-ness’ of other people is life-giving. It is when we stop seeing this that trouble begins: on a belief of the worthlessness of others, war, hatred and division are built. Until humanity recognises the humanity, the value, the beauty of others, there will be no peace. Our inability to do this threatens our continued existence: it is a very dangerous habit.
I think the environmental crisis means that we need to expand this perception of ‘okness’ to other living things. It always amazes me, for example, how many people hate trees and itch to have them cut down, complaining about the mess that the fallen leaves and blossom make: and yet we know that our world cannot survive without trees, we know that the soil is fed by the leaves – this is the stuff of life itself. We do not tolerate weeds, even around the edges where there is space for them – we are inclined to spray them with poison. No wonder insect life is in free-fall!
There was a story in the Cumbrian Herald this week about some children who bludgeoned a lamb to death: this is horrific to us – a lamb, for heaven’s sake: and yet we live in a world where the killing of animals and insects is routine, where creatures are farmed in an industrial way, with little recognition of their status as miraculous, living things. Again, as humans, we are latecomers – creation existed for millennia without us: we need to rediscover our humility.
At the heart of all this is the importance of being able to look at fellow humans, fellow creatures, at plants and insects, with open hearts and minds, with hearts full of compassion and wonder. Our Gospel reading speaks of love – the command to love one another, just as we have been loved. When God looks at us, his children, God sees something wonderful, something beautiful, something worthy of love. And of course, when God made the world, God looked and said that it was very good. In the command to love. we are called to see the world through God’s eyes – we are called to wonder, to be moved by humanity, for our hearts to be stirred by the beauty of life.
Today’s readings contain all that is needed for the peace of the world, for the future of our planet: we are called to share our common humanity, and to cherish the miraculous life that teams around us – to see that all this is held within God’s love, and to learn to live accordingly. Our faith challenges us to live in the light of God’s love, and therefore to see the world differently, to recognise and cherish life, in all its glory, wonder and God-givenness. Amen