An Open Table where Love knows no borders

A Testimonial Dinner

A sermon on Acts 11:1-18 by the Revd Craig Bartlett

A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

Just before I left Canada for a couple of weeks’ rest and resurrection in Korea, I joined the largest of the three congregations I serve, Tara United Church, for their Spring Buffet. It’s their annual spring fundraiser dinner for the congregation – it was also the first time the church was able to gather, with members of the community at large, for dinner in three years. Just the fact that we did it was the most important thing about this buffet, even more important than the inside tip I learned: ‘Go to the second sitting – there’s extra pie available!’

It’s at times like this that one learns at least a little bit about inclusivity. We welcomed members of the Tara congregation and the other congregations in our cluster. We welcomed members of the community at large and didn’t ask them to which church they belonged, of if they belonged to any church. We welcomed members of our sibling churches, like the person from the Presbyterian church who has been helping us with improving the sound and picture quality of our worship service webcast. We even welcomed the adherent in our congregation who had the reputation of being a little needy and demanding – in fact, when she openly declared that she was coming back to church soon, I thought I saw a couple of our stalwart members give each other that look which said, ‘Oh my – here we go again!

Table fellowship – the decisions one makes about who one eats with – was, and still can be, a very important marker of one’s status and station in life. These days, it’s the concern of whom you want to be seen associating with. Are you seen with the country bumpkins, or are you hobnobbing with the jet set? Are you wasting your time on the nobodies, or are you making your presence felt among the movers and shakers? Are you seen with those who have suspect morals, or are you with the upright? In the case of trying to be a good Jew in the Roman Empire, are you accommodating, to some degree or other, the culture and society around you, or are you trying to stay pure, one of as a distinct group, making as little concession as possible?

In that vein, the story of Peter’s defence for being associated with uncircumcised, non-kosher keeping Gentiles, as described in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, is not just a fine piece of oratory. It is a defence of his historic status as an apostle and a member in good standing of Israel, and an invitation to his Jewish siblings of the expansive nature of the Jesus movement. It is an invitation to view things differently. If you read through Acts, the author has been preparing us for this c-change moment, from the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit, to the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, to the call/conversion of Saul, to this point. In these and other stories, it’s becoming clearer that the Spirit of God will move where it will, and that it is not restricted to those who are officially members of the People of God’s First Covenant. We could say it is a defence of his testimonial dinner, with Gentiles.

If we were to look back on our lives as testimonial dinners, in which courses would we see God’s movement in our lives? As we move closer to June, which is often associated with Pride in the SGM communities, and since my holy orders originate with MCC, here are some ‘courses’ which I identify as being important in my development.

My starter was one of embarrassment for me. It the early 1990s, when the United Church of Canada was trying to come to grips with what had happened at its 1988 General Council, after the Council passed the statement Membership, Ministry, and Human Sexuality, to take a step forward on the issue that became known in United Church circles as ‘the issue’. Congregations were splitting, some people were deeply questioning their loyalty to the UCC, and concord was sometimes in short supply.

One Sunday, I was a sandwich at lunch with a classmate during my MDiv days. She had just done Sunday supply for the minister of an adjoining pastoral charge, and I was finishing up my Sunday preaching in my student supply appointment at the same time, so I arranged to invite her to my home to have lunch before she went back to Toronto. The conversation drifted between varying subjects, and she began speaking about the prospects she had for a new relationship. I blurted out the question, ‘Do you think he’s a prospect for something long-term?’ or something like that. She blushed a bit, hesitated briefly, and said, ‘Well, he is she.’ By the temperature change in my face, I could tell I was likely blushing a deeper hue. More importantly, I was uttering the quiet prayer, ‘Dear Jesus, please open a wide, deep, cavernous pit in this floor and swallow me up in it!’ Now, I prided myself on being a hip, accepting, and affirming person of gays and lesbians (the transgender component had not even registered at this time), but I wasn’t able to catch little clues like how she continually referred to her new interest with they and them pronouns. How much I had to learn.

The salad/soup, awakening my appetite, came many years later, after I’d left Canada, become a ‘done’, then recovered my vocation to ministry, and became active with an MCC congregation in Seoul, I rediscovered the importance of that table fellowship as I shared lunch with the gathered fellowship, small as it was, either in neighbourhood restaurants or in our own shared lunches. I can now see it was in those situations where I began to hone my skills as one who provides pastoral care, learning how important it was to listen to people’s stories, to the conflict and anguish, as well to the joys and celebrations.

The next course didn’t go down as easily, at least not at first! It was during my brief stint teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam, when I became active in the ecumenical Hanoi International Church. At a men’s fellowship gathering, it became clear to me what views some of the men in the congregation held on issues theological, social, and moral, and how different they were from mine. In fact, I was quite sharp with one man when he started to assert his views on LGBT issues, doing my best to cut him off with a sharp, ‘Watch it! I have LGBT friends!’ I thought I would need one of those sorbets served just before the main at formal dinners, to cleanse my palate! I wondered how I’d be able to relate to some of them in the future, let alone how they’d relate to me. A couple of Sundays afterwards, that same person I felt the need to cut off met me at church and proceeded to ask me about presiding at the service that Sunday – despite our disagreements, he trusted me as someone who was part of the fellowship and who would be able to help him when he needed assistance. 

My most recent course, while I would not call it the final desert, certainly had sweetness to it. Youngoak and I were able to meet friends in Seoul for afternoon tea, after she picked me up from the airport. One of them was a faithful member of Open Doors MCC, who exclaimed after he attended his first service with us, ‘I never knew church could be different from what I grew up with!’ The other, another Open Doors member and our beloved friend, Edhi, is in her recovery phase after completing her gender affirmation surgery in Thailand. There’s always a touch of sadness when I meet them – we feel the loss of Open Doors after it closed, and Edhi is experiencing what I would call ‘burnout’ after years of activism. Nonetheless, our friendship and fellowship is a treasured one, even if Edhi finds the sweets of afternoon tea too sweet and says, ‘I need kimchi!’

Here is my testimonial dinner. It often features interaction with people of whom some Christians would say, ‘How can you eat with these unclean people?’ I would say these are times when I have been not just fed but nourished immeasurably. Your testimonial dinner may have different experiences from mine, but that’s OK. None of them are possible without the new commandment, or as it is put in Latin, the new mandate from Jesus: ‘Love one another’. All our dinners are an anticipation of the vision of John, where New Jerusalem appears, where God’s very self dwells with mortals, and where all pain is taken away. I think supper’s ready! Let us gather around the table. AMEN.

3 Comments

  1. Vincent Michael Hodge

    Reflecting on Craig’s wise testamentary account of his life of growth visioned through a series of meal encounters, I was drawn to a similar wisdom displayed in Margaret Welsford’s 1999 sermon of how a new born matures into adulthood through a similar series of meal encounters

    Hers sermon continues to deliver to us a manual of the christian development path. She accomplishes this revealing extract of that sermon:
    “….Like newborn babies we too look for more than just physical nourishment from the milk God offers us….We seek warmth and comfort, and find it in prayer and through fellowship with God’s people. We long for deeper intimacy with the God who holds us, and we find it as we draw close in prayer and worship……We need protection from all that would harm us, and like a baby drawing immunity from its mother’s body, our resistance to infectious evil is strengthened as we feed on all that God gives us – in scripture, in prayer, in community and in Eucharist….The benefits of course are not all one way. Just as we are to be like thirsty babies, God is like the nursing mother. God desires to give us nurture and see us grow. For the mother, her body and being is focussed on giving nourishment to her baby. The sight, the sound, even the thought of her child triggers the flow of her milk, whether the baby wants it or not. And the more the baby suckles, the more the mother’s body produces. As the mother delights in seeing her baby grow and develop sustained entirely at first from her body by her nurture, love, support and encouragement. So does God delight in us, her children and our developing maturity. In fact, as Kristin said to me once, through the experience of breast feeding we can get a glimpse of what it might be like to be God, creating a person and watching them grow miraculously before your eyes, fed entirely by your own body….”.
    Craig’s picture from him to us today describes his growth experience as God’s pastoral presence to those seeking membership of the christian way and who are existentially LGBTI etc etc. How sad it is, in the light of Margaret’s images, to be so existentially determined yet not being able to find the nourishment they need for sustenance within the formal church they look to for nurture. And as Margaret says..it is not just a one way street….God and we as a pastoral presences of God need to be who we are..who God is…we need to be sources of food and comfort both for the recipient and for ourselves. And yes there are times when difficult words must be exchanged for “protection” just as babies obtain immunity from disease. As Margaret said…” For not only does this milk provide the nutrition you need to grow it gives physical closeness, comfort and warmth, the intimacy of eye-to-eye contact, the comfort of being held by loving arms, enveloped by the presence of your first love. And as if that weren’t enough the milk also supplies protection from diseases that you don’t even know about yet….”. The relationship must be receptive by each party to the recognition of “errors” that like babies, we do not even know we need protection from! Craig today gave us humble testimony of times where he had to tell others to “watch it” and he had to be told to be on a better “watch’ himself. As Margaret said, the needs of the “weaker one” fostered needs in the “stronger one” …which to me was another way of saying that she showed there really was no weaker/stronger dichotomy but simply an event where two are gathered in Jesus name which meant that hence God was in the midst of that livingness. Both mother and child grew in their awareness of their co-dependency – a covenant that revealed the presence of the Divine. I take it that both Craig and Margaret maybe were giving us a definition of adulthood..the recognition that we all need to be both teacher and learner in a reciprocal covenant whereby there is as much joy in the receiving as in the giving since it is how we access the God life we all are seeking and which we enter only through forever being child-like. Thanks Margaret and Craig….lovely mealing with you!

  2. Thank you Craig, for sharing your simple stories, that show us new paths of discipleship, illustrating for us in our day, what Peter learned in his day, from this vision given to him by the Holy Spirit.
    It brought back a similar lesson that i learnt, many years ago – not forgotten by not thought of for some time – in other circumstances – when I thought my association with a certain person was not for me and out of Gods will – and this same scripture story came to me with the words, “What God has called holy let no one call unholy” or as The Message Bible puts it “If God says its OK, – It’s OK” So our Christian journey takes new steps forward.

  3. It was great to see you again Craig. I loved your storytelling and again appreciated you sharing your personal journey. Thank you.

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