The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
On Friday we had our Biennial Dog Collar Safari Supper, starting at the music-director’s and taking in each of mine, Steve and Antonio’s homes as we each serve a different course. But we forgot that they needed to complete a scorecard for the course competition, so we could classify the course with the best food, the most effort, the host with the greatest pizzazz and who told the most embarrassing joke.
How easy is it to categorise things and define them by their opposites, by their differences. We simplify people down to where they stand relative to us - categorising them. It’s a natural way of trying to negotiate the complexity of society. Going into a meeting, how easy it is to define the people around the table based on whether they are for or against you. It can be helpful as short hand - but it can also limit our ability to engage with the true person in front of us. As a parent it is easy to start down that slippery slope of defining your children based on what makes them different. Johnny is the smart one, Anthony is the sporty one. As if Johnny couldn’t be sporty or Anthony couldn’t be smart. Maybe Anthony isn’t smart, but if he spends his life being told he isn’t it’s not going to help.
We can also end up defining ourselves in the negative. It can be a very significant part of one’s identity. Canadians often find it difficult to define what they are. But they are adamant about what they are not… Canadians are not Americans.
Not that there is anything wrong with being American. When I first moved here for University I was almost always sporting a maple leaf to make it clear I am Canadian. In reality - 17 years after first moving to the UK I’m glad if somebody picks up enough of my accent to guess the right continent. In any case, negative self-definition, fails to recognise the commonalities, the shared ancestry and values. It values what separates us from each other more than what brings us together. It makes our differences more important than the plethora of things which make us the same as one another.
The practical benefits of categorising what sets us apart can suddenly become less attractive when we are the ones being categorised. How often is Christianity described as the opposition to reason or science, as if they were opposites of the same thing. And realities can always be found to affirm our assumptions. Like the abhorrent protests conducted by the Westboro Baptist Church. As if they were an example of all Christianity. Yet how easily we can slip into doing the same thing. Even if we know that they aren’t representative of Islam, the acts of Islamic terrorists and IS in Syria and Iraq can shape our assumptions about muslims around us. Or about the majority of muslims in Iraq or Syria, most of whom are living in fear of IS’ militants.
During the muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, Margaret and I went to Bloomsbury where muslim students hold something called the Ramadan Tent project in a garden. Each evening as the Sun goes down they offer an open invite to break the feast and eat the evening meal together, sitting on the floor in a large marque. It’s an act of hospitality and service as well as an opportunity to bring people of different cultures and faiths together. The devotion of the young muslims we ate with was impressive. Many of them were students, but most of the ones we sat with were young professionals. Fasting through a long day at work. Discussing the experience with Christians I had met there afterwards, they were genuinely impressed by both the devotion of the people we had met, but also by their frustration with the failure of middle-eastern powers to stop the movement of terrorists across their borders. The assumption that devotion to their faith would be combined with a sense of loyalty to violent wings of Islam clearly slips into the psyche demanding condemnations of atrocious acts. When was the last time we felt it necessary to condemn the acts of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Unlike the more popular: ‘Whoever’s not with us is against us.’ Jesus in today’s gospel says: ‘Whoever is not against us is for us.’ Jesus is responding to the disciples who have seen somebody doing the good things they have been comissioned to do, but he's not one of them. He's not been travelling with us. He's different, not one of us, surely we should stop them. The subtle difference between Jesus' answer and the ‘Whoever’s not with us is against us’ gives the benefit of the doubt. It encourages us to be generous in whose company we keep. The story allows us to stand alongside those of other faiths and none in efforts we make to improve our world. The message demands that we don’t dismiss those who we have some disagreements with, but that we work with them while maintaining space to express our differences. Because so long as your not standing against us, you are with us.
Difference, the salt which adds the flavour, isn’t forgotten. Jesus isn’t demanding that the disciples simply to conform to the lowest common denominator in order to have a peaceful life. There is no peace when everybody is just pretending to be something they are not. Instead Jesus is challenging them to hold onto what makes them different.
Our pipe organ, Betty, is almost ready. Amongst what has been done is the return of the Vox Humana stop has been restored. Literally, it is translated as the human voice. It was a stop on Betty originally but removed more recently when it went out of fashion. It sounds a bit like a duck and you need to play it with the tremulant so that it undulates. But even then it's not an attractive sound, you wouldn't ever want to play it on it's own. But with the other pipes it gives a beauty, a depth of sound that is beauty itself.
We must be careful not to categorise ourselves just by what makes us different, but rather by what we have in common, by what brings us together, allowing us to share our perspectives in the security of those with whom we share a common life. Bringing together the breadth of ideas and wisdom from across a spectrum of perspectives has the potential to create real innovation.
So lets not be too quick to judge, lest we be judged ourselves. Rather, we should like Betty’s pipes, seek to each sing in our own voice, collaborating together to make a joyful sound.