Last Tuesday, I received the news that the Reverends Martha McInnes and David Dean, a married couple originally from the United States but currently abiding in Wellingborough, have accepted the call to serve as ministers of word and sacrament in the United Reformed Church’s Cardiff and Penarth pastorate. As the interim moderator of the six churches, it was a huge joy…and relief… to hear this after a few months of accompanying both the churches and Martha and David through the introduction and discernment process which culminated in the preaching with a view weekend a fortnight ago. You might remember that I slipped out of Julie’s thank you lunch early and went down to Cardiff to oversee the part of the weekend where the congregations get to formally ask the candidates any questions they’d like. I can still fondly recall my experience of this here, most memorably when the beautiful Enid Williams held my gaze with a steely stare and asked me the killer question – “Do you drink?” Her response “Oh, good!” when I confessed I enjoyed the odd tipple still makes me smile…She would definitely have given her approval to the multiples bottles of wine that I was so kindly given for my Birthday this month.
But David and Martha weren’t asked that particular question. Rather, their questions ranged from profound reflections about the gospel imperative to revealing inquiries into their taste in music…and the question that got the strongest reaction was “Are the candidates aware of the differences of culture between England and Wales.” Interesting question, isn’t it? And whilst I wasn’t asked that on my preaching with a view weekend, I was, in my first few years here, often asked, ‘how are you finding us Welsh? Has it been a culture shock?’ The answer to which, was usually – well…no, not really. We might have different accents, use different vocabulary, wear different coloured shirts during the 6 Nations but fundamentally, people the world over are the same. We have similar needs; share similar hopes, dreams and fears; we struggle and celebrate with the same joys and challenges that life brings us. Besides which, we know that reducing a whole nation to a cultural stereotype is ignorant and dangerous. Suggesting that ‘the English’ or ‘the Welsh’ all share a common culture is as foolish as saying all Christians do, lumping us together with everyone from The Pope to Donald Trump; the Quakers to the Ku Klux Klan!
And yet…and yet I must confess that justified or not…there are times when perhaps I fit the Englishman stereotype more than I care to admit. Times when my upper lip stiffens; my handshake firms up or my eyes roll at the sight of a shopping aisle at B&M being blocked by two friends stopping for a five minute chat! Recently I mentioned to you how I’d never felt more non-conformist than when protesting outside Westminster Abbey’s service of thanksgiving for 50 years of Britain’s nuclear weapons…well at that same occasion, I felt really quite English too. You see, at one point during the protest, after Prince William had been welcomed and the service in the Abbey began, the CND invited people to join their ‘die-in’ – to lie on the ground and represent the mass destruction and death that nuclear weapons cause when used. Well, I declined their offer. To me it felt like a step too far…a grand gesture that looked a bit too gimmicky, over-the-top for me to be comfortable enough to take part. So I slunk back and simply tutted…very loudly mind…at those praising God for British nuclear might.
But what do you think? Was I right…or justified even…to slink back? Was my presence at the protest enough…too much even…or did I allow personal embarrassment to get in the way of meaningful symbolism? Would you…or those of you capable of getting back afterwards…have lied down? Would you glue yourself to a train like some of those involved in the Extinction Rebellion? Would you cut up your clothing…like the Archbishop of York did in protest over Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship? Would you shave off your hair, take your clothes off or even show everyone your pants for a greater good? Before you get too worried…or perhaps excited…these last three examples don’t come as recommendations for a new church initiative but are accounts of what some of the prophets got up to as reported in the Hebrew Testament. Flick through the prophetic scriptures and you’ll soon find Ezekiel shaving his hair and burning it; Isaiah walking around naked and Jeremiah well…let’s hear what Jeremiah did with his loincloth…
Jeremiah 13:1-11 NRSV
The Linen Loincloth
13 Thus said the Lord to me, “Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.” 2 So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. 3 And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, 4 “Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates,[a] and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.” 5 So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates,[b] as the Lord commanded me. 6 And after many days the Lord said to me, “Go now to the Euphrates,[c] and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.” 7 Then I went to the Euphrates,[d] and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
8 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 9 Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. 10 This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. 11 For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, 1so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.
It won’t surprise you to learn that that particular passage never appears in the Sunday lectionary! But what is going on there with Jeremiah and his loincloth?! Well, essentially it’s an example of a prophetic gesture – an enacted parable; a visual, physical, often shocking act that communicated a deeper message from or about God. In this example, God seems to be saying – through Jeremiah – that the people of Israel were created to be close to God’s very being – as ‘loincloth clings to one’s loins’ so that they might be ‘a people, a name, a praise, and a glory’ but they did not listen to God. They didn’t welcome the stranger, care for the downtrodden, love their God and so – Jeremiah’s message went – they were ruined, good for nothing, stinking with injustice…just as the used and unwashed loincloth is ruined, good for nothing and rather pungent! It might not be a subtle form of communication but it certainly gets the message across and in a pretty non-literate era, such gestures were crucial…as Jesus, a few centuries later, well knew.
Just look at his teaching during holy week. When he knew that the time he had to get his message across was running out, Jesus used all manner of prophetic gestures to ensure that the disciples grasped his teaching. There was Palm Sunday’s power parody; the table-turning in the Temple, cursing of a fig tree, the upper room foot washing, bread-breaking and wine-pouring…Time and again, Jesus caught the attention of friends and foes alike through beautiful and bizarre prophetic gestures and any embarrassment I had at the invitation to join a group of hippies lying on the London pavement pales into insignificance when compared with how Jesus’ disciples must have felt whilst watching the Temple tantrum or when their leader, stripped to the waist, insisted on washing their dirty, smelly feet. Yet it’s such actions that revealed the nature of God’s kingdom and which we still talk about today. Criticism of a religious institution might get a ripple of disquiet but cause a scene, disturb worshippers and upset the traders and you’ll really get noticed. Telling people to ‘love one another’ might engender a few affirmative nods from some but showing people the radical, offensive, bodily consequences of such love and you’re sure to shock people in a way they won’t forget.
More than this, however, one can even view Jesus as being the ultimate, incarnated gesture of God. For centuries, poets and prophets told Israel and beyond that God created them and loves them; charges and challenges them; holds them as close as a loincloth clings to loins and calls them to be a blessing to the world…but we still didn’t get it so God gave us the ultimate prophetic gesture by slipping into our skin and dropping by our neighbourhood; by sitting next to us in taverns and on fishing boats; by walking the road to Golgotha, dying on a cross and rising again in a garden. This is how God shows us we are loved…yes, in still, small voices in the wind but also in grand, prophetic gestures in your face.
Perhaps, then, as followers of Jesus, as inheritors of the tales of the prophets, we too are encouraged both to do the little things and perform the prophetic gestures. Perhaps, then, I should have put my Englishman’s reserve to one side and lied down with my campaigning comrades. Perhaps as a church we should consider indulging in the prophetic gesture.
Well, this is what the On Tap team – the church’s 18-30s discussion group – ask us to consider in relation to our welcome, love and support of the gay community. As you well know, being an open and inclusive church is a fundamental part of the St. David’s Uniting Church identity. We sing – and affirm – that all truly are welcome here and we rejoiced earlier this year when our very own Ray was announced as Stonewall’s Gay Role Model of the Year.
And yet, because of a quirk of denominational and government policy, we are not allowed to perform weddings of same sex couples here as we would like. We can offer a service of blessing, of course, but unlike our sister church, Castle Square, we cannot conduct gay weddings…and the On Tap team feel that this goes against our core values of equality and justice. We have been, and will continue to, challenge the Presbyterian Church of Wales’ position on this but in the meantime the recommendation from the On Tap team, which subsequently was discussed and recommended at an elders’ meeting, was that until the PCW changes its policy, we should offer services to bless marriages to all but offer the legal part of the ceremony to none.
There are, of course, many valid and differing Christian perspectives on this and it would certainly be wrong for me to try to persuade you either way but what I do ask is that between now and the church meeting on July 1st that you give some time to consider this proposal. I encourage you to talk to the On Tap members and other young people – whether churchgoers or not – about what they think about this; to look at the scenario from different perspectives and certainly to pray about it. Perhaps you might even like to join some of us who are going to a service at The Gathering – a church community in Cardiff especially founded as a safe, welcoming place for gay Christians – on the evening of Sunday 9th June to ask them what they think…or to have a chat with Brian, our head registrar for his thoughts on this too.
Perhaps we’ll disagree. Perhaps some will want to stand and tut whilst others will want to lie down. Perhaps the Spirit will move us to a common mind. Who knows? But as we reflect upon this issue…as we continue to discern our mission, our path, our calling as hope-carriers, peace-makers and good news gossipers in a world so frequently scarred by hostile disagreement and bitter division, may we heed the words of our brother Paul that we heard earlier;
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. And if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.