There is a myth used to explain suffering and death that goes something like this:
Once upon a time a big God created everything, made a garden, made a man and a woman, and then needed a day off. In the weeks following God seemed to wander around this garden with the humans and all (allegedly) was bliss. However, God decided there needed to be some rules – namely, one tree whose fruit was out of bounds. But the humans, being human, decided to try the fruit (an apple). There was a talking snake involved too. And somehow, though God had set this all up, the woman got the blame. Well, as you might have guessed this little act of disobedience (or was it courage?) really upset the big G, and the man and woman got kicked out of the garden, plus a whole lot more. Pain and death came into existence and we’ve (allegedly) been suffering ever since - all because of our ancestors’ appetite for an apple!
Now as fanciful as this myth seems, there developed in the mid to late 1st century Jesus movement the notion that Jesus’ death and resurrection was all about righting this particular applecart. The logic is a little hard to follow but the general idea is that Jesus’ (alleged) willing obedience when it came to suffering and dying, rectified the (alleged) disobedience of his many times great grandpa and granny regarding that apple. Now, rectified, we could have once again (thanks to Jesus) that cosy walk-in-the-garden relationship with the big God where suffering and death would be no more, and apples would remain on trees.
The trouble was though there is still plenty of suffering and death (hey, look around!). It seems (and here the logic of the myth gets a little murky) that only those humans who believed in Jesus, or repented of their wrongdoings, or swore they’d never eat ‘apples’, would get the cosy walk-in-the-garden relationship which might happen either after death or at the end (lots of murkiness about ‘the end’ too).
So, whereas all the humans got kicked out the garden back in the day, the new arrangement (brokered by Jesus) now distinguished between the good and the bad, the believers and the unbelievers, the apple-eaters and the obedient. Conclusion: God likes you if you’re good (obedient) and believe the right things. A sort of ‘Santa is Coming to Town’ theology – only the ‘nice’ get presents, not the ‘naughty’.
We might joke about this myth (garden, snake, apple, and all), and taken as science it is pretty laughable, and taken as Jesus’ theology pretty inaccurate, but the idea that God will only like or love you if you’re good or believe the right things is like a sneaky toxin that has dripped into our water supply slowly corrupting and trying to destroy the essence of our Christian faith which is unconditional love.
Unconditional love is the basis of both our beliefs and our actions. Unconditional love is the nature, the essence, of the Christian God – whether you construe God as a being, or an energy, or a symbol. Where love is there is God. Love is non-manipulative, non-coercive, not out for personal gain, always welcoming, always working for the best. And we take our belief about the essence of God and try to live it and do it.
We don’t help, assist, work for justice, offer hospitality and compassion because the recipients are good or believe the right things; or in the hope that our actions will persuade them to be good or believe the right things. No, we strive to give unconditionally, without judgement, without demanding or expecting conversion, repentance, or any form of reward. I say ‘strive to’ because it can be hard work to engage with and try to assist some people.
The first reading today comes from the Sufi Islamic tradition. It is told in a way to elicit our sympathy for Malik who is struggling to cope with an unruly and arrogant young neighbour. We hope for Malik and the neighbourhood’s sake that someone – noise control, the Sultan’s police, or even God – might intervene. And we are relieved when the latter, the big God, arrives on the scene in answer to Malik’s petitions. Like Malik we are hoping for our version of justice: a telling off and some consequential punishment. Instead we get God’s version of justice: non-coercive friendship that elicits a voluntary response.
The power of the story is that regardless of the young man’s response, he is still, always was and will be, God’s friend. The God character in this story embodies unconditional friendship. As a policy it could be argued that God’s justice is impractical, unfair to the neighbours, and ineffective. Yet, in our story it is transformative. It is this rock of unconditional love towards all – even the most despicable - what we believe in.
This then is the basis of our understanding of inclusivity – namely that all belong, all have a place, everyone’s mana should be respected (even our enemies). The second reading from Isaiah 25 reflects this universalism in v.6 – ‘a feast for all peoples’ – not just Israelites, not just favoured ones or righteous ones who do good and believe the right things.
As a church building this place is a symbol. It is a symbol that everyone in our community, nation, and world belongs - even if they never step in the doors. We exist to proclaim by word, but more often by deed, the unconditional love which is God. We don’t exist just for those who believe as we believe, or who are good as we believe good should be. We uphold that vision by practicing hospitality and compassion.
Inclusivity of course can be hard work. We know that from our church’s debates about ordination and marriage of gay and lesbian people. By including LGBTi people here, and welcoming weddings, we are making it very difficult for Christians of a more conservative persuasion to join. Similarly on a range of other issues where the liberal and progressive views of the majority here have been at odds with many Christians outside our doors. The art of inclusivity is trying to make a safe space for all, here or elsewhere, where people can practice and grow in their faith and understandings, even/especially when they differ from us.
During the recent Covid restrictions I read a few stories from the Unitarian minister and storyteller Bob Fulghum. I conclude with this lovely story about inclusivity which holds up a vision of church at its best: lots of activity and noise, lots of dressing up and having fun, and lots of latitude and creative thinking – a vision where all, big and small and different, can be accommodated.
Giants, Wizards, and Dwarfs was the game to play.
Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church hall and explained the game. It's a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won.
Organizing a roomful of hyped-up primary school children into two teams, explaining the game, achieving consensus on group identity - all this is no mean accomplishment, but we did it and were ready to go.
The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass. I yelled out: "You have to decide now which you are - a GAINT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF!"
While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg. A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, "Where do the Mermaids stand?"
Where do the Mermaids stand?
A long pause. A very long pause. "Where do Mermaids stand?" says I.
"Yes. You see, I am a Mermaid."
"There are no such things as Mermaids."
"Oh, yes, I am one!”
She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. She knew her category. Mermaid. And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things. Without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.
Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the `Mermaids' - all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes?
What was my answer at the moment? Every once in a while I say the right thing. Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea!" says I. [Yes, right here by the King's Fool, I thought to myself.]
So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled by in wild disarray.[i]
[i][i][i] All I Needed To Know I Learnt In Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum.