21 June 2010

Easter 5 C - Come on Barbie

Sermon for 2 May 2010

Acts 11: 1-18

Revelation 21: 1-6

John 13: 31-35

By Sharyn Hall

Last week three people in this parish conspired to introduce a new parish vicar in this church. They discovered her photograph on the internet and decided that she would be an excellent way to introduce more people, particularly youngsters, to St. Luke’s. Her photograph also indicates that she already has the necessary vestments, because she is dressed in red for the season of Pentecost. You may wonder if I am concerned that I am being replaced soon by a smartly dressed vicar with blond hair, but I’m not worried because this new vicar is Barbie, the famous fashion doll, dressed in clergy collar, silver cross and red cope. So far we only have a photograph, and I’m not sure if this clerical Barbie is available.

Some people might be offended by this combination of the secular and sacred, but I am not. The Barbie doll has been in many countries for fifty years. Barbie has loyal fans of several generations who played with Barbie as girls and then passed her to their daughters and granddaughters. In order to adapt to changing times, Barbie’s clothes and accessories have changed. Barbie was joined by friends, male and female dolls from different ethnic cultures. The history of the Barbie doll can teach us a great deal about how our society has evolved in the last fifty years. The Christian church also has changed in the last fifty years, and one of those changes is the role of women as clergy, so why not have a Barbie with a clerical collar?

Adapting to the culture of the people has been one of the strengths of the Christian church’s longevity. The Christian faith has struggled for centuries to be in the world but not of the world. At different times, Christian communities have felt vulnerable to persecution, and at other times, the Christian church has dominated cultures. Questions about who is acceptable as a follower of Jesus have troubled the church from the time of the apostles until today. That issue is at the heart of our reading today from the Book of Acts. Peter is given a message in a very strange vision to accept all food as clean and acceptable to God.

“There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners…As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”

In the Jewish culture, to eat food not designated as acceptable to God, especially reptiles and beasts of prey, was to disobey God’s law. Gentile people, who ate such unclean food, also were considered unacceptable to God, but shortly after this vision, Peter was called by God’s spirit to go to the home of three Gentiles. While he was there, the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles in the same way that the Spirit baptized the Jewish Christians. Peter said to the Christians who were with him, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I should hinder God?” That is a very good question! In the early church, Gentiles were considered unacceptable to be Christians because they were not Jews, God’s Holy People, but it was in the Gentile world that the Christian church eventually spread far beyond Palestine into other nations and cultures.

Historians believe that several of our Christian holy days and practices were adapted to local customs. The date assigned for the birth of Jesus is around the time of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Our clerical vestments were derived from clothes in ancient Greece and Rome. The symbol of the candle as light in the darkness of life is common in many cultures. The feasts of All Saints and All Souls coincide with very old customs honouring those who have died. These are only a few examples of the Christian church adapting customs of the local culture to remind people of God’s presence in the world.

In our reading from the Book of Revelation, we have a vision in which God will dwell among us mortals. The text says, “they will be his peoples.” This vision of God on earth is not for one people only, not for one nation or one race, and the mission of Jesus was not for one people only, but for all nations. Christ’s mission was a mission of love, a mission of inclusion, love for all God’s people.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘love one another, just as I have loved you.’ Jesus goes on to say that by this love, everyone will know that you are my disciples. In other words, everyone will be offered the way of Jesus. At that time, who was everyone? Everyone included Jews, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Everyone also included Gentiles, Greeks, Romans, Ethiopians, pagans and those who ate all kinds of food.

Who is everyone today? The diversity of humanity is beyond description. The multitude of races, religions and cultures seems like the proverbial grains of sand, too numerous to count. In our North American society, there are many faiths, but the largest number of people is those who say they are Christian, but do not welcome God into their daily lives. The people who rarely give a thought to God, who do not see God as relevant to the world, may respond to signs of the Spirit breaking into secular culture. They may smile at the thought of a Barbie doll dressed as a priest, and wonder why anyone would think that such a secular icon might have a spiritual dimension. In our multi-layered secular society, we need to find imaginative ways to draw people into a spiritual relationship with God and with the Good News of Jesus. With God’s help, all things are possible. Amen.

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