Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness: Sunday 12 August 2012: Year B, Proper 13
Taste and see
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Just before we left New York, at the airport, I went for something to eat. At the food court, a nice lady with a tray asked me if I’d like to try a nibble of the product they were selling at the nearby fast food counter. I was ready to take some when I noticed that it was a sushi bar. Sushi- Japanese-style fast food- is becoming more and more popular in the US, both in expensive restaurants and as fast food. Now, I will try most kinds of food, and in America it’s nice to find a kind of food that doesn’t involve lots and lots of meat. But I draw the line at raw fish- a bit dodgy. I’m not one to turn down a freebie, but I said ‘no thanks’. I’d rather my fish was cooked, at least a bit!
But at a farmers market, in a specialist food shop, even in the supermarket, quite often food is given away in the forms of little nibbles to let us try out something we might not have tried otherwise. A new kind of cheese spread on a cracker, bits of expensive chocolate. When I was a wee boy, we used to visit Luss, on Loch Lomond, and there was a shop there that always had free shortbread for the tourists- I liked that shop!
We might call this manner of marketing ‘taste and see’- have a nibble, before you buy more. It’s like taking a car for a test drive, or money back guarantee if you don’t like the product- taste and see! ‘Taste and see’ is also, however, one of my favourite Biblical phrases. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’, says the Psalmist, ‘Happy is the one who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34.8). As I have thought about that phrase this week, I have begun to wonder whether it might be a motto for our congregation as move forward into the future.
‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’. The phrase is probably best known to many of us from being used often in the Communion service, often just before we taste and the bread and wine in the Sacrament. And today’s readings would have been excellent for a Communion service, as we hear Jesus using another food metaphor: ‘I am the bread of life… Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty’. Many of the folks of his day didn’t ever quite grasp what Jesus was on about when he spoke of himself as the ‘bread of life’. Perhaps that’s because he was speaking of something which we can’t ever entirely put into words.
‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’. It might seem strange to think of experiencing God as being like tasting food. But maybe that’s because, as Presbyterians, we too often experience God through only one of our senses. In our tradition, we tend to hear God. We listen for God’s word, read to us in scripture, sung to us in music, preached to us as I am doing now. We are a bit suspicious of those who say they experience God, say visually- so we don’t have statues or icons in our churches. But the experiment is worth trying.
Some years ago, I was at a conference at which, at one act of worship, the leader used our sense of smell in our worship. He had been given an expensive bottle of after shave for Christmas, and he generously used it in the worship. We sat in a circle- it was a men’s conference, and he passed the bottle around, inviting each of us to rub some on our wrists, and enjoy the smell. And as we did so, we were asked to think of memories- the smells, sounds, sights, and tastes through which we are reminded of God’s goodness to us. It was a reminder that knowing God could come through other senses, that we do not experience God just through our ears.
In our Psalm, the writer has known God’s goodness for himself. He praises God because ‘I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears…. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble’. And so, exultantly, he praises God: ‘I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD… O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together… Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed’. And then he calls, in the rest of the Psalm, for others to follow his example. In the later part of the Psalm, which we did not read, he sounds like a teacher of the young: ‘Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord (Psalm 34.11). He wants to share with others his experience of God’s wonderful mercy and love.
And that is why he then makes the invitation: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good’. Come and try, he seems to be saying. Of course we are never literally going to be able to taste God. But it is as if God is saying: knowing God for your is such a wonderful experience, it is as if you can taste it. Knowing God is like enjoying your favourite food; or the smell of your favourite perfume, or how your favourite dress makes you feel when you wear it. They mystery of the presence of God is something beyond just words or pictures- you can taste, feel, smell it!
I think there are some lessons here for us from this ancient, ecstatic, poet. Do we speak of God in such exalted terms? Are we as enthusiastic about God? Do we speak of God to others as if we are in ecstasy? Maybe our experience of God doesn’t reach those heights very often. But why shouldn’t God be more to us that our favourite food, or best perfume, our most luxurious clothes?
And do we, as a Church or as individuals, really extend an invitation to people to ‘taste and see’? So often, in our speaking about the life of faith, we seem to talk about the Church. Not that the Church, you understand, is not important. The physical things- our buildings- are important. That’s why rebuilding the Old High organ, and relighting and repainting the St Stephen’s sanctuary, can certainly be seen as gifts of gratitude to God. And beautiful music and beautiful building- can help us see the beauty of God. But too often, it stops there. We mistake our experience of Church for our experience of God. Although the Church- buildings and people- can strengthen and support our faith (indeed, it is absolutely essential)- sometimes we talk so much about the Church that we forget to talk about God. Can I make a request and a suggestion to you all? In the coming weeks and months, we will be thinking and talking about the Church in the Future Focus workshops. We will be wondering about the future of our Church- and it’s very necessary to do so. And we will be wondering about our own experience of the Church, and how we can encourage others to share with us in the life of the Church.
No doubt we will have lots of worries and problems to talk about in Future Focus. But I think that we will make progress when we think about the positives. We should ask- what is good about our congregation? What is it about our life together which we would want to share with others in the community? Think back to events or experiences which drew you into the life of the Church. What is it that we can offer to people today which will draw them in, as you were once drawn in? What are people missing by not being part of the Christian community we call Old High St Stephen’s?
But as you think about the Church, I want you all also to be thinking about God. Pay attention not just to your experience of the Church, but to your experience of God For it’s not that we want to draw people into the Church- not first and foremost. Rather, it is that we want people to be drawn to God through Jesus Christ (for that is what the Church is for). I suspect that what keeps many people as part of the Church is not that we do things awfully well. It’s not because the buildings are nice, the people are friendly, or even that the sermons are any good- although hopefully these things are true for you! But really you’re here, aren’t you, because at some points of your life- times which perhaps are almost too intimate and private for you to speak easily about- because at some time, all the talk about God and Christ and the Spirit which you hear within these walls- all that talk became a reality for you. Rather than other people telling you about God, you knew God for yourself. Perhaps it was a moment of joy- as you pondered the miracle of new life? Maybe it was a moment of thanksgiving, as the shadow of a terrible illness or worry passed. Maybe it was because, as you walked through the valley of the shadow, your knew your shepherd walked with you. ‘I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears’. Maybe it was because the day came when it all fitted together: the Christian story made sense, and you were swept up into God’s great movement of grace. At that point, you didn’t just hear about God second hand- you knew, you didn’t just hear about it, but you tasted the grace of God for yourself- and you knew, beyond words, that the Lord was good!
Can we as a Church, I wonder, be brave enough to go beyond our usual activities, our usual ways of doing things, and help others ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’? Can we find ways of offering nibbles, before the buy in bulk, a snack before the full meal? Can we give folks a taster of what it is to know God for themselves? I think that in a culture where churchgoing has become foreign, even suspect, we need to offer an intermediate stage- a place for people to go before they sit in the pew, a place for them to explore what it is God means for them, a place for them to taste the bread of life, and then decide if they want the whole loaf! Perhaps it will be some kind of discussion or study group. Maybe it will be a conversation over a cup of coffee and a cake (and we should make sure the coffee and cake tastes good!).
I think we can find ways to help people ‘taste and see’, because many, many people have already tasted God’s goodness, grace and love even if God is not yet the name they put to the experience. ‘Taste and see’ could be a good motto for our congregation. Can we become a Church which helps people to taste and see how good God is, that helps people understand why those who take refuge in the Lord are so happy? For if we experience the dizzying grace of God, it’s like the finest wine, the sweetest desert, the most tasty and nourishing food we’ve ever eaten. How can we not want to share the sweet taste of God’s goodness with our neighbours, inviting them to ‘taste and see’ and to learn alongside us about the bread of life?
Ascription of Praise
Taste and see that the Lord is good:
happy are those who take refuge in him. Amen.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible (Gospel) and NRSV (Psalms)
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo