Raisin Retreat

1 Chronicles 12:38-13:4; Matthew 12:46-50

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan

Unlike some of the traditions of the University, Raisin is genuinely old.  For centuries, bejeants, the old word for freshers meaning fledglings, have been initiated soon after coming to the University.  Such initiation ceremonies were common throughout European universities in the Middle Ages and St Andrews was no exception.  At the heart of the ceremony was the gift of a pound of raisins from bejeants to their seniors.  In return the more senior student would write a receipt in Latin, usually of a risqué nature.  Today there are still receipts, occasionally with Latin inscriptions, but usually written on large unwieldy objects made from cardboard boxes and spray paint.  As for the pound of raisins, they have mainly been replaced by that other product of the grape – the bottle of wine.  As for initiation more broadly, that is happening all around us right now as students take part in scavenger hunts, meals and parties in which students find increasingly ingenious ways of introducing alcohol into their diet.  It may be that you are in Chapel today partly as a retreat from that side of Raisin.

Raisins appear rarely in scripture.  But intriguingly, in today’s Old Testament passage, they are part of a celebration.  Following the death of Saul, warriors had gathered to make David king over Israel.  But this was not merely a military celebration in the mess – the whole of the nation was invited to attend the celebrations.  It seems this invitation had something of a BYOB in the bottom corner, for the people came laden with food and drink for the festivities, including clusters of raisins.  And these were brought by their kindred.

Israel very much saw itself as a family.  God made his covenant with Abraham promising him that he would be the father of countless descendants.  The story of Abraham’s children, and their children and their children form most of the book of Genesis.  The twelve tribes of Israel are descended from Jacob, Abraham’s grandson.  David himself belonged to the tribe of one of those sons – Judah.  And throughout the Old Testament family is the central way that society is organised.  Marriage and childbearing are fundamental.  Order comes to human relationships through the family.  Honour your father and mother; Do not commit adultery; Do not covet your neighbour’s wife – three of the Ten Commandments focus on family relationships.   Infertility appears over and over again as a sorrow and a curse.  Of course, as Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, Accidents will occur in the best-regulated families.  And reading the Old Testament shows how true that is for Israel.  The book of Genesis is full of sibling rivalry, deceit and violence, in Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers. This was brought out so effectively by Jonathan Sacks in his lecture here last year and in his book Not in God’s Name.

Jesus was a Jew, born in the city of David, Bethlehem, and called in the very first verse of the New Testament, “the Messiah, the son of David.”  He belonged to the family of Israel, and was of the branch from which it was hoped the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed would come, to defeat the nation’s enemies, restore God as King in the land, and bring about an era of justice, peace and prosperity.  Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  But it is clear that many of the older, traditional ways of understanding God’s rule, and the right order for society under God were changed in Jesus.  Perhaps better to say expanded, fulfilled, completed in him.  And one of these is family.

In Matthew 12, Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were waiting outside to speak to him.  You would think he would say, “Well, let them in!”  But he doesn’t.  Instead, this is an occasion for a rhetorical question and significant answer:

‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’  And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’

This had shock-value then, and perhaps even today.  Jesus’ belief in family values is a long way from the version current in conservative cultural politics.  His family is not made through being related by blood, or marriage, but by belief, commitment and action.  Marriage is honoured but singleness and celibacy are valued.  Childlessness is no longer seen as a religious curse.  Jesus implies that the fundamental relationship of our life is not as child of our parents but child of our Father in heaven; and that we are brothers and sisters of him in a more profound way than we are to our biological siblings.  This is a family of disciples, a community of those for whom Jesus lived, died and was raised to life.  We see this in the very word we use for that community, church, which comes from the Greek kyriake oikia – family of the Lord.

This may all seem irrelevant given the way contemporary society seems to be going.  Neither the Hebrew focus on family, nor the Christian focus on the community of Christ cuts much ice with modern patterns of working and living.  A brilliant inaugural lecture here a couple of years ago by Professor Elspeth Graham looked at the widespread phenomenon of mothers leaving South-East Asia to work in countries of the Gulf, sending money home, but rarely seeing their children.  And within our own world of academia, it is increasingly common for couples to live and work in different parts of the country, or even the world.  Employers see family ties as increasingly objectionable in the pursuit of the bottom line – such as living with or near family, and providing time to their workers to care for children, for aging parents.  For students considering a career, and the future, who may have attended the Careers Fair at the Union on Friday, I doubt there was a stall there about family relationships or maintaining a community throughout our working lives.  But they matter deeply to the human being – and will matter to you after graduation.

Which brings us back to Raisin, which seems a very long way from submitting a CV to an investment bank in London.  (But do beware of too many drunken images on the internet when making your application.)  Angela Carter, the 20th Century novelist, wrote: It is a characteristic of human beings, one I’ve often noticed, that if they don’t have a family of their own, they will invent one.  And nowhere is this more evident than in the academic families of this university.  First year children with third-year parents, but also academic sisters, brothers, step-siblings, grandchildren, great-aunts and in some cases, luxuriantly-foliaged family trees.  I particularly loved the academic family system on Thursday when one set of parents instructed their children to give me flowers and chocolates.  If you want to continue this tradition, champagne is also acceptable.  At their best, academic families echo something of that family which Jesus drew to him.  It is unusual for an academic family to have the will of God at its heart, but there can be a strong sense of a common purpose of care, compassion and commitment.  It’s not blood which draws them together, but bonds of loyalty, friendship, even sacrifice.  I’m reminded of the words of Tom, a character in Bridget Jones’ Diary which rumour has it is based on Richard Coles, a former preacher in Chapel here.  Tom said:

I know we’re all psychotic, single and completely dysfunctional and it’s all done over the phone… but it’s a bit like a family, isn’t it?

Substitute snapchat, skype and facebook today.

What are we doing here today then, in Chapel?  Retreating from Raisin?  Or can we see Raisin as a retreat from a society which sees human beings fundamentally as individuals, who belong not to families and communities but economies, companies and ruthlessly-led teams?  Can we see Raisin, even in its drunken excesses, as a communal activity, fundamentally different from and better than a life lived via screens in solitary bedrooms?  Not a retreat but an advance.  Can we see Raisin as a sign, obscure perhaps, of what the church is: a family of people called to belong to Jesus, a community of love, of care, of commitment, of courage?  Can we see Raisin, in its unconventional family relationships, as a model for an inclusive church in which all are welcome – married, single, divorced, or somewhere in between.  Wherever we are in our sexuality.  Wherever we are in our gender.  Whoever we are in age, race, colour, ability, and health physical and mental.  Whatever we’ve done.

Last week I quoted the 16th President of the USA, Abraham Lincoln.  Let me finish with a quotation from the 44th and current incumbent, Barack Obama, speaking of the church he belonged to in Chicago.

Intermittently, then more regularly, they had returned to the church, finding in Trinity some of the same things every religion hopes to offer its converts: a spiritual harbor and the chance to see one’s gifts appreciated and acknowledged in a way that a paycheck never can; an assurance as bones stiffened and hair began to gray, that they belonged to something that would outlast their lives – and that, when their time finally came, a community would be there to remember.