Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving for St Olave’s Grammar School, Orpington

A sermon preached by The Reverend Justin White, Senior Provost, Woodard Schools at the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving for St Olave’s Grammar School, Orpington.

Yuck! What disgusts you? What really makes your stomach turn? 

I have my list of indelible images from my past.

A memory from childhood: The smell and sight of a pot of tripe and onions bubbling away on my grandmother’s stove. Yuck!

A memory from when I was a farmer: Maggots swarming and squirming and slithering over the rotting head of a dead cow. Yuck!

A memory from when I was a student: Returning to find my student digs filled with raw sewage. Unmentionables bobbing in my flooded kitchen. Yuck!


Disgust is a powerful emotion. It is more deeply buried than anger or fear or envy. And it compounds and intensifies the other negative emotions. Which makes it a very powerful tool in our politics when it is directed towards people. If I can persuade you to be disgusted by some ‘other’, the enemy, the opposition; if I can dehumanise them in your eyes, make them horrible, then treating them horribly is so much easier.


You’ll be aware of just how disgusted and disgusting much of our politics has become. You’ll be aware of just how disgusting many of our interactions on social media have become. If I’m from the right … well then, I am disgusted by your tree-hugging, LGBTQ+-loving, woke, libertarian, Marxist agenda. I will not look at you, let alone talk to you or listen to you. Yuck! If I am from the left … well then, I am disgusted by your climate-change-denying, homophobic, transphobic, racialist, misogynist, fascist agenda. Yuck! Get out of my sight!


We’ve just heard a peculiar story – a disgusting story – concerning Peter. Peter is one of the very first Christians working out on the ground what this new faith means. 


For a Jewish Christian of Peter's time and place, every aspect of life was controlled by a holiness code that had been in place for over a thousand years. Precise details about which foods are clean and which are … well, yuck; prohibitions against contact with a human corpse or a dead animal; laws about bodily discharges; about lawful and unlawful sexual relationships; about everything to do with being a human: birth, death, sex, gender, health, economics, law, social relations, hygiene, marriage, behaviour, and certainly race.


So here is Peter, staying at the house of Simon the Tanner. First of all: Yuck! Simon would have been a disgusting man in both a literal and figurative sense. Tanners worked with dead animals; skinning them and then preparing their skins – usually by soaking them in urine. The filth and the stench must have been … well, yuck! Just imagine how Simon looked and smelled at the end of a hot day. Yuck! And, of course, handling animal carcasses was expressly forbidden by the Jewish purity laws.


So here is Peter, staying with this disgusting man, when he has a vision. He sees the heavens opened and a large sheet coming down. In it were all kinds of creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”


But these animals are the very things the Law forbids him from eating. “No way, Lord!” exclaims Peter. “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 


But the voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”


It becomes clear what all this is really about. It is not really about animals and rituals. It is about people. Because Peter is then summoned to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Now this is a non-Jew, a pagan, what the Bible calls a Gentile. The Law is quite clear about such people: they are also unclean, profane, disgusting.


We’re rightly disgusted by the blight of antisemitism in our day – that is prejudice and hatred directed at Jews. But here, 2000 years ago, we have a Jew called Peter facing his own prejudices and hatreds. For Christianity it is a vital moment. Can non-Jews – that is Gentiles – become Christians?


Yes! Emphatically yes! What God has made clean, you must not call profane. No one can disgust you because all are made in the image and likeness of God.


And that is what Jesus had modelled in his life. Showing wanton disregard for ritual purity, touching lepers, ignoring the Sabbath rules, touching a woman with a bodily discharge, befriending Gentiles, and handling a corpse. This new Jesus movement turns the purity system on its head. Compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code. Egalitarian inclusivity rather than hierarchical exclusivity. Inward transformation rather than outward ritual.


St Olave’s – on this your day of commemoration and thanksgiving, your diverse multi-cultural community seems to me to embody St Peter’s vision rather brilliantly. You place understanding, respect, and dignity for all uppermost among your school’s values. No place in your community for disgust, for the demonising of the other. Compassion for everyone, not lip service to rules and regulations. Egalitarian inclusivity rather than hierarchical exclusivity. Inward transformation rather than outward shows of merit.


I beg you, please, to take these values out into your adult lives and the places where you will live and work and engage with others. Never forget the gifts that a good liberal education has given you: The gift of critical discernment of received wisdoms; of respectful attendance to alternative views; of empathic reverence for those who haven’t enjoyed what you have; of righteous indignation toward the politics of disgust and injustice and apathy; of risky preparedness to embrace difference.


And remember that you are a Christian school. Not a faith school, but a school where faith – the Christian faith and all faiths – are taken seriously. 


Now, you may say, but we don’t need Christianity to teach us the importance of inclusion and the rejection of the politics of disgust.


That may be true. But let me end with a final insight that I draw from the story of St Peter and his vision, which is, I believe, uniquely Christian.


This is not simply a story of radical inclusion extended to all people. This is not about us magnanimously and generously allowing the disgusting into our back yard. For that already presumes that we’re the superior ones. No. The Christian message is that we are able to love one another because God has first loved us … even when we were unlovely. 


Our differences take second place to God declaring no one unclean or profane – even someone as unclean and profane as me! What matters is not being in or out, clean or disgusting, but that God was in Jesus Christ making acceptable the unacceptable. That’s all of us.


We must do this not because of our goodwill or our noble values, but because God in Christ first loved us. Christians believe that God acts first and makes possible our action in response. We can be a community that truly loves one another because we do it not out of our own magnanimity but out of humble response to the One who made us divine even when we were … well, yuck.


“Thus says the Lord,” writes the Prophet in our first reading. “To one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations … I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth … because the Lord, who is faithful … has chosen you!”