05.02.10

5.2.10 sermon notes

Acts:11:1-18

I have always enjoyed Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  It contains fun insights about the value of naps and cookies and wonder and sharing.  But as I observe and hear about first-grade life through the eyes of our daughter, Julia, I have started to think that there are some aspects of elementary school we might be better off forgetting.

Most recently, Julia has been telling me about the “clubs” they form during recess.  Being predictable first-graders, there are “boy clubs” and various “girl clubs”.  The other day her friend Alora got mad at her for helping someone in another club, so she told Julia she was kicked out of their club. She reminded her numerous times that she was kicked out “for infinity”.  We all remember doing things like this.  Finally, Julia and Alrora made up and started their own new club, and all was well.

I started to think about my own childhood and realized how often we do things like this.  Sometimes, the organized games we play have rules that encourage it!  In dodge ball, people are systematically knocked out of the game, left to watch from the sidelines while others continue playing.  Even musical chairs, with its delightfully whimsical name, involves round after round of setting up a scenario where one poor child will be left without a chair and then relegated to the sidelines to watch everyone else have fun.

From the playground to our reality game shows to our workplaces to our churches, we seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy seeking ways to keep people out, while at the same time, fighting to maintain our position as insiders.

Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that this is not a new problem. As Christians, our sacred texts reveal the ways in which our ancient Hebrew brothers and sisters followed strict laws intended to identify who was in and who was out of the fold of God’s chosen people.  And the New Testament, particularly the book of Acts and the letters of Paul to various church communities, reveal the ways in which the early church struggled to determine who was in and who was out.

In our reading from the Acts of the apostles this morning, Peter seems to have been called in by the church leaders in Jerusalem for breaking the rules.  He had been eating with those people – “the uncircumsiced”. So Peter recounts his vision that he had three times about unclean animals and his subsequent encounter with the three men from Caesarea.  Now we only read from chapter 11, so we miss a bit of the context, but this story is almost a word-for-word retelling of this event from the previous chapter.  As one scholar notes: “This story was so important for the early church that it is told in chapter 10 and retold in chapter 11 as Peter testified in Jerusalem before a feisty group of critics.  No issue was more debated by early Christians or more important to them than whether their newfound faith was intended only for Jews or whether it was to include Gentiles while allowing them to remain Gentiles” (Jones, Feasting).

Church debate was consumed with matters of circumcision and clean and unclean meats. The boundaries had been so clear before.  But all of a sudden, the Holy Spirit seemed to be pushing them out of their comfort zones in terms of who was going to be included.  Change and growth can be hard – this isn’t new to us. We have just changed the things we argue about.

We wouldn’t be here if God hadn’t worked through Peter and the early church to extend the table. But like children at recess, as soon as we get in the club, we come up with new rules to keep others out, forgetting that we ourselves have been the recipients of God’s boundless love, which really begs the question: Who are we to hinder God?

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”  What an amazing question for Peter to ask.  Here he is, being called out on the carpet for his actions, and rather than engaging in elaborate theological debate or chastising his accusers for their narrow-mindedness, Peter tells a story of his experience of God that broadened his vision.  And he asks simply: “Who was I that I could hinder God?”  As one scholar notes: “Peter is nobody who could stop God. Nor could his companions stop God. Nor could the readers of this narrative, ancient or contemporary, stop God. God is reaching out to include all who have been excluded or regarded as second class. Peter knew that he and all the followers of Jesus are under a new commandment that readily violates usual social arrangements (John 13:34-35). The Spirit that crosses boundaries is the presence of the risen Christ. We who confess Easter are recruited to move in generous love across all the boundaries of “clean and unclean” … citizens and immigrants, Jews and Muslims, gay and straight, rich and poor” (Breuggemann).

Have you ever thought about what is going on in the world today in terms of Peter’s experience?  Sunday morning in most of our churches is still the most exclusive, segregated, and separate time of the week.  All week long we work with, bump against, commute with, and eat with people who are not like us, but often on Sunday we attend a church that consists mostly of people like ourselves. It is important for us to always be asking: who does not feel welcome in our church and why?

Peter reported that the Spirit told him to “make no distinction between them and us.”  These categories of insiders and outsiders are created by us – not by God. Why are we acting as if we have some divine mandate to keep some people out?  Out of our pulpits, out of our borders, out of our worship, away from this table?  Who are we that we could hinder God?  “If God so loved the world that Jesus came not to condemn the whole world but to save it, who are we to try to limit the mission of God to redeem humanity?  Every time we exclude someone from full participation in the redemptive efforts of God, Peter’s question should trouble us and the church” (Harvard, Feasting).

For as much as we love our community here at Northminster and know that we are a welcoming group, there are a lot of people out there who want nothing to do with the church.  They themselves have been hurt by exclusive and judgmental practices in a local church or they have watched news of Christians murdering abortion doctors or protesting Iraqi war veterans’ funerals because they think God is punishing this country for its perceived tolerance of homosexuality.  They say, “If that is Christianity, then I think I’ll pass”, and I can’t say that I blame them.  Jonathan Swift once said that “We have just enough religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love. “ I so want that to be untrue, but I am not blind to the ways so much harm has been done in the name of God.  But that is not the story for our church or for countless others.  But what are we doing to change the stereotypes?  How can we offer a different story – let people know that there is more to the Christian community than the current culture would have them think?

Jesus made it pretty clear and simple: Love one another.  Why do we Christians keep messing it up with more rules?  The abundant table of God’s joyous feast is open to all.  And the world needs more communities willing to share that same abundance and grace and love with others.

In a few minutes, we will come to this table.  When we share communion, we celebrate Christ’s boundary-breaking life, death, and resurrection and anticipate the ultimate feast when all will sit together at the table of God. And we don’t just hope for it as a distant future, this joyful feast reminds us to work to extend the tables in our lives here and now – in our churches, in our communities, in our relationships, in our world, so that all are welcome and all are fed.  May we all sit at the welcome table one of these days.  And may we as a community set welcoming tables in this world we are called to love and serve.

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