Sermon–April 24, 2016


Easter 5—Year C

April 24, 2016

William Bradbury

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

In order to understand what all the fuss is about in the reading from Acts get in touch with those foods the thought of which makes you uncomfortable: maybe gas station sushi, or rotten eggs. When I was in seminary at a soul food restaurant I once tried boiled chitlins—aka cow or pig intestines——the smell alone nearly knocked me out.  How about people? Who makes you so uncomfortable that you cross the street to avoid them?   The disfigured, the sick, the strange? 

Imagine that you have been taught since birth that Gentiles, that is all non-Jewish people, are unclean pagans and that while God loves everyone you are repulsed by the idea of sharing an intimate dinner around a kitchen table in a pagan home. This is an emotional response. Yet, Peter who was raised this way tells his fellow Jewish believers in Jesus that he did all of those things: he went to a Gentiles home, ate in their non-kosher kitchen, and baptized them into fellowship with Messiah Jesus without first making them become Jews. So they demand Peter explain himself. Peter blames it all on God. He says he was minding his own business when while praying one afternoon he receives a vision of a sheet filled with animals repulsive to any Jew—reptiles and pigs for instance. But then God says, “Peter, fire up the grill and eat.”

“No way, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But the Lord says: “What God makes clean you must not call profane.”

Then, at that very moment three men ask Peter to come with them to the Roman centurion Cornelius’s house. And the Spirit says to Peter not to make a distinction between them and us.

So he goes to see Cornelius, accepts his hospitality, starts to preach about the crucified Messiah who is Lord, and all of sudden the Spirit descends on Cornelius just as She did on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. So Peter says, “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 could hinder God?” 

2000 years ago God made it crystal clear that Jesus’ community on earth is to reflect the fact that through the death of the Messiah the dividing wall between peoples, nations, and classes, and genders has been torn down, so that the church is to invite all people to share in life in Christ. Please note this isn’t a mere liberal tolerance in which everyone gets to do their own thing, but a call to the level ground at the foot of the cross that leads everyone to repentance, forgiveness, baptism, and receiving the Spirit” of Jesus.

God invites everyone so God can transform everyone with healing love. In this community the world sees Jesus’ cross-shaped community of non-violence, inclusion, and sacrificial love. N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone page 164

And yet, and yet, 2000 years after Peter worships with the Roman Centurion Martin Luther King, Jr was correct in saying that church on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America–and segregated not only according to race but also according to class, language, education, and views on sexuality. Maybe Richard Rohr is right when he says many churches are not genuine communities but just “egoic enclaves.”

While most work places are increasingly diverse, polls show that 86% of American Protestant churches are predominantly composed of one racial group. Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist and professor finds three reasons she resists worshiping in a diverse community.

She writes:

#1. “Diversity exposes my inner control freak”. “I like things done my way. In racially diverse churches I can’t control the environment. Heck, I can’t even predict it. People might worship in ways that make me uncomfortable, interpret scripture in ways that I deem heretical. People might not be able to relate to my experience as a black woman.”

She says #2: Diversity exposes my desire for an easy-breezy Christian life. She had been raised to think following Jesus was supposed to be entirely comfortable.

She says: #3 Diversity exposes my privilege. “True diversity would bring the inequality out there [in the world] into the very sanctuary pews where I sit. It would demand that I confront my privilege, recognize the ways that I benefit from a society that oppresses my brothers and sisters, repent, and join the fight for justice.”

But she says Jesus, on the other hand, “crossed metaphysical planes, abdicated his privilege, morphed into physical form, and spent 30 years on earth just hanging out with us—all the while knowing that his pursuit of [true community] would ultimately cost him his life.”

She wonders, “Is God big enough to sustain me as I face my fears?” The Exchange February 19, 2015

Of course I know the defense that rises in my heart—well, Lord, we welcome anyone who comes through our church doors, and this is a great advance over the days when racial minorities and the LGBT community weren’t welcomed, and back in the day when we all dressed up for church so we could tell who really belonged and who didn’t.  I do believe that our statement of inclusion is a real sign that the Spirit of Messiah Jesus has long been at work in us.

The question today is how willing are we to let the Spirit keep working in us: are we willing to go outside our walls to connect with others and invite them into our hearts and into our worship of Triune God.  We notice Peter goes to Cornelius, instead of demanding that Cornelius come to him.

Am I willing to engage people who make me uncomfortable and let God happen between us—not just for their sake but also for my sake?

As is self-evident I’ve led a fairly sheltered life, but it has always been a good thing when I was forced into situations with people who made me uncomfortable. You remember I did my Clinical Pastoral Education as a seminarian at the Georgia Retardation Center in Atlanta in the summer of 1975. One day in chapel a severely retarded teenager named Johnny came shuffling down the center aisle where I was preaching. He took the Bible out of my hands, tore off a page, and started eating it as he returned to his pew. The staff told me Johnny loved to eat paper, but I think God was reminding me that the Bible was not meant to stay in the head where it causes no discomfort, but that we are, as the collect says, to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” God’s word so it will propel us into places we’d rather not go.

Or the time 25 years later a 20 year old Hispanic farm worker was killed in a wreck and the deacon who ran our Hispanic Ministry asked me if I would lead a Eucharist for Angelina and her friends in the hospital before her body was shipped back to Mexico.  I found this a frightening prospect, not being anywhere near fluent in Spanish, but the hospital apparently had no trouble inviting us to use a conference room for the service. The room was packed with the young, sad friends of Angelina who was on a gurney, her beautiful face uncovered, with what seemed to be an occasional tear running down her face.  In those kinds of moments the Spirit invariably shows us that the crucified Messiah can create his community anywhere people are willing to stay with their discomfort in the company of strangers.  

So maybe we are being called to follow our discomfort as an act of trust in Jesus who leads the way to the cross. Jesus says: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”