Friday, May 26, 2006

Sermon for Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Making of a Church III: Inclusiveness

Acts 11:1-18

Real men will eat anything, right. I remember attending a game dinner many years ago. It must have been a bad year for venison, because the real men ate fowl and skewered pieces of marinated raccoon meat. Yes, I tried it. No, I didn’t have seconds. What the most disgusting meat you’ve ever eaten? The thought of it turns your stomach? The Apostle Peter might be able to tell you his nightmare meal.

In the Book of Acts, chapter 10 God showed Peter a vision of a backwoods banquet coming down out of heaven. There’s some snake and a bunch of reptiles. God says, “Go on, Peter, have a bite.” I don’t know if anyone here has ever eaten snake before. Some people say it tastes like chicken. In case you’re interested, I scoured the Internet for snake recipes. Here’s my favorite - -a recipe for East Texas Fried Rattlesnake Dinner that contains all four food groups.

1. Bake a chocolate cake (this is the 1st food group).
2. Fry two pounds of bacon in a cast iron skillet. Leave ½ pound on the drainboard to munch on while you’re cooking, and put the rest in the fridge.
Go outside and find a big rattlesnake. Kill the snake. Nail its head to a tree.
Go in the house, skin and boil six large potatoes. (Potatoes are the second food group)
5. Go back outside and cut the snake down the middle being careful not to ruin the rattles. Cut the skin away from the head. Pull down hard and steady. Lay the skin in the sun to dry and instruct the dog to leave the snakeskin alone.
Slice the snake meat into half-inch thick patties. Pour a lot of flour onto two plates, and scramble three eggs in a bowl. Put black pepper and some cayenne pepper into the plates. When you think you have enough pepper, add some more. After all, you’re about to eat a rattlesnake. Dip the meat into the plates of flour and then gently lay the battered meat into the hot grease. If done correctly you’ll not get burned. If done wrong, you’ll learn.
Leave the meat in the grease until it’s brown on the bottom, then turn it over.
Meanwhile, fork-test the potatoes. If they’re done, drain off the water, add a stick of butter (3rd food group) and some milk.
Put two cans of peas in a big bowl with a half stick of butter. Put the bowl in the microwave and nuke them.
Leaving the fire low, slowly sprinkle the left over flour into the left over grease and scratch it around until the flour is cooked. Slowly add whole milk, while squishing out the lumps. Don’t add too much milk. The final consistency resembles grayish-brown wallpaper paste. This process takes some practice, but eventually you will scratch through the lumps and have the fourth food group: gravy.
Take the peas out of the microwave and the bread out of the oven. Put everything on the table. Call everybody to eat.
12. Feed them fried rattlesnake while you eat mashed potatoes, gravy, peas and chocolate cake.

The outdoorsmen of the world tell us that snakes, racoons, possum, squirrels -- all that stuff is tasty when it’s prepared correctly. Apparently, Peter was disgusted by it all. Maybe Peter just didn’t have a good recipe.

In the first century, the great question was one of boundaries. Where would the lines be drawn that would determine who should hear the gospel and who would not. Believers assumed that God’s recipe for a good church was limited to those who followed the commandments and rituals of Judaism. The first church members called themselves Jews. They worshiped like Jews. They did not associate with anyone who was not Jewish. It was against Jewish law to be in contact with Gentiles and their traditions. The early Christians kept kosher homes and obeyed the Jewish laws. The law said that no Jew was allowed to eat things like pigs, or reptiles, or shellfish, or certain species of birds. You can imagine how Peter’s horror when he sees these unclean animals in a vision. God tells him to eat the forbidden animals. Then God sends Peter to the home of Cornelius – not only an unclean Gentile, but a Roman army officer.

Peter visits Cornelius and tells him the story of Jesus. The Holy Spirit immediately fills Cornelius. He and his entire household convert to Christianity. This blows the minds of the good Jewish followers of Christ. It is unbelievable to them that God’s love would actually reach out to unclean and idolatrous gentiles. The other Apostles hear about this and call Peter to task. God reminds his followers that the boundaries of the kingdom reach farther than they ever dreamed. I think we need a reminder of who the church is, and what we are called to do.

Since we were kids, someone told us that God loves everyone. This doesn’t mean that God just loves those who are popular, or good looking, or the ones who have it all together. It also means that God loves those whom the world labels as ugly or incompetent. The membership rolls of the early church sound more like roll call at a detention camp. The church converted people who were seen as low-lifes – religious zealots, the poor and oppressed, helpless charity cases, and foreigners. The church is not a special club for people who have it all together. The church is for rejects. The church is a place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope. This place exists because all of us have been unfaithful, unworthy, undesirable and unsure, but because of Christ we have never been unloved.

An inclusive vision of the church means that we restlessly commit ourselves to preaching and teaching the message of God’s love. We don’t do it because we think we are better than others. We do not speak about Jesus to swell our membership roles. We tell others about God’s love because we love them and we’re are convinced that humanity is doomed without God’s loving touch. The message that people both inside and outside this church need to hear again is that God loves you and every person with equal passion and devotion People will never hear this life-saving message if we don’t tell them, and we can’t tell them if they are not welcome among us.

People are not welcome if we judge them according to our misperceptions. Dodie Gadient, a veteran schoolteacher decided to travel across America and see the sights she taught about. Traveling alone in a truck with camper in tow, she launched out. One afternoon rounding a curve on I-5 near Sacramento in rush-hour traffic, a water pump blew on her truck. Despite the traffic jam she caused, no one seemed interested in helping. Leaning up against the trailer, she prayed, 'Please God, send me an angel . . . preferably one with mechanical experience.' Within four minutes, a Harley drove up, ridden by an massive man sporting long, black hair, a beard and tattooed arms. With an incredible air of confidence, he jumped off and. Without even glancing at Dodie, he went to work on the truck. Within a few minutes, he flagged down a larger truck, attached a tow chain to the frame of the disabled Chevy, and whisked the truck and trailer onto a side street, where he worked on the water pump.The schoolteacher was too dumbfounded to talk. Especially when she read the paralyzing words on the back of his leather jacket: 'Hell's Angels -- California'. Dodie finally found the courage to say, 'Thanks so much,' and carry on a brief conversation. Noticing her surprise at the whole ordeal, he looked her straight in the eye and mumbled, 'Don't judge a book by its cover. You may not know who you're talking to.' With that, he smiled, closed the hood of the truck, and straddled his Harley. With a wave, he was gone as fast as he had appeared.”

Given half a chance, people often crawl out of the boxes into which we've relegated them. Don’t let judgments and assumptions guide you. God’s love belongs to everyone, and everyone belongs in the church. Whether the advice comes from your grandmother or a Hell’s Angel, it’s still true: Don't judge a book by its cover. You may not know who you're talking to.

God wants us not only to tell, but also to show his love. By themselves, words can be meaningless until they are backed by action. For instance, what does a visitor see when he or she attends worship here? Do we look bored and fidgety, or do we actively worship our Savior? If we look like we can’t wait to get out of here, then our actions might show that we are here just out of mere obligation. If we act like we love God and enjoy being with each other, we confirm that our faith has actually had an impact on our lives. Our neighbors, our families, our children, and even complete strangers are watching you, and they want to know if all this talk about Jesus and church really makes a difference in your life. The church can become an inclusive community when we back up our words with integrity-filled actions.

In 1999 a little church in Decatur called Oakhurst Baptist Church was ejected by the Georgia Baptist Convention for a variety of issues having to do with Biblical interpretation and inclusiveness. In the 1960's this congregation took a stand against segregation and had lost two-thirds of its members. In the 1980's the church opened its doors to the homeless, who have been welcomed and have worshiped there ever since. In fact, the pastor tells about the time when he and his young son were visiting another church facility and his son asked, “Dad, where do the homeless live here?” He assumed that you could not have a church without a place for your homeless friends. One day, when the congregation was in the news, a developmentally disabled church member saw a TV camera and hurried over to offer to be on television. The reporter extended his microphone and asked, “Tell me, what do you like about this church?” John grinned and answered, “They love everybody here.”

I’ve been to similar churches. I think of one church in that regularly opens to all. On any given Sunday, this church has business professionals, college professors, group-home residents, and homeless people all worshiping together, praying for one another and celebrating each other’s lives. Another I know sends out its “worship wagon.” The Worship Wagon goes to the homes of elderly people and others who can’t get to church. They are driven to the worship service and returned home afterwards. Churches like these realize that we are not fully the body of Christ until everyone is included.

Don’t you want to be part of a church that changes the lives of others by modeling love and devotion? Who will invite others in and show them the love of Jesus? Who will seek out those who are different from us, those who are disabled, or lonely, or hurting, or socially different? Who will show them that someone cares, that we loves them, that we believe in them because God cares, loves and believes in them?

Do we want to see the church to have an impact on the culture around us? Do we want to see people’s lives touched by God? If so, it means being committed to living God’s vision of an inclusive church. It means being personally responsible for telling all people about God’s love, and showing them love in action, even if it stretches our comfort zones, and even if it challenges our faith.

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