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Sermon for November 14, 2010

Habits of Healthy Churches: Boundaries

Would you ever eat a snake? There’s a story in the Bible about the apostle Peter and a snake. God shows Peter a vision of a banquet coming down out of heaven. In the vision there’s a snake and a bunch of reptiles on a picnic blanket and God tells Pete to kill himself some and 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 and found a recipe for an 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. Bacon is the second food group. Leave ½ pound on the drainboard to munch on while you’re cooking, and put the rest in the fridge.

3. Go outside and find a big rattlesnake. Kill the snake. Nail its head to a tree.

4. Go in the house, skin and boil six large potatoes. Go back outside and cut the snake down the middle being careful to not 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Put two cans of peas in a big bowl with a half stick of butter. Put the bowl in the microwave and nuke them.


8. 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.

9. Take the peas out of the microwave and the bread out of the oven. Put everything on the table. Call everybody to eat. Feed them fried rattlesnake while you eat mashed potatoes, gravy, peas and chocolate cake.

The outdoorsmen of the world tell us that snakes, alligators, racoons, possum, squirrels -- all that stuff is tasty when it’s prepared correctly. I’ve only had the raccoon, and I wasn’t a fan. Kind of slimy. Apparently, Peter was disgusted by it all. Maybe Peter just didn’t have a good recipe.

In the first century, the great question facing the church was about boundaries. Who could be in and who must stay out? Where would the lines be drawn that would determine who should hear the gospel and who would not? Believers assumed that God’s recipe was limited to those who followed the commandments and rituals of Judaism. The first great learning of the early church was that God’s recipe had more ingredients in mind -- it was more inclusive than even the most devout believer could imagine

The church started out as a Jewish sect. Its members were men and women who called themselves Jews. They worshiped like Jews, and they had an encounter with a Jew named Jesus Christ who expanded their ideas of who God was. The early followers of Jesus didn’t hang out with anyone who was not Jewish. It was against the law to be in contact with Gentiles. A Jew considered it unclean and idolatrous to eat a gentile’s food. The early Christians kept kosher homes and obeyed the Jewish laws, and the law said that no Jew was allowed to eat things like pigs, or reptiles, or certain species of birds or shellfish. So, you can imagine how horrified Peter must be when he receives a series of messages from God. First he is told to eat unclean animals. Then he’s told in a vision to go to the home of a man named Cornelius who is a gentile AND a Roman army officer. Cornelius is doubly defiled. Peter goes to this man’s house and tells him the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Cornelius and his entire household are immediately filled with the Holy Spirit and they 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, heathen gentiles. Peter is called to task before the other Apostles; and this is what he says. His speech comes from Acts 11.
“I was in the town of Joppa, and while I was praying, I went into a trance and saw a vision. Something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners from the sky. And it came right down to me. When I looked inside the sheet, I saw all sorts of small animals, wild animals, reptiles, and birds. And I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.’

“‘No, Lord,’ I replied. ‘I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure or unclean”’

“But the voice from heaven spoke again: ‘Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.’ This happened three times before the sheet and all it contained was pulled back up to heaven.
“Just then three men who had been sent from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry that they were Gentiles. These six brothers here accompanied me, and we soon entered the home of the man who had sent for us. He told us how an angel had appeared to him in his home and had told him, ‘Send messengers to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He will tell you how you and everyone in your household can be saved!’

“As I began to speak,” Peter continued, “the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as he fell on us at the beginning. Then I thought of the Lord’s words when he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?”
When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.”
This episode changes the course of history. The church is no longer for Jews only, but for all people. God reminds people that the boundaries of the Kingdom reach farther than they could ever dream. This is why we can sit here and call ourselves Christians today. Sometimes, though, I feel that we’ve gotten into the habit of excluding others from the work and ministry of the church. Sometimes our anger towards others gets in the way, or people come into the church who make us uncomfortable or afraid. I think we all need a reminder of who the church is, and what we are called to do.

Healthy churches learn to expand their boundaries in order to include people in what God is doing. People need to know that they are loved, even when they are unlovable. One way to do this is to tell people the simple truth 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 means that God loves those whom the world labels as ugly or incompetent. For the early church, God’s love was extended to those who were seen as low-lifes; the poor and oppressed, the lame, and even the Gentiles. You see, the church is not supposed to be a club for people who have it all together. The church is for “rejects.” It is a place where people who have been isolated from God can come and hear life-saving news. The church is a place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope. This place is here 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 commit ourselves to preaching and teaching the message of God’s love restlessly. We don’t do it out of pride. We don’t do it to swell our membership roles or bank accounts. The message that people both inside and outside this church need to hear is that God loves you and every person with equal passion and devotion -- that God has made the immensity of divine love known in Jesus Christ. 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. Who will invite others in and tell them just how much God loves them? It can’t be just me, or just a few individual random people. If we want to see the church have an impact in our families and in our community, it can begin with each of us being personally committed to telling others about how God changed our lives, and how God longs to include all people in transforming love.

God needs us not only to tell, but to show God’s love. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel to all the world, and if necessary, use words.” Words alone can be empty and meaningless, unless they are backed with actions. For instance, what does a visitor see when he or she attends worship here? Do we look bored and fidgety, or do we show that we are engaged in actively worshiping 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 routine. If we act like we love God and enjoy the presence of God and one another, we confirm that our faith has actually had an impact on our lives. The truth is that 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 had taken 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 of 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 much in the news, a member of the church, a developmentally disabled young man named John, saw a TV camera and hurried over to offer to be on television. The reporter extended his microphone and asked, “Tell me, John, what do you like about this church?” John grinned and answered, “They love everybody here.”

I have visited similar churches. I think of a church I know that regularly opens its doors to the homeless and developmentally disabled. On any given Sunday you may have business professionals, professors, group-home residents, and homeless people all worshiping together, praying for one another and celebrating each other’s lives. Another church I know sends out what it calls its “Worship Wagon” to drive 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 Christ? Who will seek out those who are different from us, those who are disabled or lonely, or hurting, or socially diverse, and show them that we care, that we love, and 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 more than mere friendliness or hospitality. 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 . . . even if it challenges our faith.

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