Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sermon for August 11, 2013

Good News That Connects: Listening

Acts 10:1-18

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. And no, there was no voice from heaven commanding me to eat it – no booming voice saying, “Matt, do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” What the most disgusting meat you’ve ever eaten? Does the thought of it turns your stomach?

You’ve heard about dining on insects, right? This is an old news story, but media outlets won’t let it go. A report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that insects and insect products should do more towards improving the food security of the world. Certain entrepreneurs are picking up on this trend. Like the company Chapul that makes energy bars. They state, “[Our] Bars are delicious, all-natural bars with protein from crickets-one of the planet's most amazing, energy-efficient creatures. No soy. No dairy. Just our innovative flour made entirely from crickets.”

Here is another stomach turner for me. Lab-grown meat. A lab in London grew a hamburger in a Petri dish. Some call it the Frankenburger. The meat, which contained no fat, was fried in a pan with copious amounts of butter by an English chef and presented on a plate with a bun, lettuce and tomato slices. The concept has enormous environmental and ethical benefits. But here’s the problem – who wants to eat a burger grown in a lab from stem cells? It’s kind of cool. And kind of gross. It has definitely has the “yuck factor” for me. On the bright side, it can’t be worse than raccoon.

In the Book of Acts, chapter 10 God shows Peter a vision of a boondocks banquet coming down out of heaven. There’s some snakes and a bunch of reptiles. According to Jewish law, they are all unclean animals. Eating them will defile you. God says, “Go on, Peter, have a bite.” I don’t know if anyone here has ever eaten snake before. 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. It is a question the church has not yet answered. Marcus Borg writes about this in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the Very First Time. He says, "The struggle between compassion and purity goes on in the churches today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity." 

In the earliest church, some 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. You can imagine how Peter’s horror when God sends Peter to the home of Cornelius – not only an unclean Gentile, but a Roman army officer.

As the author Luke tells the story, Peter visits Cornelius and tells him the story of Jesus. The Holy Spirit immediately fills Cornelius. He and his entire household convert to Christianity. The opportunity comes through listening. Peter listens to God. Peter listens to Cornelius. Peter realizes that God’s love is not defined by social boundaries.  God’s love reaches farther than Peter 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. The membership rolls of the early church sound more like roll call of a detention camp. The early church attracted people who were seen as low-lifes – religious zealots, the poor and oppressed, helpless charity cases, and foreigners. Rich patrons, working class laborers and those in abject poverty held common property and took care of each other. The church has always been place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope.

An inclusive vision of the church means that we restlessly commit ourselves to listening for the ways God wants to expand our horizons. We listen and then we preach and teach the message of God’s extravagant love.

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 its doors to anyone. I mean ANYONE. On any given Sunday, this church has business professionals, college professors, group-home residents, families with children and homeless street people all worshiping together, praying for one another and celebrating each other’s lives. Another church I know sends out its “Worship Wagon.” The Worship Wagon goes to the homes of homebound members and others who can’t get to church. The worship wagon drives people to the church and brings them home afterwards. Churches like these are trying to live out a belief that we are not fully the body of Christ until everyone is included.

Preaching professor, Fred Craddock, once told about a church he knew. He remembered it as the status church – First Church Downtown, it was called. Everybody who was anybody went to that church when Fred was a boy. Not just anybody could walk in there and join. Income and proper attire was a membership requirement at First Church. People in need were out of the question. People of Color need not apply. As you might imagine, First Church did not receive many new members. Its members simply grew older.
Much later, as an adult, Fred learned that First Church had closed. Too few people of the “right type” existed, he guessed. He had occasion to go back to that town, and he discovered that old First Church was still standing. But now it was a restaurant, a fish restaurant oddly enough. He walked in the big gothic doors and, sure enough, where there had once been pews, now there were tables, and waiters, and diners. He looked down the nave of the old church and where the communion table had once stood, now there was a salad bar. He walked out the front door, back down the steps, muttering to himself, “Now, I guess everybody is welcome to eat at the table.”

There are some questions for us lurking behind today’s text from Acts. Can we allow the Holy Spirit to prod us – to give us ears to hear – to drag if necessary, all the way to the wideness of God’s mercy? Or will we hunker down right here, and limit our listening? Do we opt for safe and secure? Do we keep our limits firmly fixed? Who is today’s equivalent of the gentiles? Who are the one’s we call unclean – the one’s God insists belong?

Maybe the most important question that we need to think about is this: What kind of meal are we going to offer?  A safe one or a risky one? A buffet or a banquet?


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