May 19, 2019
Us and Them – May 19, 2019
Sermon from Sunday, May 19
Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus offering one of the most important lessons of the New Testament. After washing his friends’ feet and telling them to do the same, he gives them this New Commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). It’s right up there with the Great Commandment, to love God and love neighbor; and because these commands are so central to who we are as Jesus’ followers, they’re the core of our parish’s purpose statement. It’s right here in the bulletin every week, by the way – that, first and foremost, we are a church family called to love God, love neighbor, and love one another.
So, how do we live out that call to love? When Jesus tells the lawyer to love God and love neighbor, the lawyer comes back with, “OK, but who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) – which leads Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. Similarly, as we wonder about who’s included in the command to love “one another,” we get today’s reading from Acts.
In the chapter just before what we heard this morning, Peter has a transforming experience; and he gives a recap of it in today’s reading. Peter had a vision of all kinds of animals that were ritually unclean for Jewish people to eat, but he heard God issuing a new dietary commandment – that what was once considered unclean is now literally on the table. That vision set the stage for an even bigger course correction God was giving Peter – overturning the ancient laws prohibiting Jews from eating and drinking with non-Jews, also known as Gentiles. A Roman army officer, Cornelius – the epitome of an enemy for a follower of Jesus – Cornelius came to Peter looking for a word from the Lord. And Peter saw that God was opening the doors of the kingdom of heaven to non-Jews, too, especially once the Holy Spirit came to Cornelius and his friends.
All that probably sounds great to us, given that we, too, are Gentiles. But for the rest of the disciples, Peter had gone rogue. They demand to know, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (Acts 11:3). God set those boundaries for a reason, Peter. What the heck were you thinking? So, Peter tells them the story of his vision, and Cornelius, and the Holy Spirit coming to these outsiders just as it had come to the apostles in the upper room (John 20:22; Acts 2:1-4). And Peter concludes his story this way: “If God … gave them the same gift [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17).
Now, in fairness, Jewish people had always welcomed non-Jews to come to worship and to pattern their lives on Jewish teachings. Gentiles like these were called “God-fearers,” and Cornelius was one of them, as it turned out. They followed the ways of the God of Israel without making the full commitment of conversion and, for the guys, circumcision. So, it was just fine when Gentiles would come to Jewish synagogues to worship. But things got messy when Peter stepped across a holy boundary and went to the outsiders instead.
It’s always easier for a community to let people in, on its terms, than for a community to change and adapt to folks from the outside. Churches struggle with this all the time. In fact, it’s really hard for most of us to see the life of our church from the perspective of someone who isn’t part of it. A couple of Sundays ago, we hosted a Lutheran pastor, who offered a workshop on hospitality, how we can be more intentional about embracing people who come our way. Forty-two St. Andrew’s folks came out for tacos and training in being hospitable, which is amazing. Honestly, I think we’ve made huge strides in being more welcoming, and I give thanks for every person here who makes it a practice – a spiritual practice – to look for people they don’t recognize.
Over the past year, we’ve also been experimenting with new ways to gather, praising God, hearing God’s Word, celebrating special times, and welcoming people who maybe don’t come to any church on a Sunday morning. Typically, these events are part of our third-Sunday-of-the-month Sunset Series, and they’re usually over at HJ’s. In August, we had a back-to-school celebration and blessed kids’ backpacks. In September, it was a jazz concert. Then we celebrated Oktoberfest. In November, we had two celebrations – debuting a new choral presentation of The Prince of Egypt and, later, honoring our veterans. In December, we had a St. Nicholas party, sang carols, and made gingerbread houses. Since the first of the year, we’ve celebrated St. Patrick with a Pub Night featuring an Irish band, and we had an amazing opportunity last Sunday night to sing spirituals along with one of the finest pianists and conductors in the Midwest.
Now, this afternoon, at 5 p.m. over at HJ’s, we’ll have our end-of-school bash, with hotdogs and hamburgers, an ice-cream truck, inflatables for the kids, music, and something new for the summer: the blessing of the feet. Kids of all ages can bring their flip-flops, or tennis shoes, or hiking boots, or just their bare feet and have them blessed to be sent out into the joy of summertime.
What are those events all about? What happens when we do them? Well, we gather in the Lord’s name, praising God for what we’ve been given and asking God to bless our lives. We hear some Scripture. We sing spiritual songs. We feast and have a great time. I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like a worshipful celebration, even though you don’t find any of those gatherings in theBook of Common Prayer. So, do they “count”? In the language of the people I interviewed in England during my sabbatical, are these events “proper church?” In my book, absolutely. And at each one, we welcome in people we’ve never met before.
So, in last week’s Messenger and bulletin, you saw an article about a next step we’re going to try out beginning Father’s Day, June 16. We’re calling it “Java and Jesus.” Here’s the idea: As much as many of us love this traditional worship space, with its pews and stone walls and stained-glass windows, a lot of people would find this setting stuffy or even intimidating. People ask me, “Do I have to wear a suit or a dress to come to St. Andrew’s?” and I always say, “No, of course not.” But the fact they feel the need to ask says something – that our worship environment may be setting boundaries we don’t intend to set. So, we’re going to try something, not a change but an addition to what happens here on Sunday morning.
Beginning June 16, we’ll be livestreaming the 10:15 service over at HJ’s. The café will be open, and people can come in wearing their shorts and t-shirts for complimentary coffee and pastries, just like the other six mornings of the week. But along with the coffee will be worship, including consecrated bread and wine, Jesus’ Body and Blood for Holy Communion. We’ll set out a mat with toys where kids can play. As far as I’m concerned, dogs can come in, too (though they don’t get Communion). People can sit wherever they like; and honestly, if they find the sermon boring, they can get up and get a muffin while I drone on. It’s definitely church – the same Word and Sacrament that happens here on this side of the street. But, you know, if you can come in your shorts, and have a bite to eat, and talk with your neighbor without feeling self-conscious about it, that brings down the boundaries between “us” and “them.”
So, if St. Peter were here with us today – and as we join with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, I like to think that St. Peter is here with us today – what might he have to say about “Java and Jesus”? Now, without his vision of God telling him to eat “unclean” foods, and without his conversation with the Roman army officer Cornelius, and without seeing the Holy Spirit come down on those non-Jewish people and welcome them into God’s family – without all that, Peter might have had some issues with us offering Eucharist over coffee and pastries at HJ’s. But after his experience with Cornelius, I think Peter would say, sign me up.
Here’s the thing: Our God is always doing something new. In the beginning, it was creating the heavens and the earth out of nothing. Then it was setting a particular people aside to shine God’s light for everybody else. Then it was coming into our lives to take our nature and make common humanity divine. Then it was dying to defeat death and let us live forever. Then it was beating the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out, opening the promise of healing and eternal life to everybody who trusts in Christ. And even at the end of the story, when God reunites heaven and earth as we heard in the reading from Revelation, and restores things to be the way God intended in the beginning, God will still be proclaiming, “See, I am making all things new” (21:5).
So, as we try to beat a boundary ourselves the first Sunday of June, and invite neighbors to find God in coffee and pastry as well as in Word and Sacrament, I hope you’ll pray for this next step to make our little part of creation new. If you’d like to come over and try it yourself, please do. And when you do – just as you do on this side of the street on a Sunday morning – look first for the people you don’tknow. Look first for the Gentiles. Look first for whoever might strike you as “them.” And then, make “them” part of “us.” As Jesus said to his friends 2,000 years ago, so he tells us as he sends us out: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples” – each time a “them” becomes an “us.”