Monday, May 7, 2007

Believe it or Not!

Believe it or not, I've had requests to post Sunday sermons on this blog. And I just figured out how to do it. So - Here is May 6th's sermon. The Scripture is Acts 11:1-18

This Easter season we’ve been looking at the Marks of the Easter Church

The characteristics that the people of God – the church – take on in the light of Jesus’ resurrection.

The first one was courage. If you don’t have courage, it doesn’t matter what else you have – because you won’t be brave enough to do anything about it.

The second mark of the Easter Church is revival. We are re-vived, returned to life by the power of Jesus resurrection.

The third characteristic that can be seen whenever the Easter church is truly present is integration. The Easter church is integrated.

(Acts 11:1-18 here)

Integration is usually a word we hear in connection with schools, not churches, isn’t it? Growing up in Topeka, Kansas – the origin of the landmark integration case Brown vs. the Board of Education – in which the Supreme Court struck down the tragically unfair system of separate but equal public education for whites and African Americans, I lived and breathed the excitement and the challenges of integration in the schools I attended. By the time I got to Topeka, any hesitation about sharing schools with families of different colors was either long gone or way under the surface. We were proud of our integrated schools. Race was like a new subject in school. Like learning a language by immersion, we were picking it up as we went along. And I’m sorry that my child is missing an opportunity to learn that dialect every day, face to face in the hallways of his school.

Integration is a word we usually associate with schools, not churches. But did you know that the Easter church represents a remarkable example of racial integration? I see you looking out of the corners of your eyes. Has Cindy lost her mind? No. I know. Churches, especially American churches, usually don’t cross the American racial divide of African American and white. Martin Luther King once said that it was a crying shame that the most segregated hour in Christian America was 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. That’s probably still true. A recent study by sociologists from Rice University found that fewer than 3% of all mainline churches – like the Presbyterians, God bless us – are truly multiracial, having at least 20% of its members be of a different race than the majority.

So if the Easter church isn’t integrated black and white, what, you may ask, do I mean when I say that the church is integrated? Well, quite simply, I mean that before there was black and white, there was a racial divide just as obvious, just as pervasive, just as challenging as the one between African Americans and whites in America. It was the line between Jew and Gentile in the early church. Let’s review the basics: Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were Jewish. The early church came into being as a sect of Judaism, as a reforming movement within that other religion.

Attitudes toward Gentiles were . . . racist. Gentiles were thought to be vulgar, smelly, having only a crude spiritual life, animalistic. Differences in culture – eating habits, dress, music, etc., were highlighted on both sides of the racial divide. And contact was minimized.

The leaders of the early church believed that their job was to bring more Jews into their new sect. But the Risen Christ was already beginning to move them in another, more integrated direction. Remember how, in last weeks lesson, a woman who had both a Greek and a Hebrew name was revived by Peter. She was on the edge, between the Jewish and the Gentile world. Then Peter went to stay with Simon, a tanner, on the edge of town. Because tanners worked with dead animals, it was really frowned upon by observant Jews. And the location, on the edge of town, is not only a physical place, where fewer people would be disturbed by the smells of the tanning process. It is also a spiritual location: at the outer limits of Peter’s known spiritual universe.

While staying there in this liminal space, Peter has a disturbing dream. The dream is disturbing because in it, dividing lines between clean and unclean – Kosher lines – are broken. In the dream, a sheet full of all kinds of animals is lowered in front of Peter’s eyes. Some of the beasts are considered good eatin’ – that is allowed – for Jews. But some of the animals are strictly NON Kosher. And in the dream, Peter hears a voice, God’s voice, telling him to eat what is set before him. God forbid! Peter cries. I’m a good Jew. I don’t eat that nasty stuff! To do so would change who I am! But God insists. Three times.

The dividing line for Peter between “his kind” and the rest of the world is the line between clean and unclean – kosher and not. If we think of dietary rules at all, we think about those we adopt ourselves, voluntarily, for reasons of health or weight control, or because of specific taste. Some of us don’t eat margarine. Some don’t touch butter. Some limit sweets, or red meat, or whatever. My only dietary rule is I don’t eat anything blue. Peter’s dietary rules were not like that. He understood the kosher rules to be given by God, to set apart a people for himself. To violate those rules would be to break down the wall that protects him from the profane, unclean Gentile world. But that is exactly what God does in the dream.

What are the dividing lines that we believe rightly separate us from other people? Here are some possibilities: Race and ethnicity. Income. Level of education. Sexual orientation. Family connections. Church affiliation. Maybe you can come up with others. Old timers/newcomers? South side sitters/ North side sitters? I wonder if we can think of a dividing line that it would upset us as much as Peter was upset by God telling him to cross. And if we do become aware of dividing lines in our own heads, can we imagine God saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call dirty.” It’s a tough-y, I know. But think of this – That’s what had to happen for us Gentiles to get integrated into God’s people. Dividing lines had to be broken for us to get in.

Second, for the Gentiles, like us, to get integrated into the church, boundaries had to be crossed. When Peter woke up from his disturbing dream, there were people at the door, with an invitation to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, an Italian stationed in the Mediterranean city dedicated to Caesar by King Herod. Caesarea was a beautiful, new city, but not one where a Jew would feel at home. (Present day Caesarea has something that might make Presbyterians feel at home, though: Israel’s only golf course is in Caesarea. My Dad used to say, I don’t mind a bad sermon now and then, if it at least has one thing new I can learn. That’s your factoid for the day.) The story in Acts tells us that when he went, he took some believers with him, probably because he was nervous.

It’s natural for people to be a little nervous when they are venturing across boundaries. Did you see the front page story in the news gazette about the exchange program between the rural Caitlin High School and a predominantly African American high school in Chicago? On the bus up to Chicago, those kids were apprehensive.

Integrating the early church required that boundaries be crossed. Peter had to go, meet Cornelius, talk to him, and listen to him. In the same way, if we are to be God’s Easter people here and now we need to cross our familiar boundaries, whether that is a street, the railroad tracks, the city limits of Urbana, or the state line.

I am so proud of your young people, who are taking a literal trip - crossing literal boundaries in order to encounter something out of their experience – rural poverty of Appalachia. I truly believe that this congregation is being led by its young people into a future where mission to God’s neediest people is a priority. For Peter, crossing the boundary between the Jewish and the Gentile world was a faith changing, life shaping experience. When he crossed that boundary, for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Peter met someone he experienced something that he wouldn’t have ever “gotten” in a million years if he had stayed on the fishing boat with his Jewish crew in Galilee. He experienced integration.

And the life of the church, the course of Christianity and the DNA of every Christian was altered forevermore. Opening the church to Gentiles, like us, changed what being a Christian meant profoundly. It enabled the Good News of God’s love for us in humanity to be shared, not just in a little sect in the middle east, but around the world. It changed everything from how we eat to what we believe. “I believe in the holy catholic church” – Catholic means all encompassing.

The Easter church is an integrated church. And the integration is never “done”. Breaking down divisions between people, crossing boundaries to met those who are different – these are part of what it means to be a Christian. It is how we got invited to the table, and it is how people who are at the table live.

As we come to the Table of Jesus Christ, let us do so mindful of the dreams, and the courage of those who extended Christ’s invitation – even to Gentiles like us. And let us be strengthened by the very life of Christ – his body and blood – to continue to invite and include others. Integration is a mark of the Easter church.


a friend from DE said...

Thank you.

but what about blueberry muffins?

Kansan said...

I think I can clearify! During the sermon, I believe she actually said she didn't eat anything "bright blue". (I know because I thought of the blueberries also and decided they would fall into the "dark blue" category! :-)
I'm glad the sermons are published, too. I'm a visual learner.... Thanks!