Finding God in Unexpected Places

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 11:1-18   
28 April 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert   

It starts around third grade.  Who’s in and who’s out?  People get labeled.  By middle school, there are cliques and mean girls, goths and geeks, bullies and nerds. Kids with all kinds of potential are called losers.  By high school, popularity is measured by how many friends you have on Facebook or lately by how many are following your tweets.  For us old folks, it was how many signed your yearbook or how many lingered in the hallway at break with you.  But one thing hasn’t changed: Never sit down at the wrong table in the lunchroom.  You know where you don’t belong.

Adults are only a little more mature.  We have suburban sophisticates and urban elite, trailer trash and project people, blue collar and white collar folks.  We love our dichotomies, calling people liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and agnostics, and all other sorts of names.  Our minds naturally group people into categories, which make it easier for us think.  But when those groups become fixed stereotypes, when we cannot think outside those boxes, when we disparage people who are so labeled, we have done an injustice to the people God created.  To be like Christ is to love people because they are people.  Can’t we all grow up?

The early church struggled with labels and prejudices too.  Their greatest hurdle was the Jewish-Gentile divide.  It was a huge chasm.   Hear now how Peter shares his experience in Joppa and tries lead his Jewish Christian friends into a new relationship with Gentile Christians.

NRS Acts 11:1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8 But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."

The sound-byte version of this sermon is this: The church is for everybody – not just people like us.  If I were going to tweet the message, it would be this: God shows no favoritism and neither should we. #Open church   That’s it.  That’s my sermon.  We can go home now.  Well, we could if accepting people who are different from us was not so hard for us.  Peter was speaking to people who were very uncomfortable being in the presence of Gentiles.  They could not touch Gentiles, eat with Gentiles, and yet they were being asked to worship the Lord with them and consider them brothers and sisters, equals in the faith.

With which of these brothers and sisters in the faith do you find it difficult to connect? (Church band picture) Can you worship with these people? (Cathedral choir picture)   I’ve worshiped with these people, and with these people.   Here’s an orthodox priest baptizing new converts in a barrel of water.  (Priest and men in boxers) Can you worship with the Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia and with these Pentecostal Christians in Cape Town?  (Pentecostals) Who are we that we could hinder God’s work amongst many different people in different cultures?  Can we appreciate what is good about each of these styles of worship?  We welcome them as our brothers and sisters in Christ if we care enough to really listen to their perspective on faith and life.  We welcome them as fellow Christians when we try to put ourselves in their shoes, rather than forcing them into ours.  We welcome them when we realize we may have something to learn from them.

Peter was challenged to see God’s Spirit at work in people he had previously seen as outsiders.  If the church had not been open to Gentiles in the early days, I wonder if there’d be a church today?  Think about it.  If the church had not spread rapidly among the Gentiles, it would have remained a small sect within Judaism.  How open are we to God doing a new thing among people we consider outsiders?  Can we welcome these teens (Goth teens) or do they make us uncomfortable with their dress?  When Richard and I were co-pastors in Montgomery in the 1990’s there were no churches in Montgomery, Alabama for Christians like this (inter-racial couple) and like this, (gay couples) except the one we served.  And many of us at Immanuel Presbyterian, who were not previously open to homosexual persons, learned that people can be gay, Christian, and in a committed relationship.  Our stereotypes were broken down by real people.  

I grew up in a small, rather impoverished rural town.  Unlike in the city, where there’s anonymity, I knew the names of people who had no inside plumbing and others who lived in their cars.  I was well aware that what I had growing up was so much more than many of my classmates. Can we welcome all people and make them feel at home?  It is not easy to be a welcoming church, a church where anyone can be a true companion seeking Christ – without reservation.  
Can we stop making assumptions about the people who are already here?  Some of our own members found the Lenten discipline of spending no more than $36/person/week just normal life.  They already live on a very careful, tight budget. We all look the same, but the choices we make each week are often quite different, based on our circumstances.  There are some who can give $100/week to the church without any sacrifice of lifestyle whatsoever.  They are others for whom $10/week is extremely generous.

Sometimes it seems like churches are no more welcoming than a sorority or fraternity during rush week – a very calculated welcome.  Will you help our reputation?  Will you help us to grow and thrive?  Do we like the way you look?  Can we be comfortable around you?  Sometimes it seems like little has changed since Peter was trying to convince his fellow circumcised buddies, the Jewish Christians, that the Gentiles were okay.  

You see, it was not just that the Gentiles were let in, but that by welcoming Gentiles, they were saying that circumcision was not the crucial marker of entry as it had been.  They were saying that eating certain foods was okay – when they never had been allowed to eat them.  They were sacrificing something that had been sacred to them. Hear Paul on this subject, speaking to the Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)  It’s a no brainer for us that circumcision and foods don’t matter.  Of course, faith working through love is more important.  It’s a no brainer because we cannot appreciate how important that distinction was for Peter and Paul and their friends.

Hear Peter on this matter, “Three times I said to the Lord.  No, I will not break my Jewish tradition and eat these unclean animals.  But every time I heard a voice from heaven saying, “What God has made clean/acceptable, you can not call profane/unacceptable.”   Three times to get the message across.  Then the Spirit says, “Go with these other people and do not make a distinction.  The Holy Spirit fell on them – just as on us.  If God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in the way of God?”

Peace Presbyterian, I trust you will never stand in the way of God but you will welcome with open arms everyone who seeks Jesus Christ – no matter what type of family. Because Christ loves them and wants an authentic relationships with all of them.  Peace, look for God in unexpected places – not just the places where you yourselves feel most comfortable.  Do not assume that God is a Democrat or a Republican.  (slide) Faithful Christians are both.  (slide) And sometimes faithful Christians blur the lines and refuse to play the party line, which has become so hardened in our time.  

Faithful Christians even look beyond their own national pride to care about people in far away places.  Christians care about the tragedies in Bangladesh and China, just like they care about the tragedies in Boston and Texas.  I do not feel connected to the people of Dhaka and Chengdu, but we have medical missionary friends who serve there.  They, with their stories of Christian compassion, help me to connect.  I wish I knew someone in Syria so I would care more about their suffering. Jenny Sheffield gave me a book, Kisses from Katie, which is helping me connect with the children of Uganda. 
Our daughter, Emily, has been dating an Ecuadorian for four years.  Nicolas gives me a fresh perspective on what it means to have Spanish as your first language and to be a South (not North) American.  Jesus loves the adults and children, all the children of the world.  Our children are growing up in a global society.  They are more accepting of differences than their parents and grandparents.  The church has some catching up to do.

Two thousand years ago Peter’s mind was opened, despite his resistance.  He had to be told three times that eating food like the Gentiles was okay.  God’s love is so much wider and broader than ours.  Moses never expected to see God in a burning bush and to be challenged to be a leader.  Peter never expected to see Christ in the Gentiles.  Watch out for burning bushes and dreams and visions.  You might be surprised to find God in them.