Sunday, May 6, 2018

Even those people?

Scripture Acts 10:44-48   NRSV

10:44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  10:45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,  10:46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. 

Then Peter said,  10:47 "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  10:48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

 Peter was staying with friends when he had a vision of all the things an observant Jew like himself wasn’t supposed to eat, and a voice telling him to eat those things - pork, shellfish, snake, frogs legs, cheeseburgers - whatever was against the Law.  He, of course, objected, and the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  This happened three times, and Peter awoke, very confused.  Meanwhile, a man named Cornelius had a vision saying he must get Peter to come to his home, so he sent a message asking him to come.  Now Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who was a believer but hadn’t yet been circumcised, so when he went to Temple he wasn’t allowed to go all the way inside.  He was welcome, but only up to a point.  Peter, as an observant Jew, was not allowed to go into his home.  But Peter had realized what his vision had meant, so he went into Cornelius’s house to teach his household, and while he was speaking the Holy Spirit fell upon them all in the household, and all were amazed.  So Peter saw to it that Cornelius, his relatives and his close friends, all who were present that day, were baptized.  Even those people.

Even those people.   We are a congregation that proudly proclaims All are welcome here, and we are adamant that All means ALL - everyone.  No matter who you are, you are welcome here.  Well, Cornelius was welcome to the Temple, but only up to a point. Only as far as the Court of the Gentiles.  Today I want to tell you some stories about welcoming.    Just a note - the slides are photos from Google Images - none of them are of the actual persons whose stories I will tell.  

(Slide 1:  Wheelchair person, Transwoman, LGBT youth Pride, homeless man.)
Wheelchair people:  Jo was older - in her 70s - when she started to come to worship with us.  We already had several wheelchair bound folks, young men and women with various disabilities, including 2 with spina bifida, who all lived in the same  group home.  They showed up every Sunday morning and lined up behind the last pew, which had extra room left behind it on purpose so there would be space for our wheel chair people.  When Jo Cooper started to attend she said right up front that she wasn’t going to sit in the back of the bus, and parked herself about halfway down the center aisle.   You see, she didn’t feel like we really welcomed people like her if we relegated her to the back row, away from her friends and family.     Many churches today are re-configuring their worship space to use chairs instead of pews, so that even those people in wheelchairs can sit where ever they want.

Transgender:  I met Eva and her pastor Renee, both of whom are transgender, in 2008 at a rally against Prop 8.  Pastor Renee had started a church for transgender and other folks who felt outcast because of gender identity and/or sexual orientation.  Sometimes they came to visit my congregation, because they lived nearby and our worship was at a different time.  Now you need to understand that my congregation was Open and Affirming, but people still stared at Eva when she came, and asked me (not very subtly or quietly) whether she was a man or a woman.   I want to tell you all that I was delighted at how welcoming you all were when she came to visit me here last year.   You accepted her as she was, and you treated her like any other visitor to this church, and she felt safe here.  That doesn’t always happen for transgender folk - even in church.   

LGBTQ:  There are so many stories, even in this very room, of rejection by families and congregations, of unsuccessful attempts to change their orientation, of having to hide who they are because of the very real threat of rejection by those they love.   Or being told they are welcome but then finding out they are only welcome up to a point.   A family came to me one day to say they were leaving, because of the two young couples who had recently joined the church.  I pointed out that they had been friends with the previous pastor - who was gay - and asked what the difference was between Pastor Dick and the new people.  They said, “Pastor Dick was single and we prayed daily that Jesus would change him.  But we know those men do things that are against the Bible, and we cannot stay in a church where that is accepted.”  When some friends of mine heard that story (from other friends) they said, “And this is why we don’t go to church.  Even when you say we are welcome, we aren’t really.”   It is not like that here.

Homeless:  Charlie was a young man who slept somewhere near the church.  He came to worship every Sunday, and always sat in the back corner, as far away from everyone as he could get, because he was ashamed of his clothes, and of his odor, and that he didn’t have any money to put in the basket.  When we asked him to join us for the fellowship time (and food, cause we had some sort of food every Sunday after worship) he declined for all those same reasons.   No matter how hard we tried, he couldn’t believe he really was welcome.   No one ever really welcomed him anywhere, and he could not believe that we would be any different.  We did everything we could think of to let Charlie and the other homeless men and women who stayed near the church know that they were welcome.  But on those occasions when they did stay and have food, no one ever went to sit with them or tried to start a conversation with them.  Maybe they really weren’t welcome, after all.    

Slide 2:  (Ku Klux Klan, Anti-Fa, Westboro Baptist Church)
There was a Disciples congregation in Indiana - (there are a LOT of DOC congregations in Indiana) that had always had a reputation as a giving church - dating way back to the 1920s! - helping to feed the hungry and care for the sick and poor in their community.  They were sad, though, that they didn’t have the numbers they used to have back in the day.  So they decided to look over their records and see who the folks were who founded the church and paid for the building and bought all the lovely bibles and began their long time mission of caring for their community.  Much to their shock and chagrin, they discovered that the vast majority of their founding members, those good Christian men who built the building and bought the Bibles and started all those great ministries, were also members of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.   

My hope would be that the Good News of Jesus Christ would change the hearts of people who live in hate.  Especially those who live in hate in Jesus’ name.  

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !

From the poem " Outwitted” 
 Edwin Markham
(Slide 3: Unity is our Polar Star, We are not the only Christians)

These quotes are foundational for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We believe that all Christians should be united in our belief in Christ, but that we are free to practice our faith and understand Scripture and theology differently from each other, as we are led by God's Holy Spirit.  Thus we have no creed, no list of beliefs we must each swear to, and we can say things like, All means ALL, and be serious about it.

Have you ever said to yourself, or to someone else, “So and so is a Christian person,” and expected that whomever you were talking to then assumed the same thing about that person that you meant when you use that word?  

See, to me, a person who says “i will not bake a cake for a same sex wedding because I am a Christian” is not the kind of person I would describe as a Christian.  Even if they do go to church every Sunday, and give generously of their time and money, and lead the Wednesday Bible Study at their church, I have a hard time believing that that person understands what Jesus was trying to teach.  

But you know, that’s pretty judge-y of me.  That person, even though I totally disagree with their understanding of what will please or displease God, is still a Christian, a person who believes that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God.  That person, even though I totally disagree with them, is welcome here. Is welcome at our Table.   And there are those who are pretty sure we aren’t really Christian, because the pastor is a woman, and because we say All means ALL.  But even those people must be welcome here, if we truly mean All means ALL.   

Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?  And with those words he ignited a firestorm.  With that one sentence he changed the mission of Christ’s disciples, opening the mission field to even those people - the ones who weren’t accepted in the Temple, the ones who didn’t know anything about Moses and the Law, the ones who were outsiders, unclean, unacceptable and unloveable to the humans in charge.  

But can any human decide who God will love?  Can any human decide who shall be welcome in the church and at the Table?  And the answer is no, because it’s not OUR church.  It’s not OUR Table.  It’s God’s house.  It’s God’s Table.  And there is a place at the Table for that baker, and for the Klansman, and for the anti-fa guy, and for the Westboro Baptist Church and for those who agree with them.  And for the folks who live with disabilities of any kind, and people of any and every sexual orientation and gender identity, and the homeless folks.  And for those of every race and ethnicity and country of origin, and those who speak English and those who don’t.    For everyone born, there is a place at the table.

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