Who is “in”? Who is “out”? Who gets to decide?
Here is the story of two men who thought they knew the answer to that question, only to be shown by God another way.
It reminds me of another story, about the 2 preachers who decided to go on their annual bear hunting trip, up in the northern woods. They got all their gear together, chartered a little single engine airplane that touched down in a clearing in the middle of nowhere, they unloaded and the pilot said, “I’ll meet you right here in a week,” and took off. Amazingly they did manage to bag a great big huge bear, and a week later, the pilot arrived and saw the thing and said, “You can’t put that bear on this plane.” And the preacher said, “Well, last year the pilot let us put it on the plane.” But the pilot objected, “If you put that bear on the plane, we’ll never get off the ground.” And the other preacher said, “But, last year the pilot let us put it on the plane.” So, the pilot, not wanting to be outdone, thought “if he can do it, I can do it.” So they put the gear and the bear and the preachers in the plane, and they took off. Sure enough, the plane was too heavy, and crashed into the trees. The bear went one way and the preachers another and one woke up and said to the other, “Where are we?” And the second preacher said, “I dunno, looks like about 20 feet from where we landed last year.”
Which only goes to prove that if we only do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.
And certainly that is true in the story about Peter and Cornelius.
It starts in the beautiful port city of Caesarea, built by Herod the Great; the center of the Roman government in Palestine. In this city lived a centurion named Cornelius. A centurion was the equivalent of a noncommissioned officer in today’s army. Luke tells us that this man and his entire family were devout and God-fearing. He gave generously to the poor and was a person of prayer… Still a Roman. Still a part of the hated Empire holding its fist against Palestine. You don’t get to be a centurion without paying your dues and taking your orders from the Empire. Still a gentile dog, in the eyes of the Jews, even if he was a trained dog… I guess you can never tell a book by its cover, can you? Somehow, he had come to faith in God. Somehow, in spite of his name and his heritage and his profession, his background and his ethnicity, he had come to depend upon and serve the God of the Jews. How surprising. How unexpected. How unusual. It makes you wonder how that happened. We’re not told. It still happens – people come to faith out of the most unanticipated ways.
So one day, at three o’clock in the afternoon, while offering up his daily prayers, Cornelius had a vision. An angel of God came to him and called him by his name.
“Cornelius,” the angel said, “God has been paying attention to you. Now here are your new orders: Send some people down to a town called Joppa, and bring back a man named Simon, who is also known as Peter. Dismissed.” “Yes sir.”
Now the problem with that order is that Cornelius would have noted that Simon was a Jewish name. A Jew coming to a Gentile home would have been unthinkable, entirely illegal for the Jews. Can this really be right? Did God pop a cork? Did God forget the rule suddenly about keeping the circles of people apart?… But, Cornelius was a good soldier who knew how to take orders, and he did exactly what the angel said.
Meanwhile, while that is happening, back in Joppa, there is Peter. Peter is on the roof of the house, probably under his little gazebo, maybe stretched out on his hammock in the shade, and he is also praying. Its noon, and Peter’s prayers are distracted because he’s hungry. (I love Peter – he’s so human.) Downstairs, the meal is being prepared, and the aroma of delicious smells and flavors are wafting up… and suddenly Peter has a vision. In this vision there is no angel, but instead he sees a picnic cloth coming down out of heaven with all kinds of weird animals, lizards and birds on it. It comes down, in the vision, right in front of Peter, and God says, “Go ahead Peter, have a little snack before lunch.” But Peter’s a good Jew – he knows the dietary restrictions found in Leviticus 11. He knows that all Jews are only allowed to eat kosher or clean food. And he knows that that means only meat from animals that chew their cud and have cloven hooves. But here on this picnic cloth are pork chops and hot dogs, lobster, turtle soup and lizard burgers. “No, no no,” Peter says. “Never have, never will.” You can’t make me. Bad food. Bad.”
“Now, Peter. I’m changing up the rules. All that food you thought was bad – it’s good. It’s all good, Peter. Try a little lobster.”
“Are you kidding? You’re kidding, right God? All this stuff is out of bounds. It’s not ok; hasn’t been for 400 years. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.”
“Well, Peter, what was out, is in now. So get used to it. And strap on your seat belt, because the rule also applies to people. Even the Gentiles are in with me. I know it blows your mind, but I’m the One who gets to decide.”
Poof. Peter wakes up and the picnic cloth disappears, along with the hot dogs and lizard burgers. But he can’t get that out of his head. Kosher hot dogs? Kosher Gentiles? Who’s “in”? Who’s “out”? Who gets to decide? Peter thought he knew the answer to that question, only to be shown by God another way. Dramatic, huh?
Well, the rest of the story is that the three guys Cornelius sent arrive at just about that time, ask for Peter, and tells him that Cornelius want to hear him preach. That’s enough of an invitation for any preacher. The Spirit says, “Go with these Gentile guys, they’re ok.” But by now it’s getting a little late, and Caesarea is about 30 miles away, so Peter says… (now get this): “Why don’t you guys come in and stay the night?” Wow. And they did.
The next morning they get up. By now the news has gotten around the neighborhood, and 6 brothers offer to go with Peter to Caesarea. (I imagine they thought of themselves as bodyguards, or something.) The 10 of them arrive at Cornelius’s house where Peter found a congregation all sort of sitting on the front row, waiting for a sermon. He starts by reminding them that what he was doing by just being there, was unthinkable and illegal, but not in God’s eyes. And the sermon for the day was about the wide welcome of God. How God had shown him a new way. The way of the wide circle. That, in fact this is the way of Jesus, he said, who preached and taught the way of love for all people. “I was there,” he said, “and I saw it myself.”
Everyone, no matter who they are, or where they’re from, or what their circumstances are in life, their sexual preference, their creed, color or religion are all loved by God. Loved as precious children. All of us deserving of grace; all made in God’s image; all at the table of God’s beloved community.
Peter had suddenly realized that those whom society thrusts to the margins have a place of value in the eyes of God. As we bless those whom society rejects, we become blessings to ourselves. As we change ourselves, we change the world.
Do we still believe that? How wide is our welcome?
It’s not a peripheral question. It’s at the heart of who we are and what we do. Our Mission Statement declares it. You know, in November, we’re going to spend some time during Spiritual Formation looking at that. Asking some questions, like:
What does it mean for us to be inclusive?
How do we welcome people of different races, different ethnicities?
How do we welcome people of different gender identities or sexual orientations?
How do we welcome people of different abilities, ages, economic status?
How do we welcome people of different faith traditions, theologies, life situations?
And what does unwelcome look like in each of those cases?
That will be interesting. I’m looking forward to that.
I’m looking forward to it because this is a congregation that gets it; that had it long before other congregations knew it could be got. And you’ve been working at it for a long time.
Carol Wise, a former pastor here, and now Executive Director for the Brethren and Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests wrote A Ritual with Salt to describe the welcoming community, in which she passes out salt to the congregation to remind them of the call to the open table of God’s grace. And I want to use that ritual as we close this sermon, so I’ll ask the ushers to come forward and pass the salt. Each person may have a piece as I read these words from Carol:
“Salt – this mighty symbol of life and vitality. Salt is the only rock that we eat. Salt preserves and protects against decay. We die from a lack of it. Interestingly, when we hunger, we crave food. When we thirst, we crave water. But even when dying from a salt deficiency, at no time will we experience a craving for it. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult for dying institutions to embrace the salty ones in their midst.”
“Salt – a blessing, a necessity, a holy substance, a tasty gift. No wonder Jesus spoke of it. It is only fitting.”
“Today we celebrate the salt that we call the welcoming community.”
“ As a people called to justice, hospitality, love and healing, we offer to the world the possibility of life, a protection against decay, an enhanced experience of flavor, health and vitality. We speak grace, acceptance and the love of God into the pain and rejection experienced in our culture.”
“I invite us to consider the saltiness of those who have gone before us and cleared the path… the ones who have taught us the meaning of courage, who embodied integrity, who ruptured the death-dealing silence, who call us yet today to be bold, brave and bodaciously honest. Their virtue continues to be a blessing to us all.”
“I bring the saltiness of people of faith whose hunger and thirst for righteousness has called them to remain within their faith traditions, and by their presence, insist that the church be faithful to God’s call to hospitality and justice. Their hopefulness is a blessing to us all.”