Preached at Hope UCC 4/28/13
Scripture – Acts 11: 1-18
Several years ago the UCC began what would be a rather revolutionary marketing tactic called the “Still Speaking” campaign. It asserted that “God is Still Speaking,” and found inspiration for the campaign in John Robinson, pastor to the Pilgrims (part of our Congregational ancestry), who pointed to the future saying, “Do not cling to where Luther and Calvin have brought you, for God hath yet more truth and light to break forth from his holy word.” The tagline to the Still Speaking campaign was a Gracie Burns line, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” And the UCC website says that, “The Comma invites us to believe that God speaks through other people, nature, music, art, a theorem, the Bible, and in so many other ways.”
For many of us, myself included, the Still Speaking campaign is deeply meaningful and has transformed lives and transformed this denomination as we work towards fully living into this identity. But sometimes I fear that people think we have somehow just made this stuff up. We have just proclaimed that God is still speaking because it feels good to us and because we’d rather welcome in our friends than wrestle with the parts of the Bible or tradition that aren’t always comfortable for us. Many of us come to this church with a cartful of emotional baggage around religion and Christianity and there is a niggling fear somewhere that maybe all this inclusion and welcoming stuff is too good to be true. In our most recent adult education discussion class on difficult questions in the Bible, a few participants voiced fears that our more progressive interpretation of the Bible was not biblically based. If you can find several different interpretations of the text, what is to say that our interpretation isn’t just picking out the parts we like and discarding the rest?
Now I can tell you, as I told that group, that context matters and that there are several main threads of justice and inclusion that run throughout the Bible proving those to be overwhelming themes, and that looking to Jesus’ teachings and life example is crucial to understanding the God we proclaim. I can give you reasons for why we as a church have come to these conclusions. But somewhere in there, I suspect, is that continuing niggling doubt. The doubt that says: We are just making God in our image instead of the other way around.
As an answer to that niggling voice I present to you Peter’s story that we find in our passage from the book of Acts this morning. Because it is in this story that we can clearly see the Still Speaking God at work, centuries before we decided to make the comma our marketing campaign.
For Peter and for those whose who would become the foundation of the church, this story is huge. That’s because in this story God basically rewrites what the disciples thought were the rules of engagement. Here’s the thing you must understand. Jesus is Jewish and his followers were Jewish. A few times Jesus talks to gentiles (non-Jews) and sometimes heals them or talks about them, but for the most part the Jesus movement is a Jewish movement. So now that Jesus was crucified and resurrected, his followers were not thinking, “Hey, we have a brand new religion on our hands!” They were looking to reform Judaism. But the Jews are surrounded by and are fairly integrated with everyone else – Greeks, and Romans and others. And all of these gentiles start to hear the message Peter is preaching about Jesus and his life and his death and forgiveness and repentance and they want to join in too. So of course the movement said they could join, except that in doing so they were going to have to become Jews. They were going to have get circumcised and start keeping the Law of Moses.
But now Peter is throwing that all out the window. You see before he just talked to gentiles, but now he comes to sit and eat with them. Why was this such a big deal? Food. Food was a very clear and visible way for the Jewish people to hold on to their identity. There was food that was “clean” and okay to eat and there was food that was “unclean” and not okay to eat, ever. By going and enjoying table fellowship with a non-Jew, an uncircumcised man and his family, it was a pretty good bet that you were going to get exposed to one of these foods. And exposure would make you unclean.
You and I might look at this problem of unclean vs. clean and shake our heads. But to Peter and to the other early leaders of the Jesus movement, this was an insurmountable wall. To keep the laws, to adhere to the community boundaries of circumcision and cleanliness, including the food laws, was to say I am part of the nation of Israel. It was to proclaim your identity, to claim your place in community. And though others might hear Jesus’ message and want to join in, they could only if they did the right thing. Only if they became clean. Now Peter is saying, God has showed me a different way to move forward.
Now you might say, well, so what? Didn’t Jesus occasionally get accused of doing things that made him unclean too? Wasn’t he always in trouble for eating with sinners? Yes, some of that did happen. But that was Jesus, their leader, who they understood to be the messiah. Now Peter is saying, it’s okay for us to do this to, and to go farther than even Jesus did, because God has showed me that this is okay.
I am sure that some said to Peter: You are watering down your religion. If this is okay, how do we know any more what is right or what is wrong? Or you are just saying this because you want to align your new movement with the general culture? You just want to let these people in because you want to increase your numbers. Any of that sound familiar?
Because with this story a whole new future opens up for the church as gentiles become followers of Christ, but don’t have to become Jews. Because of this story you and I can be a part of the church here today. Without this story, the Jesus movement would have had a very different future. This story is one of inclusion and amazing revelation and welcoming in to full fellowship those who were thought to literally be unclean. A clear illustration of God speaking through visions and Spirit and community in contrast with tradition and scripture and what had been understood about God before. And Peter chose to listen to God. And so the church grew and changed.
Don’t let anyone tell you God likes to focus on who is in and who is out and and never erases the boundaries to draw the circle even wider. Don’t let anyone tell you it is purity and cleanliness that gets you to God. If they try to tell you that, you tell them the story of Peter, the father of the church, and how he had to listen to the Still Speaking God. You tell them how Peter had to struggle to understand what God was trying to do, but ultimately knew God was in charge.
Now I could just stop here, with a congratulatory pat on the back for us who profess to listen to a Still Speaking God. Aren’t we just wonderful? But if we truly are listening for God in this passage I think there are some things that we need to take away with us out into the world.
We need to tell our stories like Peter does here. Peter is getting called out, by his friends, for doing something they thought was wrong. And in response he doesn’t try to force them to do as he has done by ordering them around. He doesn’t even appeal to scripture or to stories of Jesus. Instead he tells his story of his vision, his God whispers, and his witnessing the Spirit at work. It is his story that makes the other movement leaders take him seriously. When we are challenged on our faith, or even when we just meet someone who feels the church is not or should not be a place of love and inclusion, do we do the same? Do we tell our stories of inclusion and exclusion, our experiences with God, the moments we were sure God touched us or touched others, or those moments we clearly felt or saw the Spirit at work? Do we trust that God will give us the words? Do we witness to the Still Speaking God by telling our story? Or do we stay quiet for fear people will think we are crazy, or that we won’t know what to say, or worse?
It is stories that move people, that change minds, and make people rethink positions. It is personal stories that make a difference. By telling our stories we could transform lives just as Peter did.
Because God isn’t done yet, with us or with deciding who is in and who is out. Let’s be honest, we mostly have our preferred groups for inclusion. And there is nothing wrong with starting there. To welcome the LGBTQ community into full inclusion in the church is as life-changing as Peter’s inclusion of the gentiles. But once here I think we need to ask ourselves, what other groups do we still exclude, intentionally or not? And make it bigger than just church membership, make it about God’s love. What groups do you have a hard time believing that God loves as God’s own? Who do you struggle with seeing as an equal in God’s kingdom? What baggage do you need to put aside so that you stop looking at someone or some group as “unclean”?
Recently, the brand new Pope did something very unusual. He washed the feet of a woman, and not just any woman, a Muslim woman. To some it was shocking. For Francis to serve not just a woman, (which was bad enough) but a Muslim woman, was threatening to the status quo. In this country in particular Muslims have become the new outcasts, the group it is publicly okay to hate. They have become our new “unclean”. Can we see them differently? Can we interact with them differently?
But maybe for you it isn’t Muslims who are outside the circle, but other Christians. The ones who are either outwardly hateful, or the middle-of-the-road Christians that refuse to take a stand. Maybe they are your gentiles. Or maybe it’s even just the person at work or school who drives you crazy. The ones who bully or blame, the ones we can barely false smile at, much less think “Yeah, God loves you too.” We all have our preferred groups, our cliques, those who we are comfortable with. And while that seems to be human nature, it also seems to be God’s nature to blur those boundary lines.
Every day our world decides who is in and who is out. Who is worthy and who is not, who should get resources and who should not. Horrible prejudicial statements are made on the news about this group or that group. Don’t even get me started about online comments! But we have been given a different story to tell and a different set of standards to live by. A story where all are welcome and worthy, regardless of who you are or who you love, what you have done, the color of your skin, or where you are from.
The UCC’s God is still speaking campaign started as a way to market our church, but over time it has become so much more. It has become the way in which we understand ourselves. Such a stance is not new because God has been speaking and changing minds and widening boundaries for centuries. But we, like Peter, can help God’s work so that it changes our lives and the lives of those around us. I do not know what will be written of our church in the centuries to come, but I believe that God will bless us in our efforts as we follow in Peter’s footsteps and we challenge ourselves to bring God’s message of love, healing, and forgiveness to all.