Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 24, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
My friend’s grandmother was managing just fine, thank you. It was a perfectly ordinary trip to the supermarket. She knew what she was doing, was familiar with the weight of the groceries and knew she would be able to get them into her car unassisted. When a poorly dressed young man offered to help her with her bags, she was concerned and suspicious that he might hit her up for money for this “favor.” She asked him, “Don’t you have a job?” He wasn’t offended. He told her he was about to open a nightclub, and invited her to the opening party.
The story was true. The year was 1989. The club was Glam Slam. The man was Prince. She went to the party. She was only 75, and a good sport by nature, and after all, he had turned out to be a nice young man. She went in, took one look around, and walked right back out. There’s nothing wrong with that. No club can be appealing to everyone; that’s kind of the definition.
The Church is not a club, not a nightclub, not a social club, not a club to beat people with. It’s a shame I have to say that, but of course I do. Back in Denver there was a nightclub called The Church that operated in a former Episcopal church; I went there a couple of times, it was fun. But also sad because a church had lost so much energy, lost its existing members and its ability to welcome new ones, that it literally became what it long had been flirting with, a club, and a shell of its former self.
I’m proud of the energy we have here at Saint John’s. Last week at the forum we had a positive and supportive conversation about studying the feasibility of building affordable housing in the airspace over our parking lot. Yesterday morning over a dozen people met to talk about how we can offer more and better pastoral care as a parish. Later today some of our members will walk in the Pride Stride to raise money for the Navajoland Mission Trip. People inside and outside the parish are rallying to support the May Day fundraiser on the 14th. All this is happening through strong lay leadership, and all of it is happening in addition to our long-time ministries and the ongoing work of running a church.
We are a welcoming parish, and I’m proud of that too. As we work to become more intentional and active in welcoming newcomers, though, we should also bear in mind that they might well feel like my friend’s grandmother, who walked right back out, even though it was an excellent nightclub, and even though she had been personally invited by the owner himself. We are active and exciting and welcoming, and that’s great, but we have to make sure we aren’t only welcoming to people who are just like us, or who want to become just like us.
A nightclub, or any business really, has the luxury of a simple mission: to make a profit. Businesses can cater to specific markets, and can often make spectacular profits by focusing on particular groups. The Church’s mission, which is to make disciples of all nations, rules out the strategy of market segmentation. We can’t take the easy route of catering only to those who are most like us, who are easiest to accept. We have to include everyone, even people who are very different from us, who look different, sound different, think differently, hold different values, even people who feel threatening to us. We have always had trouble with this because it’s really hard for us, even threatens us, and it’s hard to create something that appeals to everybody. But God seems to think it’s really important, so we have to try.
So important that God granted a vision to Saint Peter, commanding him to eat foods that had been forbidden by the religious law Peter had tried to live by all his life. This was a metaphor, which Peter, perhaps remarkably, understood correctly the first time. Apparently the way to a man’s heart really is through his stomach. Anyway, this message straight from God wasn’t about food, it was about people. Even though the Church started out as a movement within Judaism, God was commanding the Church, through its leader, to welcome non-Jews.
To us it seems obvious, even good strategy, but in that world, it was far more incongruous than a pop superstar inviting an elderly woman to a nightclub opening. It wasn’t just that Jews and gentiles were culturally different, they were bitter enemies. The brutal pagans of the Roman Empire were merely the most recent gentile oppressors. Even 2,000 years ago, Jews already had a history rich with laments and cautionary tales born from previous interactions with gentiles. God wasn’t asking Peter to invite an unlikely customer into a business. God was asking him to invite his worst enemy into his home.
So he did. It must have seemed like the old Peter, so zealous that he would abandon reason and embarrass himself, if not bring danger to the whole movement. But more precisely, he accepted an invitation to a pagan home. That might have been the only thing more obviously, insanely, dangerous than inviting pagans into the Church. The visit turned out okay, though, because God was there, certainly there in Peter, but more transformationally, God was already there among the pagans, inspiring them to seek out Peter, and opening their hearts and minds to perceive within him and his message of unconditional, all-inclusive love, the God who was already inspiring them, and who was the true object of their search.
Between then and now, much has changed superficially, but nothing has changed with God, or with God’s will for the church and for the world. The world is still innately hostile to God, and to God’s people, and God is still inspiring the world to seek God, creating a hunger to know God that every Christian can satisfy. Even though the world has many things, it’s like a shopper leaving a supermarket with an armload of groceries, bearing a heavy burden that looks like security and satisfaction, but cannot meet the hunger she’s feeling right now.
God approaches the world, meets us where we are, and of course God looks unfamiliar and even suspicious to the unknowing world. But God knows us better than we know ourselves, knows what we want, need, crave, and invites us to the place where we will find satisfaction. So whenever someone comes to us, like Peter, we should recognize that God is arranging the visit, even if they aren’t anyone we would have invited, and therefore we should recognize that we need to put aside any notions that limit our ability to welcome them and make them feel not just invited, but loved, like a beloved family member returning home. Jesus commanded us to love, and promised that our love would accomplish the impossible, would convince the world that we were followers of his, loving with the same love that God has for all the world.