The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.

 

Finding a New Lead-Off Hitter

How am I subverting God’s subversion of exclusivity?

by Dave Buerstetta

New Testament Reading: Acts 10:34-43

For Sunday, Apr. 24, 2011: Year A – Resurrection of Our Lord

With all due respect (isn’t it odd that this is probably the best way to indicate that something is about to be disrespected?) to that whole He-is-risen-indeed thing, this is the most important story to tell on Easter Day.

Of course, in order for this sermon of Peter’s to make any sense, we need to read the story that precipitated it. A story that, sadly, the RCL never has us consider. Am I the only one to whom that seems a bad idea? Maybe it’s the RCL’s way of forcing us to do some homework. You know the story; it’s the one with the…WorstLunch MenuEver.

Toads and lizards and vultures, Oh My!

Peter was staying in Joppa as the guest of Simon the tanner. Peter went up on Simon’s rooftop to pray, but was too distracted by his hunger to get much praying done. Instead, Peter had a vision. A sheet descended through a rift in the sky and on the sheet were four-footed animals, reptiles and birds. And a voice told Peter to “Get up! Kill and eat!” The only thing this missing from this menu was “and for dessert…chilled monkey brains!”

Peter, being a devout Jew, politely declined the offer. Or, you know, not so politely. “No! All my life, I’ve never eaten anything profane!” The voice responds, “What God makes clean, you must not call profane.”

This is Peter we’re talking about, so he had to see the vision three times. But then he really got it. Immediately after this vision he met with Gentiles, offered them hospitality (no word on what Simon the tanner thought about that), and traveled with them to Caesarea to meet Cornelius.

The times, they are a changin’

Upon arrival, Peter entered Cornelius’ home demonstrating just what a radical departure he’d made from, well, the self-understanding he’d had his whole life: “I have always thought it was wrong to associate with Gentiles…” (at this point I can only imagine how glad Cornelius was he’d invited Peter) “…but God has just shown me that I should no longer consider any human being unclean or profane… God accepts every person regardless of background or culture. God welcomes all who revere Him and do right.”

Eat some lizards, make friends with a Roman Centurion, declare Jesus as Lord of all people. Critics have been all over Rob Bell lately, but here’s Peter, barely awake after the gross-out dream, and already out on a whirlwind tour of radical inclusivity! I’m thinking I should do the same.

The new John 3:16?

Given how quickly we USAmerican Christians divide and denounce and declare one another heretical, could it be that we need to hear this story even more than we need to hear the all-too-familiar and all-too-comfortable Resurrection tale? Could it be we need this story to save us from our arrogance and complacency? How might it change the church, change us, change me, if Acts 10:35 was our lead-off hitter, our first responder, our top go-to text?

Hardest Question

Those questions haunt me and I hope to explore them further. But the hardest question here is one the text asks of me: What categories am I using to judge and forbid people? Who am I excluding from the family of God? How am I subverting God’s subversion of exclusivity?


Suggesting God has a sense of humor, the Rev. Dave Buerstetta is a life-long and ordained American Baptist who has served as one of the pastors at the Woodridge United Methodist Church (Woodridge, IL) since 1995. Striving (but mostly failing) to love God, love neighbors and love enemies makes social justice, contemplative practices, equality and sustainability some of Dave’s passions. He is more successful following other passions like baseball and hockey. (2005 & 2010 were very good years!) Being a husband and father are pretty great too. Dave and his wife, Joann, have two children and live in Naperville, IL. Dave blogs irregularly at cantleaveunsaid.wordpress.com

Comments

  1. Patti says:

    “Radical inclusivity”… so simple, yet sometimes so difficult. Thank you for making me think about this!

  2. Patti, glad to hear this made you think.

    I like to think of myself as really inclusive, but the truth is I find it especially difficult not to exclude those who disagree with me about how to follow Jesus. I know better, but often don’t act on that knowledge.

  3. We all have our heretics. Mine happen to be neo-Calvinists, but you are right on target. God discounts no one. It’s so very challenging. Scapegoats…We love our scapegoats, don’t we? And here’s God, AFTER JESUS’ MINISTRY, still having to explain shit in a dream to Peter. It’s that hard to understand. Resurrection is about the radical acceptance of all Creation…even b-b-q lizards and neo-Calvinists.

  4. Tripp, thanks for your thoughts.

    We do indeed love our scapegoats. And, like Peter before the dream, our rules to justify those scapegoats.

  5. tom liddle says:

    An insight/question by C.S. Song comes to mind: how is God, in God’s own self, different from God as a projection of what we human beings do to each and how we treat each other? Wrestling with this might help us lift the veil on the false angry God of judgement and see more clearly the loving God made known in Jesus Christ.

  6. Tom, I think that is an important distinction between God as God actually is and our perception of God. It reminds me of what McLaren wrote in “New Kind of Christianity”: that our understanding of God is limited by our maturity as a society or culture (broad paraphrase here from faulty memory, I don’t have the book handy to verify), so that in scripture we can see the writers understanding of God evolve from tribal, warrior deity to, eventually at least, Lover and Lord of all people.

    But McLaren also maintains that the actual character of God doesn’t change, just our perception/understanding does.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. Paul T says:

    I love your suggestion that Acts 10:35 should be our first responder, our go-to text for how we are to live out the gospel of Jesus.

    That being said, it seems to me that it is much easier to talk about radical inclusivity than to actually live it out. I live and worship in an Anglican parish in Canada that is dividing over this very question. Who is in and who is out. I am with those who self identify as the inclusivists, yet I must confess that it is far easier for me to accept those who the church has traditionally excluded than some of my fellow more traditional Christians.

    A big part of the reason I stay is that I find I too easily identify with Charles Schultz’s observation “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” It’s easy to talk about inclusivity in general terms, and far harder when it comes to specific situations. I find commitment to a specific local body of the church in general and weekly participation in the Eucharist in particular a wonderful antidote to this condition. People, with all their warts and wrong theology (all of us have wrong theology to one degree or another) and bad practices (all of us are hypocrites to one degree or another), all stand together to receive the same basic elements of our faith. Whether we believe in transubstantiation, see the communion elements as a memorial of Jesus’ death, or see the Eucharist as a reenactment of Jesus’ practice of an open table where all were invited, this is one place where our practice has the potential to actually live up to the best of our shared theology. We argue and fight and denigrate each other all week long, but then all are invited to come together and recognize that all truly are equal before God. In the early church, according to both I Corinthians and the Didache, communion was a full meal deal where the entire community brought food as they were able and shared it amongst themselves as they ate together – the rich and the poor, the old and the young, male and female, slave and master. At the end of the meal they all drank from the same cup and ate from the same loaf. In the context of a society based on honour and shame, where who you were was determined by who you ate with, this was a radical teaching indeed and a repeated reminder of the truth of Jesus’ egalitarian teaching. No wonder Paul got so upset with the selfish behaviour of certain groups of believers within the larger body as they partook of the holy meal in I Cor 11. The question I ask myself every week as I prepare to receive communion is: whom would I exclude from the table? Who am I not willing to receive as a fellow traveler, both here at the communion table and out there in the multitude of interactions I have throughout my daily life? And then commit I myself to looking for ways to build bridges of reconciliation and restoration.

    In his book “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics” Samuel Wells emphasizes the communal nature of the ethical life and repeatedly draws upon the Duke of Wellington’s famous quotation “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton” to emphasize the importance of the real but slow and gradual formation of character shaped by the ebb and flow of our life. He asserts, and I agree, that we will not act ethically in moments of crisis if we have not formed the habits that support our professed ethical beliefs in the regular and repeated practices of our life. If we really want to use Acts 10:35 as our go-to verse, we must find a way to embed it into our daily rituals and practices of life.

  8. Paul, I really appreciate your honest and practical insights.

    You’re right, of course. This is infinitely harder to practice than to talk about. And your statement, “I am with those who self identify as the inclusivists, yet I must confess that it is far easier for me to accept those who the church has traditionally excluded than some of my fellow more traditional Christians” is absolutely true of me as well.

    I honestly feel like, at least in some ways, I have more common ground with the Muslims and even the Hindus I met this weekend than I do with many of those who self-identify as Christian.

    I think McLaren gets it right in “Secret Message of Jesus” when he writes (paraphrasing here) that all are invited into the kingdom of God, the only ones not welcome are those opposed to its purpose. I often think many of the most conservative Christians really are opposed to Jesus’ purpose…but isn’t that just about what I understand the purpose to be? Is that just an excuse/justification to exclude people with whom I vehemently disagree?

    …more hard questions!

  9. Humberto Merida says:

    Wow. Thank you for this important reminder.

  10. Humberto, thanks for reading. Glad you found this helpful.

    big Thank You to all who read and all who commented this week!

    I had a blast! Hope you did too.

    Happy Easter to all! Christ is risen!

  11. Excellent comments, Dave – I always love reading your writing (and hearing your sermons, as much as I can hear from the PA system behind the column where I must sit!)

    And thanks for summarizing the whole story on Sunday. The lectionary offers far too little of Acts and too often it’s just as a foil to the gospel text. As a Biblical storyteller, I wish we paid much more attention to this story! Ya done great.

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