What Shall We Do?

The following is only an excerpt of this sermon. The full sermon can be heard by clicking the audio link below.

Acts 11.1-18; John 13.31-35

This church, this congregation has lived and worked through some tough, tough, controversial issues. Just last year, we had to fight it out about what kind of chairs to buy for Bruner Hall! Blue? Red? Green? Cushioned? Not cushioned? Even now, we face tough issues, we have this patch of grass out here that keeps being flooded and for some reason it’s called Lake Heins. Carole dubbed it, you can ask her to interpret it for you, I don’t know. We have to decide what to do with that Lake Heins. What do we do?

And yes, there are a few more issues with which we have wrestled. Torture. Our response to human sexuality. Issues and discussions in current society, We ask as people of faith, what do we do in these issues?

Well, Peter and the early church also asked, What do we do. Christians, by nature of our faith, ask what do we do in light of the situations and the circumstances that we face? That was the question, what do we do, the church faced when they heard that Peter had gone to the home of Gentiles. Shhhhh! You’re not supposed to be with them, Peter! What did you do? You ate with them?! You stayed with them?!

But in response, Peter tells a story. He was hungry up on a rooftop in J0ppa by the coast of the Mediterranean. And while his stomach rumbled, he prayed and he falls into a trance. Peter’s vision, on the surface that we heard about is about eating unclean food, but we find out very quickly that the subject is not unclean food, but unclean people. Namely the Gentiles.

The Gentiles had received the word of God and been baptized, and at this point in the history of the church, the boundary that separated Jew from Gentile was still in place in society and in the Christian community. It was a clear boundary, a wall maintained by religious law and custom. But God was doing something new. Something which was smashing the social, political and ethnic boundaries of the day.

What God has made clean, you must not call profane. To keep up with me, says the Spirit, you cannot make a distinction between them and you. You can’t let law or custom stand in your way. Follow me to the stranger’s house.

But our text, the one that we heard from the 11th chapter, is not about that, what Peter did. The text we read this morning deals with how the church responds to the new thing that God was doing. To be sure, Peter repeats it in detail, the prior events. Emphasizing their importance for us, as readers. But in this text, we are hearing about the reaction of the community of faith to those events. The church raises its hands and says, What do we do?

According to the social boundaries of the day, Peter’s association with the unclean people made him unclean. And he risked being ostracized from society, even from his community of faith. Peter sticks his neck out. In our story, he has to face the music.

When he goes to Jerusalem he faces the charges of crossing that set boundary: You went to the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them. What do we do about that, asked the disciples. You see, in this story, the church is experiencing another instance of God doing what God does: inviting strangers, outsiders, those who are excluded, those who are marginalized, ostracized… God invites them to become friends.

Now other sources give us the hint that the struggle to keep up with God in welcoming the stranger was not as easy as it appears in our story. The struggle in Paul’s letters, and in the Gospel of John and a number of old testament texts and more, was bitter, with the forces resisting God’s inclusive love always putting up a big, big fight.

But thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. God is stubborn. Persistent. And because the Lord is stubborn, we who were strangers, we Gentiles, we who were strangers are now friends. Now the question comes to us as we encounter those who are strangers in our day. What do we do?

No doubt you have heard in some measure of the new law recently passed and signed in Arizona: SB1070. It is, by all accounts, the toughest (or harshest, depending on your perspective) enforcement bill in the country, directed at undocumented immigrants.

(To listen to the sermon in full, please click below)

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  • Breakfast Encounter

    Last Friday morning, I stopped by my GP’s office to let them draw some blood for a test and to get my flu vaccine for the year. Because of the blood test, I had to ‘fast,’ arriving for the blood draw without having any food that morning. When the phlebotomist had drawn the blood and given me the shot, I went to a nearby diner to get some breakfast. Little did I know I was about to witness something extraordinary.

    While I was eating my pancake, egg, and piece of sausage and reading a book about Oscar Romero, a young man went up to the counter to pay. I didn’t notice any of this, of course (occupied as I was with not only Oscar Romero’s life and ministry to the poor of El Salvador, but also all that butter and syrup…) until the young man started yelling at the woman behind the counter.

    “Swipe it again!” is what drew my attention.

    She did, and the card must have been denied a second time. She ran it again, and the look on her face told me the same thing happened. Denied.

    The young man was getting more agitated and saying things to her under his breath. I was paying more attention now, and she asked if he had another card she could try.

    “No! I don’t have another bleeping card!” he yelled at her. Except he didn’t say bleeping.

    Now I’m not a stranger to harsh words. I’ve said them myself. Usually when I’m trying to get a rusted bolt off an old machine and it finally comes loose, taking some of my knuckle skin with it. And I think I quietly swore under my breath in January of 1988 when the Washington football team beat my beloved Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 42-10. There have been other times too. But never, ever at a person.

    Upon being sworn at, the young woman stared at the man like she didn’t know what to do (how could she?). Tears were about to appear. And the air in the room went real still. Like in the movies. I’m sure the background music was still playing, but it seemed deathly quiet at that moment.

    I was about to get up and walk over to the counter—not exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there—when another man who had been eating nearby wandered up real slow, eyes staring at the young man. He was a tall guy, with white hair under his old IFA ball cap, probably in his sixties. He asked the young woman, “What seems to be the problem here?”

    And that’s when the young man made what I thought was a fatal mistake: he answered when he hadn’t been spoken to. “It’s nothin’. My card won’t work,” he spat back.

    I thought a fight was about to break out, but the older man, his eyes searing into the young disgruntled one’s face, reached for his wallet and said to the cashier, “Aubrey, I’d like to pay for this young man’s meal, if that’s okay with him.” And after getting out some cash, he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, not one of those friendly pats on the shoulder, but one of those firm grips that, well, made me think he was making sure the lesson was going to stick.

    I’ve had those kinds of hands on my shoulders a few times over the years. Perhaps from a coach, maybe from my dad once or twice; they happen when a boy or young man really needs to start paying attention.

    And after staring at him for what seemed like an eternity, the old guy said, “Be kind.” And then walked away.

    The young man left the restaurant and climbed into an oversize truck that was parked right out front, cranked up the volume on his radio, and left some rubber on the road as he departed.

    I went into the church office sometime later to finish my sermon, but I kept thinking about angry people and hurt people and kind people and people who teach lessons to those who could use them. I also thought about people who have a head full of kind words who refuse to tolerate ugliness.

    I hope I can be someone like that.

    I have a feeling Aubrey earned a whole lot of tips that morning. She deserved them.

    Be kind.

    That’s all for now.

    —Pastor Derek

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