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May 19, 2019 Easter 5 --

Acts 11: 1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21: 1-6
John 13: 31-35

Hanging A Sheet Sign

Back when I was a student in university, one of the ways to communicate simple but important messages to a large number of people was to paint it on a bed sheet and hang it outside the residence windows or the from the passageway between the library and the adjacent building. I remember the time when there was a problem with the heat in Bennett House, a men’s residence. The students in Bennett made a sheet sign and hung it from the building proclaiming, “No fees if we freeze” and the student newspaper featured pictures of them studying in gloves and toques! Such “sheet signs” were hard to miss. They got people’s attention.

In the passage from the book of Acts, you could say that it was the Sprit who hung out a “sheet sign” of sorts. As described, it seems to have been a large sheet made into a makeshift sort of hammock, which contained all sorts of unclean animals which Peter was commanded, three times, to kill and eat.

In order to understand this passage, at all, we need to remind ourselves of several of the “house rules” by which Peter would have lived all of his life. FIRST of all, Jewish people were forbidden to eat meat such as pork, or consume the flesh of any animal which was considered unclean - and there was a fairly long list.

SECOND of all “good Jews” did not even eat with non-Jews because by doing so, it was implied that they and their ways were ok in God’s eyes.

THIRD, and working in the background, was the belief held by some in the church in Jerusalem, that because the hope for a Messiah was a Jewish hope that converts (the male converts of course) to the “way of Jesus” had to be circumcised first as was mandated by the law of Moses. There were those who believed that this was not necessary. In the long run, the former group, often called “the circumcision party” lost the debate. In today’s passage from Acts, this debate seems to have been in “full force”. Of course, there are many stories of Jesus being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners and associating with gentiles but it seems to have taken a really long time for the majority of his followers to “get” his radical welcome. The inclusion of this story in the book of Acts shows that this controversy continued into the early days of the church.

But wait, we started out with a story about “unclean” animals. Is this a story about food or about people who are worthy of becoming believers in the good news of Jesus? Because of “what happens next”, it seems clear that his vision was not about food at all but about who was acceptable or not in the community of faith.

The United Church of Canada, by its very existence, has long been seen as the church that welcomes everyone. And that observation was not always a compliment!

Two of my favourite new hymns are “Draw the Circle Wide” - and “My Love Colours Outside the Lines.” They speak to me of the openness to which I believe we are called. They speak of the radical welcome that we ourselves have received and, in order to be faithful to the gospel, a welcome we need to show to others. They speak of a love that knows no barriers.

Edwin Markham, the poet laureate of Oregon in the early 20th century wrote,

 “He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!” 

I recall a story told about another denomination which used to have rather strict rules about who could, and could not, be buried in consecrated ground. Sadly, a couple lost a child who had not been baptized and by church law the child could not be buried in the cemetery, but the priest agreed to inter her body just outside the fence. Soon after this loss the couple left the community and did not return for some years. When the time came that the father was able to return and arrange for a headstone he could find no indication at all where the grave should have been. He noted that the same priest was still in charge of the parish so, quite distressed, he went to see the elderly cleric to ask what had happened to his daughter’s grave. The priest said, “Well, despite my pleas I was not allowed to bury your daughter inside the fence; the bishop was quite firm on the matter. After a while I realized that the bishop did not tell me that I could not move the fence.”

Immediately after I graduated from university I became a theology student. A large and very nerve-wracking part of the process toward ordination involved interviews with committees at several levels of the church. Some of us were in the process for 7 years or more! That added up to a great many interviews. The process has changed several times in the last 30 years but there are still “many” interviews!

One of the members of the charged with conducting these interviews in the Maritime Conference had a favourite question for the prospective ordinands. First, imagine a big burly man with an accent so strong you would think he just got off a plane from “Jawja.” He posed his question to a friend of mine in this way: “speak to me of love”. She was floored, but her response must have suited him because she passed and was ordained.

We use the word “love” so often and in so many different ways that it can often become utterly meaningless. I can honestly and truthfully say, that I love my sister, my cat, and Swiss Chalet’s white meat quarter-chicken dinner with fries. Obviously, not all of those loves are equal! I was dismayed last night to find out that the only Swiss Chalet in this province is in Regina! I don’t love it enough to drive to Regina for a meal!

The stories in our Newer Testament about Jesus and the early church speak about love a great deal. When they speak of love they are speaking of a love that is self-giving, a love that arises out of God’s great love for the world and spreads out from there.

Those of us who have been in the church for our entire lives can forget about the grace of God by which we ourselves live. Over time, we can begin to think we have earned or deserve God’s love and grace. After all we try to come to church as often as we can, we do charity work, we try to avoid sin, or at least the major ones!

But earning or deserving God’s grace is a contradiction in terms! While God’s grace is not cheap, it is free. Before we try to deny God’s grace to another let us remember that we ourselves depend upon it.

Dreams and visions were a common way in the biblical times for people to discern God’s will. You may know the story in which Joseph, the arrogant and spoiled son of Jacob, had a dream that, when he shared it, caused his brothers to dislike him so much that they sold him into slavery.

When dreamers and those who receive visions are called to act on them, this may cause some friction and difficulty. Jewish people had very strict dietary laws. While there may have been good sense in some of the laws, it was enough that God told them not to eat pork, or buzzards, or scavengers such as lobster. Now I’ve never thought of eating a buzzard, I do quite like pork and bacon wrapped scallops and lobster. I intend to get at least one feed of lobster and scallops this summer when I am in the Maritimes - I can buy the pork here!

This dream would have been disturbing to Peter but it was repeated three times, for emphasis. That is a common occurrence in the biblical story. One of you reminded me yesterday that the boy Samuel was called three times. There could be no mistaking its application when his doorbell rang and he was asked to accompany somwe Gentiles and go to a place where he meets many others. The signs they had received the Holy Spirit were obvious and it became clear to Peter that he should not be hindering the work of the Holy Spirit. That is the crux of the passage - these were not people encountered in any old situation at all, but people who had the gifts of the Spirit.

In 1936 the United Church ordained its first woman minister, the Rev Lydia Gruchy, in Moose Jaw. She had also been the first woman to graduate from Presbyterian Theological School in Saskatoon, several years before church union. Saskatchewan led the way. It would be years before women clergy would be ordained by or serve in Maritime Conference.

Time and again people who follow Jesus have tried to shut out those who are different in some way, from positions of leadership in the church but have been forced to admit that they too have the gifts of the Spirit necessary for ministry.

But, of course, it’s not just about ordination, its about who we welcome as a brother or sister in Christ - a fellow traveller on the way. It’s about those who can sit in our pews, those who work beside us as we minister to or in the community in the name of the one who called us sisters and brothers.

So let us remember that we are recipients of God’s grace - and that we are called to welcome others - it’s just that simple. And it’s just that difficult!


1995- 2019 The Rev. Beth W. Johnston.

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