Sunday April 28,
Fourth Sunday after Easter
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, Senior Pastor
It’s good, I think, to always be learning something, no matter how old you are. I’m finding that living with high school students is a good strategy for making that happen. Based on what I’ve seen in recent years, it seems to me that curriculum has come a long way since I was in high school, when we never studied anything nearly as interesting as the teenagers in my house seem to study!
Recently we had a discussion at dinner about reading assignments for English classes. One assignment was a classic short story by Shirley Jackson called The Lottery. After hearing the thoughtful analysis and spirited discussion that sprang up around the dinner table in response to a recounting of the story (which I had never heard of, despite my very fine high school education), I decided to find out a little more.
In 1948, The New Yorker published The Lottery, a short, nine page story that would become the most controversial short story in the New Yorker’s. The simply told tale covers a ritual lottery in a sunny, rural town. But what starts out bathed in warmth and charm grows eerier and eerier, until the horrific purpose of the lottery is revealed in the story’s final paragraphs.
You can read it yourself, but I’m going to just go ahead and tell you what happens: every year, that sunny little town holds a lottery in which heads of families all come up front to draw a card. There is one card in the box with a black dot; the others are blank. The family who draws the card with the black dot comes to the front, and every member of the family then draws a card from a stack. The member of the family who draws a card with a black dot is then stoned to death by the whole town. It was tradition: the way they had always done things, and the general opinion of the town was that things were better if they stayed status quo. Nobody questioned the lottery…until they drew the card with the black dot. The terrible closing paragraphs recount the woman who had drawn the card with the black dot protesting the unfairness of the whole system she’d been participating in her whole life, now that she was the victim. The story ends as everyone picks up a rock to start throwing. It’s a stunning, gut-wrenchingly short commentary on society and human behavior.
Soon after the piece was published in 1948, angry letters poured in to The New Yorker. Readers canceled their subscriptions. I can understand why. The story was published right after WW2, when America was rebuilding and the values that permeated American society were values of strong national identity and the sense that conformity, of “being on the same team,” was paramount.
I think our dinner discussion the night when we talked about The Lottery was the most spirited I have seen in a very long time. For us the story raised all kinds of questions and brought to mind recent and current controversies in society. Once our family started talking, we came up with example after example of groups in society that had been treated unfairly…then turning around and doing the same thing to others…as if they hadn’t learned one thing from their own experience of exclusion and pain.
We read a familiar story this morning from the book of Acts, the story of the very first beginnings of the church. Though we don’t know exactly when the book of Acts was written, we do know that it was written during a time when the first church was trying to understand what it meant to be followers of Jesus in the world. They were organizing on the heels of knowing Jesus and stories about his time on earth, and they were struggling. Because, if the message Jesus came to proclaim was really as radical and subversive as they thought it was…well, then, how would the church actually live out the message they said they believed?
I talked a little about this time in the early church a few weeks ago, but you will remember that as the little group of disciples, a bunch of misfits embraced and emboldened by relationship with Jesus, began to grow and expand, they faced the question of whether or how their community would include others…people who were different than they were.
Remember that the original Christians were all Jews; they found their religious and cultural identity in being Jewish. And being Jewish meant being very aware of how their community had been marginalized and oppressed over and over and over again. They stuck together; they needed that conformity to survive. There wasn’t anything inconsistent in their minds with being Jews who followed Jesus; they understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of promises they had been awaiting for thousands of years.
But others in the society where they lived were hearing of the message of Jesus and expressing an interest in becoming his followers—and, members of the community. This was causing no end of distress for those original folk, who were very happy for things to continue as they had been. But, of course, that could never happen. With the introduction of other Jesus followers from outside the Jewish community, all sorts of questions arose. And the leaders of that first group of Christians were navigating waters they’d never sailed in before.
In our passage today we hear recounted the story of the Apostle Peter, a story that is told over and over in the book of Acts. Peter was a staunch Jew and advocate for keeping the new group of Jesus followers strictly Jewish. That is, they’d gladly welcome outsiders to join their group, but only if they became Jews first. Peter came to change his mind about this—radically and dramatically—and here he is in Acts 11, trying to explain to the other leaders of the movement how his mind had changed.
The issue that sparked a shift that would forever define Christian faith was an issue of eating foods that observant Jews were taught were unclean. As you know, the Levitical code followed by devout Jews includes many strict dietary rules. Following these rules helped the community define itself as separate, different from others in the society around them. Peter had a dream, in which he saw all kinds of animals, clean and unclean, and a voice telling him to go ahead and eat them. All. This experience completely transformed the way Peter viewed the inclusion of non-Jews in the first Christian community…and it was no small matter. To convince the other leaders that what he’d learned—that God makes no distinction between people, and that we who were once outsiders should now welcome in those on the outside—would be to challenge deep seated cultural and religious standards.
A little bit of history to help us understand this dynamic: Not even two hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Greek leaders made an attempt to completely annihilate Judaism altogether. Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed Judaism in Palestine, and to show the Jews that he was serious he took over the temple in Jerusalem and converted it to a shrine to the god Zeus. He sacrificed a pig on the altar in the holy of holies in the temple, and sent his soldiers over the countryside forcing Jews to eat pork or be killed.
These terrible events began the Maccabean revolt, in which Jews organized to preserve their community. As far as the early Christians were concerned, this was pretty recent history—the subject of stories they’d been told about the dangers of the Greeks and the utter outrage of breaking their dietary laws.
With this history, then, you can see that what Peter was saying to the other early Christian leaders was downright offensive. Not only did he want them to accept Gentile believers, he wanted them to open their minds and their hearts so together they could build a new community, all of them, so different, but together as followers of Jesus. The issue was food…but not really. The issue was really: who is on the inside and who is on the outside. Peter’s claim that God’s Spirit makes no distinctions was utterly, totally, and completely groundbreaking and radical. Many said, heretical.
“Here we go again…” I can only imagine some of you internally rolling your eyes. Seems like she’s always talking about having an open mind, welcoming those who are different. Get a new sermon already! It is true that Calvary does a good job opening our doors to people who are different, to people for whom the traditional church may not be as welcoming. So I wondered how we might this morning look at this passage a little differently to see how it might call us to reexamine our own lives…and then I noticed the Gospel passage that was assigned for today. In the passage from John chapter 13, we hear Jesus giving directions to his disciples before he leaves—part of what scholars call the Farewell Discourses in the Gospel of John. In this passage he reminds his disciples, those who are clearly and definitively on the INSIDE, to love one another…for the world, he says, will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.
It’s probably not a coincidence that we read these passages together today, because welcoming those who are different into the life of community is one thing. But once that community is formed, we stand as a beacon of hope and welcome for this world, only if we can find a way to keep on welcoming each other. Here. On the inside.
In 2010, novelist Anne Rice posted a comment on Facebook that sent ripples across the Christian world. She wrote: “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
I think Anne Rice’s comments about the church are reflective of so many who have tried church and quit…even some of us…because of the way Christians behave toward one another. And while we can make radical and prophetic statements about accepting people on the outside who are different than we are, the truth is that our fundamental and often most difficult work of accepting others happens right here. In these pews. Where we sit each week, each one of us holding to our opinions and positions and beliefs and, sometimes, being unable or unwilling to do the hard work of reaching just across the aisles to bridge ideological, political, religious, traditional gulfs that can undercut our community and prove to the world what it has always thought about us: those Christians can’t even accept each other. How could they ever accept me?
In Elkhart County, Indiana, there is a corner at the intersection of county roads 11 and 38, where, on three of the four corners of that intersection stand churches. Three Mennonite churches on three of the four corners. They are all Mennonite churches—churches in the free church tradition like ours. Every one of those congregations practices Mennonite spiritual values like simple living and service to all in the name of Jesus.
But, you see, one of them is a really old school Mennonite church. None of their members drive cars or use electricity; they come to church in horse and buggy and dress exclusively in plain dress.
Across the street are the “black car Mennonites”. They drive cars, but they are all plain black. The church building is wired for electricity, but it’s a simple white building, no frills. The people who attend don’t wear traditional plain dress like their neighbors across the street, but they dress pretty simply.
And catty corner is a large, new Mennonite church building in whose parking lot are parked all different kinds of cars of many different colors. People of many different ethnicities attend this church, wearing all different kinds of clothing—some even wear jeans!
It’s easy to hate on the Mennonites, but as I was reading about this with outrage this week I suddenly stopped. Do you know that just across the street from the front doors of this sanctuary is another Baptist church…Greater New Hope Full Gospel Baptist Church. And I wondered when I read about three Mennonite churches within spitting distance of each other…and two Baptist churches practically across the street from one another…perhaps both illustrating for the world what the world already believes about us. Those Christians can’t get along with each other; they’re a fractious bunch of posers who don’t practice what they preach. What about that would ever want to make me be part of who they are?
And so, this challenge to welcome everybody has to begin right here, with us. Before we worry so much about the church welcoming others, outside…perhaps we should do the hard work of learning to live in gracious embrace…of each other.
I imagine that some of you are listening to me this morning and wondering: “Hmmm, I wonder who is not getting along??” The truth is that I think pretty much everybody is getting along around here these days…but even in good times, when our community is positive and energy-filled, permission-giving and gracious, there are times when we don’t understand each other…when we offend each other…when we hold different positions and when we’re tempted to build groups within our group, to exclude others in the very place where we who were once excluded have been welcomed into full community.
And it never hurts to stop and take stock of our practice as the community of Christ in this place. Because building the beloved community takes work and attention and commitment so that here, among this group, we truly and honestly reflect the radical inclusion and welcome that was Jesus’ intent for the whole world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well (though he EXCLUDED women here, I note…): “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding and goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
May it be so in our world…and may it begin within these very walls.