We Are All Someone’s Outsider

On April 26, 2016 by saintlukesgresham

Rev. Jennifer M. Creswell

I went to a play at a downtown theater the other day and it was the first place in town I’d seen three distinct restrooms: one for men, one for women, and one for anyone. It’s funny what gets political. North Carolina is now legislating public bathrooms in an effort to contain and control the transgender community. In NC, it is now law that people must only enter bathrooms that correspond to the sex they were born. Talk about being difficult and awkward to enforce.

These disputes and laws are not about bathrooms. They are about people. In Acts 11, that strange scene with animals coming out of the sky and God telling Peter to eat them? It’s not about animals. It’s not about food. It’s about people.

There are so many ways to test if a person is in our out. So many markers that let us know if someone is one of us or not. There are so many, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to be blind to them. They are part of who we are. And I think that’s why Jesus spends so much time in the Gospels—and the message is reinforced here in Acts—telling people to get over their boundaries. The profligate son and the hard working son? God loves them equally. The woman caught in adultery? Let the one without sin throw the first stone. The children who come to hear Jesus? No less worthy of his time than the disciples. The scribes and Pharisees? Given the same chance as the prostitutes and tax collectors to hear the message.

It’s like Jesus is taking our categories, one by one, and dismantling them. This is how you want to organize the world. But this is how I organize it. How you live? It doesn’t matter. Where you were born? It doesn’t matter. What you’ve done? It doesn’t matter. What matters is this: I love you.

In Acts, the chapter 11 episode shows us how the community of Jesus’ followers expanded to include “the wrong kind of people.” Jesus was a Jew. His friends were Jewish. Most of the people who hung out with him were Jewish. They believed Jesus was there to fulfill Jewish law. So, in the beginning, the people in the early church were Jewish people who had been circumcised (if they were men) and who kept kosher. They went to the Jewish temple and followed Jewish law. Now, just like our society, this one was religiously diverse. There were also Gentiles, or pagans, or Roman citizens who worshiped the gods of Greece and Rome. They were not Jewish. Gentile=not Jewish.

And I want to be really clear here that when I talk about ‘the Jews’ in this context, I am talking about a very particular moment in history. In this story, there was a community that struggled to let in outsiders. In this instance, it was a Jewish community. It has been every community at one time or another. I’m not trying to call Jewish communities on the carpet.

So in Acts, Peter had this vision. Animals came down from heaven in a sheet and God’s voice said: eat all of them! Imagine instead, that a pious Baptist saw a sheet came down from heaven full of craft beers and local liquor. Or imagine that a Muslim saw a sheet come down from heaven filled with bacon and sausages. Or the Pope saw a sheet come down from heaven filled with women (and men) And God said, “Eat! Drink! Marry!” God was telling Peter, and by extension the whole Jewish community of Jesus’ followers, that those unclean or off-limits meats were okay now. The things that were forbidden are now okay. The things that marked them as different are unimportant now.

Changes like this are not new. At one time the Bible was only written in Greek and Latin. Only priests could read scripture. It was a huge deal when people started talking about translating the Bible into the vernacular. It would mean that regular people would be able to understand it for the first time. It wouldn’t just be for the clergy and the monastics. It would be for everyone. It opened the gate to more people. The same thing happened when women began to be ordained. And then openly gay people. Now trans Christians.

God sometimes changes the rules. And that can be hard. One commentator suggests that, even more than getting used to new diet rules, God was asking the Jewish early Christians to get over their revulsion of the Gentile people. These were people who lived unclean lives. They didn’t follow purity laws. They ate food that the Jews found disgusting and they didn’t wash in the proper way. And God wasn’t really asking the Jewish Christians to eat their food. God was asking them to eat with the Gentile people. This isn’t about food. It’s about people.

And the people, the Jewish Christian people, were a little afraid to become one with the Gentiles because then they might be like them. ‘Maybe we can make them be like us,’ they thought. But God said no. You have to become like them. And you have to share the Holy Spirit with them. Because it was freely given to you, and I am also giving it freely to them. See, this new business of following Jesus was attractive. It was beautiful. It was different and new. It was Occupy Wall Street and Woodstock, and people wanted to be part of it. They were dying to give up their possessions and live communally. They couldn’t wait to be part of house churches and provide for widows and orphans. The foundling little church movement was a victim of its own success. The early believers may have wanted to keep it their best-kept secret. But it couldn’t stay small. Others wanted in.

I heard a story on the radio the other day about Smith Rock outside of Bend. The headline was: “Do Visitors Love Smith Rock State Park Too Much?” The content was brief. Since Smith Rock was designated one of the state’s seven natural wonders, visitation ballooned. 450,000 visitors a year became 700,000. The parking lots are often full and the park’s infrastructure is getting shabby.

When something is as magnificent as Smith Rock, or as Jesus’ love, you can’t make the people stay away. And wonders like Jesus’ love and Smith Rock can’t be hoarded or confined. They don’t belong any more to the first people who ‘discovered’ them than they do to those who haven’t yet heard of them. (And here’s where the analogy falls apart because at one time Smith Rock wasn’t named after ‘Smith’ and it didn’t belong to, but was enjoyed by, the Native Americans who lived in what is now Oregon.)

We still create our categories of who’s in and who’s out, and we decide what you have to do to be in and what you can’t do if you don’t want to get chucked out.

The early Jewish-Christians had to decide whether the new Gentile followers of Jesus would be required to follow their laws. Would Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus and join the community of the Way have to be circumcised? Would they have to keep kosher? This story tells us they didn’t. This is not God breaking the Jewish law in favor of something better so much as it is God showing the people that there is more than one way to love. More than one way to worship God. More than one way to be together as a community. The law was one way. Following Jesus was another. They could co-exist, but they didn’t have to.

This might feel as strange as Christians wondering if new believers coming to the church need to take communion. Is it central, or is it optional? We all face this question to one degree or another. When you join the club, can you be a member without buying the t-shirt? Do you have to learn the cheer? Pay your dues? Come every Tuesday? In, out, us, them. Jesus never cared much for that kind of question.

So when we argue about who can use which restroom, and who can get married, and who can adopt children, and who you can bake a wedding cake for, and who can be ordained…I wonder who we are following. Certainly not Jesus.

Here’s another thing that was probably tough for the early Jewish Christians: God gave grace freely to them. And they accepted it. And now God was offering grace freely to the people they didn’t accept, or who didn’t accept them. And those people accepted God’s grace. Ouch. You thought you were special because you got that new phone, or that big paycheck or those good looks. But what if it turns out everyone else got them, too? And, even more infuriatingly, everyone else is genuinely thankful to God for them? Now it’s not that you are marked as better, luckier, a harder worker. You’re not so unique. You are just…one of God’s beloved. No more, no less. Grace is tough. It’s not ours to regulate. We don’t get to decide who’s in on it and who’s out. Who receives God’s grace and who doesn’t. The answer is: everyone does. The notorious sinner and the saint. That’s why it’s grace. It doesn’t follow our rules. It doesn’t care about our categories.

I am preaching to the choir. I know that most of us have a high value on being open-minded. And I’m also preaching to myself. Because I still harbor ugly, insider-outsider feelings toward people. Toward the bigot. The hater. The person I talked with last week who seemed to take pleasure in being antagonizing. The person who has hurt me. It is so annoying when God can’t see what I can see in people! Doesn’t she know that people are cutting in line and stealing the cookies?! Writer Anne Lamott says, “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”

I read a story that Billy Graham used to tell—the metaphor he uses is not my own—it’s about heaven and hell—but I’m not going to change it or put him in the ‘out’ group just because he did Christianity differently than I do. It’s a good story. Here it is: ‘in heaven, Peter is in charge of checking people in at the gate. Paul, on the other hand, still the great administrator he had proven himself to be on earth, is in charge of keeping track of the people in heaven. It disturbed him that he always found more people in heaven than Peter was admitting. This discrepancy greatly annoyed them both. Then one day, Paul came running to Peter and said, “I found out what’s been happening! It’s Jesus! He keeps sneaking people over the wall!”’

The good news here may be counterintuitive. It is that you get to be part of this inside group, you get to be gifted with God’s grace, too. We all are someone’s outsider. But not God’s. Amen.

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