Pastor Keith's SERMON ON ACTS 11:1-18 July 28, 2013
The kids showed up curious, the old church taking up nearly half a block, stark stone and stained glass and all in a neighborhood of century-old row houses with chipped brick facades and marble stoops swept clean. Whether they strolled on into the sanctuary like they owned the place or peered inside the great wood doors painted red then tiptoed in hushed silence quietly sliding in upon the wood pews, no one knew for certain, but there they were, sitting there until someone directed them to a downstairs Sunday school class where Mrs J fed them breakfast and Jesus, not sure, herself, which they had come for, but it didn’t really matter. Not to her, anyway.
An hour with those kids opened her eyes and from then on she found as she walked to church each Sunday morning that there were more children like these, wandering the streets with nothing to do; children who were more than happy to welcome breakfast with a little Jesus on the side. First one table, then two filled with young people as the season passed from fall into winter, Mrs J paying for the food out of her own pocket to avoid the inevitable complaints. Mrs J had found her calling, her Sunday children grateful and off the streets, learning stories about Jesus. We could imagine Mrs J reading out loud: "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs" and looking out into faces busy with bowls of Rice Krispies and Cherrios, the faces nodding between spoonfuls, offering their own particular “Amen.”
But other complaints were not long in coming, the kids having drawn attention because they were kids from the streets whose parents had no connection with the church; strange kids in class with their children for gosh sakes, walking the same hallways, using their bathrooms, eating food, not believing that Mrs J. could be providing for them out of her own pocket, a dozen kids, she a school teacher on a school teacher’s salary, no husband, him long gone, dead. So the complainers complained and caught the ear of the congregational council, longtime members well-meaning, desirous of peace, calm, order. Mrs J. was told that she could not feed those kids under any circumstances, some excuse lost to memory given, and as the food went, so, too, did the children, Jesus on the side not enough. But the decision, the priority, enough for Mrs. J. who quit the church that day, keeping the story to herself for many years after.
God in and through the Holy Spirit had said it, shouted it, big and bold, and undeniable. Proclaimed it in numbers, Spirit-filled gentiles, blessed like the Hebrew Christians had been blessed, centuries of separation and second class status or worse erased in a joyous mini-Pentecost. And word travelling back more quickly than Peter, who had chosen to stay a few days with the gentiles, reaching the ears of the other Hebrew believers in Jerusalem, giving them time to raise their indignation with which they accosted Peter upon his arrival: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" That being the only fact reported, the only one someone had cared to mention, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the gentiles somehow missed, left out, considered of little importance.
Peter, pushing back against the woefully incomplete picture of the events that had taken place, took it slow and sure, step by step, explaining what God had done, was doing, right there in their midst, ending by declaring: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"
Who was I that I could hinder God?
Peter silencing them, whether from shame or awe, I do not know; The full unfolding of God’s plan to gather all people to himself, Jew and Greek, man, woman, and child, rich and poor, slave and free, falling upon them and unencumbered by their former judgments and prejudice, their praise broke out, God’s Name once more lifted on high for manifesting God’s limitless grace, even upon those they had until most recently thought unworthy at best.
Before his own eyes, Peter had witnessed God’s love at work in the world, and he refused to close those eyes, to turn away. He chose instead to speak of it, to share the good news of the Good News breaking out of former trusted limits and clear boundaries and labels soiled in prejudice. And he faced down the disbelief of friends until the plans of God, undiminished by their doubt, swept them along in jubilation, overwhelming their sense of privilege and too-small understanding of God.
Somewhere on the streets of Baltimore, the children of those children are growing up. And if they in curiosity, standing before the grey stone and red doors and stain glass, ask their parents as only children can, of what they know of it, will another generation find the moral disconnect of people who bore witness to the work and love of God, the very presence of God incarnate in their midst, and far from doing nothing, sent Jesus back out into street.
Every congregation stands before the witness of Scripture. As the Holy Spirit joyfully labors in their midst, will every sleeve be rolled up and every hand reach out, and every heart be open to receive the good news of the Good news being embodied before them?
As the Holy Spirit joyfully labors in our midst, will every sleeve be rolled up and every hand reach out, and every heart be open to receive the good news of the Good news being embodied before us in ways both unexpected and quiet, bold and transforming?
For where this is most certainly true, the church is most certainly found.