Sermon: “ARE All Welcome?” (Acts 11:1-18) [5/15/2022]

Last week, we heard the story about Peter going to Joppa and raising Dorcas from the dead.  Grieving their beloved friend, mourners showed Peter all the garments Dorcas had made and told him about all the acts of charity in which she’d been involved.  

You know there must have been a party after Dorcas’ resurrection!  Her friends probably hugged on her and cried and laughed, then pulled her over to the sewing circle so they could get back to work.  Others likely were relieved to have Dorcas’ leadership restored to their outreach programs.  Dorcas probably thought–Now, that was one good nap!

No doubt, the raising of Dorcas had a deep impact on Jesus’ followers in Joppa.  Which makes you wonder:  What impact did his raising of Dorcas have on Peter?

The next part of Peter’s story begins with a man in Caesarea named Cornelius.  Cornelius was a Gentile, which means he was NOT of the Jewish faith.  

Some background.  In the church’s early days, there was great debate about who could be a follower of Jesus.  Because Jesus was Jewish, many people–like Peter–thought following Jesus was a Jewish thing.  Many resisted sharing the good news with people who weren’t Jews.  So, when the message comes to Cornelius, it’s a big deal.  The deal grows bigger when Cornelius is told to send people to Joppa, get Peter, and bring him back to Caesarea.

As the contingent heads to Joppa, Peter goes to the roof of the house where he’s staying to pray.  He has a vision.  In the vision, the heavens open and a sheet containing “all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds” descends.  A voice tells him: “Get up, Peter.  Make your sacrifice and eat.” “Surely not!” Peter replies. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”  Peter is referring to Jewish dietary laws that determined who was in the community and who was not.  The voice responds:  “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”  Then the vision happens two more times.  

As he’s mulling over the vision’s meaning, Cornelius’ contingent arrive.  Peter accompanies them to Caesarea, where a crowd has gathered.  Here’s what Peter tells them. “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with Gentiles.  But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”  “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear God and do what is right.”

Whoa!  We see now that something profound has happened to Peter.  He’s gone from religiously avoiding Gentiles to seeing them as fellow Christ-followers.  Because of the things he’s experienced–with Dorcas and her friends, and in his vision–he now understands that Gentiles are just like everyone else.  They, too, need and deserve to experience God’s love.  God welcomes everyone.

So, when the Holy Spirit shows up, Peter says, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”  The new believers were baptized.

Just before the risen Jesus left the scene for good, he commissioned his followers.  He told them: “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  How were they going to share the good news “to the ends of the earth” if they were only going to talk to Jews?  Somebody’s mind was going to have to change if the movement was going to get off the ground.  And Peter was the obvious choice.  So what if it took him three times to get the message?  Sometimes conversion takes a while.

Some of you might be thinking, What?  Is she saying we need to work on welcoming people?  But that’s who we are!  We say we welcome everyone…and we do!  It’s in our mission statement!  Just look at who’s here today in this room!  All ARE welcome here!

Oh, yes.  I know we take our ministry of extravagant hospitality seriously.  Allen and I have been blessed over and over again by your warm, heartfelt, authentic welcoming of us.  Drawing people in and accepting them for who they are…that is part of our DNA.  

But just because we decide to welcome everyone doesn’t mean it’s always easy or comfortable.  When the first trans person came to one church I served, it took us a while to get comfortable with her presence among us.  That church also wrestled with how to welcome a child who was autistic.  All of the churches I have served have wanted to welcome people of all races, but sometimes struggled to extend a truly authentic welcome.  

The gap between wanting to welcome everyone and actually welcoming everyone is wider than we’d sometimes like to admit.  In talking with one parent of a trans child, they said that, in their minds, they’d always welcomed folks who were trans.  If a trans person said they were trans, this person accepted that as that person’s reality.  

But when their child came out to them as trans, it was a whole other thing.  Before their child came out, their acceptance of folks who are trans was theoretical.  Now, it was real.  This parent had to work things through in their own mind, which they did.  But it took some work.  

The Benedictines have a name for that work–conversatio morum, “conversion of life.”  It means that if we are to grow and thrive, we must stay open to the conversion process.  Extending radical hospitality to others requires continual conversion. 

Reading on, we see Peter’s conversion deepening when he defends his inclusion of Gentiles to Jewish believers in Jerusalem.  When they heard that Gentiles were receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, they immediately formed a committee, discussed it at length, and decided to censure Peter when he came to town.  Their accusation:  “You went into the house of the uncircumcised (the Gentiles) and ate with them.” 

In response to the criticism, Peter relates the story of what happened to him in Joppa, then in Caesarea.  “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as it had come on us at the beginning.  If God gave them the same gift God gave us who believe in Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

Peter simply tells his critics the story of what has happened.  We’re told that “when they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Peter’s conversion led to more people being welcomed into the community.  His telling the story of the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Gentiles helped others change their minds about who was in and who was out, as well.  

So, yes.  We do everything we can to welcome everyone here at UCT, but here’s what I wonder.  And I just got here, so this is an honest question.  Have we finished our welcoming work?  Is it enough to say every week, “You are welcome here?”  Is it enough to declare it in our mission statement:  “All are welcome?”  Is it enough to sing a pretty hymn, “All are welcome?”

Or might there be more work for us to do, as individuals and as a community?  Is extending extravagant welcome like flipping a toggle switch–We didn’t welcome everyone, but now we do?  Or does becoming truly welcoming take a lifetime?

Here’s the story of one church’s hospitality conversion experience.  The church in East Lyme, Connecticut “was next door to a group home for adults.”  One day, one of the residents “came in and sat down before worship.  She was painfully overweight and wore clothing that didn’t fit.  She hadn’t bathed and couldn’t breathe or move comfortably.  She didn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone.

“From the beginning, she tried the congregation’s patience.  More than once she forgot where she was and lit up a cigarette right there in the pew.  Her medication prevented her from being able to follow the order of worship.  She fell asleep during sermons.  Her breathing problems escalated and became loud snoring problems.

The visitor became a topic of conversation at Council meetings.  ‘She doesn’t belong here; she couldn’t possibly be getting anything out of it so heavily medicated.’  ‘I’m tithing to this church, and she’s just giving pennies…she shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for everyone.’  Some observed that she ate too many cookies at coffee hour.  They worried that she was a deterrent to other visitors.  

“Finally, an exasperated council member said she’d had enough of all this talk.  She announced that she would make a friend out of the troubled visitor and would hereafter be sitting next to her in church.  Understand:  this means that after more than 25 years sitting in one pew, she moved…to a different pew.  When the snoring started, the council member gave a gentle nudge; she helped the visitor find the right hymn to sing; she reminded her to put her cigarettes away and limited her to no more than three cookies in the fellowship hall.

“That small act was all the woman needed.  Soon she began talking to people; she made eye contact and learned to shake the pastor’s hand at the door after worship; her first words to the pastor were:  ‘bless you.’

“Some months later the pastor received a phone call from the woman’s social worker.  He said the woman had never been accepted by any group or able to sustain a single positive relationship until she started attending the church next door.  ‘Thank you for welcoming her,’ he told the pastor.  ‘I have never been to your church, but I know it is an exceptional place.’  

“Empowered now, the woman went on to make friends with the others in her group home and brought them all with her to church.  She had gained her whole life back, put her demons behind her, and told anyone who would listen what [God] had done for her.”  (Erica Wimber Avena, in Christian Century, January 4, 2017.  Used by permission.)

That’s just one story of how the gap between wanting to welcome everyone and actually welcoming everyone was reduced.  How might we shorten the gap here at UCT?  We’ve got a great opportunity to start the process by stopping by the kitchen after worship and helping prepare food for our neighbors across the street at City Walk.  What else might we do to demonstrate our commitment to welcoming all?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  ©2022

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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