Sermon; Easter 6B; Acts 10:44-48
The Episcopal Church Welcomes You . . . say the signs and bumper-stickers. When I was in Montana the tag line for our two parishes was, “You are welcome here.” Three months ago I wrote about the circus that is the Church, encouraging you to see the wonderful diversity of God's creation that lives inside our big tent. And I've often told people, “We're Episcopalians, we'll take anyone.”
That is not something that comes easily to people. We tend to attract and be attracted to our own kind. Whether it's racial, religious, socioeconomic, educational, general interest, or something else, like attracts like. And within those groups certain norms and values develop.
Let's talk about church. Why isn't there just one Christian church in Hagerstown? We all supposedly believe the same thing – 3-in-1 and 1-in-3, the virgin birth, the resurrection. So why so many? Because we don't really all believe the same things. As an example, what would happen if I wanted to disband the choir, start a praise band, and installed a movie screen over the rood screen so we could use power point presentations as worship helps? After all, it'd be a hip, new way to attract a younger crowd, right?
Even within church, a place that publicly states we welcome all, norms, values, and behavioral expectations develop. I've seen those forces be put to use both subtly and not-so-subtly to remove people from a congregation. And we use these expectations almost unconsciously as we work to hold up our expectations and maintain the status quo.
I am as guilty of this as anyone else – especially when it comes to issues of liturgics. I have been asked many times about a particular practice or making some change to which I've politely referred back to the rubrics of the BCP, or canon law, or tradition. It's not that I'm against innovation or change, but it's more that I'm against willy nilly change simply to see what it looks like or to meet some desire to feel good. Taking a line from Paul, I want to make sure we do all things decently and in order.
Which brings me to today's reading from Acts.
This passage comes from the end of Chapter 10. In this chapter we hear about a Roman centurion, Cornelius, who is faithful to God. He is instructed to bring Peter to his house to hear what he might say about God. Peter, in the meantime, is in Joppa having visions about a sheet from heaven that lowers all sorts of unclean animals down with instructions for Peter to “kill and eat.” But Peter declines citing Jewish law and that he has never eaten any unclean thing. At which point a voice from heaven tells Peter that everything God has made has been made clean. As Peter is pondering this vision, the centurion's servants show up and escort him to Cornelius' home.
When Peter gets to the home he interprets his vision saying, “I truly understand now that God shows no partiality, but that in all places those who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to him.” This is really the first instance of, “All are welcome.” This is the first instance of what former Presiding Bishop Browning once declared, “There will be no outcasts in this church.” This is the first instance of that big tent I wrote about earlier in the year.
It's after all this that we get today's lesson. It's after all this when the gathered Gentiles received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It's after all this that Peter says, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?” And he ordered them baptized.
There was no catechism. There was no instruction. There was only a group of believers, water, and a willingness to be baptized. So much for all things done decently and in order.
Chapter 10 of Acts, and the first half of Chapter 11, are chapters of radical welcome. They are chapters that tell the story of the church taking in all manner of people. They are chapters that challenge us to think about our own rules, regulations, norms, and values.
We say we welcome all. We say there are no outcasts in this church. And, for the most part, I think we do a good job of living into that ethos. But this is an area that needs constant vigilance. We can't simply say, “Everybody is welcome,” and then do nothing. We need to actively welcome people through invitation and hospitality. And we need to constantly evaluate our own expectations about the people who come through our doors.
What are our expectations about dress, education level, gender identity, income level . . . bathing routines? What about reading level and comprehension and our expectation that people navigate the Hymnal and BCP? How about our expectation of even a rudimentary knowledge of TEC or Christianity in general? What is our self-expectation to teach those things? Are we willing . . . am I willing . . . to baptize just anyone who walks in our doors and asks to be baptized?
This is where it gets tricky – trying to determine the difference between open and inclusive and holding to norms and expectations. The trick, I think, is to pay attention to how they are used.
If we say we are open to all who are like us, we're not doing it right. If we use our norms and expectations as barriers to keep people out, we're not doing it right. But if we truly welcome all without regard to difference, we're on the right path. If we use our norms and expectations to help define us, and allow others to determine for themselves if this is the right place, then I think we're on the right path.
Part of the mission of St. John's is to Welcome. We welcome people to worship with us. We welcome them into the faith. We welcome them into ministry opportunities. We welcome people to eat with us, both physically and spiritually.
In today's reading from Acts, Peter welcomed people into the faith through baptism. Later on he will be questioned by the guardians of the faith as to why he associated with and baptized Gentiles. His response was basically, “Because God welcomes everyone.”
Part of our mission here at St. John's is to welcome people into our midst. Let's not be surprised or offended when people actually take us up on that offer.