Monday, May 20, 2019

Sermon: "You Can't Sit with Us!", Psalm 148/Acts 11:1-18 (May 19, 2019)


As we approach the end of May, all the graduation announcements and “end-of-school” countdowns from students and teachers alike bring me back to that most magical time of life: high school. Love it or hate it (and I tended towards the latter category most of the time, myself) high school is a time of intensity—intense preparation, intense emotions, intense changes, intense loyalties…but most of all, intense identity politics. Few people can look back on their teenage years without recalling the all-important social hierarchy. (If you’ve blocked those years from your mind and need a refresher, just check out literally any teen comedy movie and it’ll all come flooding back to you.) A lucky few managed to transcend social groups, but for most of us, we knew where we belonged and where we definitely DIDN’T belong. We knew if we were cool or uncool, and if we didn’t necessarily fall neatly into one of those categories, we knew EXACTLY where we landed on the spectrum between the two extremes. 

There was a certain comfort in knowing exactly where you belonged. The firmly established social hierarchy allowed you to settle quickly and easily into a ready-made identity as you continued to work out the nuances of what made you “you”. Even if you weren’t happy about your social status, the fact that it was clearly defined was, in a way, reassuring. Human beings crave a sense of identity because it provides security and grounding: even if everything else in the world is turned upside down, at least I know who I am and where I belong. In adolescence, the world is constantly being turned upside down, between hormones and new experiences and never-ending transition, so it makes a certain amount of sense that being able to claim an identity is vitally important to high schoolers.

This abstract social-sorting becomes evident to observers as it plays out in real life—most notoriously, in the high school cafeteria. When students organize their identities according to “assigned seating” at lunchtime, it’s an easy visual reference for anyone who may need help figuring out where they belong. Jocks sit here; band geeks here; popular kids here; outcasts here, and so on and so forth. If we know where we sit, then we know who we are, and so does everyone else.

As a (perhaps) unintended side effect, having “assigned seating” not only defines who’s “in”, but it also clearly demonstrates who’s “out”. Excluding others who don’t share our identity is just as important to our sense of belonging—if not more so—as finding others with whom we share things in common. Drawing clear table-shaped boundaries between cliques and then subsequently gatekeeping those groups is a way that high schoolers have fiercely guarded their identities since time immemorial.

The funny thing is, this yearning for identity and belonging doesn’t end at graduation. The compulsion to fit in follows us through the rest of our lives. The problem is that whereas high school is characterized by a heightened awareness of these identity politics, adults tend to be in significant denial about how desperate we are to exclude others. We’re adept at making excuses for our collective and individual policies of intolerance: “They’re not interested in conversation, so I won’t waste my time,” “They’ve got it out for us, so they don’t deserve to be heard,” “It’ll just go badly, so why bother?” “We can’t worry about them; we’ve gotta take care of our own first—it’s the right thing to do.” We adults often consider ourselves both more rational and more gracious than pubescent high schoolers…but are we really?

Have we ever been? Like us, the early Christians were obsessed with identity, too. Deciding who was in and who was out was a primary preoccupation of the early Church. They reasoned that if their fledgling religious movement was to survive, they had to make sure their ideals didn’t get diluted or trampled on by “outsiders”. After all, they didn’t come into existence in a vacuum. If the ancient religious landscape were like a high school cafeteria, it might look something like this: the Jews would have a small but well-established clump of monotheist tables in one corner of the room (although each micro-clique like the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots would have their own space); the Romans (the “popular kids”) would have a huge table in the center of the room with their pantheon of gods and the Emperor as prom king; and the Greeks would have a hipster table celebrating essentially the same gods as the Romans, but they worshiped them before it was cool. The Christians, of course, were the new kids eating lunch on a tiny card table tucked somewhere in the back of the Jewish corner. In short, Christianity emerged at a time where “insiders” and “outsiders” were already pretty clearly defined, and they had to eke out their own cafeteria table and find their own place to belong.

From this perspective, it’s little wonder that the “circumcised believers”—which is essentially shorthand for “insiders”—reacted so strongly to Peter’s eating with the gentiles. He was committing an appalling transgression against the sacred law of lunchtime politics! But seriously, for a small religious movement whose identity was still in the process of being formed, Peter’s actions threatened what little identity they’d already established for themselves.

There’s a problem with this attitude, though. It’s in direct conflict with God’s plans for humanity, which is a thing that Christians claim to be on board with. It’s not like God’s keeping these plans a secret: by this time in Acts, we’ve already seen the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost in a way that was accessible to ALL nations;[1] we’ve seen Philip evangelizing and baptizing an African eunich;[2] and we’ve seen Peter preaching to a Roman centurion at God’s insistence.[3] All of this is, of course, on top of Jesus’ consistent ministry among the tax collectors and sinners. God’s clearly not interested in segregating the lunch tables according to our sense of who should be “in” and who should be “out”. God has a different idea of who should be invited to eat with us, and it’s a heckova lot more inclusive than we imagine.

This isn’t even a “New Testament” development. One of Judaism’s core beliefs is that there’s only one God, and that therefore ALL of creation should follow, worship, and praise this one deity. Today’s psalm epitomizes this idea. For one thing, the psalmist uses the Hebrew word kol, meaning “all”, ten times in the span of 14 verses. “ALL angels,” “ALL hills, “ALL cattle,” “ALL people”…that’s an awful lot of inclusive language for us to justify exclusion of any kind. The psalmist also moves systematically from describing entities above (in the heavens) to entities below (on earth) to indicate that this comprehensive list really does include the entirety of creation.

Also, did you notice that this psalm’s language seems to reflect the first creation account? In several places, it uses words and phrases identical to those used in Genesis 1 to list the different aspects of creation: the sun and moon, the waters above the sky, sea monsters, creatures that creep, birds that fly. It even goes into further detail, describing aspects of creation that weren’t explicitly mentioned in Genesis (like angels and meteorological phenomena) as well as broadening the description of humanity to include not just men and women, but young and old as well as rulers and kings (who I imagine occasionally need a pointed reminder that they’re human, too). In Genesis, the language was intended to convey the totality of creation—God created it all, from the tiny creeping bugs to the celestial bodies to the monstrous creatures in the deepest parts of the ocean. In Psalm 148, that language is echoed and expanded to remind us that every part of this same expansive creation is invited to join in the celebration inspired by God’s majesty and goodness.

So why on earth would we consider it appropriate, let alone essential, to exclude ANY of creation from God’s table? We have no right to tell ANYONE that they can’t sit with us, for any reason. The boundaries to God’s table are defined by God’s will—not ours, not what we THINK God’s will is, and not what we perceive the boundaries as having been in the past. And God’s made it pretty clear that there’s room for everyone. Today’s progressive Church may have adopted the rallying cry of “all means all”, but we’re not very good at embodying it when the rubber hits the road. GOD is the one who originated the idea as well as the one who continuously calls us to embrace it wholly. All has ALWAYS meant all to God, and it always will.

And yet, even with clear evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures and their own experiences, Peter’s contemporaries were still struggling to make room at their table. I mean, I get it; they were concerned about the future of Christ’s message, and they were trying their best to maintain sanctity within their community. Those are rational motivations. But sometimes, in trying our best to be holy and preserve what we know to be good, we completely miss the mark. And in this case, “missing the mark” means excluding entire groups of God’s beloved from God’s community—which, as consequences go, is pretty appalling.

Peter himself almost fell victim to this way of thinking. In his vision, he has the audacity to say, “I absolutely will NOT eat these unclean foods!”, contradicting a DIRECT INSTRUCTION from God. Fortunately, Peter was smart enough to keep listening and remain open to the Holy Spirit. He had juuuuuust enough humility to consider that God might possibly know a little better than him. He had enough flexibility to adjust his thinking in order to better follow God’s will. And as a result, through that small act of sharing lunch with some gentiles, he was not only able to share the Good News with brand new disciples, but he also took the Christian movement to a whole new level. Peter added the table leaf, pulled up some extra chairs, and confidently explained why to his skeptical tablemates. Fortunately for them (and for us), the insiders listened to him and decided that he was right—there WAS plenty of room at the table after all.

When God says “all”, God MEANS “all”. Not just those who’ve always “fit in” (although they’re certainly welcome), but the outcast. The powerful., the downtrodden. The generous, the stingy. The boring, the unconventional. The loud, the soft-spoken. The politicians, the activists. The obnoxious, the pleasant. I think that sometimes, when preachers say things like this, we hear, “All means all (unless we don’t get along with them),” or “All means all (as long as they share my perspective on x, y, or z).” Nope. Wrong. There are ZERO exceptions to God’s extravagant welcome, and we’re expected to receive all our new siblings in Christ with open arms.

There’s no question that it can be…difficult, to say the least, to coexist with those who see and experience the world differently than we do. Especially when their perspective seems directly at odds with God’s desires for the world. But remember that Peter and his circumcised buddies once thought that including gentiles in the Church was at odds with God’s desires, too. So maybe our policy should be to welcome first, and THEN work together to discern God’s will. That doesn’t mean that we should compromise our convictions in the name of unity, but the least we can do is be present with one another at the table that Jesus has prepared for us. Who knows? Maybe, if we pull up a chair for that outsider, without any demands or expectations, we’ll find that they bring something to the table that changes us for the better.

Besides, from what I hear, the high school cafeteria isn’t nearly as unforgiving in its social segregation as it used to be. Sure, friend groups still gather together, but if someone new decides to sit with them, it’s just not that big a deal. Sharing a meal with no pressure or agenda—what a concept! If today’s high schoolers can welcome newcomers to their table without a second thought, maybe there’s hope for the Church, too. May we make it so, with God’s help. Amen.


[1] Acts 2.
[2] Acts 8.
[3] Acts 10.

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