Sunday, May 15, 2022

Sermon: "Big Burger Thinking", Acts 11:1-18 (May 15, 2022)


Did you know that in this country, the standard size of a commercial cheeseburger is the result of our collective inability to understand a basic mathematical concept?

It’s true. A decade after McDonald’s first introduced the Quarter Pounder, A&W decided to introduce the “Third-of-a-Pound Burger”. They figured by offering more meat at the same price, they could successfully take on the golden arches. Their version even performed better in taste tests. But the Third-of-a-Pound Burger failed commercially for a simple and absolutely ridiculous reason: it turns out that the general public doesn’t understand how fractions work. Even though the A&W burger was technically a better deal, people thought that they were being asked to pay more for less burger. They thought that 1/3 was smaller than 1/4.[1]

Let that sink in for a minute. As a society, we’re stuck with smaller burgers because of our own mathematical ignorance.

Now, some of you may be wondering what the weight of burgers has to do with the gospel. And to you I say: that’s an excellent question. One that I will get back to eventually. But before I do that, I want to talk about God first; specifically, God’s desires for us and the consequences of our understanding of those desires. We know that God’s nature is to never change, and as such, God’s desires for humankind have been the same from the beginning of time and for all eternity. God wants us to welcome the way we’ve been welcomed, to show mercy the way we’ve been shown mercy, and to love the way we’ve been loved. God wants us to “draw the circle ever wider”.

All of scripture proclaims this truth. Both Exodus and Leviticus command the people to welcome immigrants as citizens among them. The lineage of King David is established through Ruth, a Moabite and outsider. The restoration of the kingdom Israel is accomplished by a Persian ruler. Lowly shepherds and foreign magi are some of the first to recognize the divinity of Jesus. The Great Commission is to make disciples (not vassals or servants) of all nations (not just the obedient or worthy ones). Scripture is clear: God’s family is vast and inclusive.

Now, while God’s desires are consistent, human understanding of these desires is decidedly not. For every biblical story detailing God’s unchanging intention for humanity, there’s at least two more about people not getting it: setting impossible standards for inclusion, mistreating their neighbors, acting in self-interest. And this is a big problem. If God’s greatest desire is for all of humankind to love one another, then we, as human beings, have to be active partners in the divine plan. And we can’t take part in a plan that we actively misinterpret.

God knew that in order for us to be able to get on board, something had to change. Not about the message, but about the messaging. Hence, the incarnation. But the incarnation alone actually did very little to change our thinking. Human misunderstandings continued unabated all the way through Jesus’ life on earth. Every time he tried to draw the circle wider, humanity continued to resist. When he announces his responsibility to proclaim good news to the poor and freedom to prisoners, the people try to run him out of town. When he eats with tax collectors, adulterers, and sinners, the so-called “religious authorities” plot against him. When he declares the sum of all the law and the prophets to be about loving God and loving neighbor, even his disciples look for loopholes. God’s desires are made absolutely explicit through Jesus – feed the poor; welcome the sinner; love your enemy; no exceptions – and it’s still not enough to get through to us. In spite of God’s best efforts, humanity appears to understand God less than we understand fractions.

But in the resurrection, everything changed. Through the resurrection, we were finally able to see, in exquisite detail, exactly how far God is willing to go to bring all of creation into the beloved kindom. Through the resurrection, we can no longer ignore the truth that God wishes to be reconciled with ALL people – the faithful and the faithless, the sinners and the saints, the Jews and the Gentiles. And the resurrected Christ explained to his captive audience, in no uncertain terms, that the work of building this kindom is put in our hands. Nothing about God’s Truth had ever changed. But through the resurrection, our understanding of it finally did.

Nobody demonstrates this better than Peter. Peter is probably one of the least competent of Jesus’ disciples, at least the way he’s depicted in the gospels. He never seems to get what Jesus is trying to teach him. (Like, ever.) Yet in the book of Acts, he transforms from a perpetual blockhead to the greatest defender of the gospel message the world has ever seen. This man, who’d wanted to keep the transfigured Jesus to himself and who’d been known to argue about being the greatest disciple, is here suddenly advocating for radical, unheard-of inclusion in God’s family. It isn’t because he’d suddenly gotten a lot smarter, and it certainly isn’t because God’s message had been altered in any way. But through his experience of the risen Christ, Peter’s eyes and heart were opened to the truth that he wasn’t able to fully grasp before.

Which finally brings us back to cheeseburgers. Friends, the fact is that no matter what we may think, 1/3 pound is larger than 1/4 pound. It always has been, and always will be. Our ignorance or refusal to understand cannot change that fact. All it does is keep us from enjoying something bigger and better that’s being offered to us. In the case of the A&W burger, our ignorance confined us to an eternity of tragically small burger patties. The consequences of our ignorance of God’s plan could have been much, much worse. If we’d persisted in thinking that God’s love only extends to a particular people – or worse, just to ourselves – then we’d still be stuck in a pre-resurrection world where God’s Kindom remains forever just out of reach.

We’ve been given the gift of understanding, just like Peter, but we need to be careful not to waste it. After all, I could explain to you exactly why 1/3 of a pound is more than 1/4 of a pound, complete with diagrams and demonstrations, but you could still choose not to accept it. “But four is always bigger than 3,” you might complain. Or, “What if the quality of beef in the quarter pounder is better? THEN would it be bigger?” Or, “What if we were talking about 1/4 KILOGRAMS compared to 1/3? 1/4 is bigger in kilograms, right?”

Ridiculous, no? It sounds the same to God when we read scripture and say, “Okay, if everyone’s welcome, then we obviously have to establish some standards so we know who’s better than who,” or “I know I need to love my neighbor, but I also get to decide what’s best for them, right?” or “The most Christlike thing would be to tell those who are suffering that they should have made different choices.” That’s small burger thinking, and it entirely misses the point. 1/3 is always bigger than 1/4. The truth doesn’t change, no matter how we might twist it for our own purposes. Thanks to Christ, we have all the knowledge we need to live the way God wants us to. But we have to be receptive to the full understanding of God’s love that comes through the resurrection, the understanding that Christ continues to offer us every day, in order to faithfully build God’s kindom according to God’s plan.

Incidentally, last fall, A&W tried to rectify its initial marketing error by re-releasing the Third-of-a-Pound burger as the “3/9 Pound Burger”.[2] I have no idea how well this new messaging worked, but I appreciate the effort. Almost 40 years later, they’re still trying to free us from the tyranny of our own mathematical ignorance. Fortunately, God has no plans to give up on us, either. So keep listening for and sharing the true Good News, friends. Keep fighting against the conditions and loopholes and constraints that humanity keeps trying to place on it, and never be satisfied until everyone shares the resurrection understanding of God’s love: it is larger than we could possibly imagine, and it is for absolutely everyone. Amen.




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