“Who Are We to Hinder God?”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 26, 2014 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Acts 11:1-18


When was the last time you were in a school cafeteria?

I was in one last weekend at the Annual Meeting of the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. It had been a long time since I had set foot in such a place, and it brought back a lot of memories.

I don’t know what the cafeteria was like in your middle school, or junior high school, or intermediate school, or whatever they called it in your district—but I sure do remember mine. It was a big, windowless room on the ground level. The floor was covered with off-white tiles, probably full of asbestos. The walls were cinder block, painted a light shade of beige, the kind of color that hides dirt really well. The lighting was variable, depending on whether the fluorescent bulb above your head was flickering or not. It must have been near the boiler room, because it was unseasonably warm even in the dead of winter. It was filled with row upon row of those folding picnic-style tables—long rectangles of some kind of plywood or laminate with a brown faux wood-grain surface, attached benches on either side, and a hinge in the middle so you could fold the whole thing in half and wheel it across the room.

I don’t know what the social scene was like in your middle school, or junior high school, or intermediate school, or whatever they called it in your district—but I sure do remember mine. And walking into that cafeteria at the beginning of lunch was one of the most anxiety-provoking moments of everyone’s day.

Do you remember the feeling?

You would walk in through the big double-doors and try to look completely nonchalant while you scanned the room for your friends and hoped you could get to that table while there was still an empty seat. As the year went on, people would gravitate toward certain parts of the room. The cool kids would be in the middle; the jocks over on one side; the band geeks here; the rednecks there; the kids in special ed (God forgive us!) off in the corner.

And then there was that table that was always only half-full. That was where the new kids sat, the ones whose families had just moved to town. That was where the rejects sat, the ones who had once been popular but had lost their status in the fickle shifting of adolescent allegiances. That was where the misfits sat, the ones who weren’t smart enough to be nerds, or strong enough to be athletes, or theatrical enough to be in the drama club. That was where you sat if you had nowhere else to sit.

From time to time, you would see a kid move from that misfit table to a more desirable location. Maybe she earned a spot on the varsity soccer team. Maybe he made first chair in the jazz band. And suddenly, he went from the outskirts to the inner circle. She went from pariah to celebrity. Suddenly, that kid no longer had to stand awkwardly in the cafeteria doorway, trying in vain to catch someone’s eye, because there was a reserved place set at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood.

I don’t know if you were ever that kid when you were in middle school, or junior high school, or intermediate school, or whatever they called it in your district—but I sure do know that I was. And I can still remember the overwhelming feeling of gratitude at finally having a place where I fit in. I can still remember how I thanked my lucky stars that someone had saved a seat for me.

Do you know that feeling? The breathless, knee-trembling relief that washes over you when at last you find a place where you feel truly welcome… The rising tide of elation that fills your heart when someone goes out of their way to make a space for you… The buoyant joy that lifts your spirits when you realize that somebody thinks you are special, important, worthy…

I think Peter knew that feeling. Peter was an ordinary fisherman, no different from any of the others who plied the waters of the Sea of Galilee. In fact, he seems to have been a mediocre fisherman at best; we have multiple stories in which Peter returns from a night’s fishing with empty hands and empty nets. There seemed to be nothing special about him, and yet Jesus chose him, called him as a disciple, taught him to feed and heal and teach and share good news. Peter must have felt that rising tide of elation filling his heart, that buoyant joy lifting his spirits.

Peter spent three years following Jesus around the countryside, learning and growing and sharing in his ministry. He pledged his loyalty to his teacher and friend, even unto death. And then he blew it. When push came to shove, when Jesus had been arrested by the authorities, Peter denied ever having seen him before.

He must have thought he was headed back to the rejects’ table for good. But miraculously, inexplicably, Jesus chose him again, called him again. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. Take care of my followers. Lead my disciples when I am gone. And this time, Peter was determined to get it right.

He preached boldly. He healed powerfully. He told the story of Jesus to all who would listen. He did not tremble before the criticism of the authorities or fall silent when they ordered him to do so. He was beaten and imprisoned, but he would not cease his testimony and his ministry. He was determined to get it right.

In fact, Peter was so determined to get it right that he developed a case of serious tunnel vision. He was so focused on carrying out his mission, so caught up in the labors of the inner circle of the Jesus movement, that he forgot what it felt like to be on the outside looking in. He fell into the same trap I fell into back in that middle school lunchroom—when, at last, I had a seat at a table full of friends, I walked right past my old misfit companions and left them to fend for themselves at the table where you sat if you had nowhere else to sit.

Peter and the followers of Jesus fell into that same trap. They got so focused on looking after the people who were at their table that they forgot to pay attention to the ones who were standing awkwardly in the doorway, trying in vain to catch someone’s eye.

So God showed Peter a vision—a vision in which food that was not kosher was declared fit to eat. And then God sent Peter to a Roman centurion, a Gentile if ever there was one. And while Peter was there, the Holy Spirit came upon the man and his household, just as it had on the original followers of Jesus. And in that moment, as he watched those outsiders be embraced by God’s love, Peter remembered what it felt like to be on the outside. He remembered what it felt like to have nowhere else to sit. He remembered the breathless, knee-trembling relief that had washed over him when at last he found a place where he felt truly welcome. And he realized that this was his true mission: to reach out, to widen the circle, to find the outsiders and bring them in.

It did not matter if they were Jews or Greeks. It did not matter if they were slaves or free. It did not matter if they were male or female. It did not matter if they were old or young, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, homeless or housed, citizen or immigrant. It did not matter if they were jocks or geeks or cool kids or rednecks. All that mattered was that they were children of God. For if God gave them the same gift of the Holy Spirit, who was Peter to hinder God? And who are we?

Friends, this is who God is. Every time we draw a line between “us” and “them,” God is there, stepping across it. Every time we make a distinction between “in” and “out,” God is there, un-making it. Every time we settle in and get comfortable with the way things are, God is there, challenging us to live into the way things could be.

This is who God is, and this is who we are called to be. This is what it means to be the church in the world. We are called not to care only for those who are within our walls, not to seek only our own comfort, but to extend, to expand, to stretch, to serve.

We who have been welcomed are called to become welcomers. We who have been embraced are called to become embracers. We who have been included are called to become includers. We who have been loved are called to become lovers. Without qualification, without reservation, without exception. For God is love—extravagant, reckless, unconditional, profligate, unstoppable love—and who are we to hinder God?