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Open

. 6 min read

2015/06/07
Christ Church, Mountain Top, recognize high school grads
      Holy Communion
Call
to Worship, Psalm 87
Children,
Acts 10.1-23
Message,
Acts 10.24 – 11.1
You
young people who have graduated from high school are stepping out on a
wonderful new adventure. We hope you do so as disciples of Jesus. You may still
be figuring out what that means – join the club. You may be awkward about being
public about your faith, expressing who you are with integrity and with respect
for the person who levels a charge against you or the faith. You don’t have all
the answers, so you have no need to act like you do. Just be yourself, stumble
through it, express your faith as best you can. And, if you want to chat about
it with someone, feel free to give me a call.
      You may be thinking, on the other hand,
that now you’ve got the opportunity to stretch your wings, think a little more
independently, come up with your own conclusions on matters of ultimate importance
without having mom and dad, or the preacher, looking over your shoulder. That
independence is a gift. Take advantage of the opportunity without destroying
the opportunity itself. Keep exploring your faith – and your doubts, pray, start
to read the Bible for yourself. Please, PLEASE, don’t assume you know what the
Bible has to say just because you have been in church and Sunday School for
years. Unless you have read the whole thing a couple times, you don’t know it
half as well as you know Harry Potter or Anakin Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen.
It has wonderful treasures, but they take some work, some time, some digging,
to discover. Don’t quit on it.
One
of the biggest objections to Christian faith that I hear these days is
developed mainly by backward reasoning: Some Christians I know behave or think
this way, therefore that is an accurate reflection of what following Jesus is
all about. And, for those who explore it further, it’s easy enough to cherry
pick evidence in the Scriptures – a book that is full of wonderful, delightful,
terrifying, and even contradictory stories. And isn’t that what life is like?
Wonderful, delightful, sometimes terrifying, and often contradictory? No
surprise that a God who comes to us in human flesh also comes to us in human
stories.
      But here’s the objection: Christian
people, the Christian faith, the Christian Scriptures, and the Christian God
are narrow-minded. Of course it is a sweeping generalization. But there are
plenty of folks who fit the expression of Richard Lischer (Open Secrets, 16): “so narrow-minded they could look through a
keyhole with both eyes”. Just not me. I’m better than all that. I am only so
narrow minded that I can look through a keyhole with one eye. And you young
people, you may have never looked through a keyhole. They don’t make keyholes like
that anymore. So, you can’t be narrow minded at all.
      This accusation of a close-minded God
seems, to me, to be focused on two basic ideas. One is the assumption that God
is closed off to people to whom I am open, that God rejects people who are
important to me. The other is the characterization of biblical commandments as
limitations to a full and open life. To both of these questions today, I make
my apology (to use an old meaning of the word), my defense.

On
the first question, whether God is closed off to people to whom I am open, I
want to start with this wonderful story in Acts of two visionaries whose
visions lead them together. One is a Gentile, a Roman centurion in command of
occupation forces. The other is a Jew, one whose religious kosher tradition
prohibited him from eating with any Gentiles, and one whose social and
political context placed him under the oppression of Roman occupation. It turns
out that the soldier is much more open than the disciple of Jesus, who actually
holds an argument with God.
      “Lord, I have never eaten anything common
or unclean” (Acts 10.14).
      “What God has made clean, you must not
call unclean” (10.15).
Peter’s
vision, and the argument, goes through three cycles before God gives him the
next bit of direction – “Go with these men without hesitation” (10.20). At
least he obeys that, instead of hemming and hawing about how they’re not kosher
or creating a ceremonial bubble to protect his cleanness as he travels with
them.
      It’s not until he begins preaching at
Cornelius’ home that he gets the point. Even then, it had nothing to do with
Peter and everything to do with God. The Holy Spirit, that had fallen upon the
church in Pentecost with wind, fire, and tongues, falls upon these unclean
Gentiles in such a convincing fashion that Peter knows God has made them clean.
They are actually eligible for baptism, and Peter could actually eat with “those
people.”
Whoever
“those people” are in your life, God loves them, God’s kingdom is “open” to
them. Everyone knows that seniors are more important than freshmen, and college
students are way more mature than high school kids. “Those people.” You and I
might be narrow-minded regarding “those people”, but God is not. Conservatives,
gays, secularists, Muslims, pretty people, one percenters, Democrats, Hazleton,
Christians. Whoever they are in our lives, we might be narrow-minded regarding
“those people”, but God is not.
      Over and over throughout the Scriptures,
God includes the folks that everyone else finds surprising and sometimes even
offensive. In an era when Assyria and Egypt were fighting over extending their
power in Palestine, the prophet Isaiah declares, “On that day there will be a
highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the
Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. On
that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the
midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be
Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage’”
(19.23-25).
      The prophet Jonah is story of God saving
the enemy Assyrians. The book of Ruth is a story of a Moabite woman being
included in the salvation story of the people of God – despite Scripture that
explicitly excluded her. Our Psalm for the day grants citizenship and birth
certificates in Zion to persons born all over the ancient world, including
traditional enemies of the Jewish state: “This one was born there” (Psalm 87). In
Jesus’ ministry, he routinely eats with sinners and tax collectors, touches the
untouchable, and includes prostitutes and addicts at his parties. Jesus said
that it is in loving our enemies that we become like God (Matthew 5.38-48).
      If you think God is closed off to people
to whom you are open, people whom you love, think again. God is much more open
than we are, more open than I am. God is even open to people who are not open. And
part of a coherent apology to the objection of the narrow mindedness of the
Christian God, the Christian Scriptures, the Christian faith and Christian
people is for you and me to live today in God’s radical openness to the entire world.
For
the second aspect of this objection, I turn to an amazing text that I recently
read once again: “I have seen a
limit to all perfection, but your commandment is exceedingly broad” (Psalm
119.96).
      Over and over, when we consider commands,
we think of them as limitations and boundaries. We rarely imagine them as a
gift that creates true breadth in our lives, setting us in a “broad
place” (to use another biblical phrase, NRSV 2Sam 22.20, Job 36.16, Ps
18.19, 31.8, 118.5). The Scripture gives us God’s command to limit our intimate
love to one person, one person only. There’s that word “limit” again!
Yet, it is only in observance of this command that we can discover the joy of a
lifetime (exceedingly broad) of faithfulness and affection with one person and
the joys of friendship with many persons uncluttered (exceedingly broad) by the
complications of sexual desire. The Scripture provides God’s command not to
steal, no matter how much we may want or even deserve what we would take. Such
a command creates a truly broad society – a breadth of trust – and, even more
significant, the possibility and calling to hold even our own
“possessions” lightly as gifts from God and gifts for the whole
community – exceedingly broad.
      The Scriptures tell us to worship the LORD
alone, to make no idols, to give no praise to the gods of the nations. Ha –
there it is! Narrow-minded. No. In the ancient world, gods were local, tribal,
national. There were no global gods, unless their people conquered the world.
But the God of Israel always claimed to be a global God, without promoting
world domination. The God of Israel and the Church said that Israel and the
Church were chosen, not because they were something special, but because God
desired to bless the world through them. With deep respect for my friends of
different traditions, it seems to me that worshiping a God who claims to love
the whole world may be the only hope for a divided world like ours.
      Without apology, I am all about Jesus.

One
of the ways we live this out together in The United Methodist tradition is what
we call the “open table”. That is, we do not turn anyone away who comes to this
table in response to Jesus’ invitation. You do not have to be a member or a
United Methodist. You do not have to be “clean” before you come – the Lord
Jesus makes you clean. You do not have to be a disciple of Jesus before you
come – you can receive him here and now in the bread and cup.