Sing a New Song
Readings: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
People often tell me that they cannot sing. Invariably the story will start something like, "When I was in grade one I was in the blackbird group. I was so out of tune the teacher made me mouth the words. I still can't sing." They talk about how terrible it felt to be excluded from classroom singing or from the choir.
Others of us remember the terror of choosing sides for a game. The two most popular, athletic types were always chosen as team leaders. The kids would gather around. One by one sides would be chosen. And there you would be, the odd person out, the only one not picked to play on a team. Then one of the leaders finally relents, "Oh, you can be on my team!" But because you're small and uncoordinated, you sit out most of the game or the star hovers around you grabbing the ball whenever it comes anywhere near you.
Are there ways as a Church that we exclude people? Certainly there is a vast improvement over the Church in which we grew up. Most of us can cite some experiences of what it feels like to be left out, to be excluded. I know that I can. I grew up knowing that God was calling me to ordained ministry. The problem is that I grew up in a church that totally excluded me. Male clergy, male servers, even the choir was men and boys. That is until I was about thirteen and my father fired the organist and hired me. What a joy it was when the first women were ordained. And of course, now I look back on twenty-six years of priestly ministry.
The problem of inclusivity is not unique to the present age. It is not some subversive campaign to bring about change no matter what. It is not some feminist critique of the hierarchy. It is not some way of fulfilling a feminist agenda. The early church struggled with how to maintain their identity as a community and with whom and how to include newcomers. They were a new sect in a changing and growing society; we are an old sect in an ever-changing society. The demands are the same.
That scene of growth and change is the context for the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, in fact, for the whole book as the early Christians grapple with what it means to be a Christian. The particular passage that was read today was a small part of the story of the conversion of a Gentile named Cornelius. An angel had appeared to him ordering him to send to Joppa for Peter. At the same time Peter had a vision of a great cloth being let down from heaven. In it were animals and birds, which were considered to be unclean by Jewish law. A voice ordered Peter to "kill and eat". Peter was unsure about the meaning of the vision, but when the Spirit ordered him to go with the messengers, he went willingly. After preaching to the people of Cornelius's household, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word" - even the Gentiles. The Jews were amazed as they heard these Gentile converts speaking in tongues. They had expected to have ownership over such manifestations of the Spirit. For Peter it was an aha moment. He began to understand the meaning of his vision. "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?" he said, and baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ.
It may not seem like much to you as the story is told, but to the early church it was a complete change, a revelation. They were Jews. Their little community was a small sect, an insignificant branch of the Jewish faith. They maintained their ties to the synagogue. Even in the dispersion as the Jews began to spread throughout the Greek world, the expectation was that Christianity would continue to grow within Judaism. They kept the Jewish traditions. They adhered to Jewish law. But to their amazement, perhaps chagrin, the Gentiles were drawn to this new sect.
Judaism has never been an evangelical faith. They do not proselytize. Except perhaps through marriage, one does not often become converted to Judaism. One is born a Jew. It is tied to nationality as much as it is to faith. The early Christians grappled with how to maintain their allegiance to Judaism and live out their Christian faith. Could they remain Jews and still open up their faith to include the Gentiles? Yet that is where the Holy Spirit seemed to be leading them. And they listened. Thank God for that!
When Peter and the early Christian community accepted Cornelius and his household as converts, they set a precedent, which changed their way of life completely. They went out on a limb for their faith. They went against culture, tradition, nationality, and religion. They were cut off from their roots. Yet their willingness to change opened up wonderful new possibilities. Christianity became a world religion.
Put that alongside the message of the Gospel. "Love one another as I have loved you," Jesus says. It is a call to inclusivity. It is not a call to love the loveable, the cuddly, the beautiful, the wealthy. It is a call to love those whom God has chosen. Yet what boundaries we put on God's love! We claim it exclusively for ourselves. We fail to affirm the validity of the religious experience of others simply because it does not resemble ours. We fail to respond to those who are looking for affirmation in their faith journey.
Jesus at the last supper offered the gift of himself. It was a gift without reservation, without restriction. In the Eucharist he continues to offer us that wonderful, free gift of grace. The reality of that giving is the model and criterion of Christian behaviour. We are called to "lay down our lives", to put others before ourselves, to love in a life-giving way. It is a call to be generous, not just by providing bread but also by sharing the deeper gift of oneself. In the Eucharist, we share the one bread and the one cup with each other as a sign that in our daily lives we strive to share our bread, our blessings, and ourselves with others. In carrying the mission of the church the Eucharist becomes honest and effective in our lives.
Jesus makes it very clear that we do not do the choosing. We are the chosen. It is a tremendous affirmation of who we are. Why should we have been chosen into intimate relationship with God? Do you have a long list of reasons? If it were others choosing the teams, would we make it? As you reflect on Jesus choosing you, what thoughts and feelings come to you? How do you respond? When and where have you recognized God's love in your life? Can you even figure out why God would choose you?
If we were doing the choosing who would we exclude, or leave on the sidelines? With Christ doing the choosing we may find a few people included whose presence we find disturbing. The stranger with his hand out for help may assail our sensitivities. We are called to be inclusive of children, the poor, young people, refugees, social activists, the physically challenged, the mentally challenged, women, men, all whom God has chosen. Each of us is called to make our hearts open to those whose presence may disturb our peace and our assumptions.
Last week after the tragic event on Yonge St. when so many people lost their lives, I was moved by the memorial service that brought people together as a community to reflect, to mourn. What struck me most was that a woman rabbi was speaking in a Christian church to a group of people of diverse faith, perhaps no faith, of diverse culture, of diverse nationality. Colour and creed were forgotten at least for a time.
How can we, as a community, become more aware of the needs of others and become more inclusive? Who do we include? Who do we exclude? What does membership in the church mean? If we are responsible Christians truly living out the gospel, then we like Peter are open to the Holy Spirit moving in peoples' lives. We do not ask how it could be that God would choose this person or that one. We simply open ourselves and our community to others in Christian love. May we be a loving and caring community. Amen.
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