New Hope Fellowship
Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 19, 2019
I became the Pastor of Broadway Baptist Church almost exactly 10 years ago, and it is a remarkable, historic church. 10 years ago it was a church that was living in a very high level of stress and anxiety. There was some conflict from within, but there was a lot of conflict and pressure coming from outside the congregation.
In the summer of 2009 the Southern Baptist Convention disfellowshipped Broadway, and then we removed ourselves under pressure from the Baptist General Convention of Texas the next year.
They issue was, What about gay people in the church? The denomination was asking us, What are you going to do about having LGBT people as church members?
The main issue that both denominational bodies had with us was that we had some gay people who were members of our church, and not just that, but at the time we had one or two gay people who were not just members but actively serving the church on committees. That was the thing that was a real hang up for many of them. One of the denominational leaders actually suggested to me that we set up two tiers of committees—the important committees like
and have higher standards for who can serve on those,
and then the lower tier committees like
the decorations committee,
the flower committee,
the kitchen committee,
things like that. And we could let gay people serve on the lower tier committees but not the really important ones. He was serious.
I think it would be fair and accurate to say that we lost our place in two denominational bodies in large part because they wanted us to makes distinctions about who is clean and who is unclean on the basis of sexuality, and we refused to do so. And what we said was, We will not condemn one group of people in order to please another.
The choice given us as I understood it was: you either declare these people unclean, or you yourselves will become unclean to us.
And it was certainly one of my better moments as a person, and one of our church’s better moments in its long and rich history, when we said, We will not draw a line around some of our own people, our brothers and sisters, and discard them just because we feel pressure to do so. We will not.
Instead we allowed ourselves—all of us together— to be declared unclean, and we were banished from the denomination we had been a part of for over 125 years.
And the truth is that that sounds so right and easy saying it now, but it was a really hard thing to do with a lot of consequences and a lot of pain for quite a few people. Not everyone in the church agreed about homosexuality. People were still working that out for themselves. It was hard. Everybody was trying to do what they thought was right, however imperfectly.
And then there were the consequences that came from our losing our place in the denomination. For example, we lost our health insurance. Our youth choir had their trip canceled that summer by the Southern Baptist college and church they were planning on staying with and singing at and working with.
People we cared about and had had longstanding relationships with were hurt. The director of our choir was forced to take early retirement from Southwestern Seminary, and he was never able to find a full-time faculty position anywhere else again. I got so much hate mail you wouldn’t believe it. You really wouldn’t believe it.
And still things were hard for us going forward. The whole clean vs. unclean thing was not always easy to work out in practice. What about gay persons as deacons? Then, later, what about marriage? All of these things had to be worked through.
I remember shortly after the denominational turmoil, two of our finest members, two of the better Christians I know, two gay men, a couple, wanted to do a commitment service in our chapel. Marriage wasn’t legal for them yet. But they wanted to do a commitment service.
They asked me about it, acknowledging that it was potentially a very divisive thing for our church at that moment. And I said, I don’t know. Let me think about it.
A few days later they called me back, and they said, You know, we don’t want to cause conflict and difficulty for the church on our account. We have reserved a chapel somewhere else, and we are going to do the service there instead. We are going to take that decision off your plate. So this couple, who loved our church and were beloved in our church and were so central in the life of our church decided to have their commitment ceremony somewhere other than our church, their church.
And I let it happen. I let them make that decision. And I hung up the phone with them, and I cried. And I thought, I’m not doing that again. I am not going to do that again.
You know what? There have always—from the very beginning— been problems deciding who is clean and unclean when it comes to being a part of the church.
This, even though, as we see in this story in Acts today, the idea of the Gospel of Jesus being easily accessible to all is an idea that goes back to the very beginning of the Christian church.
This, even though all through the gospels, which tell the story of Jesus’ life, and
all through the book of Acts, which tells the story of
the formation of the Christian church,
there is this prodding, this incessant prodding, which pushes us out beyond our limits, our boundaries. There is this nagging voice (the Holy Spirit, perhaps?) always whispering in our ear:
these important boundaries you have erected,
these walls that you are so passionate about,
that separate you from those who are on the outside or the wrong side of God’s family,
are they really God’s boundaries, like you have assumed and
are they just your boundaries that you have
ascribed to God?
This was the question and moment that Peter faced in our story today.
Peter is on his way to go see Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Apparently this Roman, Cornelius, was a sincere God-seeker even though he was not a Jew. We know nothing of his religious background and must assume that he either had no official religious preference or that he followed the Roman gods.
Peter is hungry, and he has a dream about food. Now, of course, Peter believed in the validity, the biblical basis of Jewish dietary laws. You are what you eat and be careful with whom you eat. There are lots of passages in Leviticus that are very clear about this.
But in Peter’s vision at Joppa, when a sheet was let down, a sheet containing all sorts of animals, some of them “unclean,” Peter caught sight of the limits of his limits.
The voice said, Rise, kill and eat! Peter had indignantly replied that he had never been guilty of eating “unclean food.” But the voice and the vision came to him three times. Three times it said, Rise, kill, eat!
When he awoke from his vision, there were men sent to him from Cornelius. They invited him to come to Cornelius’s house. Upon arrival at Cornelius’s house, Peter found the house full of relatives and guests who also feared God and were eager to hear God’s word from Peter.
Peter began by setting the occasion in a proper context. He explained to these Gentiles that he wasn’t supposed to be there. He reminded them about the wall that existed between him and them. He said, You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.
Peter was acknowledging his old prejudices.
But as he is saying these words, Peter all of a sudden realizes the correlation between what he is saying to these Gentiles and his food vision. It’s like all of a sudden a light goes on for him. He says, God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.
Peter is slowly realizing that he had been sent to this particular household for a reason. Peter and the other Jewish followers of Jesus could not conceive of the idea that non-Jews could join them as fellow believers.
But Peter confessed that he now understood that this was no longer the case, I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
We can hardly imagine the shock that Peter must have felt. This was a huge issue for the Early Church, especially within the context of the Roman Empire.
To lower the bar to include Gentiles meant for many that the church was moving down the slippery slope of accommodation with the world.
The fear was that the church would lose its distinctiveness of being, in the words of the 1st Letter of Peter, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
I Peter 2:9
As one scholar says, The dietary laws [which Gentiles did not honor] demarcated faithlessness in the midst of incredible pressure to
forsake the faith,
drop one’s particularities and
become a good citizen of the Empire.
A little pork here, a pinch of incense to Caesar there, and it will not be long before the faith community will be politely obliterated.
[William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation Commentary, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988, p, 96]
And now, all of a sudden Peter realizes that boundary, that high wall that marked off God’s people, has been
moved to make space for God’s whole family,
moved so that it can include a whole other group of
Peter baptized Cornelius. He ate with Cornelius. Peter began to understand that the vision and the voice he experienced were not so much about unclean food as about unclean people. Don’t call anything I have created ‘unclean,’ said the voice.
It’s natural to be afraid.
It’s human nature to want to hold to things as you know them and understand them.
It’s normal to want to protect what you perceive as your own group.
It’s normal for those in the position to make the rules to make them to favor ourselves and not others.
It’s human nature. That’s why, as Oscar Wilde said, About the worst advice you can give anybody is, “Be yourself.” We need to be challenged. We need to be changed. We need to be transformed.
That’s why we need these Bible stories. That’s why we need Christian education—formation, really. That’s why it’s so important what all of you are doing in Sunday School and Bible studies. Because we must be continually
confronted with Jesus,
confronted with the stories of the Bible.
Grace Thomas was born in the early twentieth century as the second of five children. Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest circumstances.
Later in life after getting married and moving to Georgia, Grace took a clerking job in the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law. So, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace enrolled in night school to study law.
In 1954 Grace shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for public office. What’s more, Grace didn’t want to run for drain commissioner or for the city council: Grace ran for governor of the state of Georgia.
There was a total of nine candidates that year—nine candidates, one issue. It was 1954 and the issue was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that mandated the desegregation of schools. Grace Thomas was the only one among the nine candidates for governor of Georgia to say she thought this was a just decision.
Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls!” Hardly anyone did, though, and Grace ran dead last.
Her family was glad she got it out of her system, except she didn’t and so decided to run for governor again in 1962. By then the racial tensions in the South were far stronger than they had been eight years earlier. Grace’s progressive platform on race issues earned her a number of death threats.
One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square. As she stood there, Grace motioned to the platform where once human beings had been bought and sold like a product and she said, The old has passed away, the new has come. A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.
At that point a red-faced man in the crowd interrupted Grace’s speech to blurt out, Are you a communist!?
Why, no, Grace replied quietly.
Well then, where’d you get all them galdurned ideas!?
Grace pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church. I learned them over there, in Sunday school.
There have always been people who have felt like we didn’t want them here at church. Those who felt like the rules were written to keep them away. And we in the church will always have a natural tendency to want
to keep things as we’ve always known them and
to protect “our own people” and
to stay off the slippery slope of accommodation. And we’ll set up our share of barriers for some people if we have to.
But we also have these persistent, confronting stories we learned in Sunday School growing up. Including this one today about Peter and who is clean and who is unclean and who is in and who is out.
And what are we going to do about that?