Conversions at the Table

Conversions at the Table

Scripture passage: Acts 11

Among Garrison Keillor’s memorable stories is one about a tiny country church that had been divided over the issue of whether or not kindness shown to someone who holds false doctrine implicates the offerer of hospitality in the wrongdoing (or wrongthinking) itself. Lines were drawn and the dispute was bitter. Could a person in error be given a welcome, or did they have to be ostracized? Back and forth the debate raged, and everyone was apparently content with this state of affairs. One man, however, was disturbed by the animosity among his circle of friends. He decided to try to make peace.

He invited both camps to attend a meal at this home, and he asked his wife to make her famous fried chicken. The negotiations were complex, but finally all parties agreed and the day arrived. William Miller and his contingent came to the table and sat down. James Johnson and his group of followers likewise arrived and were seated. Al thought it best not to give opportunity for an airing of grievances or a statement of cases, so he suggested a SILENT prayer of thanksgiving. Every head bowed, and the prayer began.

After a time, Al said, “Amen.” In fact, he said it twice. But no one moved. It seemed as though William Miller and James Johnson had become locked in a contest over who could pray the longest. Each was watching the other from underneath his eyelashes, and neither wanted to be the first to quit praying. Finally, Al’s wife Flo, the cook, got up from the table. She went into the kitchen and came back with platters of fried chicken, corn, green beens, biscuits, and gravy. She put them on the table under the men’s noses, and though there eyes were still clamped shut, tears began trickling down their faces.

“It’s true what they say,” writes Kiellor, “that smell is the key that unlocks our deepest memories, and with their eyes closed, the smell of fried chicken and gravy made those men into boys again. It was years ago, they were fighting, and a mother’s voice from on high said, You two stop it and get in here and have your dinners. Now. I mean it.” Stony hearts melted. Everyone raised their heads. Plates were filled, and, slowly, peace was made over that glorious meal.

The dinner table, at its best, can be a place of reconciliation. Sadly, however, the dinner table can also be a place of alienation and exclusion. If we think back in our own country’s history, it was not so long ago that people of different races were not allowed to eat together at the same table, or counter, or even the same room. Not everyone’s memories of family meals are happy ones. And even within our religious tradition, there was once a mindset which believed, “you can only eat with people who eat just what you eat. You can only eat with people who believe what you believe. If you eat with people who are different from you, you will be contaminated, and your standing before God will even be jeopardized.” We hear the voice of this tradition when members of the early church say to Peter, “How dare you sit down and eat with those people?”

Acts 11:1-18 (Be aware that the signficance of the animals, birds, and reptiles that Peter sees in his vision is that they are creatures that the Holy Scriptures forbid people of faith to eat.)

This is the story of a very profound conversion. Followers of Jesus (who should have known better, since Jesus was famous for eating with those whom others objected to) were disturbed that people who did not share their centuries-old religious traditions and practices were being offered the gospel, and that one of their own leaders was freely intermingling with people who had always been understood to be outside the pale of God’s grace and blessing, unless and until they were willing to adopt all the same rituals and practices. Those rituals and practices affected everything from intimate parts of the body and intimate behaviors, to what food could be eaten, what festivals should be observed and how, what clothes could be worn, and when work could be done, or not done, etc.

By the end of the story, the angry followers, whose initial knee-jerk reaction was, “How can you possibly dis-honor yourself by associating with those people?” have become open to the idea that God is at work even among their enemies, and those who are different from them. Their objections have been silenced, and they have the grace to praise God, saying “God has given even the gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

One of the remarkable things about this conversion is that it hinges on the experience of the Holy Spirit, and it goes against the books of the law found in the scriptures. The law was very clear. You don’t eat certain foods. They will pollute you and make you unacceptable to God. How shocking then, for Peter to hear God saying, “Take and eat. The rules have changed. I say the foods are not unclean, and that there is no longer any distinction between people.” Yet, in spite of the shock, so strong is this experience, and such is Peter’s faith, that he is able to open himself to a whole new persepctive. “Gentiles are welcome at God’s table, and the way to demonstrate God’s acceptance is for me to eat at their table.”

Peter sole authority in making this radical shift is his own experience of God, and God’s Spirit working in his life and in the lives of those he is led to meet. He quotes no scripture. He doesn’t even appeal to Jesus’ own actions. He just says, “They recieved the same gift of the Holy Spirit we did. I can see it in them. Who am I to hinder God?” And this is enough; his long time friends listen! In the very opposite of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, they have asked Peter to explain his actions, and they have listened carefully to what he said. He has taken their question seriously, and shared every detail of his story. Together, they become open to the exciting, if unsettling, possibility that God’s Spirit has been unleashed in the world and is working mightily, even if what God is doing now has not yet been written down and put into the law books.

To me, this story of how God’s people become aware (and are willing to accept and celebrate) that God is working to draw the circle wider, is reaching out to include those who were once viewed as outsiders, or security risks or dangers to the faith, is among the most wonderful and amazing stories of the Bible. It’s important that we know the story and rehearse it and understand it and tell it, because it supports the inclusive nature of our ministry, and the fact that we continue to pursue this ministry even when it seems as though the tide is against us.

Like the early church we have listened to one another. We have heard stories from those saints among us (willing to be vulnerable and tell us their stories) prayed desperately to God to be just like everyone else, and were eventually convinced, by God’s Spirit, that God loves and accepts everything about them including the fact that their sexual attraction is to persons of the same gender. That’s just part of who they are. (see verse 9!) And through being in ministry together, being the church together, we have seen evidence of God’s Spirit working in us an among us as we learn to live with who we are in the context of faithful, committed relationships, and deep and abiding friendships. We have enjoyed the fruits of God’s Spirit as we use our gifts in various ways to care for one another, nurture our children (and challenge ourselves) in the faith, lead and be led in worship, and reach out to those who are hurting.

We invite anyone who will to listen and watch and learn and join, for who are we to hinder what God is doing? We are like Peter, trusting God to lead us into sharing God’s work, and letting God tell us two or three times if necessary, to make sure that we are not doing something wrong. Thanks to the grace of God, sometimes we are able to be like Peter, celebrating what God is doing, even though it may not be what we expected, or even what we hoped for.

Today is an especially important day for us to renew our confidence in the inclusive nature of our ministry, because votes taken this week at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church have not exactly reinforced our approach. In the midst of a paragraph of our “Social Principles” which contains the excellent affirmations that “homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth,” and that “all persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggle for human fulfillment,” and that “God’s grace is available to all,” as well at the plea for “families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends,” and the commitment to “be in ministry for and with all persons,” there also lies the unfortunate and inconsistent sentence, “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

A proposal had been made to the conference suggesting that the language be changed to read that Christians of good faith disagree on this issue. It was voted down by a vote of 527 to 423. Among the many ironies of this vote are the numbers themselves, which clearly indicate that in fact we are not all in agreement.

For some, this outcome feels like being rejected by one’s own mother. For others, it awakens the old and deep-seated fear, “what if they’re right? what if God doesn’t accept me?” At the very least, it raises the question of what the United Methodist Church means by its advertising slogan, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” I always cringe when the judicial council or the General Conference issue widely publicized judgements against gay and lesbian people, because inevitably some dear and precious member of this congregation decides they can no longer in good conscience be part of an institution which speaks of them in a negative light. So today, I invite us to take courage and take heart in the story of Peter, and also in this little story about a family in pursuit of a photograph.

A mother had several children who were all grown and living lives of their own. One of the children had the bright idea that the mother would be really thrilled if she could receive a surprise gift of a family portrait containing all the siblings, their spouses, and their children.

Problems with this great idea quickly arose, however, when one of the brothers refused to be in the picture if it was going to include the partner of the other brother, who was gay. Arguments ensued, and hurt feelings grew, and the holiday for which this picture was supposed to be a gift arrived without it ever having been taken. Everyone came together at the mother’s home. She prepared one of her famous meals. When it was over, she said, as mothers so often do, “Oh, look, we’re all here together. Let’s take a picture with everybody in it.”

She got her camera and began telling people where to stand. Everyone was too embarrassed to tell the beloved mother that there was a problem with one of her children being in the picture with the other one’s lover. She was oblivious to the failed gift plan, and the consternation that was swirling around her, and continued pushing people into the group until everyone was present and accounted for. The picture was taken after all.

Our God is like the mother who naturally wants all of her children, and those who are sharing their lives, to be in the picture. She makes no exclusion and no exception. She is determined not only to feed them, but to remember and love them all. It really makes no difference whether we are all interested in being in the same picture or not. God will prevail, and who are we to hinder God?

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