Saturday, June 07, 2014

Is The Welcome Mat Still Out?

Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

            Our New Testament lesson for today comes from the Second Chapter of Acts.  It is a fairly long chapter with lots happening in it.  Our reading for today comes at the end of the chapter, but looking back, chapter two starts off with a bang. 

As this chapter begins, everyone in the town of Jerusalem is celebrating Pentecost.  It was a Jewish festival and people from all over were in town.  Luke, in chapter 2 verse 9 and 10 lists where everyone is from.

            At first it is a bit of a strange list because it just goes on and on and on. 

            This is what Luke says at the opening of chapter 2: 
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

           I have to admit that I never paid much attention to what this list meant.  That is until the 7 am Wednesday Bible Study this week when someone mentioned that it was interesting that the Parthians and the Romans would be mentioned in this list together, since they were rivals.

            In fact, to tell the truth I didn’t really know who most of these people were.  I barely know how to pronounce some of these names!

            But Luke puts them all in this list.  Why not say, “Hey, there were a bunch of people in Jerusalem and they all spoke different languages.”

            But after the 7 am Wednesday Bible Study, I felt challenged to take a close look at this list of nations.

            At first it looks like a geographic list.  He starts with listing people in the East and he moves up to the north, round to the west and then to the south.  It is like me saying, “The Jamaicans, the New Yorkers, the Mexicans and the Cubans.” 

            But it is more than geographic – this list crosses all cultural barriers. The Elamites was a matriarchal societies – very liberated for a time in history in which in most parts of the world, women could not own property or take part in government.  Women were often in charge of the government.  They were astute business people.  Women were usually considered superior to men.

            The Pamphylians were a mixture of aboriginal inhabitants, immigrant people who came from all over the region.

            The Egyptians were viewed by the Jews as the place they had left in the Exodus, a place of slavery.  On the other hand, Phrygia was a place that honored liberty – Phrygia was the home of something called the Phrygian cap, which survives into modern imagery as the so-called “Liberty cap” worn during the American and French revolutions.

            There were the Romans – who were the oppressors of the Jews, and there were the Judeans – the hometown Jews being oppressed by those Romans. 

            Then there were the Cretans.  St. Paul, in his New Testament letter to Titus made the observation that there was a proverb that said of the Cretans, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons” to which Paul said, “that testimony is true.”
          So this list in Luke is really like saying, “The Jamaicans, the New Yorkers, and the Cubans, the CEO and the homeless, those who love freedom and the terrorist, the immigrants, the powerful and the weak, all gathered together one day.”

            But the closer I looked the more I realized how really strange this list that Luke was.  The Medes are on this list and by the time Luke writes this text, they have been gone for over 500 years! 

            So this list in Luke is really like saying, “The Jamaicans, the New Yorkers, the immigrants, the powerful and the weak, and time travelers from the Aztec Empire and the all gathered together one day.”

            After the Resurrection of Christ, the early Christians could have easily have started an exclusive club, just for themselves.  No – they went out into all the earth and changed the world.

            As chapter 2 of Acts begins, all nations, cultures, through all time – hear the invitation of Christ.  By the end of chapter 2, which we read from a few moments ago, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

            It is not easy to be part of a faith that has no boundaries.

            In the Book of Acts, one of the themes is that what starts off as a Jewish sect in which the Jewish Messiah is being worshipped in the Jewish synagogues, very quickly becomes a faith that is shared with the non-Jews of the world. 

            That was not an easy transition for everyone.  Peter was a traditionalist, and throughout Acts we see him resisting this – then accepting it as God’s will – and yet still having a hard time with it.

            It is not easy to be part of a faith where everyone is welcomed!

            A few years ago, I sported a pony tail.  I joined a group of men in my church who wanted to do something special for Relay for Life and to support those in our congregation and community who struggled with cancer.  So we decided to let our hair grow out and to harvest them for wigs to be given to cancer patients whose treatments caused them to lose their hair.  For some people, this is no problem, they wear scarves or simply shave their heads, but for many, it is a struggle and they prefer to wear wigs, which can be very expensive.

            As it turned out, I have the slowest growing hair in the state of Florida, and because the hair has to reach a certain length, I had a pony tail for over two years.   It was interesting the impact that had on ministry.  For some, it opened doors and made some people more receptive to my ministry.  For others, it closed doors, as some people felt uncomfortable with a man in the pulpit who had a pony tail.

            We build walls over silly things some times.

            But we should welcome the person who is different who shows up in church.  More than welcoming the person who is different who shows up – we ought to go out and get them and bring them in.

            The bald headed man and the pony tail man.
            The tattooed and the non-tattooed.

            The person in a leather jacket and the person in a suit and tie.

            The old person.  The 1 week old infant.

            The wealthy person and the homeless dude.

            The tee tottler and the addicted. 

            The brilliant scientist and the struggling adult who cannot read or understand basic arithmetic.

            The heterosexual and the gay and lesbian.

            The conservative Republican and the liberal Democrate.

            When we come into this place, we should reflect the Second Chapter of Acts:  “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

            But having the “Everyone Welcome” sign out is sometimes hard to do.

            In November 2013 a church bishop named David Mussleman posed as a homeless man and visited one of the congregations in his care in Taylorsville, Utah.  He went up to people and, since it was late November, greeted the church members with a “Happy Thanksgiving.”  Many responded with silence or turned their backs on him.  When he sat down, some people stood and found a pew some distance from the bishop in disguise.  Finally, five men came and asked him to leave.

            Sometimes, it is hard to keep the “Everyone Welcome” sign on display.

            We don’t literally have a sign on our door or on the road that says “everyone welcome!” 

            But on our faces, and in the tone of our voices, we either proclaim to people that everyone is welcome, or we proclaim, “no vacancy!”

            When I was a little boy, my family took a vacation into the mountains of Georgia.  As night approached, we began to look for a motel for the night.  There were plenty of motels around, but one after another had a neon sign in the window that said, “No Vacancy.” 

            We couldn’t understand this.  It was not the peak tourist season.  The parking lots were empty – where were all these people who had rooms for the night.  We figured there must be some sort of festival or something that we didn’t know anything about.

            Finally my father stopped at a motel with one of those “No Vacancy” signs.  He decided that he would ask a motel manager for advice.

            Much to our surprise, there were plenty of rooms in the motel.  In fact, all of the motels were pretty much empty.  They turned on their neon “No Vacancy” signs so that the managers could turn away African American customers.

            This was a time when there were separate water fountains, restrooms, restaurants and motels for Blacks and Whites in much of the South.  Now, my family was also from the South, but we were from a different part of the South and had never encountered this.

            We began to make a trip to the Georgia mountains an annual vacation for our family, and we noticed that those motels that turned away certain people because of race began to close up shop – replacing their “no vacancy” signs with “out of business.” 

            In the motel business, if you turn away paying customers, you go out of business.

            In the church, if you turn away people for whatever reason, you cease being a church.  Because the church, from its very beginning, has welcomed all people. 

            Even the Cretans.  And you know what St. Paul said about the Cretans in his New Testament letter to Titus -- “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.”

            The church is called to welcome people of every race, nationality, culture, orientation, language, and even those sinners. 

            All who seek Christ can come in here and find welcome.

            When people who come in here and look different, we welcome them.

            When we come into the sanctuary and we see someone sitting in our seat, we welcome them and ask if we can sit next to them and get to know them.

            When we see people in our work place, school, neighborhoods who seem to be lost souls, looking for community, looking for guidance – looking for Christ, we need to invite them, welcome them.

            We need to become that place like we find in Acts, chapter 2, in which “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”


 Copyright - W. Maynard Pittendreigh
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