SERMON: Invisible Boundaries of Exclusion Acts 11:1-18!
In the movie Chocolat (2000), we meet the strict town mayor Comte (komt) de Reynaud (Rynou), who expelled all the protestant Huguenots from his village. He controls everything in the small French town, even writing the young priest’s sermons. He was meticulous in keeping his small town “clean”, especially during Lent.
But then Vianne(waai-ann), dressed in red, the liturgical color of Pentecost, and her daughter, came to town and opened a Chocolate shop(during Lent!), which magically fed the needs of those who enjoyed the treats. She is a stranger, an outsider, a single parent, unorthodox, full of life, and spontaneous! Before long, some outsiders called “River Rats,” also join in her joyous social space.
Comte de Reynaud knows she must be stopped. There is a battle between these “clean” forces and the “unclean.” Although, before long, it becomes obvious that those who are so-called “unclean” are actually living a life of goodness. And many of the so-called “clean” missed the heart of the Gospel by excluding others!
The movie ends when the young priest Pere Henri says in his Easter Sermon:
“I want to talk about Christ’s humanity; I mean how he lived his life on earth: his kindness, his tolerance. We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or whom we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and whom we include!”
The movie, Chocolate presents an opportunity to reconsider what holiness really is, the goodness of creation, and the gospel of inclusivity. It is also a beautiful example of how spiritual growth is not so much learning more and more but unlearning! Letting go of past unhealthy exclusionary beliefs and attitudes. As is true of the Biblical stories, something of every character lives inside each of us. We also have invisible boundaries of exclusion.
The central theme of Acts could be described as the mission of God to extend the Good News worldwide in concentric circles from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and “to the ends of the earth.” It describes the outworking of God’s plan of salvation crossing geographical boundaries as well as cultural, religious, and gender boundaries. For the Gospel to spread across the borders, these boundaries needed to be taken down.
In Acts 11, the outward explosion of the Gospel hits a critical hurdle. So important that the exact same story is repeated twice in Acts. The Apostle Peter was a Jew. He had cultural and religious boundaries that obstructed the spread of the Gospel. Cornelius was a Gentile Roman Soldier. Interestingly: Cornelius is introduced to the reader in 10:1-2 as: “a centurion of the Italian Cohort… He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Remember, at that time not a Christian, but a Roman religion, and he knew and worshipped God through his religion!
Jews did not l
ike or trust Gentiles because Gentiles would eat foods that Jews would not. Jews would not eat with Gentiles or even drink from a cup that a Gentile had used. Peter could not imagine eating with a Gentile Roman!
Peter’s response to God’s picnic invitation was not mere squeamishness. Peter found the menu repulsing. None of those animals was acceptable food. Peter’s “no” welled up from deep within him. An observant Jew, Peter had spent a lifetime trying to remain ritually clean. His “no” to the heavenly invitation was the visceral, reactive, reflexive result of years of religious conditioning.
Someone gave a beautiful illustration of this kind of behavioral conditioning by referring to a Golden Retriever called Bailey. Bailey is as lovely and kind as any best friend a family could ever have.
Bailey presides over all the goings-on in the wooded backyard from this porch. She also enjoys the freedom to slip through a doggie door whenever it suits her fancy, chase a squirrel, or answer nature’s call. But there are bounds to Bailey’s realm. Bailey is not allowed outside of the boundaries of the backyard. Beyond the backyard are the suburban perils of the street, getting lost, and the dreaded dogcatcher.
The owners could have built a traditional fence, but that would have ruined the wooded feel of the grounds. So, instead, the owners decided on an invisible fence, one explicitly designed to contain canines. The invisible fence kept Bailey on the grass and out of the dangerous portion of the woods.
The invisible fence had two components: a wire buried along the desired boundary and a dog collar that sounds whenever the boundary is approached. Bailey learned the boundary in three ways, mostly. First, she had the visual cue of the edge of the stand. Second, she had the audible signal from the collar whenever she approached the buried boundary. And finally, Bailey could count on a mildly unpleasant tingling sensation from the collar whenever she crossed over. So with practice and conditioning, Bailey learned to stay in the backyard. Crossing the invisible fence became repulsive to her.
To Peter, the thought of crossing that boundary and being among the unclean was repulsive, as crossing the boundary of the backyard was repulsive to Bailey. Tradition and laws around ritual cleanliness made table fellowship with the Gentiles strictly taboo. For Peter, Gentiles were as unclean as the weird cuisine in the dream.
Then Peter had a vision from God: down came a blanket with reptiles, birds of prey, and other weird four-footed animals on it. God ordered him to eat it! In fact, the heavenly blanket came down three times. And each time the blanket descended, Peter said, “No, not me!”
In our passage from Acts, the blanket from heaven carried the promise of God’s unimaginable generosity for all humankind and all creation. God’s blanket was blotting out the boundary between Jew and Gentile, holy and unholy, a boundary that God found obstructive to the Gospel. What God had made clean was clean indeed.
The invitation of the vision for Peter was to become aware of his invisible social cultural and theological boundaries and to look at people and nature through the boundaryless eyes of God. Peter refused God’s invitation to get up and eat three times. Earlier in Acts, we learned that Peter awoke pondering the meaning of the vision but remained frozen at least at first behind an invisible fence buried deep within the precognitive, reptilian part of his brain.
The same truth is repeated in Acts 15:9 “…in cleansing their hearts by faith, he has made no distinction between them and us.” Also, in Gal 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It would have been shocking for the original readers to read that Cornelius, a Roman soldier, and his “entire household” were saved, baptized, and received the Holy Spirit! That means included in God’s grace were children, women, cleaners, soldiers, and bodyguards that were not Jews!
God’s dream is to make all things new, as we read in Revelation 21. It seems that neither the old earth nor the old heaven will do. As the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth, there will be a joining of heaven and earth, as the union of a bride and bridegroom. This new heaven and earth will be God’s dwelling in a new and dramatic way in everything and everyone. Boundaryless..
Aren’t we all bound by invisible fences? And it seems that God is revealing those fences to us from time to time. God’s holy blanket spread out before us, the blanket that erases boundaries, the invitation to dine at the table of God’s generous inclusivity, a blanket like the one God presented to Peter.
In our so very polarized society, Jesus calls us (as he showed us) to cross invisible fences that wall us off from those in that other political party, that other denomination, that different faith tradition, that other ethnicity, that other socio-economic class, that other race, that other sexual preference.
Even closer to home, Jesus calls us to cross invisible fences that separate us from those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt; Jesus calls us to cross all of these invisible fences so that we may see and love others as God sees and loves them.
Like Fashion dictates to us what is “in” and “out”, this season, we easily divide people into an “in”-group and an “out”-group. These “in- and out-groups” are also sometimes live and well in congregations. How you look, how much talent you have, how much you own, how many skills you have, what your story is, how your past looks, the kind of work you do, where you come from, and which group you are part of. The congregation should be an example of God’s dream for and new world, heaven on earth.
Looking at the artwork on the front page, we can see how exclusivism looks. A closed circle with no way to enter. Feeling rejected, judged, not good enough, of less value than the “inside” group.
Susan Griffin describes it beautifully: “There is a circle of humanity, and I can feel its warmth. But I am forever outside. ”
Karen Armstrong urges us: “We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion and suspicion or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is yours.”
― Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Peter did not cross over his invisible fence until after he actually met the Gentiles. First the Gentile cohort from Cornelius, who had sent to fetch him, and then from Cornelius himself and his family and friends. Peter moved across the boundary only after his encounter with particular people. Only then did Peter understand that God shows no favoritism. Peter needed a conversion first before Cornelius could be converted!
In verse 18, we read about the end-goal of “repentance to life.” The Greek word “metanoia” is usually translated as “repent/repentance.” That is a very, very unfortunate translation! The term “repent” brings up the meaning of feeling bad about your sin. That is true, but only a tiny part of the meaning of Metanoia. “Meta,” meaning “new, beyond,” and “noia” refers to thoughts, mind and knowing. In combination refers to a new consciousness, a radical new way of life, a new worldview that changes everything! It is a renewal that leads to NEW LIFE! Our eyes are opened to the mission of God that is not just focused on the salvation of our souls but a restoration of everything, nature included! “All things new”!
Jesus showed us what this new consciousness looks like through the mystery of the incarnation; God broke through all the fences in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus showed us the boundaryless grace of God! And the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. THE WORD still dwells among us, as we see Christ in other people, Christ who calls us to a conversion of the heart so that we may cross the invisible fences that separate us from each other.
Back to the story of Bailey. One day after a snow blizzard, a blanket of snow from the heavens obscured the yard’s visual boundary. Bailey escaped! As with snow days, the school had closed. The children were whizzing down the best sleddingrun in the neighborhood, which happens to be located not far from Bailey’s backyard, just beyond the invisible fence. But what caused Bailey to cross the fence that day was children at play! Bailey was unbounded, happy, and carefree, romping and running and chasing the sledders as they sped along.
That seems a lot like God’s own joy available for us, too, on the other side of our invisible fences.. >>> Enjoy the boundaryless blanket of bounty on the other side of the invisible fence!!!
* Acknowledgment: The Rev. P. Richard Game
Highlights from the liturgy
Preparation for Worship
in a diseased world,
in a distanced community,
in an uncertain time,
we have arrived at this day.
So now, we take the time to reflect upon
Your constant Presence,
Your unfailing love,
Your kind regard.
Despite the state of our world,
You offer Us peace.
You offer us nearness.
You offer us a new life.
You offer us transformed hearts.
Heal us where we are wounded.
Guide us where we are confused.
Sweeten us where we are bitter.
Open us where we are shut down.
Rev 21:5-6 See, I am making all things new…Then he said to me, ‘It is done!
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
Assurance and identity in Christ:
II Corinthians 5:17-19
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Summary of the Law
Colossians 3:12-13, 15
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
The buildings of this church provide space for our worship, work and
play, for hearing the Word of God, for sharing the silence of prayer or the sounds of song. and for sitting together at a meal,
We give thanks, O God, for this place that stands as our
This congregation strives to offer love and support in a way that
bonds us together when we are apart from one another.
We give thanks, O God, for people who make up our
The God who lovingly created this world, who steadfastly bids us to
be sisters and brothers, dwells indeed in our midst.
We give thanks, O God, for the presence of your active
living Spirit. We come this morning as thankful people of God.
Prayer of Dedication
Hear our thanks, O God, for your promises of peace and reconciliation. Make our gratitude like rain that falls on new mown grass and like showers that water the earth to bring a harvest of fellowship. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer of Confession
We confess, Lord, that we have not loved you or our neighbor as we should.
We have often neglected opportunities of good; sometimes we have done actual harm.
Our consciences accuse us over trifles, but let us blithely ignore your weightier demands.
We know that a mere apology will not do.
We resolve to turn from sins we know.
We ask you to show us the sins we do not recognize.
We resolve to forgive any who have wronged us; and to seek reconciliation with any from whom we are estranged. And now we beg your pardon and ask your help.
The Affirmation of Faith (Unison) (Spanish Confession)
We believe in God Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth;
Creator of all nations and churches;
Creator of all languages and races.
We believe in Jesus Christ, his Son, our Lord,
God who became flesh as a man for mankind,
God who became flesh in time for all time,
God who became flesh in one culture for all cultures,
God who became flesh in love and grace for all creation.
We believe in the Holy Spirit
through whom God announces his presence in Jesus Christ
in our people and in our cultures,
by whom God, the Creator of all things,
gives us the power to become new creatures,
whose infinite gifts make us one body:
the Body of Christ.
We believe in the Church
which is universal because it is the sign of God’s rule,
whose faithfulness is shown in all its shades,
where all the colors together draw only one landscape,
and all tongues sing the same praises.
We believe in the Rule of God – the day of the great Fiesta
when all the colors of creation will form a harmonious rainbow,
when all people will participate in a joyful feast,
when all tongues of the universe will sing the same song.
And because we believe, we commit ourselves
to believe for those who do not believe,
to love those who do not love,
to dream for those who do not dream,
until the day when hope becomes a reality. AMEN
Oh Lord, whose love exceeds all imagination,
help us cross over the invisible fences that separate us.
Open our eyes so that we may see you in each other.
Warm our hearts that they may be new.
Teach us to love as you love.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
Hear us. O, Lord. As we pray for…
Creator God, we are your people.
We look to the future with optimism and with faith in you,
as we pursue our call to provide justice and fullness of life for all people with Mental Illness. We pray that every man, woman and child
may develop their potential and meet you
in themselves and in one another.
May we enjoy a totally welcoming community,
with you as our center, joined hand in hand with our sisters and brothers.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The abundant grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the endless love of God Almighty and the intimate communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
“May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator, Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour, and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore.