Exclusively Inclusive

6th Sunday of Easter: May 4, 1997
**Acts 10: 44-48**; Psalm 98
1 John 5: 1 - 6; **John 15: 9 - 17**

A Sermon by John C. Bush
Grace Presbyterian Church
Madison, Alabama

When I was a child I often spent summers with my Aunt Eva, my mother's oldest sister. She lived in the small lumber mill town down in northwest Florida where I was born and where my maternal ancestors had lived for several generations. Now and then, I'd go across town to stay for a day or two with Aunt Hazel, widow of my Uncle Hartwell. I had a couple of playmates who lived nearby. Bobby and Mamie, brother and sister. We were all about the same age, and from the time I was four or five until I was about twelve, we played together part of every summer at Aunt Hazel's house. Bobby and Mamie were black. "Negroes," we said then, or "colored." They were the only Black people my own age I knew very well until I was grown.

During the summer following my twelfth birthday I went to Aunt Hazel's house as usual, expecting to see Bobby and Mamie. But they were not there. I asked Aunt Hazel, again and again, when Bobby and Mamie were coming. Finally, she told me the truth. They were not coming. "You are too big now," she said, "to play with colored children." I didn't understand. All I understood, playing alone that day, was that I missed my friends.

It was not until many years later that I learned about that particular social more of the Old South. Children of the two races could play together until adolescence, then they were separated. Had to follow the "rules" of racial segregation which applied to everybody else. I suspect that experience was one of the formative factors that led me to reject the more racist trappings of my up-bringing very early in life. That, and realizing early the absurdity of being taught to sing the words:

"Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
we are precious in his sight"

-- in a church that actively barred its doors to anyone who was not white.

Peter had been taught all of his life that some parts of God's creation were unclean, not good enough for him. While it was all right to eat certain kinds of meat, other kinds were to be avoided. More significantly, while compassion and care was encouraged toward "your own kind" of person -- Jews in this case -- social contact with others -- called "gentiles" -- was to be shunned. They were "unclean," and "good people" were not to associate with them.

When you've been taught something from childhood, it's natural to assume it is true. Just to go through life with that assumption unexamined, those attitudes intact. Excluding certain kinds of people from your life, and acting as if that were perfectly normal.

Ask any social scientist and you will learn that there is nothing on earth harder to change than attitudes. Some forms of behavior can be regulated by law, with legal sanctions imposed -- as for example, against discrimination in employment on the basis of race, gender or religion. That has been somewhat effective in changing some of the more blatant elements of discrimination in our society -- but it has hardly made a dent in racial or gender attitudes. Only you can change your attitude toward others. Nobody else can do that.

That was Peter's problem. His attitude needed to be readjusted, and that isn't easy to do. A lifetime of learning had to be untaught. God began that process by exposing him to some unfamiliar situations. First there had been that vision, described in the chapter of Acts just ahead of where we began reading today. Peter was hungry one afternoon, and in a dream during his siesta God offered him something to eat -- a nice juicy slice of pork roast. "I can't eat that," said Peter. "I've been taught from childhood that is unclean." "Peter," said God in this vision, "don't you dare call anything I've made 'unclean.'" That happened three times before Peter woke up.

While Peter was still sitting there puzzled about what to make of this vision, some visitors arrived from a neighboring town. He was asked to come there and speak with a Roman official who had a good reputation for his treatment of those Jews who lived under his authority. When Peter arrived, he was asked by this Roman family to share the gospel of Christ with them. Reluctantly, Peter began to preach to them. Reluctantly, because these were, after all, "gentiles" -- a generic term for a foreigner; someone different from "us." These particular people were "nice" gentiles, but gentiles nonetheless, so Peter was utterly astonished when they responded in faith.

But it was not their response that was the greatest shock. It was clear to Peter and his friends that the Holy Spirit of God was behind all of this. They recognized the signs of the Spirit's presence, and were astounded by it. Here before their very eyes -- their good Christian eyes --God was taking the initiative to call these stranger people into a religious community which, until that very moment, Peter considered to be exclusively for his own "kind."

Until that moment, Peter thought he knew exactly who was to be in and who was to be out; who was to be welcomed and who was not. All his life he had been taught to have nothing to do with these kind of people. Now, suddenly it was clear that God thought he should do otherwise. God was calling Peter to change his attitude toward a whole segment of humanity he had always written off as hopelessly unclean, utterly unacceptable.

He sat quietly contemplating the situation for awhile. Then he asked a question he could never have imagined himself asking before. "How could we even consider not welcoming these people whom God has called in exactly the way God has called us?" "How can we be exclusive when God is being inclusive? From now on," he said, "we must be exclusively inclusive, accepting others just as God has accepted us."

Robert Frost said it this way, in his poem "Mending Wall":

"Something there is
that doesn't love a wall;
that wants it down."

Now, Peter got into trouble for that, as many others have before and since. If you keep reading into the eleventh chapter of Acts you learn that his friends back at Jerusalem were not very happy to find out he had been "eating with sinners" and welcoming the unwelcome into "their" church.

And so, it was then as it is today: a constant battle against exclusive attitudes, the challenge to establish and maintain an inclusive, welcoming human community. A household of faith in which we are -- all of us -- brothers and sisters, even if we are not convinced quite yet that is such a great idea. Even if it forces us to reexamine some of the attitudes and ideas toward other people that we've been taught all of our lives.

Even in the Bible there is this more or less constant tension between inclusive and exclusive tendencies. Always, in every age, there have been groups of people who are convinced they have it right, and everybody else is wrong. They know exactly who is in and who is out.

But, as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel reading for today, we do not choose God but God chooses us -- and chooses, as well, whomever else God will. That isn't our choice to make. The choice we get to make has to do with our own attitude toward what God is doing, toward those whom God also calls.

There is a lot of talk in Alabama these days about commandments. Listen to this one, from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel of John: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. ... You did not choose me, but I chose you. ... I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."

In another place, Jesus said that in the end there are but two commandments: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you mind and with all your spirit; and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself." Everything else is commentary on that.

God is nothing if not consistent. It's the message Holy Spirit showed Peter in that dream; it is the message Jesus taught his disciples: welcome all God's people; no exceptions. It is a message we are still being challenged to learn and to put into practice: how to become exclusively inclusive, adapting our attitudes to the reality of God's grace.

[Copyright 1997, John C. Bush]

Return to the Grace Home Page

Return to Hesed Discussion Forum

Hesed Index

Hesed Home Page