Sermon of the Week:
A Good Heart
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Special Music: If We Could Speak
Hymn: Called as Partners in Christ’s Service
Keywords: Bundrick, Welcome, Runt of the Litter, Friends, Jesus. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I saw a puppy the other day.
Not just a young dog. A puppy.
Soft. Eager eyed. Maybe a week or two old.
Fur still had that brand new dog smell.
Such an adorable puppy.
It was a lot of fun to play with, even if it did want to gnaw on my fingers a bit.
She’ll make her forever family a great companion.
As I was playing with her, I remembered this story
That one of my favorite storytelling preacher types, Barbara Bundick
Used to tell. A story about puppies.[i]
Once upon a time,
a farmer in Wisconsin had some puppies he needed to sell.
So he painted a simple sign, advertising the pups
and set about nailing the sign to a post on the edge of his yard.
It wasn’t way way outside of town.
It was a good spot with people passing by.
He hoped it would get noticed quickly.
And as he was driving the LAST nail into that post,
Wouldn’t you know it
he felt a tug on his overalls.
He looked down, straight into the eyes of a little boy.
“Mister,” the boy said, matter-of-factly
“I want to buy one of your puppies.”
“Well,” said the farmer, as he rubbed the sweat off the back of his neck,
“These puppies come from fine parents and cost a good deal of money.”
The boy dropped his head for a moment.
But just for a moment,
Then he started reaching deep into his pocket,
And pulled out a handful of change.
He held it up to the farmer with a big hopeful smile.
“Hey, I’ve got thirty-nine cents. Is that enough to take a look?”
“Sure” said the farmer. And with that he let out a whistle,
“Here, Dolly!” he called.
Out from the doghouse and down the ramp ran Dolly,
followed by four little balls of fur.
They scampered close, kinda jumping on top of each other.
The little boy pressed his face against the chain link fence.
His eyes danced with delight.
As the dogs made their way to the fence,
the little boy noticed something else, though
stirring, back there inside the doghouse.
Slowly, another little ball appeared;
this one was noticeably…well, SMALLER.
Down the ramp it slid.
Then in a somewhat awkward manner,
the little pup began hobbling toward the others,
doing its best to catch up.
“I want that one! I want that one!” the little boy squealed, pointing to the runt.
The farmer sighed,
And kindly kneeled down to the boy’s side and said,
“Son, you don’t want that puppy.
He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would.
Take a look at the others…”
There was a brief pause.
And then the little boy stepped back from the fence.
He reached down,
and began rolling up one leg of his trousers,
Revealing to the farmer a steel brace
running down both sides of his leg
attaching itself to a specially made shoe.
Looking back up at him, the boy said,
“You see, sir, I don’t run too well myself,
and he will need someone who understands….
I think he’ll be perfect…”
A bit sappy, I grant you,
But this story brings into clear relief the best aspects of
the two scripture passages before us this morning.
This Season of Easter,
The period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost
Which comes up in two weeks
Is designed to walk us through how everything has changed
Now that Christ is ALIVE
and Death no longer reigns.
One way to do that is to look carefully at the story in the Acts of the Apostles.
After the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ,
these earliest disciples are TRANSFORMED
from FEAR to COURAGE
from DOUBT to HOPE
from CLOSED MINDS to OPEN HEARTS…
and ALL because of the work of the holy spirit in their midst.
The ACTS itself is a narrative of the early church wrestling with
the wild, unpredictable, unsettling movement of God in their midst.
And today’s reading
is about as clear an example of this as it gets.
One of the earth-shattering, mind boggling, out of this world
breakthrough events in the life of the early church
was the CONVERSION of the Gentile Cornelius.
That’s the guy they were debating about, in the verses just before this one…
Whether this guy Cornelius, who wasn’t Jewish
Wasn’t part of the covenant with Abraham
Wasn’t an insider,
didn’t know the customs
Probably ate all the wrong things
Should we let HIM be baptized too?
The early church was struggling with all sorts of practical questions:
What did it mean to BELONG to a faith community?
What do those who are part of this enterprise need to do?
What does it matter, anyway?
And what boundaries can we put on this thing,
because without some CONTROL,
some way to understand WHO IS IN
and WHO IS OUT
the whole thing might get a bit …unwieldy.
And time and time again,
we find that,
as these first Christians were struggling to find answers to what it meant to be part of the church…
the Holy Spirit was guiding them
to a DEEPER and WIDER vision than what their instincts were telling them.
And so, in our text today, as Peter is preaching,
the Holy Spirit fell on ALL SORTS of people—Jews and Gentiles
Men and Women
we might imagine, Servants and Freefolk, too.
I’ve always been kinda jealous of that kind of preaching
No one would have been facebooking or texting or talking during his sermons, no-sir-eee
(not that I care, you go right ahead…one of the benefits of online only worship)
But Peter is preaching, and that holy spirit
Which fell on faithful Jewish ears at Pentecost,
fell anew on so many others…it fell on GENTILE ears…
And when those who were part of the church WITNESSED this,
when they SAW with their own eyes
how God’s presence was moving among the gentiles,
they had no other choice but to EXPAND their understanding of the church:
Their heart had to grow.
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people
who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Who can withhold God’s overflowing water, God’s overflowing love?
This question of who could be ALLOWED to join the church was a really big deal.
It is maybe the main question that Paul is trying to address in his letters.
It’s the one headache that keeps him up at night
As everyone kept telling him “but Paul: we’ve never done it that way before.”
Paul, of course, knows that.
Peter does too. It takes three dreams and a warning from God—
Not to call profane what God welcomes as acceptable—
To change Peters mind.
But to many people, this sort of thing is scary.
It jumbles all sorts of things that we thought were settled.
Rules about what to eat. How to worship.
How men and women should relate to each other
(hint: the women always got the short end of that deal,
but that wasn’t so much a religious thing
as it was an everywhere thing)
It shouldn’t be a surprise to us how hard this is for people.
But, and this is key: we learn that the Holy Spirit has other plans:
and according to Acts,
the early church was going to be formed
not by what human beings decided was authentic,
but through of the expansive grace and gifts of the holy spirit
the Spirit which was being offered to ALL sorts of people
even those people, you know…
even people we might not have thought possible…
This question of who could be allowed to join the church was a really big deal.
and God answers that all sorts of people are welcome here…
That God should decide that, really.
Now, I do have a bit of sympathy for people who balk at this sort of change,
Who think they’re doing something for the good
when they’re really on the wrong side of things.
I’ve been that guy before.
And is it too much of a stretch to see the early gatekeepers in the church
as this kindly farmer and dog owner who wants to protect this little boy?
Perhaps, but the farmer clearly wants the boy to choose a good dog.
A sound dog.
A dog that seems to have all the dog-like-characteristics needed for a little boy:
one who will run, and play, and keep up with him….
The farmer didn’t have sinister motives. He was wrong. And so sure he was right.
But he wasn’t acting out of bad faith.
He just ASSUMED that the runt dog wasn’t worthy of the boy.
I really try to resist seeing these early “circumcisers,” as Paul would call them—
how’s that for a name?—
I try to resist seeing them as having any motivation
other than wanting to do what is right.
But they ASSUMED that the old ways of doing things were still in place.
They ASSUMED that the traditional walls that separated JEW from GENTILE
still were essential.
And while they might have meant well, they weren’t helping.
They were actively working against what God was trying to accomplish:
Expanding the welcome of the community of God.
Sometimes we get so FOCUSED on what WE think is right,
that we miss what GOD is trying to do in our midst.
That poor, somewhat hobbled pup was JUST the right match for the boy.
If the farmer had made the decision, it would have been the wrong choice,
even if he had good intentions.
Sometimes our bias and prejudice and presumptions
Show up strongest even in our so-called good intentions.
This is something important for us to pay attention to.
It’s not enough to want to be good, or to be acting out of a good motive,
When we aren’t rooted in God’s Spirit, God’s welcoming love.
And this is where we can thank God
that THIS is not about us. It is about God.
Even when we get this wrong, God works to make it right.
When God works in the world
God does so out of God’s expansive, deep reservoir of love.
God goes out of God’s way to welcome everyone, no matter what some people might say.
Which brings us to the other text we heard this morning from the Gospel of John.
This reading is from what is called the “farewell address” of John.
We hear in this part of the Gospel that
there are many rooms in God’s house, that’s from John chapter 14
and that Jesus goes ahead of us to prepare a room there.
We hear that Jesus is the true vine, that he yields the good wine.
That’s what we read last week.
We hear that God will send the Advocate, that is, the Holy Spirit,
to do all the things God is doing in the Acts.
We hear that Jesus does not want our hearts to be troubled in his absence.
And then we hear what we heard this morning:
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; ABIDE in my love.”
Jesus wraps all this teaching with a return to his great theme: the Love of God.
But then Jesus goes a step further, building off his foot-washing exercise
to tell those who are there to listen that,
in HIS world, in HIS way,
they are now his Friends.
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.
YOU DID NOT CHOOSE ME, but I chose you…”
This weekend, it was that last sentence that wouldn’t let me go.
Deep in our heart, deep in our soul, we are all longing to be chosen.
We are, all of us, aching for someone to tell us that they love us,
that we matter to them,
that we fit in,
that we are worthwhile.
That we are not a cast away, not the one no one wants…
And that is true whether you are a sound puppy, or the runt of the litter.
Whether you’re an insider, or someone new to the party.
Whether you’re a life-long part of the family,
or the new kid on the block.
Deep in our heart, deep in our soul, we are all longing to be chosen.
And the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ, when you cut to the chase,
is that God CHOOSES you. That you matter.
That God wants to be your Friend,
not your master, but your friend.
Not the power that controls, that bends or breaks your will
But one that seeks what is good for you
That stands next to you
That can tell you the truth that maybe no one else can
The one who loves you.
So, when you put these two texts together, the reading from Acts and the one from John,
the message for us this morning is unmistakable.
John says: God chooses you, but not for anything
other than the healing love of God
And Acts says that it’s not just you, of course.
I mean, it is you, but it’s not JUST you…
God’s CHOOSING goes far and wide.
Far wider than we can understand or imagine.
God’s FRIENDSHIP is offered for all sorts of people.
God, through the Holy Spirit, steps into our lives and
calls us by name so that we might know we are loved
and so we can learn to FREELY love in return.
And so, on this rainy Sunday morning,
we are gathered here because of what GOD has done…
If you ask us, we might say that its REALLY about what we’ve done:
after all, WE had to get up and log in and decide to be part of this community today.
WE had to decide that it was a big enough deal to
Skip sleeping in and sitting on our favorite chair
with a hot cup of joe and the paper…
Though, to be fair, you all might be in your pajamas with a hot cup of coffee and I wouldn’t know it.
That’s fine. That’s not my point.
WE had to decide that it was THIS bunch of people
we’d come be with this morning…
Or, perhaps, if we listen for the word today, we might ask
if it the case that it is actually GOD who gathers us here.
That it is GOD who DRAWS us into this community
and who inspires us to think that,
maybe, just maybe,
we are chosen too
That WE are FRIENDS of Jesus, too…
Every church is different.
We know that.
Some churches have all sorts of things you have to assent to before you can join
A list of essentials or requirements or criteria.
I’ve never understood that.
Others really want to tell people that God’s love really isn’t for them,
That they’re cut off from God….as if they really could do that.
I always ask myself: have they read Acts? Have they read John?
Look, we’re not in the business of telling other communities how to run their house
But the Presbyterian Church doesn’t work that way.
We have rules, yes, that order how we do things,
But our only rule about who can be a member of one of our churches
is that we won’t keep people out
If they seek to profess faith in God through Jesus Christ.
All Persons, our Book of Order says, who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ
And desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church
No person shall be denied membership for any reason
not related to profession of faith.[ii]
The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons.
Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself
And causes a scandal to the Gospel.
And this is because we seek to nurture a good heart, the very spirit that we see
In these readings before us today.
The Kirk seeks to be the sort of church that is guided by the Spirit
Who extends the welcome of God as we think Jesus would.
Everything here is about God. It’s not about me.
It’s not even about you; it’s about God, and what God is helping us do
When we accept the welcome and the love of God,
The one who chooses us
To go out and feed and clothe and care and love in God’s name.
What joy, to be a part of this kind of Church.
If you are one of our members, I’m so glad to walk this journey with you.
If you have found us, and are checking us out,
Consider this an invitation
To become part of our humble community,
as together we seek to serve God on the way of Jesus Christ.
May we, together,
seek to embody the best of the Gospel in all we do.
After all, God choose us to be that kind of church,
those kind of people: people who know that God chooses us, and welcomes everyone.
May it be so.
[i] The original story’s origin is lost to me. I read the story from one of Rev. Barbara Bundick’s sermons a forum of Presbyweb called Sermonshop Sermons. I believe this story has been often told in many other forums.
[ii] For anyone interested, the reference in our Book of Order is G-1.0302, under a section headed “Welcome and Openness”
Cover Photo from http://www.dognotebook.com/the-runt-of-the-litter/