First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
Date: June 30, 2019
Scripture: Baha’i. The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys,
Sermon: “Pete the Cat Rockin’ His New “Church” Shoes, Be You!”
Baha’i. The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys
O my brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun my sine within it and the eternal morning dawn.
‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So, when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’
Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” Therefore, I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who is in awe of God and does what is right is acceptable to God.
I remember watching him walk up to the building where we were checking in the youth as they arrived for the week long high school camp I was helping with. He had that, “Too cool for school” aura about him. A doo rag peeking out from underneath his flat brimmed ball cap, a metal band t-shirt, sagging jeans, and a long chain hung down from just under his shirt to his back pocket I assumed was connected to his wallet, I didn’t ask.
I remember watching him as he checked in, rather disinterested and aloof. After he received his name tag and cabin assignment, I turned to watch him walk up the hill… and I confess silently hoping he wasn’t heading to my cabin. Well, as you know, that pretty well sealed the deal. Then I remember wondering whose small group he would be in so I walked over to the check in table he had just left to look over the shoulder of those doing the registering to see if I could tell which small group he would be in. Yes, you guessed it… mine.
I remembered him yesterday, I had not thought of him in years. My encounter with this young man happened perhaps 15 years ago or so. I made an attempt to reach out to him after camp was over with no result and I do not know what came of him in the years since, but obviously his face, his story, his personal still lingers in my own story, he taught me a great deal that week. I remembered and thought of him yesterday as I gathered with our community of faith and so many others and marched in the Pride Parade downtown. There was a day in my life I would not have been comfortable there.
I remembered him as I handed out compassion stickers at the Pride Festival in Baxter Arena with so many of our awesome volunteers…I remembered him because of his uniqueness, his willingness to be who he was, though at times I think he used that persona to hide who he was… I suspect we have all done that, or do that, from time to time.
I remembered him as I thought about our book for this week. It was one of the reasons I picked Pete the Cat for our sermon series. Pete, is a unique and authentic character. Reading the book, watching the cartoon with my granddaughter, Pete is not afraid to just be Pete. Authenticity was the word that came to mind as I selected the book for this series. There is in this book, in the cartoons produced a willingness to be vulnerable, Just Be You… and his Rocking his New School Shoes!
I could edit that, Rocking His New Church Shoes… we all need a little more of that… in the church, an ability, a willingness to simply be who we are, wear what we wear, and know the community of faith is a safe space and place to be who we are… to wear our red Chucks… or whatever and know we will be embraced, welcomed, appreciated, valued, and loved.
There is this authenticity about Pete the Cat that seems lost on too many. In our world and culture today, especially in the U.S. it seems to me too many have lost the ability to appreciate diversity and authenticity, to honor difference, to recognize change is a aggravatingly slow process but needed, too many have latched on to the easy broad way of uniformity rather than the difficult and sometimes painful work of unity. And, dare I say, the church has taken on the look of this world who does not want difference, the church, dare I say, has taken on the look of a world that dishonors, diminishes, dismisses, abuses, and imprisons those who do not fit into the old model of patriarchy and white, Christian, conformity.
We have brown skinned children living in concentration camp conditions in a country who knows better! We are still fighting the battle of racism 51 years after the murder of MLK Jr. We are still debating the rights of women to access appropriate health care after countless deaths and settled law. We are still a country hell bent on a doctrine of war and control rather than peace and cooperation. We are a country who is still trying to drive a wedge between the religions by banning and limiting access. We are a country that continues to divide and separate with walls rather than creating a longer more welcoming table!
And the church… the church… is guilty as well… However, if we look at our history as a people of God… the inclusive church as long been on the right side of history, the inclusive church has long been where the Spirit has triumphed!
In the text we read this morning from Acts… Peter, has wanted to keep this new movement limited and exclusive, and yet finds… “I truly understand God shows no partiality, but in every nation ANYONE who is in awe of God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”
God IS always about expanding the welcome, never limiting it! The church should always be on the side of expanding the welcome never limiting it. The evidence is throughout the biblical text, it is throughout the history of the church. It is throughout the history of the United Methodist Church!
It is how it stared when Wesley had the audacity to preach outside the walls of the church building. It is how it started when Wesley ordained circuit riders to cross the lands of the early U.S. In the UM Church inclusion finally prevailed after the split over slavery. Inclusion finally prevailed after excluding women from ordination and voting rights at General Conference. The Inclusive nature of the Spirit will always prevail over those who want to keep the doors of the church closed to certain ones of God’s children.
I was standing at the festival yesterday handing out our FUMC Compassion Stickers. One person, waiting on her wife, stepped in close to me to get out of the flow of traffic. I offered her a Compassion Sticker. She said something to the effect of, “Oh, thank you, where are these from?” I told her FUMC, to which she responded that she was not much of a church person. I said that was fine, however perhaps we could all use a little compassion. She said yes, though it can be difficult sometimes to show compassion to those one passionately disagrees with. We carried the conversation just a bit before she went on her way.
And as I watched, handed out stickers, visited … her words… “I’m not much of a church person,” continued to echo in my ears. Persons passing by me, those who would make eye contact and those who would not, those dressed in wild and bright clothes, and those in ordinary street clothes, smiles, frowns, scars on arms from cutting, tears, and hugs, and laughter… those who for this one day of the year perhaps finally able to be who they are openly… and perhaps some who were still hiding behind a mask… and yet all gathered in this place, willing to be authentic, vulnerable, unique…
“I’m not much of a church person,” she said… and yet, perhaps such a gathering is more what church ought to look like, be like… safe, sacred, authentic… a place where EVERYONE has a place at the table.
I like what Rachel Held Evans said in her book, “Searching for Sunday…“This is what God’s kindom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” All of us. A sacred space where “anyone who is in awe of God is acceptable.”
I appreciate what Nadia Bolz Weber wrote, a take on the Beatitudes, in her book, Accidental Saints, Finding God in All the Wrong People,
Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt, those who aren’t sure, those who can still be surprised. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones for whom tears could fill an ocean.
Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are those who still aren’t over it yet. Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are those who no one else notices, the kids who sit alone at middle school lunch tables, the laundry guys at the hospital, the sex workers, and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the under-represented.
Blessed of the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them. Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists. Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people. Blessed are the burned out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro-bono case takers.
Blessed are the kindhearted NFL players and the fundraising trophy wives. And blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it. Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
A church where every Pete the Cat, everyone like my friend at camp, every other… every You… YOU… the Unique and Unrepeatable Children of God are welcome, in the ever-expanding circle of the love of the inclusive beloved community. May it be so. May it be soon! Amen!
Evans, Rachel Held, 2015. Searching for Sunday, Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books, Nashville, TN.