We are Loved and Matter Much and Need to Show Others They Are

A sermon based on Acts 11:1-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 19, 2019*
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The Lectionary Lesson that Megan just read so well can seem almost as strange as the images we covered last week from the book of Revelation. If you read the whole of the Cornelius story in Acts 10 and 11 it becomes a lot clearer. Peter is defending the inclusion of Gentiles in the church. Gentiles were thought by some church leaders to be profane and unclean. Peter had recently baptized Cornelius, an enemy Roman Centurion, and his Gentile family and friends. The church leaders are calling Peter to task for allowing access to Jesus’ Way to those the culture considered profane and unclean.

The name Cornelius always make me think of the musical Hello Dolly because I was once in it as Cornelius, a hapless store clerk who dragged his assistant Barnaby on a tour of New York. At one point in our production – as Cornelius– I HURDLED a huge table that I might have trouble just crawling under today. The Bible’s Cornelius cleared a hurdle too – a huge exclusion to Jesus’ Table. As a Gentile he and his family were considered culturally profane and unclean by many in the early church, because (as the lesson eludes) among others things their table cloths had unkosher foods on them.

The author of Acts is instructing us that God makes sure such hurdles are removed. Just a few verses before our lesson in Acts 10: 29 Peter sums it all up disclosing that “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” I have rarely heard that commandment by God stated in a church, and I have never heard it referred to by those who claim this person or that is profane or unclean. It’s not on any buildings or statues I know of, or even in a hymn, but it should be on every Christians’ heart and mind when religious leaders or anyone else calls or suggests that someone is profane or unclean. Most hurdles to church, and to care to others, would come tumbling down if that one little known Biblical commandment were followed by Christians and on our tongues when any discriminatory hurdle is raised by a church, church member, or church leader.

“God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” is the perfect defense and antidote to Christian bullying, discrimination and hate toward others. Especially if it is followed up by noting Jesus commands us to love our neighbor – and that no command can outrank his direction to love. If we did not call anyone profane or unclean, if loved all our neighbors, and . . . Oooooo, if we let them know God loves them too, then everyone, Gentile, Jews, young, old, poor, rich, straight, LGBTQ, red, yellow, black and white, everyone would know they are not profane or unclean, or unloved, but precious in God’s sight.

That’s what Peter and the church basically decide in the reading today. Gentiles are allowed in because as we heard in our Scripture reading a voice from heaven has declared, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’” That’s a message not just about food, but also people. The long and short of it is, that God’s idea about who gets God’s love and is welcome into church is EVERYONE. Which should not be a surprise since Genesis instructs humans are made in God’s image and that God declared humans and the all of creation good! No one can undo that, try as they might. Since all are precious in God’s sight, all are supposed to be precious in our sight too.

Young adults and children in this community, as they move through life in general, will no doubt experience hurdles. We all do. Life, is full of challenges to leap, climb or otherwise get around. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But the challenge, the hurdle, no one should encounter (let alone put up or not actually work to take down) is the hurdle that denies a persons’ worthiness of God’s love including limiting the love provided by a church and limiting our own personal Christian care, compassion and desire for others’ well being.

I say this every week and I want all of the youth and the children to especially hear it this morning: you are loved and you matter much. I end every worship service with those words because it is always true, no matter what . . . for everyone . . . that means every single person in this room. I emphasize it on Recognition Sunday because hurdles to care and compassion and love seem these days to especially exist. There is a bitter divisiveness in our culture that has many not caring and not offering love to others. Out there in the world, in new classrooms and schools, in new places, and with new people, there is a good chance that hurdles real and imagined will be put up to attempt to exclude people, maybe even some of us from care, compassion and love.

Sadly sometimes this happens in churches too, and in the name of Jesus. THAT IS WRONG, but it is not new. It was happening at the time our text was written. People born of another race and faith were denied a place in Jesus’ Following unless they denied who they were, underwent painful circumcisions, made drastic dietary changes and followed other strange to them cleanliness and purity rules. These were cultural hurdles that denied all Gentiles access to Jesus’ Way– a way Jesus himself had opened up to everyone with no such hurdles in place. Jesus had Centurions and Gentiles in his community. He had no condition to love or to his table.

Jesus’ Way of unconditional love was very Biblical even before the New Testament existed. The Hebrew Scriptures in a number of places claim God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. It’s a main theme in Jesus’ teachings and can be found now in both the New and Old Testaments. What it means is that we’re loved, and we can’t lose that love. It means that you are loved by God and you cannot lose that love. It means there are no hurdles to God’s love for us or anyone else even those others claim are unclean or profane. No matter what any human says or writes they cannot alter the fact that each and every human being is loved. All. Are. Loved. By. God. And. Jesus. And. All. Matter. Much. This means all of you!

All are supposed to be loved by us as Jesus’ Followers too. That’s pretty radical, because there always have been lots of hurdles to human love. As those of you who are the beloved children and youth in this family of Christ move on in life, the one thing above all else I hope you know and never forget, the one thing I want everyone in this worship service to know and never forget is that there is no hurdle to love by God ot to love here in this church. There is nothing you are, nothing you can become and nothing you can do or say that will cause God’s love, Jesus’ love, our love or my love from ending. It is steadfast and forever even IF, as our closing hymn puts, we “wander off and find where demons dwell.” If “demon finding” does not end God love, nothing else can. Nothing. And we strive in this church to make sure nothing ends our love either. You can always come here and know you are loved no matter what . . . to us. I hope our young adults and children– and everyone else here– never forgets that.

And we must also not forget that being loved ourselves is not the end. We are to love God in all creation including especially every human being–even our enemies like Cornelius. Love is an action we must take, and often that action is to work to take down hurdles. The Jesus Movement begins in Luke (the prequel to Acts) with Jesus declaring he came to proclaim release of captives and to let the oppressed go free.

Jesus was not afraid to proclaim his no-hurdles-to-love theology . . . and thankfully neither is the United Church of Christ. The UCC banner in front of our church this week proclaims the essence of this no hurdles-to-love theology. The banner reads quite simply “Jesus didn’t reject people . . . Then adds “neither do we. ” That last bit’s our putting Jesus’ Way into action, a promise of not being inactive like those who let rejecting of others go on, we affirmatively reject rejecting others . . .
“Jesus didn’t reject people, neither do we.” Why do you suppose that banner is up at many UCC churches? Because a lot of churches do reject people and people are injured by it, and many leaving churches or not coming to them because of those rejections. So we have to take action. We have to boldly set ourselves apart from those who speak and act against Jesus’ Way of all inclusive love. We have to stand up for that inclusive love, and proclaim it aloud on street corners , in the pulpit, and then act it out together as church, and on our own as Christians. To put it in the words of Micah 6, up here on the church wall, we are to seek justice and love kindness.

Another UCC slogan is: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here . . .” Last week the banner outside proclaimed it like this: “God’s love has no strings attached.” Simply put, in this church we want no hurdles to love, because Jesus had no hurdles to love, God has no hurdles to love. It’s the very core of Jesus Way and this church’s way. At this church we glom onto what Jesus glommed onto, the belief that God is love and that caring, having compassion and the desire for well being of others is our call. We aim to love and welcome all, as Christ does, as God does unconditionally.

The importance of making sure we let folks know God, Jesus and we love them cannot be stressed enough. See the actor who played Barnaby in Hello Dolly with me, I first met at a church when we were teens. He was Gay. The church was not Gay friendly. The church had hurdles to love. That friend, Jeff, a few years later intentionally overdosed. His life ended . . . ended. I believe a loving church proclaiming God’s love in word and deed would have made all the difference for Jeff. Huge hurdles to Jeff’s sense of being fully loved by God, Jesus, the congregation and his pastor were wrongfully, sinfully put up and not taken down. Hurdles to church matter, hurdles to love matter.

Hurdles to church are exactly what is at issue in the Lectionary lesson today. Peter understood God to COMMAND there are to be no hurdles, so he boldly and passionately took action to take them down. As a consequence an enemy solider and his Gentile family and friends were welcomed and loved– and gentiels like most of us have been welcomed ever since.

Here’s the Good News that all of us need to leave here knowing, most especially our children and youth, you are – and always will be loved and that you matter much. That’s true about God. That’s true about Jesus. That is true about this church and me. That will ever be so.


* based in part on a sermon first written in 2013