Seventy five years ago, I probably would not have been welcomed in this pulpit. As a woman, ordination was out of the question. A combination of tradition and a patriarchal society and a way of reading the scriptures precluded the church from welcoming women as preachers and pastors.
As a young woman, I have always lived in a church that ordained women. I have always been a part of a church that valued the contributions women made in ministry, in leadership, and in the world. It has been a given.
And so it was a wake-up call to remember at General Conference this year that this church has not always welcomed everyone.
Of the many things we celebrated – one was the fortieth anniversary of Cosrow – the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. CSRW has worked tirelessly these past forty years to make sure women have had a place in the church… and continue to work hard in places like Nigeria, Tanzania and the Congo to help the United Methodist Church there continue to affirm the calling of women in a culture that has traditionally been led by men.
We also had a time of celebration of full-communion with our African Methodist brothers and sisters. For students of history, the historically black Methodist denominations in our nation were formed out of discrimination and exclusion… beginning with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME Church was founded in 1816 by Richard Allen who left the Methodist Episcopal Church. At the time, black congregants were segregated to the second floor gallery and although the church affirmed his calling to be a pastor… Allen was only allowed to preach to and minister to other black Methodists.
After the AME Church came other Pan-Methodist denominations like the AME Zion church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Union Methodist Protestant Church and the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church.
Twelve years ago, the United Methodist Church repented of our acts of discrimination and exclusion towards our brothers and sisters and this year, we celebrated full-communion together. We now recognize one another’s churches, share sacraments, and affim the clergy and ministries of one another’s denominations.
I think that it is important to have this backdrop of our own exclusion, presumptions, and history of discrimination as we read our text from Acts for this morning.
You see, Peter has been sent on a missionary journey to the home of Cornelius… a gentile. A Gentile is a non-jew, someone who was not a part of the family of Israel, someone who was an outsider as far as the faith was concerned. Gentiles would not have been allowed into holy places of the Jewish temple. They were excluded because they were unclean. They were different. They were not welcome.
But while Peter is in this community, he has a vision of the clean and unclean joining together. He has a vision of a new sort of body of Christ. And when he goes to preach to Cornelius and his family, the Holy Spirit descends upon them and they recieve the gift of faith.
Peter’s world has just been turned upside down. Those he thought were outside of God’s love and power have just had it poured upon them. And exclaims: “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?”
No one could deny their gifts. Water was brought and Cornelius and his whole family were baptized on the spot… they were part of the family of God.
I wonder if at various points throughout our history faithful folk stood up and exclaimed about women or people of color: These people have received the Holy Spirit… just like we did – How can we stop them from being baptized? How can we deny them a place at the table? How can we stop them from being ordained when God has so clearly spoken in their lives?
I wonder what kinds of upside down realizations helped people to reverse traditionally held views about who was outside of the call and power of God? John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was against women preaching in principle… until he witnessed the Holy Spirit working through the lives of women like Sarah Crosby, Grace Murry, and Hannah Ball. He relented and licensed them for preaching in the circuits across England.
And I wonder where we need to have our worlds turned upside down once again?
In a small community like Marengo, we are not exceptionally diverse. And so when we come to church we find a lot of people who look and think and talk like we do. Or at least it might appear that way.
When we dig deeper, we find that we are young and we are old. We are rich and we are poor. We are healthy and we are in need of healing. We have been educated by the streets and we have been taught in universities. We vote republican and we vote democrat. And yet, we have made room here in this place for all of this difference. God is good!
And yet, there are still people missing from our midst. There are still people in this community and in this world who either do not know that they are welcome here or who actively feel excluded from this community and from leadership in our church. Our sign outside might say, “All Welcome…” but do we truly live that out with our lives? And do we actively let people know with our words and our deeds that they truly can enter this building and be a part of our community? Do we go out into the world to discover where the Holy Spirit is active and moving in the hearts of children of God?
In our gospel lesson this morning, we are reminded that we have been chosen by God. We are friends of Jesus… but not because of anything special that we have done to deserve that recognition. No, God chooses who God wants. And as we look through history we find that God choose people like the murderer, Moses; the deciever, Jacob; the prostitute, Rahab; the tax collector, Matthew; and the super-religious, Saul.
In spite of our pasts, in spite of our present, in spite of where we were born or who we were born, God has chosen to love us. And God also chooses to love people outside of these four walls. The Holy Spirit is out there in the world right now moving among people in this community: parents with little kids; single moms; drug addicts; gays and lesbians; the elderly who are homebound; folks who partied too much last night; and people who don’t want to know Jesus Christ.
God is out there moving! It was the Holy Spirit that led our apostle Peter into the community of Caesarea and into the household of Cornelius. Cornelius may have been a Gentile, but God was moving in his life. Cornelius actively supported the local synagogue and Jewish ministries… even though he was not allowed in the Temple to worship like those who were born Jews.
God chose to speak through him. God chose to act through him. And Peter was the one who needed the wake up call to see that the Holy Spirit could move even outside of the traditional bounds of faith.
In his farewell message to his disciples, Jesus not only called them friends, but he also reminded them that they were sent. Sent out into the world to point to where the Holy Spirit is moving. Sent out into the world to love the people, to love the creation, and to bear the fruit of the gospel. And as we go, we need to remember that God can and does choose people who don’t look like us, talk like us, love like us, minister like us.
In May of 1956, the Methodist Church began to ordain women with the same full rights as men. And in May of 2012, the United Methodist Church voted to fully recognize and value the ordination and sacramental authority of men and women that our church had shut the doors to 200 years ago. And this General Conference, we began to make the first steps towards reconciliation with Native American brothers and sisters – who we as United Methodists have actively pushed to the margins of society.
As we experienced those acts of repentence at General Conference, my heart couldn’t help but wonder who we are leaving out today and are not yet ready to even admit… who are we still excluding? Who has God called while we remain in denial? May we have open eyes and open hearts and open minds to see the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people in this world. May we always be ready and willing to share this church and this ministry with all of those whom God has chosen. And together, as friends of God, may we all go into this world ready to bear the fruit of the Gospel.