Who is in and who is out?

I watched the Juno awards last week with my family. A way to measure my age is to watch with my 11 year old and 14 year old, and see which artists and bands they recognize, and which ones I do.

Many genres were represented in this annual celebration of Canadian music: Country and Pop, and World, Hip Hop and Rap, and R and B, and Jazz, and Classical, and Roots music, but most performers I saw on the show seemed to share a basic feature.  In their eager efforts to look unique, to be themselves, they all kind of looked the same. Whether they were wearing fancy dress formal wear, or tight leather pants, or a torn t-shirt and baggy jeans, for the most part, they looked “designed”, put together to make a statement. The statement seemed to be ” I am here, look at me! “

The only exception I saw to that sameness was a band from Saskatchewan called The Sheepdogs, who looked like they had just woke up, rolled out of their tour bus bunks, and rushed in to the theatre without taking time to wash up. Does this sound like I am getting old? I am not even talking yet about the music. My kids were interested, so I refrained from saying “Is this really what people listen to these days?”

A singer-song writer from “back in my day”, Paul Simon, sang in his song “Boy in the Bubble” “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”. I hear that as a reminder that I don’t have to like my kids music. Actually, I am probably not supposed to like it. (I do like some, but not all!)

Popular music, and clothing styles, and hair-cuts, and the way people talk to each other are all symbols, markings and tools that generations and groups within a society use to identify themselves, and show themselves as distinct, different, from someone else. Part of this is natural, I think. We want to stand out a bit, and we also want to be able to look in a crowd and see who is like us. Kind of a modern tribal thing. We express personal preference, and group ourselves accordingly.

So what tribe or tribes do you identify with? Liberal or Conservative, or Green or NDP? Timmy’s or Starbucks? Jays or Yankees? Leafs or Canadiens? Globe and Mail or The Star? Whole Foods or Food Basics? Chevy or Ford? Or Chrysler? Domestic or Foreign? Catholic or Protestant? Christian or Muslim, or Sikh, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Rastafarian? Believer or non-believer? Atheist, Agnostic, on the fence, or just confused? Glass half full or half empty?

Other distinctions can be more defining, and more inclusive, or exclusive, depending upon where you stand: Male or female. Married or single. Old or young. Gay or straight, or Bisexual, or transgendered. Canadian or foreigner. Rich or poor. Working or unemployed.

The Bible story we heard this morning hinges upon the question of tribal differences. Peter, one of the first disciples, was a leader, and missionary in the early church. Some of his powerful sermons are recorded in the Book of Acts, which also notes that many people responded to his preaching, and wanted to learn more about Jesus, and the message of God’s love. Soon many were becoming converts, leaving behind their former religion to join the group becoming known as the people of the Way, or the Christians.

The first members of this new movement were raised in the Jewish faith. That makes sense, since Jesus was born and raised a Jew, and lived his earthly life within a hundred miles of Jerusalem. The questions Jesus asked about organized religion were pointed at Judaism. Jesus’ efforts to help people understand God’s love, often in spite of religion, happened in a mostly Jewish context.

The Jews were descended from people who were held captive as slaves in Egypt. The Old Testament tells the story of the liberation of these former slaves, and their movement into a land they called their own, where they built a new nation. Their society was defined by adherence to religious rules that marked the Jews as different from their neighbours. One rule said all males must be circumcised 8 days after their birth. An adult male wishing to become a Jew had to be circumcised.

There were also dietary rules, still adhered to by many Jews today. Most of us are familiar with the phrase Kosher, or as Muslim people say, Halal. Certain foods are considered unclean. Animals that do not have cloven hooves, and do not chew their cud are forbidden, which means that cattle, sheep, goats, bison and deer are allowed, but pigs, camels, badgers and rabbits are not. Of creatures from the sea, Jews may eat anything that has fins and scales, but lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams and crab are all forbidden. Chicken, geese, ducks and turkey are okay. Birds of prey such as hawks and eagles and scavengers such as vultures are not.

In Jesus time, and in Peter’s time, this sense of un-cleanness went beyond food, and extended to those who did not follow the Jewish rules. Faithful Jews were forbidden to eat at the same table as Gentiles- essentially all non-Jewish people. In a desert culture where a high value was placed on hospitality, and kindness to strangers in need, it was a powerful statement to say certain people were not welcome at your table.

Reports had begun to reach the Jesus followers in Jerusalem that Peter was having great success in spreading the message of God’s love to people outside of traditional Jewish territory. Rather than being overjoyed at the growth of the movement, many Jerusalem Christians were furious.

What was Peter doing? Did he somehow forget that those people were unclean? How could he sit down and share food with them? How dare he invite the non-circumcised to join the followers of Jesus? To us, this debate might sound a bit like the arguments about whether women should be allowed to vote, or whether a black athlete could be allowed to play in the major leagues.

My son Joel and I watched “42” last week, the latest movie version of the Jackie Robinson story. Joel is a ball player, and a baseball fan, and I loved watching this story with him. In his life, the idea of a colour barrier in baseball, or in any aspect of life seems ridiculous. We were both moved at the portrayal of Jackie Robinson’s courage, and dignity, as he faced incredible abuse at the hands, and from the mouths of people who saw the presence of a black man in major league baseball as the beginning of the end of their way of life.

When a person, or a group of people have been taught by their culture, by their church, by their families, that some people are better or worse than others, and that “they” must be kept separate from “us”, it can be awfully hard to hear another point of view. The person who calls for change, or represents another way to think can be seen as the enemy.

The story from the Book of Acts, that describes Peter’s vision, shows us that God is at work to break down the human-made barriers between people. Peter described seeing a large sheet being let down by its four corners from heaven. In it he saw all manner of animals including beasts that he had been taught were unclean. He heard a voice telling him, “Get up Peter. Kill and eat.”

Peter replied, “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The voice from heaven then said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.“ In Peter’s vision, this happened three times, and then the sheet full of animals was pulled back up into heaven. In the very next scene in the story Peter is brought to a household of people who wished to hear his message about the love of God, and in that house, as he spoke, everyone felt touched by God’s Spirit. Peter said that it happened for these people in the same way as it did for the first followers of Jesus.

God’s love is for everyone. The human-made barriers that separate us from each other, are not barriers to God. Thanks be to God. Amen





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