Dancing with a Porcupine

Posted by on Sep 10, 2013 in Faith Words |

Words of Faith

Rev. Rita S. Platt

June 9, 2013

“Dancing with a Porcupine”

Old Testament     Isaiah 56:3-8

New Testament         Romans 15:1-13

 One of my favorite shows is “Dancing with the Stars.”  Celebrities are matched up with dance pros and in a season learn to waltz, tango, quick-step. Judges score them…Bruno   looks for passion…Carrie Ann takes points off when they do a lift…Len  is concerned about the dance..the footwork..posture..arms..time in hold.

 For a moment imagine you are the dance pro…The panel of judges is assembled… and instead of celebrities the contestants are animals…and your partner is a porcupine.  Imagine gliding, twirling around the ballroom as the orchestra plays a waltz. Or imagine the embrace of the tango – striding, dipping, heads bobbing to the music. Cheek-to-cheek. Arm-in-arm. Quill–to-. .Ouch!  The only porcupine I want to see is the one sitting in the audience – with plenty of room on each side, a good distance from the crowd. No dance, no partner, no pain.Many people think the church resembles the dance pro – with the right to determine who should or shouldn’t be a partner – more than a welcoming community.

And it is not a new problem.

Our Old Testament reading reflects one of those periods during which the Israelites wrestled with which people should be admitted to their community. At that time they had recently returned to Jerusalem after 50 years of exile in Babylon. They set about rebuilding their place of worship, the Temple, which had been burned during the destruction  of the city those many years before. As they re-established themselves in their homeland, intense debate occurred over what hallmarks would identify them as people of God.

 Some urged that, in the restored Temple, long-held restrictions continue to apply specifically to two groups: foreigners (those who were not of the bloodline of the tribes of Israel) and eunuchs (men whose reproductive organs had been damaged or removed.  It was a common practice for rulers to castrate some of their servants and/or advisers.)

There may be numerous reasons why such persons would be excluded from the community. Eunuchs could have been refused participation because part of Israel’s tradition prohibited any male who could not procreate from being a part of the community. In addition, both foreigners and eunuchs may have worshipped gods other than Yahweh, the God of Israel, thus participating in idolatry.

The prophet doesn’t disagree with the analysis of the problem; but surprisingly, he approaches the conversation differently.   The ultimate criterion for inclusion among God’s people is faithfulness.

Foreigners and eunuchs who love and serve God are welcome, declares Isaiah, for thus says the Lord:

all who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-

These will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer…For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:6-7)

             Time goes by. Some 600 years later, in the church at Rome, the faces had changed;   but the discussion was the same: people of faith continued to be at odds over who belonged and who didn’t! As you know, the earliest Christians, the disciples of Jesus, were Jews.  Paul and some others, however, were convinced that God’s salvation was also meant for Gentiles (those foreigners Isaiah spoke about).  There was big trouble in the church at Rome because members of Jewish background apparently felt their place in God’s plan was undermined by the presence of Gentile members.  Perhaps at one of the meetings one of the Jewish- Christians might have said, “Wait a minute I thought we were God’s chosen people.  What about God’s promises to us in the days of Abraham and Sarah?  What about the dietary laws and circumcision as a sign of our faithfulness?   Is all of that forgotten?”

 Paul responds that there is room for everyone, Jews and Gentiles, in God’s realm.  Christians of Jewish heritage should rest assured that in Jesus, God’s promises have been confirmed, not cancelled.  But God’s love for humanity and all creation knows no limits.  Gentiles, too, are recipients of God’s grace and thus part of the faith community. And so Paul exhorts mutual hospitality, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Paul says in effect, let the church be that wondrous place that reflects the wideness of God’s mercy and love for all of us.

Time went by and the church moved to America  and with each wave of immigration the church was invited to dance with  a new porcupine …the Irish, the Italians, the Swedes , and the  polish….   and there was the conversation  regarding  race. Who could share the same worship space? Who could kneel and pray at the chancel rail? Who would be relegated to be with “their own kind” in the balcony?  Who should make decisions regarding church property?  Who can serve as “our pastor?”   And at time the conversations were heated and there was pain. 

 And even today churches near the Mexican border struggle with our immigration policy.  Recently, our active united Methodist bishops travelled to the border between us and Mexico.  Half of them went to Tijuana, Mexico to meet with church officials who minister to those who have either been turned away or deported from the U.S.  Many of them are now homeless. The other half stayed on the U.S. side and met with church individuals who undertake a similar ministry there.

 This morning’s message is not about a political position – it’s about our call to be a welcoming church.  And the reason I have used the image of a porcupine is because when you sense God’s call to be a welcoming congregation there will be pain. Some may disagree with your understanding, and that group may include those you love. Dancing with a porcupine is not easy and at times you might decide it just better for the porcupine to sit on the side lines and watch the dance.

 This is particularly true as the church grapples with the issue of sexual orientation.  Because of the recent position taken by Boy Scouts of America to include boys who are homosexual, many churches are meeting – all of them agonizing and some deciding to discontinue hosting a scout troupe. The conversation centers around the churches’ understanding of who should be included.  Again, my intent is not to point fingers.  It’s to prayerfully help us to understand the hard work that is necessary if we are going to be a welcoming church. And it is to move the conversation to discern what does it look like for South Avenue to be known as a welcoming congregation?  And once we have identified our prospective partner, to honestly answer “Do we really want to dance with the porcupine?”