I grew up reading lots of book, but the ones I remember the most were Dr. Seuss’ stories-- anyone else love his books? My parents would read me the famous books you know, Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, all those—but we also read some of the less known books that he wrote.
One of those stories was The Sneetches. Anyone read that one before…? The Sneetches are tall, yellow creatures who live on beaches. In Seuss' story these creatures are divided into two groups: those who have green stars on their bellies, and those who don't have green stars. The green-starred Sneetches, the Star-Bellies, comprise the "in-crowd." They build exclusive campfires around which they sing their little songs. The Sneetches without green stars on their bellies, the Non-Star Bellies, are the outsiders. They are the losers.
But one day, "a fix-it-up chappy" named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with a strange contraption called a Star-On machine. For a mere three dollars, Sneetches can line up and get green stars on their bellies. Naturally, all the no-star Sneetches jump at this chance. The in-crowd Sneetches are no longer distinct; this upsets them very much. But Sylvester McMonkey McBean also has a Star-Off machine. For ten dollars you can get your star, which defined you as an "in" person, removed, thus distinguishing yourself anew.
This back-and-forth escalates until, as Dr. Seuss says, "Neither the Plain nor the Star -Bellies knew whether this one was that one or that one was this one or which one was what one or what one was who."
Star-Bellies and Sneetches aside, it’s a familiar story. If I took a poll (which I’m not going to!) and asked-- who has ever felt excluded before?-- I am pretty sure almost everyone, if not everyone, would raise their hand.
Because, sadly, humans thrive on being in the “in-crowd.” We like knowing all the information, we like belonging to a group that others don’t.
And when we aren’t in that “in-crowd”, when we are the ones outside of that inner circle, what does it feel like…? We feel left out, like a loser, like those Sneetches that didn’t have a star-belly.
On the flip side, though, when we ARE in the “in-crowd”, what usually happens…? Yeah, we want to stay in that group at all costs, and usually, well, that means keeping others out. There’s something special about having a group of your own that has in-jokes and secrets and all that. And when others start coming in, it can feel like the group isn’t special anymore. So, we become like the Sneetches who originally had stars on their bellies—and when the other Sneetches who were outsiders began putting stars on, the in-crowd Sneetches wanted to take theirs off as fast as they could.
I know this comes as a complete shocker, but none of this is new. We’ve got a similar situation on our hands in chapter 11 of Acts.
Before our reading in Acts begins, in chapter 11 Peter just visited Cornelius, a Roman soldier. God sent Peter there, and not only did Peter hang out with Cornelius, but also a bunch of Cornelius’ friends. Peter ate with them, told them about Jesus, and they became believers, received the Holy Spirit, and were baptized. Pretty awesome, right?
The thing is, the early Church leaders did NOT find this awesome, which is where we pick up the story in chapter 11. Peter and the Church leaders were Jews, and all the people who believed in Jesus were Jews because Jesus was… Jewish. And Cornelius and his friends were Gentiles, or non-Jews. Jewish law said that Jewish people were not allowed to associate with Gentiles.
So they had their in-crowd of righteous Jewish believers, with their own laws and rules. They weren’t allowed to talk to or eat with anyone else. You may have heard about the eating rules from the time Jesus ate with “sinners” or people who were considered unrighteous, like prostitutes and tax collectors. The religious leaders went postal.
So, you could say, the Jewish people at the time were Star-Bellied Sneetches—and the Jews who believed in Jesus were a smaller subset of that Star-Bellied group. They were OK with Jews like them joining when they started believing in Jesus—but people outside of the Star-Bellies? No way!
This in-crowd mentality with Jesus’ early followers is actually pretty ironic. Why? For two reasons. One reason is that Jesus was all about including outsiders. He had conversations with Nicodemus, one of the strict Pharisees, or Jewish leaders at the time, and they were clearly against many of the things Jesus taught at the time. He talked with and healed Samaritans, foreign outsiders to the Jews, and told stories that had them as heroes (Good Samaritan, anyone??). As we already mentioned, he hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other people on the fringes of society. Jesus was all about including those who were considered “losers.”
The other ironic part? Check this out. In Jesus’ time and the time of the early Church, the in-crowd for society as a whole was actually those who WEREN’T Jewish. The Greeks and Romans-- those were the important people who had all the power. The Jews didn’t. So the Jews made their OWN in-crowd, so they didn’t feel like losers. It’s a vicious cycle really—when people are excluded from one in-crowd, they make their own in-crowd, and so on and so on.
So it’s not surprising that the early Jesus followers who were Jewish made their own in-crowd—because they were sick of being on the outside, being the outsiders. The sad part is, by making their own in-crowd or Star-Belly group, they also made it so there were non-Star Belly people outside of their group.
This brings us back Acts, chapter 11. The early Church leaders, the Star-Bellies you could say, have just heard Peter hung out and ate with non Star-Bellies. And not only that, Peter welcomed these outsiders into their Star-Bellied group. They are upset, because they have made their in-crowd in reaction to the Greek and Roman in-crowd and the Jewish in-crowd they can’t break into themselves. They criticize Peter, asking him why he hung out with people who are not in THEIR in-crowd, who are not allowed to be associated with.
But Peter explains his vision, and that God told him not to put up walls between Gentiles and Jews. And he says “The Spirit told me to go with them and not make a distinction between them and us.” Peter recognized that the walls that had been built between the two groups had to come down, because of what God was doing.
And Peter explains that they received the Holy Spirit and believed, just like the Jewish believers had. He tells the leaders, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
And the leaders are stunned. What’s their first reaction…? (vs. 18) Yeah, silence. As I like to say, Peter just blew their minds. They were so used to thinking that they were the Star-Bellies in this situation, and clearly God was now including people not like them, people who had been part of the OTHER Star-Belly insider group. What were they to do?
Well, after the shocked silence, they praised God! Like Peter, they recognized God was doing a new and amazing thing! God was giving all types of people the gift of faith in Jesus! How cool is that??
This story isn’t just something that happened once, in the Bible. This story is happening all the time, today.
We make Star-Belly insider groups, and God blows those walls down and invites everyone to have a relationship with Jesus.
Now, you might be saying, what do you mean, we make insider groups?? Well, I would argue that many times, churches become an insider group. They become like an exclusive club, with their own language, practices, and culture. Lots of times, we don’t do it on purpose. It just becomes that way—because we know what’s going on, we know each other, are comfortable with each other.
And knowing each other is great, don’t get me wrong. That’s one of the things God calls us to do! But sometimes, we are so wrapped up in knowing each other, that we forget that other calling from God—to break down those walls that separate the insiders from the outsiders and help all types of people have a relationship with Jesus, so that they, too, can experience his love for themselves.
And what does that look like? Well, for starters, it’s about loving all people. Jesus loves all people, everyone—and because Jesus loves all people, and Jesus loves us, we are able to love others. No holds barred, no barriers. It’s that groovy ‘70’s Christian song-- “They’ll know we are Christians by our love!”
That means, we love anyone who comes through those church doors. No matter what they’re wearing, what they look like, how they talk or act. We want everyone to be able to experience Jesus’ presence and love.
It also means that everything we do at Zion has to do with those who aren’t here yet. It means not just thinking about the Star-Belliers, but the non Star-Bellies as well. It means every decision we make, everything our ministries do, have to not only take into account the people here, but also the people outside of these walls, who have yet to know the amazing love of Jesus.
God says in our Revelation passage for today, chapter 21verse 5, “See, I am making all things new.”
That’s not just in the past, or in the future. God is making things new, right now. God is making YOU new, God is making ZION new, God is making our WORLD new. And that means new ways of thinking, new ways of talking, new ways of worshipping, new ways of praising God, new ways of people coming to Jesus. And God is doing it all!
“Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter asks. Who was he, indeed?? And who were the leaders, and the followers of Jesus, to hinder God?? When God is doing something new, we are usually in shock, like those leaders first were. They were silent.
But then they praised God for the new thing God was doing! Like Peter, they were able to see that God was doing something completely new, completely wonderful by bringing outsiders in.
My prayer is that WE are able to do the same. I pray that we are able to see the new wind God is blowing and to praise God for it-- and help God in it. The Holy Spirit is doing amazing and new things here at Zion and in our lives—let’s praise God for these new ways and ask God “What can we do to help???” Amen?