Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Change of Conviction, A Change of Heart

Acts 10:1-17; 34-35
Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” lists ten of his top most bizarre foods that he likes.  Among them are: Mixed grill udders and intestines from Buenos Aires; Donkey skin stir-fry coming out of Beijing; Pork brain tacos, viva la Mexico; and Horse mane Sashimi from Japan especially good with a bit of ginger and soy sauce.  “Fatty Awesomeness”, he says.
I, on the other hand, am not so adventurous when it comes to eating meat or seafood.  As a general rule when I am in a foreign country I become vegetarian during the trip and it suits me just fine.  I’m more black and white than Zimmern, I know what is delectably acceptable or not, at least here in the States and by my convictions.

Simon Peter saw it my way too until a very vivid trance came along and God showed him a new reality.  We are back to the Narrative Lectionary now that the Easter readings are over and we will be sojourning in the Book of Acts and the Epistle of Romans for a while. 

The Book of Acts shows us how the early apostles struggled to define and build ‘church’ but really, when you take a closer read it is more about how God, through the Holy Spirit, worked through the early Christ followers to determine what the church should look like and to make it into what God wanted it to be.  And God wanted then, as is now, a diverse, inclusive community based on faith and love.  That’s evident all over scripture and in today’s reading.

By now in the Book of Acts, Jesus has ascended into heaven and the disciples, now apostles are left to their own devices.  But the Holy Spirit comes to them and instills in them the a spark of divine holiness by which they are to go out and tell everybody, every nation of every persuasion and tongue the really great and saving news of Christ. And so they do.

Converts were increasing day by day, like the speed of a locomotive.  Peter takes the lead healing beggars and bringing the good news, but there was conflict and persecution.  There always is when something new is emerging.  Butterflies work real hard to get out of the cocoon and chicks peck and peck before the egg cracks. 

Now Cornelius was a good man, a Gentile man, an esteemed centurion of the Italian Cohort of the Roman army.  His story is significant because he will be the first Gentile to be converted to this movement of Christ followers who eventually become ‘the church’.  Up until now they were converting their own.

Caesaria was the seat of the Roman government for Judea so you might expect Cornelius to be aligned theologically towards Rome since the Emperor was viewed as the ‘son of god’. Yet the Bible says Cornelius was devout and charitable.  He prayed often and was fervent in his prayer.  A good man stuck in a bad system.  

Well it was just about 3:00 in the afternoon and an angel comes to Cornelius.  Here we go with the visions!  The angel affirms his piety and tells Cornelius to send two men to Simon Peter in Joppa.  Now Joppa and Caesaria are on the Mediterranean coast just about 35 miles apart from one another and they still are to this day. 

So he chooses two slaves and one good and devout soldier to go, and at Noon they journey south in the hot sun.  While they were on the dusty road Peter, in Joppa, goes on his roof to pray.  And now it’s his turn for a vision; he goes into a hunger induced trance.  This is where is gets really good!

Peter sees the heavens open up and a sheet being lowered by its four corners and inside of the sheet are all sorts of creepy creatures, slimy reptiles, and birds of the air, all together wrapped up.  He is told to kill and eat anything from the sheet!  Yummy! This is like Andrew Zimmern coming to the parsonage with a mixed grill platter of udders and intestines and insisting that I partake of a few.  NO!  I will NOT eat udder – not cow udder, nor goat udder, nor sheep udder, nor any other udder that is my neighbors.  Let me be clear.  I will not eat udder.  It is unclean in my book of food rules.

Well Peter is instructed not once but three times to kill and eat and after the third time, the vision ended just as quickly as it had come.  What you need to know is that this food in the sheet, it’s all unclean for him to eat according to Torah and law.  Peter, was a bit puzzled by this but firm in his convictions of who could be a Christ follower and who could not.  Jews and God-fearers in, Gentiles out.  Gentiles – tref!  Unclean!

That’s until the three men from Cornelius came to him and brought him back to Caesaria to enter Cornelius’s home to talk and for hospitality.  This is when Peter gets it.  Here was a Jew in the home of a Gentile and that wouldn’t have been acceptable.  All the while God’s up there thinking, mission accomplished!

Pete’s convictions change and so does his heart.  He was insistent that the first followers had to be subject to circumcision through the Abrahamic covenant like all Jews until he realized because of this vision, that God’s covenant is much larger than that and God’s love is much wider than we can ever know. You see he hadn’t made the connection yet that his vision about food wasn’t really about food.  It was about people. It was about God insisting that this new fangled way to worship called the church is to be diverse in all ways.  Not only Jews but Gentiles too.

We are reminded in Galatians:
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises. – Galatians 3: 25-29

I think we get that right?  Anyone can walk through our doors and be accepted and welcomed with the love of Christ.  Believers and skeptics, black and white, affluent and impecunious, gay and straight, fully abled and partially abled, the addicted and the sober, the housed and homeless.  God wants us all, and there is plenty good news to share all around. We get that.

What I want us to look at today is Peter and the change of conviction that he had which lead to a change in his heart.  He went from wearing metaphorical blinders on to having a wide open field of vision.  He did a 360 in his thinking about who can become a Christian, and I say thank goodness for that because we wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t.

Sometimes we get stuck with our convictions without even knowing that we have become impervious to other points of views or other ways of doing things, or even the movement of the spirit. Convictions, of course, are those things that you hold to be true, that are so firm in your mind that no persuasive fact can make you change the way you think.  While we all have convictions and to a certain point we need convictions to know what we believe in and what we stand for, they can get in our way of compassionate thinking when they become rigid and unyielding.

When was the last time that you changed your mind on a core conviction that you hold?  What moved you to do so?  At the heart of this passage is a radical willingness to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit even when the Spirit leads you away from what you thought was right. Peter changed and because of his change, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the church changed drastically.  It grew and brought the saving grace of Jesus Christ to more people. To you and to me.

God may be changeless, but today God’s church needs to embrace transformation in order to carry out the mission to which we have been called and that is showing people that life conquers death, forgiveness is abundant, that we are to love God and love one another.  The message is clear, that any person, every person can be filled with and is deserving of God’s grace. 

The context of church has changed once again. God has lowered the sheet filled with new delicacies, Zimmern has set before us a platter of yummy udders.  Taste and see!  Are we willing to see anew where God is trying to lead us?  It might just take us getting out of these four walls to do so.  It might beg us to engage our creativity in ways that our wildest imaginations have never even thought of.  And maybe that is the church of tomorrow.

Perhaps, ‘we’ve always done it this way’ will give birth to ‘we’re willing to give something new a try’ for the sake of the church, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of our ever changing children and youth who cry out for acceptance and love, and yes, church but in their own way. 

They will have young convictions that one day will have to change too but let us, for now, model for them a willingness to follow God’s spirit into the beyond based in faith and guided by God’s light and love.  Taste and see. 


Easter Message - Your Story Begins

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  Mark 16: 1-8

In the words of Thomas Long, theologian and preacher, “That’s no way to run a resurrection!”[i]  He is referring to the account of Jesus’ resurrection as recorded in the Gospel of Mark that we heard a minute ago.  And I have to agree with him.  There are no post resurrection meals by the side of the sea with his disciples up in the Galilee, there are no tender garden embraces and no gardener’s, Mark’s ending is just not filled with joy and probably it is not worthy of all of the alleluias that we sing out today.  That’s just no way to run a resurrection!

You have to admit, this is one abrupt and dramatic ending, “…so [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”   And then the Gospel just ends.  Of course there are attempts to add on and ease the Gospel up a bit but the original Mark just ends.  The women have run off, silenced by their fear. 

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were followers too of Jesus and were faithfully with him until he drew his last breath of life.  They stood and watched his suffering along with all of the other Jews who were crucified that day.  There were so many.  But this poor soul was their friend and rabbi.  They were filled with grief as any of us would be when we watch a loved one suffer.  I’m sure you can identify.

Then, after the Sabbath when they could go to the tomb, they brought with them some special spices for anointing Jesus body.  There was just not enough time to do so before the beginning of Shabbat.  But on the way to the tomb they were worried about rolling that large stone away from the entrance.  Good point.  That would have worried and kept me up all night too.  You know how worries get much larger and luminous at night in your head.

But when they got there, and much to their surprise, it was already rolled away.  So curious!  How and who could have moved that boulder away?  They hurried right inside without a moment’s hesitation, not to find their beloved friend Jesus but in his place was this stranger, a man dressed in white.  That would be shocking and sad, not to mention confusing all at once.  Who is this person anyway that knows so much?  How does he know such things about Jesus?  This is really not what the women expected at all.

So the women run.  They turn around and high tail it out of the cold and empty tomb stricken with fear.  And that is the end of the story.  There is no resolution.  We don’t really know what they did.

Now we are the ones standing at the gaping, cavernous, wide open and tomb.  What are you going to do?

Alasdair McIntyre, Professor of Philosophy and Theology notes: "I cannot answer the question "What ought I to do?" unless I first answer the question "Of which story am I a part?""

What we read today is a story of people long, long ago and it is God’s story, through Christ, of redemption and renewal.  It is ultimately our story too.  This resurrection story gives us spectacles through which to see ourselves out of tough situations, out of sad circumstances, or deplorable conditions, out of our empty tombs.  Let’s face it sometimes it’s really hard to see that proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.  I know.  I’ve been there too.  But because of the resurrection I know it is there.  Christ’s resurrection helps you to envision a real future ahead for yourself, where life follows death where hope thrives.  This is the faithful promise of Easter.

Our lives are filled with unending tales and unanswered questions but the resurrection of Christ allows us to look beyond that.  Christ’s life, death, and life is a circuitous cycle of rebirth.  Let that be your story, today and everyday, too.


[i] Thomas G. Long, Christian Century Magazine, 2006.

Good Friday

Tension Unresolved
Our time of preparation has ended.  Lent is over.  As you know we are well into Holy Week.  I like to think of Holy Week as sort of this liminal space, a space that is neither here nor there.  We are not on the Lenten journey any longer and we have not arrived at Easter. 

Today is a day of great solemnity and sadness as we recall the crucifixion of Jesus.  We are called to follow him and in true discipleship we are here at the cross, watching and waiting for we know that the ultimate cost that anyone can pay is to lay down his or her life for another.  Jesus has done that for us.

 Today is Good Friday and we all know the end of THIS story – this story of passion, of betrayal, of denial, of chaos and darkness, of Jesus’ death by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Imperial officers.  The Jesus of history will become the Christ of our faith because somewhere in between death and life, transformation happens.

This passion story is the basis of our Christian lives.  Through the person of Jesus we are grafted onto and into the promises of covenantal love that God made with the house of Israel.  God love us and greets and we are forgiven, reconciled and transformed through this miraculous event of Jesus’ resurrection. 

But, let’s not rush to fast toward the end of the story; it’s much more complex than wrapping Palm Sunday up with a happy ending.  You will be cheating yourself, denying yourself, if you do.

We began our service hearing Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”.  Barber was a 20th century American composer who wrote this beautiful and haunting piece.  The rich sound of the base foundation allows the upper voices speak their compelling and mournful theme.  The piece builds and builds through a number of phrases into a climax.  The soft string Celeste pipes cease.  You are suspended with no resolution.  The piece is undone.  Those eight seconds seem like an eternity; they are painful and difficult.  There is no closure; it begs answers but there are none for the time being.  You exist in its tension, and then you are released by hearing the familiar motif of the opening phrases.

Like the “Adagio for Strings”, Good Friday is a day of conflict and difficult tension…suspension.  We must not, cannot, will not rush to its conclusion.  It is in this suspended interval that transformation happens, where God’s work in us is best accomplished, in those intervals of our raw humanity we are made whole.

Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross are, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works, “not fortuitous but necessary”.  It is necessary to understand the pain of our humanness, the sins of our heart through the pain of the cross, because we are forever yoked together with Christ and are reconciled to God.  It is necessary, indeed critical to live in the tension of the cross today because Jesus’ suffering is our suffering, it is the anguished cry of humanity that is nailed to the cross today.

On Good Friday we are faced with our OWN betrayals and denials, our own chaos and confusion, our own suffering and rejection.  It is part of who we are, what we have done to one another, and what has been done to us.  Do not be so quick to judge because we are not unlike Judas, or Simon Peter, or Caiaphas, or Pilate.  We have just as much been victimizers’ as we are the victims. 

To recognize and acknowledge this is not comfortable.  In fact it is filled with pain, it is sharp and cold like the nail you hold in your hand today.  It is not what we mean to do, but it is, sometimes, what we do.  These are the dark extremities of the human condition.

It is essential to hear and to feel the lament of the Psalmist, “do not be far from me, O Lord, do not forsake me, come quickly to my aid”.  In the cry of our laments, the tears of our soul, through the death of Christ, God hears us and enacts the covenant to remember our sins no more.  All this Christ takes to the cross with him. 

Our sins, our doubts, our fears, our cry’s hang too with the one who ultimately, finally brings our salvation.  We are not alone in our torment but we are fully embraced by God who has shared our common lot, and who knows our pain and the sting of life.

Herein lies the tension that we must sustain today if we dare to sing Alleluia on Sunday morning.  We are suspended in the tension of the cross.  Do not move forward yet.  Do not take that leap of faith yet.  Feel the pain, acknowledge the suffering, ask for forgiveness – hang all that you have on the cross of Christ.

We live with the cross because it is not the end, it is the beginning, somewhere between death and life, transformation happens.  We will leave today, the passion of Jesus not done, our Adagio unresolved. 

 So be it.