Easter 5, Year C
April 28, 2013
I’ve been gone for a couple weeks; I was in Minnesota for a week to see the family, and then I attended a Strategic Planning Conference in Cincinnati with 3 other of our parishioners, where we learned how to develop a strategic plan for this congregation. Very exciting. More about that a little later. And it’s good to be back.
The other day I was sitting in one of my favorite restaurants - the Chinese place on 4th Street. It has windows that face out onto the street and a little courtyard where there are often a few homeless folks hanging out. I was sitting there drinking tea and watching the folks come and go on the street; the waiter had just come by and put a plate of chicken and prawns in a ginger plum sauce in front of me; and as I said my prayer and prepared to eat my lunch, I watched as two elderly men - they must have been 70 years old or so - wandered into the courtyard. They seemed to be good friends; and they looked fairly respectable, clean and sober. I watched as they went to the trash container and as one guy held up the lid, the other guy reached in and started rummaging around. He pulled out a couple of empty soda cans, which he handed to his friend, who put them into a bag, and then he pulled out half a sandwich, inspected it, sniffed it, and then broke it in two and shared it with his friend.
A few days later I was reading in the Press Democrat about how that big development project for Railroad Square had died. It started out as a grand vision of renewal for RR Square - a $182 million project - in the words of the article, a "transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development that would include a food-and-wine center, a 10,000-square-foot retail center modeled after the Ferry Building in San Francisco, and low-income and market-rate housing." The article talked about how, when the recession hit, and then politics entered in, the project got scaled back more and more, until last week all that was left was a development for low-income housing for seniors. And so the news was that that project had just been scuttled as well.
The Press Democrat wrote an editorial about this, in which they said that it was too bad the project was terminated because "It would have provided jobs [and] an infusion of government funding in the local economy..."
I agreed with this, but I also thought it was kind of odd that nowhere in the editorial or in the news article, which was filled with quotes from politicians and business people, were any low-income seniors interviewed, or anyone representing low-income seniors. I thought about those two elderly gentlemen, and wondered what they might have said about the lack of decent affordable housing for seniors in this area. I thought about the women who find shelter here at the Living Room, and the folks who come here for breakfast on Sunday; I tried to do a quick estimate as to how many of them are seniors, and realized it was probably about a third to a half.
And yet it never seemed to occur to anyone to discuss this issue from their point of view on this issue.
It's amazing how your point of view changes depending on who you talk to.
This morning we hear this great story about Peter in the book of Acts which is an illustration of this whole thing. It’s a story about how he had a vision that told him it was okay to start eating non-kosher foods; and about how the disciples in Jerusalem heard about this, and they heard about how Peter had been seen eating with Gentiles - and so they called him to Jerusalem and had a little talk with him. It's like he'd been called down to the principal's office.
They want to know: "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Because of course for “respectable” Jews at that time, even to sit down at table with Gentiles was strictly forbidden. And so this reading is Peter's explanation as to why he did it.
This is a very small section of a much longer story - in fact, it might be the longest single story in the book of Acts, stretching from the end of Chapter 9 to the middle of Chapter 11. It's worth reading the whole story - especially when we know that when a story is that long, it's probably pretty important to the author.
Without going into all the details of the story, it all comes down to this wonderful moment when Peter is told by the Holy Spirit to follow these guys who come looking for him, who take him to the house of a Gentile - a centurion in fact. When Peter walks into the house, he finds that it's filled with the centurion's family and friends - a huge assembly of people - who have gathered at the centurion's request to hear what Peter has to say. And the second Peter walks into the room he says, basically, "Wait a minute. I can't be here. I'm not supposed to be hanging out with you people."
But somehow the Holy Spirit keeps him engaged in the relationship; the centurion begs him to stay and talk to them; Peter says, well, okay, I'll give them my stump sermon - which is the sermon that he's given a million times to his Jewish brothers and sisters - and to his amazement the Holy Spirit comes upon the assembly of Gentiles. Up until that point, apparently, it never occurred to Peter that Gentiles could be seized by the same Holy Spirit that he has been dealing with. But after that experience, he realizes that all this time, he has been the problem - he, and his religious tradition - and that never again would he accept as a given what his tradition says about clean and unclean.
It's amazing what happens when people from different walks of life start listening to and talking to one another.
It’s good to remember that – unless we come from 100% Jewish families, at some point we were all considered outsiders and unclean. In Peter’s time, the thinking was that Gentiles could be included only if they entered the community entirely on the terms of Jewish tradition. Circumcision, kosher dietary laws, dress, grooming, worship, all had to conform to Jewish custom. This was simply assumed. And then this liberating thought occurred – first to Paul, and then to Peter: hold on! It seems that, under Jesus, all things are being made new. It seems that under Jesus, there is a new heaven and a new earth. No thing and no person in God's creation is unclean - "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."
Which is why the next banner that’s gonna hang on that banner out in front of our church is the one that’s going to say, “ALL are welcome…. no exceptions!”
What I love about this is that Peter doesn't understand what is happening, but he trusts in the moment; and when they ask him to speak, he speaks his truth; and when it’s time for him to listen, he listens carefully and deeply. And that’s when the Holy Spirit descends on them; that’s when everything they thought they knew is turned upside down; that’s when everything that we take for granted: that we are included in the kingdom of God – that’s when that idea first occurred to anyone. The idea that God’s love extends even to us outsiders; us unclean Gentiles. That God’s love is so vast that it extends even to us.
Peter’s like, I don't understand this - I don't even think I approve of this - but it seems I've been led to this place and I need to be open to what God is trying to accomplish.
I know how Peter felt. As I was going through this divorce process, I was like, “I don’t understand this; I don’t even approve of this; I don’t even think this is right. But I can’t say No to where the Holy Spirit seems to be leading. All I can do is to listen deeply, and speak my truth, and listen deeply, and speak my truth, and listen some more… open to wherever it is that the Holy Spirit is leading me and it’s amazing how the Holy Spirit enters into that dynamic.
So as I said, 4 of us were there in Cincinnati, in a beautiful airport hotel at the Strategic Planning Conference. I think we all thought we’d go there, and they’d give us a little checklist of things we needed to do so that we could plan our future.
Of course, you know what they say, if you want to make God laugh, make some plans.
But, when we got there we found out that actually what the whole thing was about was entering into sacred conversation with members of the congregation and members of the community.
And there’s no agenda behind this, except for the idea that we’ve been hearing from a number of people in this congregation that we’ve reached this point, where either we’re going to continue to grow, in which case things have got to be done differently, or we’re going to fall back on old patterns and our membership will decline because we’re unable to incorporate new growth. So it raises all sorts of questions about how we can learn how to do things differently, so that what we’re experiencing now is not a ceiling on our capacity for growth, but rather the floor from which we can grow further and further. How do we accomplish that?
It seems to be all about the same thing Peter discovered this morning, which is to be listening deeply and speaking our truth. And so this is a process that’s going to be going on for about a year, as we engage the congregation and the wider community on some of the big questions that need answered in our life together. What are the big questions that are going to drive our life together over the next 10 years? It will be a beautiful and revelatory discussion, I’m sure.
Nothing new. We’ve been doing it in this church for 2,000 years; we’ve been doing it in this congregation forever; and it’s just going to continue. Because the Holy Spirit works that way; and that’s how we learn “What’s up” with the Holy Spirit.
So I ask your prayers on that, and continue to come to this place with open hearts and minds, and praise God for the incredible blessings of this community. Amen.