Passage: Acts 11:1-18
Date: May 19, 2019
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
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Last Sunday, during our adult-education hour, we heard from the Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. A memorable thing he said was that we often say we want transformation. It’s just change that we don’t want. It made me think about my eating habits. I’m moving towards a vegetarian diet because I want to lessen my impact on the environment. Plus, I like vegetarian food. But I’m noticing that the idea of a new diet conflicts with pepperoni pizza on Tuesdays. And besides, what good are tacos without meat? I want transformation, but don’t change my menu!
Going a bit deeper, there’s another transformation I want in my life. I share this because I suspect that you, like me, have things in your life you’d like transformed: perhaps your job, or a family situation that needs healing, or a health challenge, or relationship with a loved one. There are things we don’t share openly, perhaps the very things that most need transformation, because we care so much. But I’m going to share mine with you.
For me, it is being at the stage of my life where my sons are almost launched, and doing it as a single person. My greatest dreams have always been about marriage and family, and yet at a relatively young age (relatively is the key word here!), I am looking at a whole new chapter beginning in the summer of 2020 (after graduation). I want very much to be planning adventures with a loving partner. Here’s the thing: it seems like the more I focus on finding a mate, the more distant the dream becomes. I want to become the best Laurie I can be and live the most abundant life possible. I want transformation, but don’t change my dream of how to live midlife and grow old with a loving partner! Transformation, in my case, means letting go of expectations and being open to the unknown. Really, isn’t this somehow true for each of us? Now it’s your turn. (You may silently fill in the blank). You want transformation, but please don’t change _____________.
Resistance to change is particularly difficult with groups of people, like schools, churches, denominations and other institutions. We’ve quoted our Director of Music Ministries, Debbie Glaze, before, but it’s a great insight that bears repeating: “Change is constant; growth is optional.” For mainline churches,as we see congregations age and membership decline, transformation means letting go of what we’ve known and what we expected things to be in order to be open to the unknown.
To be fair, there are indications over the decades that Westminster has been open to change. In leadership, this congregation had women clergy when that was rare. There was also job sharing between two associate pastors in order to make raising children work. This congregation initiated the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, a fresh way to address the complex issues around poverty. We began an arts ministry that continues to bloom in new ways. Perhaps our challenge is to avoid complacency and to keep nimble for what emerges that isn’t clear yet—that which is not in our control.
In the church calendar, we are still in Easter season, a time to keep open to new life. Remember that after Jesus’ resurrection, at first, Mary did not recognize him at the open tomb. The disciples on the road to Emmaus spoke with Jesus and did not recognize him until they had shared a meal together. This is a season for us to discern what we may need to relinquish in order to be open to the new and to the changes that strike us at an emotional level, those that are the hardest to make.
The changes called for in the passage from Acts were likely to have been very emotional, too. That’s because Peter, who expressed his faith rigorously by following the rules, received a vision from God calling him to make a radical change. (At the same time, God gave this vision to a Gentile, Cornelius.) When the two of them met, it brought about transformation.
The earliest Christians and the very first churches were Jewish. They followed the way of Jesus, and still kept to the Jewish Torah, including following purity laws about food. For them, faith included a focus on preparing and eating the correct foods. They carefully kept from being “polluted” by eating with people who were not observing the same rules. Imagine, then, the conflict as Gentile Christians converted. If Gentiles who became part of the church were not going to accept responsibility for keeping the whole purity system, those Jewish Christians who were faithful in their observance were being compromised. How were Jews and Gentiles to coexist in a single community? How were they to share the same table? And then, the vision came to Peter. A vision of food that included everything: clean and unclean. Peter heard this message from the Spirit: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane … don’t make a distinction between the Gentiles and you.”
How often, since the time of Peter, has the church split over who was included or excluded based on human systems of order and identity? Who wasn’t included at the table? Well, we can name a few from the past: LGBTQ, the divorced, the pregnant teen, people of color … “What God has made clean, you must not call profane … don’t make a distinction between them and you.”
Human rules help define our identity and give us a sense of order. The problem is that even when we do this because we believe God wants us so, the rules often become the barriers that divide people and keep us from compassion. What we see in Jesus’ ministry, and in the work of the Spirit in the early church, is the breaking down of barriers. In this case, Gentile and Jew eating together, as one Christian community. The first-century, ancient world was a pluralistic and complex world. And our time is also complex: politically, economically, racially, nationally.
It seems that in the United States, and in much of the world, tolerance of the perceived “other” has grown very thin. Maybe as we feel the threat of economic stress or terrorism we are less open to the discomfort that comes from our differences. Maybe it’s social media fanning the flames of division. But it seems that there is pressure more and more to separate into tribes. We are at our best in controversy when we listen to different voices. That’s actually the way our Presbyterian system is set up.
Right now, in states and as a nation, we are into the issue of abortion. I hear in this the echo of purity laws resounding. Presbyterians have repeatedly studied and made statements on abortion. We believe that in life and death, we belong to God. Because we are made in the image of God, human beings are moral agents, endowed by the Creator with the capacity to make choices. Our Reformed Tradition recognizes that people do not always make moral choices and forgiveness is central to our faith. In the Reformed Tradition, we affirm that God is the only Lord of conscience—not the state or the church. I wonder, could we look at this issue through the lens of Peter and Cornelius? Can we imagine a cornerstone belief suddenly upended by a vision, and a voice saying: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane … don’t make a distinction between one another …”
Gathering here today, we are doing something radical. We are called by God in this place to be together, and despite different experiences and views, we sing and pray and worship as God’s family, together. It’s transformation we want, and God will work through us.
The Reverend William Sloane Coffin said: “In joining a church, you leave home and hometown to join a larger world. The whole world is your new neighborhood and all who dwell therein—black, white, yellow, red, stuffed and starving, smart and stupid, mighty and lowly, criminal and self-respecting, American or Russian—all become your sisters and brothers in the new family formed in Jesus.”
Now, back to the problem of those meatless tacos. Have you heard about Chef Preeti Mistry? She describes how in culinary school she made a classic French dish, persillade, with cilantro instead of parsley and finished it with a sauce infused with Indian spices. Her French chef instructor told her, “You can’t do that!” She writes: “All too often we assume European cooking is superior to Indian, Chinese, Jamaican, Mexican …As a queer, brown, immigrant chef, I have no interest in backing down. Making food is not about the ‘right way.’ It’s about sharing, nourishment, healing …”
Being a faithful follower of Jesus is not about the “right way.” It’s about centering our lives in God’s love and forgiveness and extending love and forgiveness to others. Baird Baylor’s lovely book, The Table Where Rich People Sit, has a great image:
“If you could see us sitting here at our old, scratched-up, homemade kitchen table, you’d know that we aren’t rich … Maybe I should mention that my parents made this table out of lumber somebody else threw away. They even had a celebration when they finished it … My mother thinks that if all the rulers of the world could get together at a friendly wooden table in somebody’s kitchen, they would solve their arguments in half the time. And my father says it wouldn’t hurt to have a lot of cookies piled up on a nice blue plate that everyone could reach without asking …”
So, today, we’ll sing some more, together. We’ll pray. We may go and eat cookies together. Who will be at the table? What is something that needs to be relinquished in order for God to make changes? What do we need to let go of, together?