Life and Death Stuff 1/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
September 17th, 2017
I don’t know if you know how bad the termites were in the stage and under the stage and we didn’t know either until we got it pried open. I’m so glad that our trustees took the time that was needed to get the right people in, to make a good assessment and have a plan for not just getting rid of the termites and let me show you how bad the termites were. Walk with me, you ready? Here they are. They weren’t just in the stage, they got up in the roof and they had to be addressed and dealt with and killed. Sorry, no mercy. You eat the wood, we take you out, I guess. But I found out this is filled with pink cotton candy. Did you know that? Tell the children. No, I’m just… that’s why they’re not allowed to get on it, because we don’t know. It is sound absorbing insulation.
But I’m going to shift gears, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Tim, Chairperson of Trustees and our Trustees, for their commitment to process and the taking of the right time to get the job done right. Nobody wants to redo a job, nobody had time to do a job a second time, so get it right the first time and they did and I want to say how grateful I am for that.
I was in Chicago this last week, had a meeting up there but it also turned out that it was the time to take our second daughter to college and I’m going to tell you upfront, I’m still a little shaky and maybe it’s better that I’m on the ground. If I start weeping, please bear with me.
Been thinking about change and how we all go through changes and we design changes. We’ve been preparing for this, with her, for 18 years, we’ve been anticipating this for 18 years. We’ve been thinking about launching for 18 years, having conversations about where she wants to go and who she wants to be and what she wants to become and this week was the launch. Wouldn’t want it any other way, time to leave behind her adolescence, can never go back to it. Change how she sees herself change, how we see her; move into adulthood, for all of us.
Been thinking about how hard it is to make changes, how comfortable we become with what is familiar and we call it tradition and we hold onto it, as if it is etched in stone. Becoming aware of this week, of how hard my body, my physical body, holds onto familiarity. The tension in my shoulders and neck and lower back, that I can’t attribute to anything other than our second daughter went to college this week and I can’t get it stretched out and it doesn’t want to let go and I’m sure it’ll pass.
Physical responses, pain that comes with change, noticed emotional exhaustion that comes when I get into unfamiliar territory. Been anticipating making the trip for quite some time, once you get there though, you just can’t quite get enough sleep, just can’t quite get to sleep, just can’t quite get my thoughts around what’s in front of me, just emotional exhaustion. Trying to find some sense of control when I feel out of control, finding myself screaming at a traffic cone, as I drove a rental car that was unfamiliar. What am I angry about, really, is it the traffic cone, really? No, it’s that my life is changing in a big way and I’m grieving and that’s the way it is and I’m not ready to go there yet.
And eating, oh my God, eating when I feel a little lost. I think I gained about 8lbs, thank you California Pizza Kitchen that happened to be near the hotel. I don’t know why but I happen to be one of those people that has a really hard time with change. There are people, I think, who have more trouble with change than me but I guess the only person I can deal with is me. Folks who resist change to the death, become stolid and wedged, almost stuck in another time. There are other people who take to change like an otter takes to water, they change and change and change and you never know exactly who they are when you look at them and they become unrecognizable, variable, unpredictable. But which is right?
I think most of us are somewhere in the middle, trying to muddle our way through changes that inevitably are coming, trying to hold on to what we have, in way of position and resource and income, hoping to secure something of a future, trying to maintain some sense of connection with people around us, who are familiar to us, who help us be who we have been. We call that community. And we also have some sense of identity together, some national pride, some religious identity, some professional identity, tells us who we are and helps us be where we are.
But we’re doing all of this, trying to secure our future in the midst of a world that is also wanting to secure their future, so defining what is right is a very hard question, because what we have to ask is right for whom. We are all okay with the idea of competition in securing our future, because we’re all comfortable with our advantage. Real Americans keeping the less-real Americans in their place. That is the entire conversation about race relations in this country. That’s the entire conversation about funding public education. That’s the entire conversation about immigration and DACA. That’s the entire conversation about ballot stuffing or gerrymandering elections, to gain position.
It’s about maintaining advantage in the system. We’re all okay as long as we have the advantage. Of course, this is nothing new, there’s always been tension around change, there’s always been that desire to have the advantage.
The time that comes to mind is out of the fourth chapter of Luke, when Jesus stood in the temple and he pointed out to the members and congregation, this is the advantage you’re playing on the grounds of immigration and God doesn’t buy it. And they grabbed him and tried to run him off a cliff for it. That’s what this text is about. Our text today, Peter, the real Jesus follower, trying to keep the less than real Jesus followers in their place. That’s what this text is about. And it’s actually interesting that the First Century Church came into being at all, because it was bucking 3,000 years of tradition and we know what 3,000 years of tradition can do, because we watched it do it to Jesus.
The religious leaders of that tradition found Jesus and his evolutionary thinking threatening enough that they arranged for his crucifixion. And even after that, Jesus followers had a hard time in the early church, conceiving of Christianity, apart from Judaism. We all have affection for the familiar. Now, in Peter, takes a very direct intervention by God, gives Peter a vision that could hardly be misinterpreted. I’m going to let you get out your bible this afternoon and read the full text in Acts 10, got Peter to realize that God shows no partiality, that that advantage that Peter thought he enjoyed, was a fallacy in his own mind. And when Peter makes this declaration about God’s impartiality, regarding the gentiles, in the midst of the Jews, he was standing in the home of Cornelius, he was probably shaky and scared, probably felt like the world under him was moving, because it was.
In fact, Peter nods toward the terrain that he is leaving behind, by reminding the gathering in Cornelius’ home that God’s message is to send people of Israel to spread the news to the regions of Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem. In other words, you don’t get to stay here; you’ve got to go out. But then Peter embraces his new understanding, Peter adds that Jesus is to be offered to everyone and that affirmation, more than any Hebrew text, more than anything historic, is Peter’s foundation, his text. Will Willimon, a preaching professor at Duke University, for about 30 years, now retired, became a bishop, now retired again, he commented on Peter’s speech and he says it this way. He says, this is the way it sometimes is in the church that wants to be healthy. If Jesus is lord, then the church has the adventurous task of penetrating new areas of his lordship, expecting surprises and new implications of the gospel, which cannot be explained, on any other basis than Jesus has shown us something we could not have seen on our own. Even, if we were simply looking at Scripture.
Peter is treading on new ground but Peter now perceives that God’s chosen people includes everyone. Well, yes, some people say, especially our cultural church. Yes, of course, Jesus is lord of all but people have to believe this and that and we’ve got the list, you have to sign at the bottom, before he’s actually your lord.
Or some people say, he’s your lord if you’re willing to be baptized by emersion in the creek, behind the church. Or he’s really your lord if you’re tolerant and open-minded. Or Jesus as lord doesn’t apply to, you fill in the blank, because it’s been filled in many times. It doesn’t apply to fanatics or homosexuals, or republicans, or democrats, or lazy people, or reactionaries, or liberals, or the deluded or the bigoted, or Pharisees, until they, you fill in the blank. We have fences to maintain in the church, some folks say. We have litmus tests to administer. Peter’s deep prejudice, his advantage, is shunted aside, it’s kicked aside and he takes the sense and he follows God’s leadership, this vision changes him and he immediately begins to see himself different in the world. That God shows no partiality means that no one has the edge, that all people are equal before God.
No one is more equal than others, nor is there any hint of separate but equal. The only litmus test that matters is what Jesus administers to the human heart. In other words, we, as the church, need to make sure that we continue to receive people and support them. We need to be careful about the questions that we ask newcomers. What we need to be asking is, what is God doing in your life? What is God calling you to do? How is God calling you to be active in the world? How can we get behind that?
We’re not supposed to be asking questions like; do you believe like I believe? Did you vote like I voted? Do you think like I think? Are you going to be like me? Are you going to agree with me? The other thing that I’ll make note of here in the text is just the question of who was changed by God’s vision. The one who heard it. God comes to each of us in unique ways, don’t think it’s going to be a vision for you, because that worked for Peter. It probably wouldn’t work on you. You’d call it gas from pizza. God’s vision will come to you in a different way. Being open to it, God might show you that you have behaved unjustly, that we have behaved unjustly and our task is to hear that and begin to behave justly. If God shows us that we have, in some way but we didn’t think we were, been racist. And then we have to get out the flashlight and shine the light on our behavior until racism is no longer a part of us.
If God shows us that we’re shutting out someone that God includes in, then we have to move to draw our circle bigger. In each case, we have to deal with ourselves and what God shows us about ourselves. Nothing new here really, Peter thinks he’s stepping out on new ground but the whole sense of the 23rd Psalm is present in this text. He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul, finds me and he leads me in paths of righteousness. In other words, in God’s time, in God’s way, we are found by God, we are restored by God and we begin moving in a new path of God’s design. Not the church’s design.
It’s not the job of the church to tell someone that they’re broken and we need to fix you. It’s not the job of the church to tell someone, you’re wrong and we’re going to tell you how to be right. In fact, I can tell you, having been a listening pastor who’s heard a lot of people talk about why they don’t come to church anymore, there’s an agenda for respectability that gets in the way, in the church. And the church quickly becomes a stumbling block to the work of God, the harder we commit to being respectable. The church is a stumbling block when it fails to welcome everyone that walks through the door. It’s the job of the church to simply ask the question, what is God doing in you and how do we create the conditions here so that is supported?
I have a colleague, we went to a seminary together, he’s now a pastor in Ohio, he talked about growing, he talked a lot about growing up as the son of Salvation Army officers. Unfortunately he developed a very strong distaste for the poor. Salvation Army officers and their families usually live in the same building, where they worship and they serve the poor and so this boy, this colleague of mine, when he was a boy, saw a lot of people coming in and out of their apartment and his mother and father having to deal with a lot of people, with physical and spiritual and emotional and mental demands. He also heard a lot of the stories that people told about why they needed help and to his ears, over the years, a lot of these tales sounded bogus, designed to work the system. And rather than making him more open-hearted, this insider view of people caused him to be hard-hearted and skeptical and disinclined to help them himself.
Later on, he became convinced that God was working in him and he went to seminary. I talked to him, it’s been a couple of years and the last time I asked him about this, he said, my hard-heartedness is still here but I figured out how to be gracious. I figured out I have to listen. I figured out I have to try to help, even though my heart is still hard. Christian singer, Ken Medema, in a concert, said these words, he said, my little Baptist church is in big trouble. He said, we’re Baptists and we get excited about baptizing anybody we can get our hands on. Well, these people showed up for baptism and we were so excited, we received them and we baptized them and they may have mentioned that they were different from us. They may have said that they had a different orientation about them, I don’t remember but we did what Baptists do, we baptized them.
Well, some other Baptists from around the country asked us, what are you doing baptizing them? Don’t you know that they’re sinners? And Ken and the other Baptist said, don’t you know that our church doesn’t approve of their lifestyle? Ken Medema says, we replied, well, if that’s true, then we’re all sinners too and the church doesn’t approve of our lifestyle. We’re Baptists, we baptize everybody that Jesus gets his hands on.
If we use Peter as a model, we who follow Jesus would do well to remain open to the idea that God does new things and we may be called to be agents of change. And sometimes, to our surprise and our chagrin, it’s us and our pride and our affection for the familiar that needs change. But our text today reassures us that God will find us and God will work in us and it is our task to listen and to act. Thanks be to God.