Sermon: Sunday, April 28, 2013: Fifth Sunday ofEaster

Texts:  Acts 11:1-18  +  Psalm 148  +  Revelation 21:1-6  +  John 13:31-35

Apostles dream, and then they act.

This passage from Acts stirred up some lively debate among the pastors with whom I gather each Tuesday morning to study the scriptures in preparation for preaching.  There was some concern that the story is too bizarre, too removed in its images and symbols to be easily understood by today’s readers.  In a few short verses we hear words like “uncircumcised,” “trance,” “beasts of prey,” “kill and eat.” and “profane.”  It’s a lot of language to have to explain, and no one wants a sermon that sounds like a lecture.

Others were quick to point out how important this passage has been for Christians of every time and place for understanding how the early church opened itself up to people and communities that had previously been excluded.  It’s a text worth teaching, precisely because of humanity’s propensity for provincialism.  Our inclination to imagine that God’s beloved community is composed of people just like us.

As I was weighing the merits of these two perspectives, I learned that there were plans underway for a rally in Logan Square this weekend by a group of Christians, organized by the Illinois Family Institute, protesting marriage equality for same-gender couples on biblical grounds and I decided there is no better time to dive into the rich, if unfamiliar, world of Acts 11.

The first words in need of explanation are the distinction between the believers who were in Jerusalem and the Gentiles.  The “believers in Jerusalem” were the early church, the disciples who had known and followed Jesus.  They were mainly Jewish people living in Jerusalem, still relating to the Temple and the worship that went on there.  They were circumcised as a matter of religious law hearkening back to the covenant God made with Abraham, and which continues to this day in observant Jewish families.  Though they had experienced the liberating, life-giving power of Jesus in their own lives, they still seemed to understand the significance of his life, death and resurrection as being for them, and for people like them.

The Gentiles were people not like them.  The Gentiles were people who were definitionally unclean.  The books of Moses, the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, were filled with clear laws about how faithful people were to keep themselves separated from people not of the faith; how clean people were to keep themselves separated from unclean people; how the circumcised were to keep themselves from the uncircumcised.  This is the religious divide lurking behind the line, “so when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying ‘why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  We might translate their question “why did you break the laws of our faith by associating with people who are not like us?”

By way of explaining himself, Peter relates to them a vision that came to him while he was praying in the city of Joppa.  Joppa was the same city from which the prophet Jonah (famous for his journey in the belly of the whale) was sent out to the wicked people of Nineveh.  This historical detail, while minor, establishes an important resonance for the present story: just as God showed care and concern for the people of Nineveh, people far from the nation of Israel, and sent them a prophet  — even a prophet who did not want to go — to bring them back into relationship with their Creator, so God is acting now and always to reach out to people and places imagined to be beyond God’s care and concern to include them in God’s beloved community.

So, while praying in Joppa, Peter receives a vision in which “something like a large sheet was coming down from heaven.”  In this sheet are “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.”  In other words, this sheet from heaven is filled with all sorts of things that Hebrew scripture called unclean according to Levitical law.

Chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus is where we find detailed instructions about what foods are clean and unclean.  It begins,

Speak to the people of Israel, saying: … Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud — such you may eat. (Lev. 11:2-3)… Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams, such you may eat (Lev. 11:9)… These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the buzzard, the kite of any kind; every raven of any kind; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind (Lev. 11:13-16)…”  These are unclean for you among the creatures that swarm upon the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind, the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. (Lev. 11:29)

And so on.  You get the idea.  These things are unclean, even an abomination, and are not to be touched, certainly not to be consumed, to allowed entrance into the body.

But this is not all that the book of Leviticus calls unclean or an abomination. Another section of the book of Leviticus detailing what is clean and what is not, often referred to as the holiness code, is found in chapters 17-26.  These are the chapters where we read that “you shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” (Lev. 17:14)  We also read, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.  You shall not make any gashes on your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” (Lev. 19:28); and “if a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10); and “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22).

So Peter, while praying in Joppa, has seen a vision in which all manner of abominable beasts are brought before him, and Peter is instructed to make a meal of them.  To take that which was considered unclean, and to allow it to enter his body.  He replies, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” (Acts 11:8)  But the voice from heaven insists in what must be considered the heart of this passage, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 11:9)

What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

This happens three times, the same number of times Peter had previously denied Jesus, the same number of times Jesus requested that Peter feed his sheep and tend to his lambs, as if to say that these creatures too, like the sheep and the lambs, like the wicked people of Nineveh, are cared for by the good shepherd.

And then, just as he is coming out of this trance, a group of Gentiles, the uncircumcised, the unclean, arrive at the house where Peter was praying and invite him to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, uncircumcised, unclean and the Holy Spirit moves in Peter, telling him to go with these men anyways.  So he goes, and he breaks the laws of Leviticus, and he enters the home of a Gentile, and he begins to preach to that household and the Holy Spirit falls on those outsiders just as it had on Peter and all the disciples on the first day of Pentecost.

Seeing this evidence of God’s presence among people categorically dismissed as unclean, Peter comes to a new realization, “if God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)

If God gave them the same gift that God have us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?

Brothers and sisters, can you imagine what thrilling and terrifying times these must have been for the early church?  For these people, who understood themselves to be good, law-abiding, upright, and clean?  For these people, who understood themselves as inheritors of a covenant with God?  Can you imagine what it must have been like for the early church in Jerusalem to get this report from Peter, their leader, that God in Christ Jesus was rewriting the rules.  That the outsiders were welcome in.  That the insiders were being sent out.  That the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the profane, were becoming indistinguishable from each other?

I would have expected that they would have said something like, “but the Bible says…” or “but Torah says…”  God knows we hear plenty of that these days, as people march down our streets with signs quoting passages from Leviticus, presuming to tell us whom God hates. But this morning’s story from Acts tells us that God loves those whom the world hates.  God makes clean those whom the world calls dirty.  God welcomes in those the world shuts out.

And, what God has made clean, we must not call profane.

And, if God gave them the same gift God gave us, who are we to hinder God?

But the people in Jerusalem, the early church, did not say, “but the Bible says… ” or “but Torah says…”  Instead, they perceived that God was doing a new thing.  That the God who is revealed in scripture is not bound to scripture, but instead the other way around.  That scripture reveals over and over again a God who refuses to be bound to our prejudices, refuses to be defeated by our failures, refuses to be broken like our promises.  Our scriptures reveal a God who is willing to rewrite scripture in order to get all of God’s beloved creation back into relationship with God and with one another.  The church in Jerusalem says, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

What a great story for us to inherit!  A story that says, “yes, I know what the Bible says, but I’m saying a new thing!”  “See, I am making all things new!  Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev. 21:5)  Into a world filled with laws that divide us, one from another; into a world filled with faiths that struggle to find harmony between themselves;  into a world filled with people, longing to be free, to come home, to belong, God establishes a new commandment, a new law, a new righteousness for those who are called children of God.

Right here in Logan Square, just blocks away from where we are now worshipping, people gathered this weekend to make a public witness to their faith.  Some carried signs quoting Leviticus and its laws, but my favorites were carried by those who were marching in support of marriage equality for same-gender couples, like the placard that read, “John 13:34-35”

Marriage Equality Rally in Logan Square

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is what God’s apostles dream.  This is how God’s apostles act.



Sermon: Sunday, November 18, 2012: 25th Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16  •  Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25  •  Mark 13:1-8

A little over two years ago, syndicated advice columnist and general provocateur Dan Savage and his husband, Terry, launched a national online media campaign to give hope to the thousands of LGBT youth who consider or attempt suicide each year.  The campaign, which you’ll remember was titled “It Gets Better,” grabbed the nation’s attention as ordinary people and celebrities, from our own ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson to President Barack Obama, created short videos of hope and encouragement that were posted online.  These video clips were like messages in a bottle, cast out on the wide sea of the internet, in the hopes that they would land on the lonely shores of those considering an end to life when bullying at school and intolerance at home had left them with nothing but despair.

The rise of the internet has revolutionized our society no less than the invention of the printing press, which — in the sixteenth century — made printed literature accessible to every household and resulted in a literacy explosion.  Here, at the front end of the digital age, it’s hard to know just how the internet is shaping and reshaping our lives.  It has certainly given us access to news, images and stories like we’d never before imagined.  No longer tied to “all the news that’s fit to print,” I can go online to read about the attacks in Gaza this past week at online versions of The New York Times, or Haaretz, or Al Jazeera.  Or, if I were better connected to the networks of American, Israeli and Palestinian activists working on the ground and throughout all levels of government, I could get my news via email, blogs, or Twitter accounts.

A generation ago this kind of talk seemed like a novelty.  We understood that global communications were changing, but it was hard to tell that the world itself was really changing as a result.  Two years ago we sat, transfixed, by images of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring,” as movements of youth and progressive activists began a transformation of their homelands powered by the revolutionary information and communications infrastructure of the internet.

We’ve come a long way from the bottle, but we still need the message.

Over two thousand years ago, before the life and ministry of Jesus, the book of Daniel served as the message in a bottle to the Jewish community suffering under the murderous tyranny of King Antiochus IV Epiphanus, ruler of the Seleucid empire.  The Seleucids were inheritors of the Greek political and cultural customs of Alexander the Great’s empire, and they ruled in Jerusalem and the surrounding lands before the Romans who ruled in Jesus’ time.  During the reign of King Antiochus IV Epiphanus, a name taken upon his rise to power which means “God Manifest,” there was a Jewish revolt — the Maccabean revolt — which is commemorated each year with the celebration of Hanukkah.  The Maccabees were revolting against the king’s action to outlaw Jewish religious rites and customs and the desecration of the temple.  The book of Second Maccabees describes the situation like this,

“The altar was covered with abominable offerings that were forbidden by the laws. People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.” (2 Macc. 6:5-6)

It was into this context of extreme political, cultural, religious and personal persecution that the book of Daniel emerged, in a form of literature every bit as politically subversive as the tweets that fueled the Arab Spring: apocalyptic.  Even Daniel’s name, which means “God is my judge,” was a challenge to the king who named himself, “God Manifest.”  Speaking to a community bullied into complete silence, the book of Daniel promised,

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of great anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”  (Dan. 12:1-2)

We may wonder where comfort and hope are to be found in images of the dead rising from their graves, but to the Jews — those who had survived the massacre of thousands in their community — the message of hope was clear: justice is stronger than death.

Apocalyptic literature appears throughout scripture, wherever the people are facing the horrors of oppression.  The portion we hear from Mark’s gospel today is known as “the little apocalypse,” and in it we can spot the common elements of this genre: predictions of a radical upheaval of power accompanied by signs of chaos in the heavens and on earth.  Here Jesus is responding to the disciples, who are captivated by the power and majesty of the Temple, forecasting that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk 13:2)

Like Daniel, Jesus describes the times to come as filled with violence and war.  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” (Mk 13:8)  Again, sitting in the relative comfort of our modern existence, where wars take place somewhere else, where the draft has been replaced by recruiting campaigns among the poor, where death is delivered by drones, it may be hard for us to hear good news in Jesus’ dire warnings.

But to those living on the ground, in the war, among the poor, where the bombs land, there is good news here indeed; and it is to these people that God is speaking, through the book of Daniel, through Jesus.  The message, once again, is this: justice is stronger than death.  God’s justice, taking on form and flesh in the person of Jesus, the ruler who is truly “God Manifest,” will not rest until the world’s worship of violence in all its forms is deconstructed.  It will get better.

The good news in apocalyptic literature is the promise made to people who feel completely disempowered that God is on their side, that God will be who God has been, and that the powers of this world are no match for the power of God to liberate and restore what God first created.

The good news this morning is that God sees your struggle.  God feels the despair brought on by poverty.  God experiences the depression of ceaseless pain, in our bodies or in our minds.  God knows the loneliness of abandonment by family and friends. God suffers the explosions as each bomb lands on her good creation.  God is moved by creation’s groaning, and is laboring in us and through us to bring a new creation into being.  It will get better.

We hear something about that labor in this morning’s upcoming testimony about our own Elijah’s Pantry, one in a series of testimonies that are a part of the fall Stewardship Campaign.

Whenever she speaks about the work of Elijah’s Pantry, Pat Kuhlman is fond of saying that those who work in the pantry have “job security.”  It’s a funny way of naming a sad truth, that hunger and poverty are more secured in our culture than our own livelihoods.  But this, too, is the kind of institutional oppression that Jesus is naming when he promises that the temples are coming down.

If all we do is talk about it, then we are like the religious people described in the passage from Hebrews this morning, “every priest [that] stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” (Heb. 10:11)

Our hope each time we gather together as an assembly, each time we listen to the Word of God in scripture, in preaching, in song, in testimony is that we will live into that same letter’s invitation to the Church of that time and every time, as we wait for the new creation coming to us, and through us, and for us and the whole world:

“let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24-25)

In the name of Jesus, God manifest among us.  Amen.