Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to all the Israelites…” (Deuteronomy 1:3a) This is how the last scroll of the Torah begins. It has been a long journey, but they are finally almost there: thirty-nine years and eleven months since crossing the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit. As the Book of Deuteronomy begins, we are meant to imagine Moses and all of those refugees from Egypt standing there in the wilderness. They have almost arrived and they can see the Promised Land. They can practically taste the milk and honey that had been promised to them four decades earlier and now they are all huddled together, about to embark on something new.

What a great time for a long sermon! Because, as you will recall, Moses isn’t going with them. And so before they go, he has a whole lot of stuff he wants to say to them about the lessons of the wilderness and the challenges that lie ahead for God’s people. He is telling them what he thinks will be important to them as they make this transition without him as their leader. Now I’m no Moses, but this image has always captured my imagination and this Lent for reasons I’m sure you can appreciate, it has taken on a whole new level of meaning for me.  

The basic premise is simple, and like all great preachers Moses keeps returning to the main themes again and again. It goes something like this: in our precariousness, we knew that we needed God. When you are in the desert praying for daily bread and water and you literally mean it, you learn to live life one day at a time. You rely on God, hour by hour. You know that you are utterly dependent upon God’s mercy. As hard as life is in the desert, in a way faith is easier. The desert brings people to their knees; it makes prayer almost natural. In the words of the book by Anne Lamott that Karen is exploring this Lent, those three prayers become a part of daily life: Help! Thanks! Wow!

Help, God! We have no food and we are really scared and we need you! And then of course there is miracle bread—whatchamacallit bread—manna. And it is enough. So thank you God. Or as Maya Angelou once put it: Thank you for your presence during the hard and mean days / For then we have you to lean upon. In the desert there are also plenty of opportunities to pray wow: at the parting of the waters at the Red Sea and that whole pyrotechnic show on Mount Sinai where Moses encounters the living God, but also in smaller ways each and every day that the sun comes up, and there is water, and there is bread.  

Prayer flows more naturally in the desert, I think: help, thanks, and wow become part of the daily rhythm of life. And it isn’t all that different for us, is it? Difficult times like illness or loss or addiction or financial worries can all drive us to our knees and become occasions when we truly, really recognize that we are powerless over so many things, and perhaps even that our lives have become unmanageable. We come by God’s grace in such seasons to believe in a power greater than ourselves that can and does restore us to sanity. In our precariousness, we don’t need a seminar in how to pray: help, thanks, and wow flow out of our being…

But here is the thing: Moses knows that in a land flowing with milk and honey, in a promised land where there will be plenty of bakeries and an array of bread options to choose from, that it will be so much harder to remember God. And so he tells the people that the danger in the midst of affluence is going to be amnesia. They will be tempted to literally forget who they are and whose they are. They will be tempted to say to themselves: my hard work got me this bread and this milk and this honey and this nice house and this fast car. They may even be tempted to say, “to hell with my neighbor…he doesn’t work as hard as I do anyway.” And by the time all that happens, they will also have forgotten the Lord their God, because you cannot love God whom you cannot see if you do not love your neighbor who is right in front of you.

Self-reliant people don’t need to pray “help” because they don’t need any; like that little red hen they just do it themselves. Self-made people don’t need to say “thanks” to anyone; they just pat themselves on the back. Self-centered people forget to pray “wow” because their world gets smaller and smaller, leading to a kind of ennui where the most amazing things—like sunrises and a child’s laughter and a walk on the beach—are taken for granted.

Moses is relentless, however, in saying that this self-made and self-reliant stuff is a lie. And so he offers an antidote: remember, remember, remember. And you can remember best by teaching. So teach, teach, teach. Teach your children and your grandchildren. Tell them the stories again and again and again of what it was like under Pharaoh’s oppressive economy. Tell them what it was like to live in the Sinai for four decades. Tell them what it was like to have nothing and yet to have everything because God was with us and because God saved us and because God gave us Torah and because God gave us water and manna and because God gave us to be companions to each other—one day at a time. If you can remember all of that when you get to the promised land, then all will go well. But even so, it will still be much harder to be faithful there than it was in the Sinai Desert. Moses suggests that liturgy and prayer and faith practices are the ways to keep the lessons of the Sinai fresh. They will show God’s people how to remember from generation to generation. That is what we heard in the portion of this sermon that was read today: 

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us."

It’s a stewardship sermon. You take the first portion of what God has blessed you with and you give it back. Not just any portion—not what’s left over at the end of the week—because chances are that if we wait to see what’s left there won’t be anything. So take the first part, the best part—a tithe. Practice good stewardship not because God needs your money but because good stewardship reminds you that it was never yours in the first place. It helps us to remember that the word “mine” is as dangerous for adults as it is for three-year olds and that it is so much better for us to learn to share. In the Promised Land, we can suffer from amnesia and start to value our stuff more than our God. So Moses continues:

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors. (HELP!) The LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders (WOW!) And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (THANKS!) So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.

Now Jesus was raised a Jew, not a Christian. I know you all know this but it is so tempting for us as Christians to forget this. And yet I am convinced that we cannot begin to understand Jesus and his ministry until we begin at least to understand the traditions that shaped him. He was raised on the Five Books of Moses, not on a King James Bible that had all his lines printed in red! So his parents and grandparents no doubt told him the story, over and over and over again. Mary and Joseph told him about the forty years in the desert, about Egypt and the Promised Land, about remembering to pray Help! and Thanks! and Wow! The desert represents that place where you go to encounter the living God, the place where you go to remember.

And so it is not all that surprising that after his Baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days. Not three weeks, or two months, but forty days. He goes on a kind of vision quest (if it helps to think of it that way) in order to get in touch with the wisdom of the ancestors. He is tested there by the Evil One, just as his people had been tested so long ago. But in that testing (and in the resisting of temptation) he comes out stronger and clearer about who he is and whose he is and what he is called to be about.

The forty-day season of Lent is patterned on this same kind of journey. We have now embarked on that journey together, having been invited this past Wednesday into a holy Lent. We won’t literally be going to the desert, although I have sometimes wondered what it would be like for us if we could pack up this whole congregation and go out together to Arizona or the Judean wilderness or the Sinai Peninsula. What it would be like for us to learn to rely on each other there one day at a time?

I remember the one and only time in my adult life when my brother and I decided we should take our families camping. Our kids were young and we had definitely grown up in a non-camping family so we borrowed all the equipment. Actually I wanted to go out and buy all the equipment because I was convinced we would become a camping family, but my wife (always the voice of reason) wisely convinced me that it might be a good idea to try this once before making such an investment. Anyway, my brother Jim and I were trying to get the tents up and trust me, it was like a sit-com. We had no clue. Finally this very nice woman came over and took pity on us and helped us. She even tended to our fragile male egos as she offered this help, telling us she was sure we would have eventually figured it out. Maybe. But we didn’t care; we were idiots and we knew it. It’s hard to ask for help: from our neighbor and from God. Many of us, I think, are better at giving help than receiving it—especially in the “promised land” where we are tempted to think that we need no one but ourselves.

We aren’t going to Arizona, or Egypt, or Judea this Lent. But we are going on a journey. The desert is not just a literal place. In the spiritual life it is a metaphor. And it’s a tricky metaphor because most of us have some unlearning to do about Lent. But all will be well, because Moses and Jesus—who both knew something about the desert—point us in the right direction on this first Sunday of Lent. They invite us to remember once more the solace of fierce landscapes, those places where we encounter the living God and rediscover the truth about who we are and where we can remember how to pray help, thanks, and wow. Those three prayers will eventually lead us all the way to the cross, and ultimately to an empty tomb.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

An Invitation to a Holy Lent

The journey of Lent has begun! Yesterday, along with many Christians (not only Roman Catholics!) I received ashes on my forehead. In the parish I serve, at each liturgy of the day I read these words:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of moral nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
For me these words are among the most powerful in the whole Book of Common Prayer, a resource with many powerful words. It doesn't tell us how we must do Lent but it invites us to go deeper into a community that has deep roots. In so doing we are reminded that while Lent may be personal, it is not meant to make us more individualistic. For me the whole season of Lent is a reminder that the Church was not "thought up" last Tuesday (even if some liturgy is so "thin" that it can feel that way sometimes.) There is depth and richness and wisdom in the communion of saints and we are invited to dive in!

Lent isn't in the Bible, but the notion of spending time in the desert (forty years, forty days) definitely is. And so it became the custom of the early Christians to observe these days "with great devotion." It was not primarily a time to give up chocolate, but it was a season of fasting. It was a season of Baptismal preparation, which is why among the already-Baptized it is a good time to remember our Baptism and the Covenant that goes with it by trying to more faithfully (with God's help) live into those promises first made on our behalf and later affirmed by us.

I serve among a lot of sinners, but not too many notorious ones. Most of us do most of our sinning, I think, in secret. But I do serve in a time and place when there are many who have drifted away from the community of faith for various reasons. I have yearned for Lent to be a time to welcome back people without shame or judgment, to put the whole congregation in mind of God's embrace and love in this season.

So what is Lent for? The reason we give some things up is to say yes to others. We clear the decks. I think it's a little more than a tithe of a year for "self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word." We examine our own faults (not those of our loved ones or our bosses!) not to increase our own sense of shame or to "fix" ourselves, but to give it to God. We ask for healing. We look to see the beam in our own eyes and ask for God's help with that. We turn around and get our bearings again by re-orienting our lives toward God. We may be headed in exactly the wrong direction, or just require some readjusting. We pray, we fast, we look for a bigger world than our own ego needs. We spend more time reading and meditating on the Scriptures.

We won't get it all right, not this Lent or any Lent. But we are invited to make a right beginning, with God's help.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday Ruminations

Someone told the story who told someone the story who told someone else the story. This is how it goes, does it not? It can be good news or bad news? It can "build people up" or it can "tear them down." It can be truth or gossipy lies.

As people of "good news" we are called to tell the story; to share what we have heard. I am part of the Fellowship of St. John the Evangelist and I get their posts on Facebook. Their last post was a response from the Bishop of Vermont, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Ely, who was responding to a post by  Brother Geoffrey Tristram on Prayer. Are you still with me? Geoffrey shared a story that Tom repeated and now I want to share it with you. Here is an excerpt from the blog,"Green Mountain Bishop." (The full post can be found here.)
In his sermon, Brother Geoffrey recalled a favorite story about the Russian rabbi Zusia to illustrate his point. I repeat it here because it stirred my heart and my imagination. ”One day some students were talking with him and the first said, “Rabbi Zusia, I am afraid that when I appear before the Holy One he will ask me, ’Why did you not have the faith of Abraham?’ A second student said, ‘I am afraid that when I am before the Holy One he will ask me, ‘Why did you not have the patience of Job?’ Then a third student said, ‘Rabbi I am afraid that when I stand before the Holy One he will ask me, ‘Why did you not have the courage of Moses?’ Then they all asked Rabbi Zusia, ‘Rabbi, when you appear before the Holy One which question do you most fear?’ Rabbi Zusia answered, ‘When I appear before the Holy One I ‘m afraid he’ll ask me, ‘Zusia, why were you not Zusia?’”
I've heard the story before, from someone else, at another time in my life when it also "stirred my heart and my imagination."  But it's a great story, and a particularly great story for this holy day. So I pass it on and ask you my readers: how is God calling you to live more faithfully into being YOU in these next forty days? Not somebody else, but the unique person you were created from dust to be?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany

Today we come to the end of what has been a very short Epiphany season. We began a little over a month ago—on January 6—as we marked the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, bearing their gifts for the newborn king. Since then we’ve remembered the Baptism of our Lord and our own baptisms—as we listened for the voice of God that claimed not only Jesus but us as “beloved of God” And then on to a wedding in Cana of Galilee, where the water is not only turned into wine but the best is saved for last. And then these past two weeks we have seen the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth. Finally we have reached our destination: the Mount of the Transfiguration.

Those have been the gospel readings over these past five weeks. During this same time our epistle readings have been coming from Paul’s letters to the Church in Corinth. Two weeks ago, Karen reminded us that they were a challenging bunch there, in Corinth. By all accounts they were profoundly gifted and cosmopolitan. So when Paul tells them about spiritual gifts he is talking with people who have lots of them. The challenge they face, however, is that they are going in a hundred different directions. So Paul counsels them to remember that they are one body and then he reminds them (as Jacqueline reminded us last weekend) that without faith, hope and love—and especially love—their gifts are nothing more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Today we heard these words: 

…all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Did you get that? It’s not only Jesus who was transfigured on the Mount of the Transfiguration, but Paul says that we are being changed. You and I are being made new; we are being transfigured. You may recall how last week in that famous passage about faith, hope, and love that Paul says something like, “now we see through the glass darkly; then we shall see face to face.” Today he seems to be suggesting that when we see God the face of God we begin to see ourselves in a new light. We begin to walk as children of light.  

This is why we do not lose heart. This is why we have such hope and act with great boldness. This is how we are able to love one another: because with unveiled faces we see the glory of the Lord reflected in a mirror, and we know that we are being transformed into the image of Christ—that we are growing into the full stature of Christ. These are remarkable words to take with us into the season of Lent, which begins on Wednesday.  

Personally, I feel Eucharistic C is a bit dated. More than any other liturgy in The Prayerbook it feels to me like we are going back in time to the 1970s, which of course is when that liturgy was written; all of those “planets in their courses and this fragile earth, our island home.” Even so, I love Prayer C for just this reason: because it invites us to consider the whole cosmos, space—the final frontier and all of that. Because in that prayer especially we are aware that science and religion are not opposites, but just different ways of knowing—and that exploring the mysteries of creation is also to see God’s hand at work in the world around us. What we have been praying for these past five weeks is that God might “open our eyes” to notice. These themes are not merely about remembering a God who was made manifest once upon a time in a galaxy far away, but of a God who is, even now, being made manifest in our very midst. What we pray for are eyes to see.  

On the Mount of the Transfiguration, God is made manifest in Jesus, the Light of the world. God very often speaks on mountaintops in the Bible, maybe for the same reason that so many of us feel closer to God when we hike up a mountain and look out over the vista. We speak of “mountaintop experiences” as a metaphor for our spiritual epiphanies because the landscape itself very often helps to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us. In such moments we may have the experience of knowing God more fully and of being more fully known by God.

There is a shadow side here, however; or at least a temptation. Such moments are fleeting; and yet it is tempting to want to try to hold onto them forever, and maybe even of trying to make them normative. I think that is primarily what is going on in the disciples’ desire to build booths on the Mount of the Transfiguration. In truth, every moment is fleeting. The good times, the hard times—time is an ever flowing stream. Mountaintop moments in our lives are precious and a gift, for sure. But the journey of faith is not one long extended mountaintop experience. We are called to listen to the Voice of God in this story, which makes clear that we are called to listen to, and then follow Jesus by putting one foot in front of the other. The challenge of faith is to live each moment; not to stay on a mountaintop in booths. We are a people of the Way, and specifically a people called to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross.

So liturgically, the wisdom of remembering the Transfiguration today is to prepare us to take the next steps in the journey of faith into Lent, which begins this Wednesday: to resolutely set our faces toward Jerusalem. I want to interrupt this sermon with a commercial:  an invitation to please make time to be here on Wednesday when we remember together that we are dust, which is simply to say that we do not have all the time in the world and therefore we need to make the most of it. For Christ’s sake and our own. Many of us grew up in faith traditions like the Roman Church where Ash Wednesday was a normative practice. Some of us grew up in more Protestant traditions where we would not be caught dead with ashes on our foreheads so as not to be mistaken for being “Catholics.” But I invite all of us who are here now to journey with me into a holy Lent and begin again together on Wednesday.

Now there is one caveat I need to share with all of you. Everything that I have said to you so far today is shaped by the Western Christian liturgical calendar. While there may be differences between Methodists and Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, we all follow this same basic path from Epiphany to the Jordan River and then on to Cana of Galilee and ultimately to the Mount of the Transfiguration; and from there to Ash Wednesday and ultimately to Easter morning where “cross and Easter day attest, God in flesh made manifest.”

While my own experience of the Christian tradition has been quite ecumenical, it has mostly been very western. A few years ago, however, I had a chance to travel in the Holy Land, where I was reminded once more of the rich traditions of Orthodoxy that are rooted in the Church’s experience in the east: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and others. One of the surprises was the ever-present reminder that Christianity is, at its roots, an eastern religion that spread to the west. You feel that and you smell it and you see it when you walk into a place like the Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher!

Alexander Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, a leading liturgical scholar in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. A few years ago I read his book on Orthodox Lenten practices, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.  As much as I love the Epiphany season and find this journey we have been on makes so much sense to my western mind, reading Schmemman’s book changed the way I think about preparing for Lent. In Orthodoxy, the weeks leading up to “Great Lent” are very different from what I have been describing to you. In the five weeks before Lent, the Orthodox focus on five themes: Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus), Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son), Last Judgment, and then finally, Forgiveness Sunday. The Orthodox are clearer than we have been in the west that Lent is not a time to wallow in guilt or shame, but an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s abundant love—which then allows us to more fully embrace the Paschal mystery by becoming instruments of God’s peace and ambassadors of reconciliation. As we participate in Christ’s victory over sin and death.

Sin is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. The first chink in the armor of the mighty fortress of sin, Schmemman says, is forgiveness, which opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality, to God’s reality. “To forgive,” Schmemman writes, “is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ.”

Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different day than our western Easter and this year they are about as far apart as they ever get: we’ll celebrate Easter here on March 31, but the Orthodox won’t do so until May 5. So they won’t even begin Lent until March 18 when we’ll be almost finished. But on March 17 as they are getting ready for Lent, they’ll celebrate Forgiveness Sunday (or Cheesefare Sunday as it is also called.)  On that last Sunday before Lent begins, there will be an elaborate dance where each person in worship says to every other person there, “Forgive me, for I have sinned.”

Now I am not going to ask you to dance. But I want you to think about that for a moment—what it would be like today for you to ask each person here for forgiveness. And then those beyond this room whom you have hurt as well. Now I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent. So the liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not “I forgive you”—because, to be honest, that just might not yet be true. So here is the liturgical response: “God has forgiven you.” Forgive me, for I have sinned. God has forgiven you.

The spirit of Lent, Schmemman says, is an invitation to experience that mysterious liberation that makes us “light and peaceful,” by illuminating an inner beauty that he compares to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.”  Maybe that image gives us a connection between east and west! Maybe that is where the Mount of the Transfiguration converges with Forgiveness Sunday, taking us, as Don Henley once put it, to “the heart of the matter”—which is indeed about forgiveness.

Imagine yourself both saying those words to someone whom you have hurt, and imagine someone whom you have hurt saying these words to you. Maybe this Lent you will find you need to go say them for real and in person or in writing to someone.  Forgive me, for I am a sinner. Maybe you just can’t go there yet. But listen at least, even now for good news, even when we are not yet ready to let it go: God forgives you, be at peace. Let this simple prayer of confession lead you, lead us, into a holy Lent, until we once again sing our alleluias on Easter morning and embrace the new and liberating life that is ours in Jesus Christ: a life characterized by hope, boldness, freedom and abundant life.

Friday, February 8, 2013

February 7: Cornelius the Centurion

Yesterday was the feast of Cornelius the Centurion. In honor of the occasion, I had intended to post this re-edited version of a sermon I preached on Easter Sunday in 2005, focused on that extraordinary encounter between Peter and Cornelius. But I'm just getting around to posting it today. If you don't know this story recounted in Acts 10, you can read it here.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

What a bold claim! It rolls off our tongues on Easter morning, but that doesn’t lessen how radical those words truly are. In a world bent on destruction, we gather here to be reminded that good triumphs over evil, and that hope is stronger than fear. Life really is victorious over death! The empty tomb marks a radical new beginning—the beginning of this journey from death into life. Wherever you may be on that journey, I invite you in the name of Christ to keep moving and to take the next steps by putting your trust in the God who is making all things new. Because the Lord is risen indeed!

I want to tell you about a congregation—in another time and place—but not so different from us as we may initially think. I want to tell you about a community that wasn’t afraid to live as Easter people: pushing the edges, shattering old boundaries, inspiring hope even in the midst of a declining Roman empire. I want to remind you about First Church, Jerusalem—from which the good news spread to the north, south, east, and west. And as it did, lives were changed. And as it did, the community itself was transformed. With a risen Lord, stasis is not an option.

When we last saw Peter he was a broken man. He had betrayed the rabbi who had called him to fish for people. In the end, when the chips were down, he didn’t say “you are the Christ” when he was picked out of a crowd for his Galilean accent. Instead he said “I do not know the man.” Now that might have been the end of the story.

But because the Lord is risen indeed, Peter is a changed man by the tenth chapter of Acts. Something has happened to him. He’s a man on the move—boldly proclaiming to anyone who will listen what he once claimed in secret at Caesarea Philippi: that yes, this Jesus really is the Messiah.

Ironically (or providentially) we are once again in Caesarea—the very place where Peter first became clear that Jesus was more than a rabbi, more than a faithful friend. The narrator calls our attention to a Roman army officer named Cornelius: a God-fearing and generous man of prayer. Well that all sounds nice. But he’s still a Roman soldier, those imperialist pigs! He’s still a Gentile. He’s still not us—as far any first-century Jew is concerned. He may be a decent guy and all but he’s a Roman soldier and he is still part of a foreign occupying power.

So Cornelius has this vision—around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The vision is pretty clear: he sees an angel and the angel says, “Cornelius: send men to Joppa and find a man named Peter.” Now Joppa is about thirty miles away, so this isn’t just around the block. But he sends some men.

Around noon the next day, Peter has his own dream. He is up on his roof praying and he has the strangest vision. He sees the heavens opening and something like a large bedsheet being lowered: on it are all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds. And a voice says: “Peter, kill…eat.”

And Peter says, “no way, Lord. I’ve kept kosher my whole life. I’ve never eaten anything unclean. (Well, I did think once about trying a shrimp, but I didn’t do it, Lord!”) But the vision happens three times, and three times Peter hears a voice that says: “what God has made clean you must not call profane.”

Now this makes no sense to Peter. It goes against all he has been taught. Peter isn’t a Christian—we need to remember that; the term doesn’t even yet exist. Peter is a Jew—who happens to believe that Messiah has come and his name is Jesus. Peter has been a faithful Jew his whole life and he expected, I’m sure, to die that way. And to be a Jew is to keep Torah—all of it, not just the convenient parts. It’s to be set apart—called to be God’s holy people. It’s to keep the Sabbath holy and to be circumcised, and to avoid certain foods. It’s just what his mother taught him to do.

Well you can see where this thing is going: the men arrive from Caesarea, and they find this rather confused apostle. He is now asked to make the return trip and to travel thirty miles back to the place where he first said to his friend, Jesus, “you are the Christ.” And the “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey might say, is history. These two guys get together, exchange visions, and figure out that God is doing something new here. Cornelius says: let’s have lunch together. I’ve got this great chef from Louisiana who makes a mean crawfish and sausage gumbo…

Because that’s what it comes down to—really and truly—always when it is Easter. With whom are we willing to sit and eat? At our own tables, at our church potluck suppers, at the Eucharistic feast: who is included? Is it soup yet, and is there room enough at the table for one more?

Jewish dietary laws don’t tend to get Christians all worked up. So imagine, if it’s easier for you, that Peter is Irish Catholic and Cornelius is Protestant and they both live in Belfast—and instead of having soup together they decide it’s time to sit down and have a Guinness—and in so doing they find out they have a whole lot more in common than what divides them.

Or imagine Peter is a Palestinian Muslim and Cornelius is a Russian Jew living on West Bank…and instead of soup they decide it is finally time to sit down and share some hummus and olives and feta together.

The point is that Peter and Cornelius break bread together. They become companions for that is what that word means in Latin—literally “to bread with.” They get a sense in their bones (that they believe is from God) that it’s time to eat together, time to make peace, time to find reconciliation. That’s what this bizarre dream about clams and shrimp and pork chops coming down on a sheet from heaven is really about: about breaking down old barriers, about the risk of reconciliation. And I propose to you this morning that this is the true meaning of Easter. So it is Peter who gives us our Easter sermon today, not me: my task is simply to invite us to listen to it with new ears and to try to begin to live it a little bit in our own time and place. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” Peter says, “but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” He preaches the gospel not only with his lips, but with his life as he sits and eats lunch with this Roman army officer.

And then the Holy Spirit falls on all of them, and they are all astounded, and then Peter says, “‘how can we not baptize this guy?’ I mean I know it sounds crazy—and I know it goes against everything I’ve ever been taught. But let me tell you I’ve seen a guy raised from the dead so from there pretty much anything is up for grabs!”

Things are out of control! The Spirit is loose! And the Spirit messes up our tidy little worlds. And, oddly, I find that incredibly comforting. I find it comforting because it reminds me and maybe it reminds you that Easter isn’t about tranquility. I’m not sure that I’ve yet experienced a Christmas where “all is calm and all is bright.” But I know I haven’t had an Easter like that! Because Easter is about transformation and new life; it’s about things that we thought impossible becoming possible. Worlds get turned upside down! And that’s always messy!

For the Church that means, both in the first-century and into the twenty-first, that we are a work-in-progress. We don’t have it all figured out yet, and we don’t have to. It reminds us we aren’t in control. We just have to understand that God is in charge—not us. And that Christ is alive and the Spirit is at work. We are simply invited along for the ride—a ride far more scary than anything you can find at Disneyworld or Six Flags. Christ invites us to pay attention and if we dare to join in the work that God is still doing in the world. That work is still about the power of hope over fear, of life over death, of breaking down walls so that strangers can become friends.

So wherever you see things like this happening, there is nothing really to do except to break into song:

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!