Of Asparagus and Introspection

Sermon for Sunday, May 9, 2021 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48

One of my favorite questions to ask people is this: “What is a food you used to not like but now you like very much?” Pretty much everyone can answer this question, even if they have to reach all the way back to childhood. For me, the answers are many. I was not an adventurous eater as a child, but ever since I got married, my tastes have broadened. I started eating avocados and beans and hummus and shellfish. Recently, Leah invited me to try muscles. And to my surprise, I found I liked them a lot.

The reason I like asking this question about food is that it gets people into a mindset that we don’t often put ourselves into willingly. The question forces us to think about a time when we changed our minds. You used to think asparagus was gross…and now it’s among your favorite vegetables. What changed?

Perhaps your taste buds matured. Perhaps someone prepared the asparagus in a more palatable way. Or perhaps you just decided to like asparagus and you’d eat it until you developed a taste for it.

Whatever the reason for the change in your food preferences, I know every one of you has a story about this. Heck, I didn’t even like mac and cheese when I was a kid. When we rehearse how our tastes have changed over time, we can identify the mental muscles that hold tight to what we’ve always known, and perhaps we can begin to release our vise-like grip on our long-held views.

Releasing our grip on long-held views doesn’t necessarily mean we will, in the end, change our views. But it does mean dragging our viewpoints out from the dusty filing cabinets in the back of our minds, examining them, and deciding why we are holding onto them. Are we holding onto our views because they are true and virtuous and life-giving? Or are we holding onto our views because they have become so deeply ingrained into our identities that we won’t know who we are if we let them go?

This type of introspection is intensely uncomfortable because it means being honest with ourselves, even when honesty means making a change. Our brains are inherently lazy organs. Our brains want to conserve energy by sending our thoughts along the same well-worn neural paths, whether or not those paths are still as effective or healthful as they once were. Blazing new neural pathways might make us more joyful, more generous, more compassionate – but first we have to overcome the big hurdle of the brain’s inertia. An object at rest stays at rest.

But when we muster the energy to shift our brains onto new pathways, the other side of Isaac Newton’s first law comes into play. An object in motion stays in motion. We discover that examining long-held views expands us into new levels of consciousness. And we find that the cognitive dissonance, which is always part of honest self-reflection, is like the dissonant notes in music that propel the music to the next beautiful consonance.

In today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, we drop in on Peter at the end of a long story. Peter has developed a relationship with a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius and his household wish to become followers of Jesus. Peter is reticent at first because they are Gentiles; they are not circumcised and they are not members of a tribe of Israel. Peter has just had a divine vision in which the Lord commanded him to eat things Peter had never eaten before. (That’s where I got my question about food, by the way.) At first Peter refuses because nothing unclean has ever passed his lips. But the Lord says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter is bewildered by the vision, but just then people from Cornelius’s house come to get him. And Peter realizes the vision is about expanding his view about whom God considers part of God’s family; namely everyone, no matter their status in the eyes of other peoples. Peter and his party go to Cornelius’s household and while Peter is preaching to them, the Holy Spirit falls upon them. And this next bit is important. The “circumcised believers” with Peter are astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out even upon Gentiles. The circumcised believers are Israelites who were not privy to Peter’s vision. But Peter holds strong, saying, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

With God’s help, Peter changes his mind, and thus alters the course of history, making Christianity a religion for everyone, rather than a faith bound by location or ethnicity. Such a decision took a lot of courage on Peter’s part, and he must have pushed beyond the cognitive dissonance so that he could find the truth, virtue, and life-giving nature of the more expansive view.

In a world of hyper-partisanship and siloed media feeds, we might be tempted to think that changing our minds about something is a sign of weakness. Or that even examining our long-held views is a betrayal of our identities. But none of us is a static being. We are always taking in new information. We are always responding to a changing world. We are always confronted with opportunities to learn something new. I, for one, do not want to go back to the world where scallops were not part of my diet. Changing our minds when new knowledge or new relationships open us up is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of humble strength.

John Newton (no relation to Isaac, as far as I can tell) was the captain of a ship that transported stolen people in hellish holds across the Atlantic from Africa to the American colonies where they were enslaved. After a stroke, Newton gave up his active participation in the slave trade and became an Anglican clergyman. For over three decades he remained silent about the horrors he had witnessed and engaged in. Then, in 1788, Newton finally, publicly, changed his mind, saying: “[The slave trade] will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” Newton went on to be an ally of William Wilberforce, who was the main voice in abolishing the slave trade in England. 

I know you’ve heard the words Newton penned: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” There is a persuasive argument among historians of music that the tune of “Amazing Grace” came from the belly of the slave ship, drifting up from the stolen people and resting in the deep recesses of the hardened heart of the ship’s captain. If that’s true, and I think it is, then that tune rested in Newton’s heart and mind for decades, slowly working on him, and perhaps helped propel him to change his mind, declare the slave trade evil, and work for freedom and justice.*

As we walk through the difficult days of this paradigm-shifting pandemic, take the opportunity to ask yourselves some questions. When was the last time you changed your mind about something that matters? How hard was it to do? What did it feel like? I invite you this week in your prayer to ask God for the fortitude to deepen your introspection, and with humble strength seek out within yourselves that dusty filing cabinet at the back of your mind. Open it up. Let the sun shine on the views stored there. Examine them for their truth, virtue, and life-giving nature. And know that, like Peter and like John Newton, God gives us each the power to change our minds and to grow into newness, even as God is making all things new.

Photo by Stephanie Studer on Unsplash.

*Newton published “Amazing Grace” 16 years before his declaration about the slave trade. Would that he had spoken out sooner. Watch this astounding video a member of my church recently sent to me in which Gospel singer Wintley Phipps speaks of the possibility of the tune coming from the enslaved Africans in the hold of Newton’s ship.

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