Precipice

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98

precipice“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Today’s psalm begins with these glorious words, and for me it begins with a question. Why does the song we sing have to be a new one? Why can’t the song be an old song, one that has stood the test of time? “Amazing Grace,” perhaps? Or how about “In the Garden?” While these songs are beautiful and wonderful and should never, ever be lost to the ages, I think the psalmist feels the urge to sing a new song because he or she has discovered a fundamental truth about God’s movement in God’s universe. God is always doing something new.

God’s ceaselessly creative hand did not stop molding and shaping the universe at the end of the sixth day of creation. God continues to breath new life into this ever-expanding cosmos: at the grand scale of galactic expansion and at the small scale of simple, daily interaction. In the playroom next door, the twins do something new seemingly every day. Amelia loves to eat real food. Charlie has started climbing. We have several parishioners who have recently moved from their homes into assisted living facilities or whose recent medical interventions have led to new lifestyle choices. They are faced with newness of a less joyful kind, but we still fervently hope that their new situations will lead to much better outcomes than they could have expected before.

The simple fact that spring has sprung reminds us that God is always doing something new. In my life. In your lives. In the life of the church. The world. Creation. We believe that God’s reign is constantly and continually reshaping existence, bringing all things into closer connection with God, as creation was always intended to be.

The newness that trumpets God’s closeness is borne on the wind of the Holy Spirit. Not all new things are of God, but the Holy Spirit helps us discern when and where God is birthing those new things that do lead to closer connection for all people. When we allow ourselves to be open to the newness dancing along in the Holy Spirit’s wake, we become people who are less afraid to try new things, to risk, perhaps to fail, but to know that in the attempt a new shoot of possibility has sprung up from the ground. When we do succeed in living into God’s reconciling newness, the result is deeper connection with God and a more expansive understanding of God’s love and God’s generosity.

One climactic example of this success happens in our tiny first reading today. It is the most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church. You might think it would be a dramatic conversion or a miraculous healing or a mystical vision or a memorable speech, but while each of these happens in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary moment of reconciling newness in the early days of the church happens when one person simply realizes he is wrong and then changes his mind.

That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out anything new that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.

But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built in this divisive way, so no one really questioned the structure.

That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. While a meal is being prepared, Peter receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command: “I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.” But the voice counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.

When the vision ends, Peter meets a trio of Gentiles who invite him to meet a Roman named Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.

This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”

Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision, at the precipice of something new trying to break into reality. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other. And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He baptizes all the Gentiles present and charts a new course of acceptance in this new and nascent religion soon to be called Christianity.

This particular type of newness – welcome of the other, whatever makes that person other – keeps encountering the church again and again. Over the centuries, Christians have failed to be swept up by the wind of the Holy Spirit’s newness too many times to count, but every once in a while, we trim the sail just right and succeed in ushering in God’s reconciling newness. Just in our lifetimes, we have expanded opportunities in our church to many groups who had been shut out before – allowing women to be priests, for example; or blessing loving relationships of any orientation with the sacrament of marriage.

When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, how do you feel? Terrified? Excited? Saddened by what is fading away? Joyful for what is breaking in? All of the above, probably. In any case, like spring blooming in a riot of color every year, newness is just a part of life. In our own lives and in the life of the church or our nation or the world, the newness that comes from God will always lead to deeper connection, greater reconciliation, more hope – maybe not today or tomorrow. But the path will lead there someday.

The next time you are at the precipice of a decision like Peter, stop for a moment and pray. Take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you. Ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with this decision. How will it lead you closer to God or another person? God is forever speaking words of reconciliation and renewal into this creation. Each day, we have the opportunity to hear them anew and to choose the course towards closer connection and to leap off the precipice and to soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit.

Letting down the nets

(Sermon for February 7, 2010 || Epiphany 5, Year C, RCL || Luke 5:1-11)

I wrote this sermon before a blizzard dumped three feet of snow of my town, so I never got to preach it. Accordingly, here’s a recording of the sermon as it would have sounded. Use the audio player below or download it here.

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, thinking back on that day when he met Jesus by the lake of Gennesaret.

“He sounds like my kind of fellow,” I remember saying to the traveler at my stall, just days before I met Jesus in the flesh. The traveler was gossiping with the rest of my customers about the goings-on in his hometown of Nazareth. According to him, an angry mob nearly threw Jesus off a cliff for something he said in the synagogue. That was the first thing I heard about him. Like I said, my kind of fellow.

At the end of the next Sabbath day, I was getting my gear ready to go out on the water, when my brother Andrew burst through the door. He stumbled into the room and panted, “He’s coming here.”

I stared at him, both eyebrows arched. He kept talking: “Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is coming here.” Then he grabbed me by both shoulders. “I need to tell you, I just saw the most incredible thing: there was a man in the synagogue with a demon that was screaming at Jesus, but he told it to be silent and go, and it did, and the man’s not even hurt.”

He said it all in one breath. I don’t think I’d ever seen Andrew so excited. “He’s coming here?” I said it as a question, and then realization dawned. “He’s coming here.” I looked around the house. I hadn’t realized how dirty my home had become since my wife started taking care of her mother. “Why?” I asked.

His reply came all in one breath again: “Your mother-in-law: I told him about her fever, and how she was getting sicker and sicker, and he wants to help, and I ran ahead, so he should be here any time now.” Right on cue, I heard a knock on the door. I barely remember what happened next. Jesus shook my hand, and ten minutes later, my wife’s mother was cooking dinner like she had never even been sick.

A month later, I met Jesus again, and I remember that second meeting like it were yesterday. We’d just finished arguably our worst night ever. Not a single fish. And we weren’t out there with bait and tackle. We were using trawling nets, and we still didn’t catch anything. To make matters worse, a crowd of people was surging onto the docks, which creaked and groaned under the weight. I looked up from my net and saw Jesus at the front of the crowd, backing slowly toward the end of the dock. I thought about the cliff in Nazareth. Was this crowd trying to drown him? I couldn’t reach him from where I was, so I dived into the water and swam a diagonal to the other side of the pier. He and I reached the end of the dock at the same time. “Simon,” he called, and laughing, he hoisted me from the water.

I could tell by the way he said my name that he wasn’t in immediate danger of being tossed from the pier. “You remember me?” I said.

“Yes, and I also remember you have a boat. It doesn’t happen to be one of these, does it? My friends want to hear me speak, but I’m afraid they might knock me into the water by accident.” He gestured to a pair of boats moored to either side of the jetty and then out to the crowd still pressing onto the docks. “Here,” I said, untying the lines to my boat. We embarked, and I pushed a few yards into the bay.

Then Jesus sat on the gunwale, his legs dangling over the side of the boat, and he began to speak. His tone was casual, like he was speaking just to me, though I expect everyone thought the same thing. I can’t quite remember what he said that morning, but I can remember the feeling. His words got inside me somehow. They got inside me and found a hole that I didn’t even know was there. And they filled the hole. I wish I could explain it better than that, but I’m not an educated man. I just know that those little gnawing fears and disappointments that I always have and my frustration with the night’s fishing mattered less while he was speaking.

When he was finished, he swung his legs back into the boat. “Put out in the deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” he said.

I stared at him. I’m sure my mouth hung open. I was tired and sore and hungry and I just wanted to go home and flop onto my bed and sleep. Or at least I should have been tired and sore and hungry. I was always tired and sore and hungry after a night’s fishing. But that morning, I wasn’t. His words had invigorated me and soothed me and fed me. Of course, nothing Jesus ever said purged me of my natural cynicism, so my response came out with a hint of sarcasm: “We’ve worked all night long but haven’t caught anything. Yet if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”

I steered the boat to where Andrew sat scrubbing the nets, and he dragged them aboard. We tacked for the middle of the lake and let down the nets. Within minutes, the boat began to list to starboard, groaning under the weight of so many fish. Through my bare feet on the deck, I could feel the small tremors of lines breaking underwater. Frantically, I signaled to James and John in the other boat. Andrew and I began hauling in the nets, and Jesus lent a hand, all the while shaking with unrestrained glee.

My boat started taking on water because of the added weight of so great a catch. I splashed to my knees in front of Jesus. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” I said. Again, Jesus hoisted me up, saying, “That’s precisely why I’m staying with you.” Then he looked at all of us. We stood there, on sinking boats with torn nets in our hands, looking back at him. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “From now on you will be catching people.”

That day was longer ago than I care to remember, and still I feel ashamed for not understanding those final words until years later: “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus had cast out the demon from the man in the synagogue and healed my mother-in-law. He had spoken to everyone while making me feel like he was talking to me alone. He was so personal. He healed and loved and encouraged and admonished each individual person he encountered. For years, I thought his personal approach meant he was being selective, like an angler casting for one kind of fish. But I was mistaken.

He told us to catch people – not to fish for them. No selectivity. No specificity. No discrimination. He told us to catch people like we caught fish: throw the nets in the water and trawl for everyone.

Years later, I finally understood this call. I was living at Joppa when I had a vision: I saw a sheet descending from heaven loaded with all kinds of food that I’d never eaten before. The food was unclean according to the law, but a voice called to me: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” That same day, a group came and took me to Ceasarea to meet Cornelius the centurion. Cornelius told me about his own vision of a man in dazzling clothes who told him he was remembered before God. At that moment, I remembered Jesus’ words: “From now on you will be catching people.” I looked at Cornelius and all his friends, and I said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

That day on the lake of Gennesaret, I met Jesus for the second time. He taught a crowd with his legs dangling over the side of my boat. I heard his words, and he filled a hole I didn’t even knew I had. All those years later, his words continued to teach me. God shows no partiality. Jesus told us to throw our nets into the deep water and catch everyone: not just a select few, but everyone.

Like I said, my kind of fellow.

Notes

Special thanks to my friend Steve for unlocking the ideas in this sermon. He writes the blog draughting theology.