Easter 5C, April 28, 2013

“Birds of a Feather”

Acts 11:1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
I grew up near Pittsburgh, but not in Pittsburgh.  So when we moved here, I was quite surprised to discover the natives’ distaste for ever, ever, ever crossing a river.  And since we have not one but three rivers to deal with in da burg, this stubborn reluctance creates an atmosphere of not very well hidden parochialism that is evident on an almost daily basis.  I don’t know if people are afraid that they’ll never find their way back home from yonder shore, or whether they’re simply afraid of falling into the Monongahela.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that there are seemingly impenetrable boundaries pretty much everywhere you turn here.  Many of these barriers are, indeed, created by Pittsburgh’s charming, yet challenging topography of hills, rivers, and bridges.  Worst of all, perhaps, is the seasonal annoyance of road construction and those charming little orange traffic cones that pop up as insistently as dandelions every spring. 
But some boundaries are not geographical, yet are as tenacious and toxic as weeds.  Some boundaries are deeply rooted in our brains and express themselves in ways that usually escape our notice.  We are only vaguely aware of many persistent and sometimes poisonous boundaries in how we organize ourselves in our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our families and even our churches. 
This isn’t only a burg thing.  There is a compelling human drive to sort out and separate ourselves by nation, tribe, age, language, race, religion, political affiliation, class, you name it.  And you know it’s true.  Everywhere, you will birds of a feather flocking together because we feel more comfortable and secure when we are hanging out with birds who reflect who we are or who we imagine ourselves to be. 
All kinds of laws have been enacted throughout history to overcome our most damaging and unjust urges toward keeping other people out – desegregation of schools, busing of school students, affirmative action, equal housing laws, elimination of red lining certain communities in lending, etc.  These laws help overcome some of our most powerful prejudices.  But the urge to stay within a carefully drawn boundary is a powerful one, particularly when we feel threatened, fearful or anxious.  When the chips are down, and our stranger danger radar goes into full red alert mode, we shut down bridges, seal the borders and dust off the blueprints for our favorite kind of neighbor – a non-offensive fence to protect us from “those” people, whoever they are.
Robert Frost famously wrote: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”   Frost never does reveal what or who it is who doesn’t love a wall, but we can be pretty certain it isn’t a human being.  Because there is nothing humans love more than walls.  There is very little we hate more than crossing boundaries.  Because crossing a boundary makes us vulnerable.  Crossing a boundary means we may have to give up something that makes us feel good.  Crossing a boundary entails a grave risk to our own self-understanding and our own comfort.  Something doesn’t love a wall, but it sure ain’t us.  We are crazy about them.
After reading from the book of Acts today, I suspect the “something” that loves to tear down walls may be none other than the Holy Spirit. Because that unbounded and unafraid spirit of God is certainly up to some serious boundry-breaking in this story about Peter and his foray into Gentile territory. 
The winds of swift and certain change are blowing through this text, indeed through the entire book of Acts.  God seems to be randomly pouring out the spirit of God upon people who live way outside the margins of acceptable society.  Last week we saw this crazy outpouring of God’s healing in Peter’s raising up of Tabitha, a poor widow barely scraping by as a seamstress in a small church of poor widows in Joppa.  Tabitha is lifted up from the pages of Acts as somebody important to God – a woman described as a disciple of Jesus simply because she takes care of the other poor nobodies in her little nowhere church in Joppa.
But today, Peter has crossed another kind of boundary and that crossing threatens to disrupt the very core of the early church.  Peter is called before the church leaders in Jerusalem and called on the carpet for breaking the dietary and purity laws that have shaped the lives of God’s people since the time of Moses.  Peter was not only eating with the uncircumcised, but also presumably eating the kind of food that would be considered unacceptable by the leaders in Jerusalem.  You may recall that this was exactly the kind of rule-breaking that was constantly landing Jesus in a heap of trouble among the hierarchy in the synagogue.  In fact, Jesus had a habit of crossing well-established boundaries of purity — touching and being touched by unclean people, healing on the Sabbath, and eating and drinking with the wrong kind of crowd. 

So Peter wasn’t blazing new territory in hanging out with Cornelius and his friends, but the shift in the unfolding story of the early Christian church is perceptible and Peter is the pivotal figure in this drama. 
Peter is beginning to see with the eyes of the prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist and with the eyes of Jesus.  Which is to say, Peter is seeing through the eyes of God.  These are wide open eyes that see the non –Jews and Gentiles not as unclean and impure, but as beloved children of God.  And this expanding and inclusive vision for the church is brought into being by the Holy Spirit – the power Jesus promised to Peter and all of the apostles when he ascends to heaven in chapter 1.  Jesus says to them:   “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This vision from God declares that it only God who decides what is clean and unclean and it is that vision which frees Peter to minister in a new way.  Peter is released from his fears about what is pure and what is profane so he can cross over a seemingly uncrossable boundary.  Peter can move outside the church of circumcised believers in Judea to the uncircumcised Gentiles in Cornelius’ house in Caesarea.  And Peter makes the insiders in Jerusalem very, very uncomfortable.  As far as they are concerned, the ends of the earth doesn’t necessarily include unclean, uncircumcised people like Cornelius.  So they call in Peter to explain himself. 
One of the things I have found to be reliably true is what changes people’s minds is not church doctrine or theological arguments or even carefully constructed logical rationales.  Stories, not arguments, open minds.  You cannot argue someone into faith. What moves people to a new way of being and thinking isn’t tirades, but honest and open testimony.  Over time, bit by bit, testimony about God’s love and grace and mercy have always had an incredible power to open up minds and hearts.  The process of “show and tell” is powerful beyond the kindergarten classroom.  It is in our deep and honest conversations with one another that we learn to see and trust the transformation God has already done in us. 
Peter is called in to the council in Jerusalem.  But he doesn’t attack his accusers. Instead Peter tells them a story about this vision that came to him while he was staying with another outsider – Simon the tanner — whose very profession would render him unclean and unacceptable company for any observant Jew. Peter carefully tells the story of  how God spoke to him in a vision and told Peter that God’s love extends beyond all the boundaries that Peter has spent a lifetime observing.   The identity of God’s people is created by God’s love for them.  It is God’s love that connects us to one another and makes us clean.  It is God’s love that shapes who we are as God’s people, not our adherence to a set of purity laws.     
Peter tells the story to his brothers in Jerusalem and in doing so he opens up for them the same forgiving, loving, accepting space revealed to Peter by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Peter says, “If God gave these outsiders the same gift he has given to us, who are we to reject them?  Who are we to say no to their gifts?  Who are we to keep them out?”
I do not know why it is that we are constantly flummoxed by the idea that the same God who gives so much to us is just as generous with everyone else.  I don’t know why we have such a hard time believing that the same God who works among us is also working in places that we do not recognize as holy.   I do not understand why it is we think we have cornered the market on all the goodness of God when that well of goodness is an everlasting stream of mercy.  The Holy Spirit moves like melting snow flowing exactly where and when and how it wants to go.  That flowing river of grace breaches ancient barriers that have existed for so long that nobody can remember why we built them in the first place.  The Spirit’s fire flares up, melting the hardness of human hearts, setting the waters of God’s justice lose upon a world dried up and gasping for breath. 
Peter says, who are we to hinder God? 
I met a man named Joe this week who is a deeply faithful, rock solid Christian man with a beautiful voice and a powerful testimony.  To hear him pray and speak about how God has worked in his life, and to listen to his reading of scripture is a genuine joy.  When I met him the other night, I noticed that Joe was wearing surgical scrubs and after the meeting, I asked him if he worked in a local hospital.  Turns out that he is a nursing assistant at AGH, working on the orthopedic floor.  Joe has worked for AGH for more than a decade, so he is well known by the staff and doctors on the orthopedic floor. 
In fact, Joe said, “They love me at AGH.  They love me so much that the doctors invited me to go out to dinner with them at Jerome Bettis’ restaurant on the North Shore a couple of months ago.” 
My husband and I know a few orthopedic surgeons at AGH, so I asked Joe if the doctors we knew were the same ones who invited him to dinner.  Turns out, one of our very good friends was the doctor who invited Joe to have dinner with him and some other folks from the orthopedic floor.  I asked Joe how the dinner went.  And he said, “Oh no.  I didn’t go.  I wouldn’t go to a dinner like that.”  I was surprised by this and asked Joe why he didn’t go?  He said, “All those doctors.  I wouldn’t fit in.  They were eating steak.  Drinking wine.  I wouldn’t fit in there.  Not with all those fancy doctors.  I don’t belong there.” 
A couple of people who were talking with us started giving Joe a hard time – what?  You skipped a free steak dinner at Jerome Bettis’?  Man, you are crazy.
After everyone left, I told Joe that the doctor who invited him to dinner was, in fact, one of the nicest people I know.  He doesn’t drink at all.  In fact, he is an extremely modest, humble person, very close to his family, very faithful to their church.  Although he certainly earns more money as a surgeon than Joe does as a nursing assistant, he’s an extremely hardworking and frugal guy.  In others words, he is probably not all that different from Joe.  In fact, I’m pretty sure this doctor invited Joe because Joe is someone he values and admires as a co-worker and he probably thought Joe might enjoy a nice dinner.
I didn’t have time to dig more deeply into Joe’s rejection of the dinner invitation, but I’ve been thinking about the many boundaries that he imagines might exist between him and the surgeon.  Class.  Race.  Neighborhoods.  Life experiences.  Fear.  All of the above?  Maybe more.  And I can understand his reluctance to go somewhere where he may feel awkward.  Out of control.  Not in charge.  Not in the “know.”  Yet if Joe had opened himself up to an encounter with this “other,” who knows what he may have experienced? 
How often do we reject God’s invitation to cross a boundary? I think we do it a lot. True for me.  True for you.  The Holy Spirit must be black and blue from all the times I have pushed back against its holy urging.  All you have to do is look at how divided our church, our city, our nation, our world has become to know that we spend too much of our time burning bridges instead of building them.  We are birds of a feather who would rather clip our own wings instead of stretching them out to catch the breeze of God’s spirit just waiting to lift us up.
In our baptism, we are reborn not to stay anchored where we are.  We are born to fly.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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