Monday, April 30, 2018

Peter's Conversion

Acts 11:1-18
April 29, 2018

When I was about 9 or 10 years old,
I went to the store and
with some money I had saved,
I bought a gold fish.

I hadn’t asked my mother if I could have a fish,
And I didn’t tell her about it.
So I took a plastic container from the kitchen and
I filled it with water and I put the fish in my closet
so my mother wouldn’t see it.

It was a secret fish then, which made it all the more fun.
I brought other kids up to my room and into my closet
to see my fish. We decided to call the fish Wonder,
because everyone wanted to see it. It was great.

Since it became so popular to go up
into my closet to see the fish,
we decided to make a club around it.
It was called the Wonder Club.

Almost instantly, as soon as the club began,
the first thing we did was to make up rules
for membership in the club.

First off, no one wanted William in the Wonder club because we
thought he was icky at the time, so we made the club girls only.
Then we thought Tracey Pollard was getting annoying,
so we decided that  because the fish was Wonder,
you had to have a W somewhere in your name.
So Tracey was out of the club.

It went on like that, the group that was left
went on making up other arbitrary rules
to exclude other people from the club.

We never really figured out what the club was for.
Actually, it seemed like the whole point of having
a club was to decide who was in and who was out of it.
Eventually my mother found the fish and
the club was instantly and unceremoniously disbanded.

Who is in and who is out?
We do this from an early age.
It comes so naturally, even children do it.
It’s sometimes our first taste of power.

We might think that’s a discussion reserved
for children, but it was also a debate of the early church
and almost every religion before and since.

Jesus was Jewish and his disciples were Jewish.
Christianity arose as a Jewish movement.
There was the occasional Gentile convert,
but that was the exception to the rule at the beginning.

As we read in the scriptures, the Jewish people of the time
had very strict rules of food consumption, purity and ritual
and the gentiles – those who didn’t follow those rules
and who were uncircumcised – were seen as unclean.

The Jewish person was supposed to
avoid going into a gentile house.
They were supposed to avoid eating with Gentiles.
When it did happen, they would go through a cleansing ritual after.

Now, you might think this is no big deal,
they would still talk with other people and work with them
but if you couldn’t eat with someone,
or you had to wash after going in their house,
that sends a pretty clear message
about whether they are welcomed to join you or not.
Peter, the chief leader of the new church formed around Jesus
was a firm believer in this doctrine.
In the beginning of Acts, and according to Paul’s letters,
he was intent on Christians maintaining Jewish law and practice.
He kept the traditions he was used to –
He believed the food the gentiles ate was
unclean and the Gentiles were unclean.
This is where we find Peter in Acts.

But then Peter, while sitting on top of a roof in Joppa has a vision.
In the vision, he sees different kinds of animals
that Jewish law had forbidden him from eating,
and a voice came to him saying “Kill and eat.”
Peter says, “No, Lord; nothing profane or
unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
and in the vision, the voice from heaven says
“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just at the same time that Peter was trying to figure out
what this vision meant, three gentiles came to Peter
they were sent to Peter by Cornelius.
Now Cornelius was a gentile who had received a vision of an angel,
who told him to send these three men to go and get Peter.
Since Peter had his own vision,
he decided to go with these men to the house of Cornelius.

Peter says to Cornelius in chapter 10:
“You know that it is against our laws for a Jewish man
to enter a Gentile home like this or associate with you. 
But God has shown me that I should no longer think
of anyone as impure or unclean.”

Peter's Vision at Joppa
(The "Meat Sheet")
So he stayed, he told 
Cornelius and everyone
in his house the Gospel of Jesus.
As he was doing that, the Holy Spirit
fell on the people there – the Gentiles.
and Peter had them baptized.
And Peter stayed at the home 
of the gentiles and ate with them.
A new thing was happening with Jesus,
with Peter, and with the church that was
 formed around Jesus.

As Peter said, 
“The Spirit told me to go with them and
not to make a distinction between us and them.”

Last week, we talked about Paul’s conversion.
He was a persecutor of Christians and then turned into
a missionary for Christ. Pretty obvious conversion.
But we don’t think about Peter’s conversion.
He was one of the first disciples, he was Jesus’
right hand guy and the one the church was built on.
We don’t think about Peter needing a conversion.
But I think that this was Peter’s conversion.

“The Spirit told me to go with them and
not to make a distinction between us and them.”

This is what Peter has been converted to –
The Way of Jesus.
This is what scholars say drew so many people to the early church.
All classes and races ate together,
they prayed together, they learned from one another
they supported one another regardless of their position in the world.
They didn’t make distinctions between us and them.

It’s funny how the Church has forgotten some of
these scriptures and these lessons over the years.
Because it seems like Christ’s church has spent much
of its time following the world, and giving in to our worst nature.
We’ve tried to make more distinctions and
spent lots of time trying to
establish who is in and who is out.

Christians have excluded people on their race, gender, sexuality
if they don’t believe the right thing,
if they’re Christian, but they belong to the wrong denomination,
if they got baptized the wrong way,
if they don’t say the prayers correctly.
They don’t look right, sound right, dress right,
they smoke, they drink, they look funny.
We’ve spend decades trying to decide
who can eat at Jesus’s table and who can’t.

And some parts of the Christian church these days have really
made a name for itself (not a good one)
by making sure they let people know
that certain people are not welcome:
Divorcees can’t eat with us,
We can’t make cakes for same sex weddings,
Immigrants should go back to their own country.
Women are not welcome as leaders,
Only the prosperous are blessed.

The church these days seems preoccupied
with making distinctions between them and us.
I mean, the world makes these distinctions all the time,
but we are asked to be different from the world.

We are called to be different from the world
that carves up countries and borders, and races
and poor and rich and CEO and laborer
liberal and conservative, and friend and enemies,
and good and bad.

Who can be in the Wonder Fish club and who cannot.

We are called not give in to the temptations of the world.
and I think this is the biggest temptation.
Them and us.

Paul said: In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;

Jesus said: Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.

And he said: A new command I give you: Love one another. 
As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 
 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you love one another.

Peter said: What God has made clean, we must not call profane.

Just like Jesus called Peter in that vision,
Jesus is calling us to be  converted to his Way.
His Way of welcome and understanding and grace for all people.
This is the mantle that we are called to carry as Christians.
This is what we are called to tell the world about,
and to show the world.

To erase distinction, to love across
all those imaginary borders the world has made,
to prepare a table in the presence of our enemies.
To open the gates and welcome, without distinction,
all sorts of people into our hearts and lives,
and into the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This is our call as the church, as people of the Way
it’s easy to say, but difficult to do.

But what a great and life-changing journey it can be.
Our lives are blessed by this call.
It is good to be the Church,
It is good to be the risen body of Christ.

Monday, April 23, 2018

We are Shepherds of the Faith

Acts 9
April 22, 2018

Saul who is also called Paul is doing what he thought was right,
putting down this new group of upstarts who were
polluting the true Jewish faith that he was sent to uphold.
He could see that the way of Jesus was a threat to his
way of life and their comfortable existence inside the Roman Empire,
The Way of Jesus could challenge people’s beliefs and practices.

Like a lot of people who see something as a threat to
their way of life, he thought the best thing to do
was to get rid of it.

The thing is, Saul, at this point in his life, 
really understands Christianity.
He knows -- maybe better than other people --
about the radical nature of Jesus’s teaching.
He understands how disruptive love, forgiveness, 
hope, equality, and liberation can be.
He knows at this point, with his head, about the finer points
of Christianity better than many Christians did later.

But then he had that vision on the road to Damascus.
Most people call it a conversion experience,
But conversion may miss the mark if you just
narrow conversion down to recruitment to a religion
or an understanding of some doctrine,
or even if it’s only turning to Jesus so that we will be saved.
If you just understand conversion as those things,
than conversion is not enough to describe
what happened to Saul, later called Paul.

In that road trip, Paul was called to
another life, another way of being in the world
another way of seeing things and behaving.
Paul was transformed.
His hate and fear was turned into love and hope.
His saw that God was not asking him to protect true doctrine
or to exclude others and get rid of the opposition,
He saw that God wanted understanding and inclusion.
God was asking him to widen the circle,
and overturn boundaries and division.

And we are called every day to the same transformation
that Paul was called to on that road.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Paul right now,
he gets plenty attention. I want to talk about Ananias.
This Ananias -- not to be confused with the
Ananias in chapter 5 who was married
to Sapphira and who came to a terrible end
after a bad real estate deal.
Or the high priest Ananias later in chapter 23
But this Ananias in Chapter 9.
Ananias was obviously a popular name.

Ananias is a believer, a follower of the way
living life with other Christians
differently from the world around them.
With people like Saul after them, they can already
see that the Roman Empire and others are
not comfortable with their existence.
They are being persecuted and killed.

And Ananias is called on by Jesus personally,
to go and meet Saul of Tarsus and take care of him,
restore his sight and welcome him into the community.

Now Ananias already knows about Saul
he knows he has done evil Saul was the main
persecutor of the followers of Jesus.
He seemed to have a personal vendetta against them.
He’d just killed one of their leaders
and he was coming to Damascus in order to kill more of them.

But still, Jesus tells Ananias to go meet him,
help him, welcome him, and accept him.
I’m sure that Ananias had a lot of fear
and apprehension in going to Saul as Jesus requested,
not to mention hatred and disgust for what Saul
had done and who he was.

Ananias’ faith was going to be stretched,
he was going to have to show if he really
could practice all of this forgiveness and grace stuff
that he was learning about.
And he does, he puts his fear and disgust aside
and he goes to meet Saul.

So if Ananias and the community of believers
is called on to welcome and help Saul,
the persecutor of Christians,
Who should we not welcome?

Church people come up with all sorts of excuses
not to help and welcome new people in their midst
and most of them are petty:
they don’t dress the right way,
act the right way, hold their head the right way,
have enough respect for whatever,
they talk at the wrong time, they smoke, they eat wrong,
they don’t sound right, have the right attitude.
They don’t have the right theology, or way of being Christian,
They’re not the right color, or culture.
Even if we’re not saying these things or thinking it outright,
we put up all kinds barriers to welcoming others.

But Saul was a murderer.
And he wasn’t just a murderer of anyone,
he was a murderer of Christians,
of their own people and friends.
It makes all of our hang-ups seem kind of petty.
Ananias goes to him, welcomes him,
They all welcome him, they baptize him,
feed him, it says he stayed with them for several days.
As a community of Christ, right from the beginning,
it has been our job is to help care for others in their faith.
No matter who they are or where they come from.
We are on the journey to overcome our own
hang ups, our preconceived notions,
and to see other people as if they have been
sent by Jesus into our lives, because they have.
Our job is to meet people where they are in their journey
and to tell them about God and Jesus in ways that they can hear.
We are called to be Shepherds. It’s simple to say, and difficult to live.

I remember all those people who helped me.
When I started going to the church
that is my home church in New York City
I was a lapsed Catholic who didn’t understand Lutheranism,
who had no words for faith,
who barely knew anything about the bible
or any of those things that are so important to me now.

The people community there helped me navigate the church,
showed me what committees did what,
who was who and where things were stored,
they helped me understand what the ELCA was,
and how it worked.

They told me stories of the church,
the history, the bad times, the good times,
the funny and tragic times,
Mural at my home church,
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of Manhattan
they told me where all the proverbial bodies were buried.

And just through normal conversation,
they showed me how their faith helped
them in their lives, how to be a believer
in a complicated world, they showed me
how to be part of a community of Christ,
they showed me acceptance and inclusion

That I could love gay and lesbian people
and support their relationships, 
and be a faithful Christian.

They taught me about the bible,
about theology, 
they gave me the thirst to learn
about Jesus and God, they taught me how
I didn’t need to shut off my brain to be a follower.

In their real practice during 
the everyday working
of the church, they showed me forgiveness, God’s grace,
they showed me that we could disagree and still love,
they taught me about justice and taking a stand,
Then they gave me leadership and trusted and honored
in that position before I really deserved it
and eventually, they sent me off to seminary to be a pastor.
They were the shepherds of my faith.

And it wasn’t just the ones who were
life-long believers, or deeply faithful,  or leaders in the church.
Even the ones who struggled, who couldn’t
decide if they were in the right place or
if they were going to stay or leave the church,
or if they believed everything or anything.
They helped me too, to deal with the questions I had.
To show that it was okay to not be sure.
They were the shepherds of my faith too.

I mean the church wasn’t that big, there were
probably about 30-40 of us on a good Sunday.
And if you asked any of them, they would probably
just say, “When did we do that?
We didn’t have any time to do anything like that.”
They were just doing what they normally did.
But more than 20 years later, I remember.
And I’m grateful for how they shaped me
and formed my faith.

Think of all those people who have done that for you.
Maybe you don’t know where they are now,
or you don’t even remember their names,
but they are the body of Christ for each of you.
And we are all still on that journey, shaping each other,
and being shaped and challenged by others too.
This is the stuff you can’t get in a book,
you can’t see on TV, you can’t get through social media,
or communing with nature, or praying on your own.
It’s not just about conversion to specific a thought,
it’s about transformation of the heart.

And this is what the community of Christ
is called to do, for everyone we encounter.
Not just those who come through the doors and worship with us
-- although we have a special call to care for those people –
but everyone in our lives.
We are called to be Jesus presence for others.
For some, we’re their only encounter of God.

Some people say that the best evangelism
these days is telling people that you’re
Christian and then not being a complete jerk.
That is true, AND we’re called to more.

I’m sure those days Paul spent in Damascus
were filled with questions and conversation,
and food, and questions, and laughter, and arguements, and prayer.

And I’m sure that Paul always held
a special place in his heart for Ananias.
The first person to trust Jesus and welcome Paul,
the first to show him God’s tolerance, forgiveness, and love.

When Paul tells of his transformation from Pharisee to
a follower of Jesus in chapter 22, he mentions Ananias by name.
Ananias was Paul’s shepherd, Paul’s body of Christ.
And we are shepherds for one another.
What a privilege to be called to do that.

It is good to be the Church,
It is a blessing to be the risen body of Christ.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Just the Beginning

Mark 16
Easter Sunday

"The women went out from the tomb,
for terror and amazement had seized them;
they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

What a terrible ending for this gospel.
It’s Easter, it’s supposed to be the happy ending to the story.
But the women are afraid and leave the tomb and that’s it.

You know I’m not the first one to think that this is a bad ending.
if you look in your bibles, a lot of people have tried to
add to the end of it, probably thinking that it was incomplete or
the end was torn out, or Mark didn’t really mean to end it there.
Redeemed Vicki Shuck 2016Prints of this are available contact
Mark just has them leaving because they were afraid.

The women, the ones who actually could tell
everyone that Jesus wasn’t there, don’t have anything to say
We don’t hear about Peter or the rest of them.
We don’t even see Jesus again in this one.

We want to see Jesus, like in John’s gospel,
      we want to see and touch his wounds.
We want to see him eating with his disciples like in Luke.
We want to see him give a mandate to them, to go and baptize Like in Matthew.

Where is Jesus??
I guess that’s what the 
three women standing
at the open tomb were thinking that day too?
If he’s not here dead where we left him,
then where is Jesus?

Well, the young man in the white robe tells them.
He’s not here. “He’s not here, tell Peter and the rest of those disciples
that he’s gone ahead of them to Galilee.”

Back to Galilee, the home of
Peter and James and John and the rest of those 12
silly guys who gave up everything to follow Jesus
and then watched all their dreams die
right there on the cross with their best friend.
 Galilee, the home where Peter and the rest who are going to
in sadness and defeat and failure.

There is where Jesus will be before them.
To call them back into service,
 call them back to follow.
To renew their lives from this death.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is not hanging around
some tomb in Jerusalem waiting for people to find him.
 Jesus is alive! And he’s moving around leaving this church.
going ahead of us, back to where the whole story started.

Jesus has gone ahead of us
to meet us in our grief and sorrow.
To be there when we’ve felt lost and alone.

Jesus has gone ahead of us to places of
war and poverty giving people
strength and compassion.

Jesus has gone ahead of us
wherever there is injustice
giving people the courage to stand up to it.

Jesus has gone ahead of us in our
 pain, suffering, illness, addiction
when you receive that pink slip, or
when you receive that phone call that you never wanted to get
When that thing you worked for so long
 slips out of your hand.

Jesus has gone ahead of us
When things seem desperate and
we’ve seemed to run out of options.

And Jesus has gone ahead of us in death too,
ready to meet us there and welcome us.

Jesus is there, ahead of us
And not just to be with us and hold our hand,
but to do something amazing with us.

Jesus is there to call us to service,
to help us be who God created us to be
to bring us to new life with him.
And that is good news, right?

But who in the world will tell people about this good news?
Who is going to tell everyone
That Christ is alive and running around?
Who is going to tell their friends that there is hope
even in the face of death?

We can’t rely on those 12 disciples who spent the
whole of the life of Jesus getting everything else wrong.
We can’t rely on the women who just ran away in fear
This whole thing could end in failure.
But wait…there are some people who know
the stories of Jesus, who heard what that
man in white said at the tomb,
and who heard the order to go and tell.
You and me.
Maybe this story ends with you and me.

If we turn to the first page of Mark’s gospel,
it says, “The beginning of the good news
of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

This story has a bad ending because
this story is just the beginning.
The end of the story isn’t in some book,
in some words on a page.

The end of the story is out there, right here
out in our communities, out in the world.
The end of the story is today and the next day.
The story hasn’t ended yet.

Mark wants us to know that if we don’t tell the story
the story won’t get told.

Mark wants us to get away from the tomb
get out of our churches and leave here today and
tell this life-giving story to others.
Christ is doing amazing things in people’s lives every day.
holding hands with people when they need comfort.
Out in the street protesting, creating love,
understanding, peace, forgiveness
changing lives, making the impossible possible.
Pushing us to new possibilities and new realities.
But Jesus doesn’t want to do this alone,
Jesus wants to work with all of us.

Jesus is alive and with us today.
All we have to do is tell people
what God is already doing
And share the news that,
even though it looks dark, there is always hope.
All we have to do remind people of is
God’s promise that after death
there is always life again.

The good news is that
God has done all the work.
The good news is that in the midst
of all that is wrong with this world,
God written this beautiful Gospel,
this story of forgiveness and new life.
And the best news is that
we are characters in this great story.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!