*Preached on April 24th, 2016. I’m a little behind in posting! Catching up!
Stories are powerful. Stories are how as people we make meaning and sense of our world and are how many of the truths of human existence have been handed down to us from previous generations. One of the great privileges of being a pastor is that I get to hear people’s stories. It’s an honor and I am often humbled by the courageous trust that is given to me to hold the sacred texts of people’s lives. The ups, the downs, the good decisions, the poor ones, the heartbreaks, the joys, the pain and the learning. You may not believe me, but for each of you who has told me any part of your story, I carry it with me in some way. When we share our stories with one another, we intertwine our themes, open our hearts and offer chapters that resonate with each other and we say, “me too!” Whether we are conscious of it or not, pieces of each other’s stories become part of our own in large and small ways. Hearing someone else’s story, can’t help but to shift, even a little, how we ponder our own story and how we view the world. Stories break us open to reveal the very core of our being-our humanness, our brokenness, our connectedness, our searching-and remind us that we have more in common than we don’t.
Stories are powerful, more powerful than a dry list of rules, laws, policies or regulations. There is currently a task force working on Bethany’s Safe Haven policy. Safe Haven is a document of guidelines from the ELCA, whose purpose is to keep vulnerable populations such as children, youth and some adults protected in our community. The policy itself is boring, doesn’t have any emotional connection and certainly isn’t something that will ever make the NY Times best seller list. But behind that policy are stories of those who have been hurt, injured, and abused. Those stories move the people on this task force to spend their own time creating policy so that these kinds of devastating stories will no longer be told. It’s hard to not carry the stories of abused children with you and not be changed in some way or want to bring change in some way. You can’t sweep it under the rug and you can’t say “well we’ve never had these policies before so why now?” No, once we’ve heard the stories, we have to respond, change, do a new thing and not be the same for the sake and care of those whom God sends to us and to whom we are sent. The policy doesn’t move us, the stories do, or more accurately, the people who were courageous enough to share their stories, shifts our perspective of the policy.
Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem were struggling with policy if you will. They knew the Torah, the laws and how they thought God worked in the world. Follow the laws, go to temple, believe correctly, act correctly and God will save you. There was protocol, boundaries, certainty and safety. If they were honest, God had never actually worked this way, even the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that all nations would be gathered to God, but the Israelites had always assumed that the rest of the people would be assimilated to their way of being community and the people of God. Then comes this story of Peter with the Roman Centurion. In Acts 10, we get the firsthand account of Peter being opened up to God doing a new thing, abolishing the food restrictions and calling Peter to enter an unclean household. In Acts 11, we hear a recounting of what Peter experienced, this is so important for Luke, that he tells it again! Actually, he tells pieces of it a third time in Acts 15. Anytime Luke says something three times, you know that you need to pay attention.
It IS important. The apostles were criticizing Peter, not for preaching to Gentiles, that was fine, it was the fact that he entered into a Gentile’s home, sat at the table and ate unclean food, that had the leaders in Jerusalem in a tizzy. I mean, how could Peter have done that? Doesn’t he know that the Gentiles must change their ways and be like them in order to receive the grace of Jesus Christ? The Jews have always done life this way! It can’t change! Peter heard the criticism and he heard the defense of the doctrine and the rules. But Peter then did an amazing thing…he didn’t argue with them. He didn’t get defensive or list all of the ways that they were wrong. Peter simply told them his story. Peter vulnerably and courageously offered his own experience of the work of the Holy Spirit without laying any claim to what’s right or wrong. Peter simply told them what was.
The story was powerful. They recognized a bit of their own story with God and knew that it was the work of the Holy Spirit. They recognized the essence of God’s graciousness, mercy, hospitality and love at the core of that story and it was undeniable. They had to admit that it wasn’t the Jewish doctrine that brought Cornelius to God, and opened up Peter, it was their encounter with God. This recognition of God’s story at work in the world and in all people from different places, reframed all of their right beliefs and right actions. God’s story at work in Peter and Cornelius laid bare their own deep desire for God, who is more interested in relationship with us than in rules and doctrines. The apostles in Jerusalem were changed, moved and transformed by this story not because they had studied and thought themselves into a new way of experiencing what God was doing in the world, but because they had a personal encounter, through their relationship with Peter and with God. Doctrine, right belief and right actions don’t draw us to God, only God’s love, mercy and presence with us, gathers us to God.
But we get caught; we get caught in our own comforts, preferences and thought patterns. Like the apostles in Jerusalem, we think that everyone who walks through our doors will need to learn how to fit in, how to do the liturgy correctly, how to think correctly, how to follow our rules, how to experience God how we have always experienced God, so that nothing will change for us. Or even when we go out of our doors, we, like Peter, take our worldview with us and struggle when God sends us to someone who will most certainly change us, challenge us, enrich us and ultimately reveal Christ to us. We hear their stories and can recognize the essence of truth that resonates with our own truth and experience of God’s love for the world. God will open us, move us, transform us and show us that in the post-resurrection life, God promises to continually be doing a new thing. This newness of life is one where God promises to be present in the ordinary and even the profane. God makes all things new and holy. This newness of life in God’s love, encompasses the entire world; salvation means a return to wholeness not just of ourselves as individuals, but wholeness as a unified, yet diverse people, wholeness as part of the life of God that swirls through all of creation. This newness of life is one where God is continuing the story of love and we, as God’s people, are at the heart of that story.
We are sent into our communities each day with this story. We embody it, we courageously share it, and we reveal God’s love story to the world. We tell the story when we pray with a neighbor who is of a different faith. We tell the story when we take time to really listen to our coworkers without judgement. We tell the story when we let go of our worry of getting our beliefs correct and our actions perfect and simply offer our own courageous story of God to one another. We tell the story when we all share in the bread and wine at Christ’s table. We tell the story when we sing praises for what God is doing among people and places that might make us uncomfortable. We are sent into the world to proclaim this story, this story that breaks rules, erases lines and gathers us all in the unconditional and unending love that is given to all people and leads us to true life in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.