Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Day
Year C
March 31, 2013
                        Acts 10:34-43                                              Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
                     I Corinthians 15:19-26                                     St. John 20:1-18   
Hymns:  180, 371, 207, 208

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”  That is what Peter said.  Sadly many people who claim to be Christians believe that God show partiality and a lot it. 

People who believe that only if you believe like them you will go to heaven.  People who believe that only if you belong to their particular denomination, will you go to heaven.  Probably the most extreme example is the Westboro Baptist Church.   But there are those even in our own community who also believe this.  They believe in a god of partiality and I find this extremely sad. 

I want to do something rather unusual this Easter Day.  You see, today I’m not going to talk about the resurrection.  Instead I want to talk about Peter’s revelation in today’s first reading.  Of course this reading from Acts comes after the resurrection.  It deals with the early history of the church and the church leaders, in particular Peter. 

You see, in spite of the experience of the apostles in living with Christ and living through the experience of the resurrection, they still had their pre-conceived notions of how God was acting in the world around them.  The resurrection experience had not yet transformed them or Peter.  There was still work to be done in his life.  The resurrection experience merely prepared him for changes he could not even imagine. 

Too often I feel that in the Christian community we look at the resurrection or conversion experience as a one time event in which we are somehow magically transformed by God and that is it.  But there is usually always much more head of us in that experience.  It is merely the first step when God begins to work in our lives. 

In this particular instance Peter was struggling with the issue God’s partiality.  Yes, Peter and the apostles believed that God was indeed partial to some.  That God had a preference for some people over others.  It was a deeply ingrained believe and not an easy one for Peter to overcome.  In fact, in a dream he had to get the message repeated three times from God before it sunk in. 

What brought Peter to this point was a dream.  In the dream, all sorts of unclean animals are placed before Peter and he is told to kill and eat them.  He had been raised all his life to not eat certain things because God did not what him to. 

It was a life long, and scripturally based belief that Peter was struggling with.  So there were very good reasons in Peter’s mind for not wanting to accept this change from God.  And yet, once the light dawns on Peter, he embraces is whole-heartedly.    

Not only that, but in the stories culmination today, Peter actually expands this dream to include something completely different from what was in the dream.  Rather that restrict his dream to a literal interpretation of exactly what he had seen, that is that God had done away with dietary restrictions, Peter greatly expanded the interpretation of this dream to include the understanding that the good news of the resurrection and power of Jesus was open not to just those of the Jewish heritage, but to everyone. 

Peter issues that powerful statement we hear in the first reading:  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  There is something very important in this simple sentence that is important for the Christian church.  

You see, many in the church say, yes that is true, BUT we “have to do what is right” to be acceptable and you are not doing what is right.  But remember, Peter originally believed that the preconceived notions that God was overturning were WRONG.  Not only that, but peter went to far as to expand it to include more that was just in his dream. 

So it is not just say, ok, sure as long as you do what I think God wants you to do, you are good to go.   Rather it is understanding the potential that God is trying to correct something that is wrong. 

We individually and the church as a whole needs to be open to the possibility that our understanding of what is right and what is wrong from God’s perspective may actually be the wrong thing that needs to be change!   This is pretty frightening stuff both from an individual and a organizational perspective. 

But like Peter, we need to be open to seeing things in a new light.  And the church as an organization needs to be open to seeing things in a new light as well.  That is probably the greater obstacle.  Churches are like glaciers when it comes to change.  They move very slowly, if they move at all.  And yet, by our failure to be open to seeing what God may be doing or how God may be trying to change us, we lose out on opportunities to grow and open our community to becoming more and more inclusive. 

Just imagine what the church would look like had Peter not boldly embraced this change.   It would not be what it is today. 

Just imagine what the church would look like had brave people not fought against slavery.  It would not be what it is today. 

Just imagine what the church would look like had brave people not fought against racial inequality even after the battle against slavery had been won. 

And imagine for a moment how people felt when those in power in the church argued in favor of slavery and racial inequality.  Imagine the damage that did to the cause of the gospel message.  Imagine what it did to the message of Easter. 

I believe we are each called to be in the forefront of expanding the meaning of the gospel to all.  St. Peter’s is called to be a beacon of light and hope in Seward.   And I believe it is! 

I don't think there is any danger that God will ever judge us for being too easy on our fellow human beings or for loving them too much. 

So this Easter, as we celebrate the joyous event of Christ risen.  Let us all commit ourselves to a church that is in the forefront of the spreading the gospel message.  Let us be in the forefront of speaking out for those who others would denigrate and despise.  That is what Jesus did.  That is what Christians do. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C, March 17, 2013

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Year C
March 17, 2013
                        Isaiah 43:16-21                                              Psalm 126
                     Philippians 3:4b-14                                     St. John 12:1-8   
Hymns:  456, 495, 304, 473

Today is the final Sunday in Lent.  Next week the church will observer Palm Sunday and then the following Sunday, Easter Day. 

In my last sermon just before the start of Lent, I challenged you to consider a path of gratitude and thankfulness during Lent.  I hope you have.  But today I want to talk about change.  It is something we are, I fear, all too unwilling to be thankful for. 

We find in the reading today from Isaiah a warning from God that new things are about to be done.  Warning about new things coming is probably a good idea.  No one seems to particularly like new things.  We all love the old things.  And yet we are warned in this same passage to “not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.”  This is a hard teaching for Episcopalians!  In fact, even with lots of warning, change is still hard to deal with. 

I’m reminded of this struggle we all have with change in a story line from the series “The Vicar of Dibley”.  In the first episode a “woman” priest is sent to the parish as their new vicar.  The initial shock left everyone silent.  As some of the parishioners began talk about change they observed that there is good change and bad change and that is true in the world today.  But what makes it so difficult is our inability to come to agreement on which changes are good and which are bad.  This is reflected locally and in the wider world.  It effects everything from what you do here at St. Peter’s when you make changes to what is going on today in the world wide Anglican Communion. 

Make a river in a desert as it says in Isaiah and you are sure to find some who would find reason to complain.  The river is not in the right place.  There are too many people or animals around now.  The environmental balance has been changed.  There is now too much traffic.  It used to be nice and peaceful and quiet here and now it is so loud and disruptive.  And you have to deal with the mud. 

Look at the Israelites, they were freed from slavery and provided manna from heaven and yet still managed to complain about it.  The old times were better they said.  We are sick and tired of this manna they complained.  The very food sent down from heaven by God was becoming tiring to them.  The grass always is greener on the other side!  And I’m sure if we look in our own lives we will find plenty of times when we complained and perhaps the complaint was not really all that justifiable. 

Why do people complain about change so much?  I think it is because we mourn the loss of the familiar.  The familiar is comfortable and easy to go along with.  It doesn’t cause stress or anxiety.  People also don’t like change because of the fear of the unknown.  Change puts us face to face with something new.  Something that may be unpalatable or undesirable.  Or maybe just something that is different.  Like a river in a dry place. 

But there is something even more important in this passage today.  God says that she is about to do a new thing and yet we do not see it.  There are two things here particularly important.  First that God is doing a new thing.  There are some who would prefer, who pray for and who fight for God to only do the old things.  There is no understanding or comprehension that God may indeed be doing a new thing in their life or in the life of the Church.  Those who would paint God in a nice neat corner are only bound to be disappointed.  \

The second part of that verse “do you not perceive it?” should be a warning to us.  A warning to not try and fight against the new things God is doing.  But this can be painfully difficult.

How do we know that all the new things going on now are from God?  That is the critical question.  Those against the new things clearly see the answer as no, they are most definitely not from God.  Those in support of the new things clearly see the answer as yes, God is working powerfully among us.  Personally I think that the Christian community would be in much better condition if everyone kept in mind that they just might be wrong.  This sort of humility seems to be sadly lacking in many of the conversations in the Church today.  An embrace of the idea of the possibility of error in my own thoughts would allow greater charity towards those we disagree with.  It would also lower the level of strife for those fighting so hard for what they feel is right. 

There is one thing that is very good about change, whether you are in favor of it or not.  Change forces us to re-evaluate what is going on in our lives.  And that is a good thing.  It is healthy and an opportunity for spiritual growth.  It can cause us either to strengthen the views we already held or be an opportunity for the possibility of changing them.  Whether in the end the change was necessary or perhaps quietly done away with, self examination of our own lives and of our own, sometimes closely held beliefs is good.   

Change forces us to wake up from the lethargy of the usual, of the common, and to look at things in a new light.  That may feel like a dangerous thing.  But it is life giving. 

As Christians we are called to face change with expectation and hope.  We need to view change with the expectation and hope that God just might be doing a new thing in our lives.  So when we are faced with changes, we should not react with a gut level reaction to immediately reject it.  Instead we need to think about it.  We need to test it out. 

Perhaps, just perhaps it can help us grow.