Friday, May 11, 2012

From Joppa to ?

{I edited this sermon by listening to the audio of what I actually preached.  I did not originally intend to even speak the words "Gay Marriage" during the sermon, but at the 8am service, I received what I can only describe as a powerful shove from the Holy Spirit to speak what had been on my heart for the past week. I do have audio and once I convert it to a youtube file, I'll post that, too.}

Easter 6B
Sermon for May 13, 2012

Acts 10:44-48

44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Please pray with me: Gracious God, help us to hear these words. Help these words to open our hearts so that we may love each other. Amen. 

The sermon today is not on the Gospel of John, nor is it on the 1st letter of John, but it is on the Acts story, which is a story about miracles of hearts opening and it is also a story of deep conflict in the church.

You can see from the first line that we are jumping right into the middle of the story, because you don't get that sense of the tension and the fight when you read this little short blurb from Acts but that's exactly what we're getting into and we're going to go there today in the texts.  So please hold me in prayer as we go here, because it's a hard thing to talk about, even these many centuries-- millenia-- later.  Here it is. 

Our reading from Acts begins, “While Peter was still speaking.” And that clues us in, that we're jumping into the middle of a conversation. It's like you just opened the door into a room and Peter is still talking about something. So where is he, what was he talking about? Who was he talking with?
The story starts not with Peter, it starts before Peter gets involved, with a guy named Cornelius in a city called Caesarea.  Cut off the last two letters and you see who it was named after: Caesar.  You can see what this town is like. This town was as Roman as they came.  It was a coastal city that Herod the Great renamed after Caesar Augustus. In 22BCE Herod put a lot of money into Caesarea:  a palace overlooking the sea with an Olympic size pool, a massive deep sea harbor, markets, wide roads, baths, temples to Rome and Augustus. Moreover, every five years the city hosted major horse races in an arena with a capacity for 15,000, and theatrical productions in its theatre that seated 3,500 and overlooked the Mediterranean Sea
In Caesarea, there was a guy named Cornelius.  Cornelius was a centurion from the Italian cohort, and not just a grunt, but a leader. He probably has some money, living comfortably in this Roman outpost in a bit of a backwater area. Here's what we hear about him in the book of Acts.  “He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” (Acts 10:2, NRSV)  He was well-known in the Jewish community, but Jewish he was not. So why not? If he's a believer, why isn't a member?  Membership involved more than just classes or meeting people, but for adult men, it involved a certain risky and painful surgery.  There's good reason he's not yet fully Jewish. 

And one day, Cornelius has a vision.  In it, he receives very specific directions with an address no less- to send people to Joppa to find a guy named Simon called Peter, staying with Simon the Tanner, whose house is by the seaside.

So Cornelius, this believer, sends people to the seaside town of Joppa. 
The story may start in Caesarea, but the next scene takes place in Joppa.  For Jewish hearers of Acts, bells would have been going off in their heads. You may not know Joppa, I've never been there.  But it's an ancient port city and it would have been known because of a short story that everyone knew that starts out like this:
"Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord." (Jonah 1, NRSV)
God sent Jonah to those wicked Assyrians in Nineveh- and that story ends with Jonah really ticked off at God- why? ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." (Jonah 4:2, NRSV)

So, Joppa, the city that Jonah went to as he fled from sharing the message of God's mercy for those outsiders, those oppressors. 

Back to the story at hand.  Cornelius has had his vision, he sends people to Joppa to find Simon, called Peter, in Joppa.
Meanwhile, in Joppa, the ancient port city, Peter is having a little rest.  He’s been visiting with a friend, Simon the Tanner.  Things have been a little hot back in Jerusalem.  There are disagreements.  Peter and Paul are on two sides of the disagreement. 

Paul says that everyone should be able to be part of this church, and if they don't want to have that dangerous and risky surgery, that's okay, and baptism will unite us. 
And Peter, who has been an observant Jew all his life. And he believes that new believers are welcome, but they need to become Jewish first, according to the law that has come before.
Look at your bulletins.  You were probably wondering what that picture was about.  It's Peter's side- 
1) Both Jews and Gentiles are welcome. 2) Gentiles must follow Jewish law and rituals. Welcome.

So they are on the two sides of the debate back in Jerusalem. 

Peter is hanging out in Joppa, and he's recently healed one of the congregation’s quilting ladies, a disciple named Tabitha.

At Simon the Tanner’s house one day, it’s just about time for lunch.  Things aren’t ready yet, so Peter goes up onto the roof to pray.  While he’s up there, Peter, who has probably been seeing a lot of dead animals of all kinds at a tanner's house, falls into a kind of trance.  He’s hungry, but in this vision, a sheet with all sorts of animals, both clean and unclean, is lowered. And Peter hears a voice telling him to get up and eat.  Peter is shocked and declares he would never eat unclean things.  He’s a good Jew, after all. Why would he?
Peter is told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Three times he is told this. And then the vision is over and the sheet is taken up into heaven.

Because just then, before lunch is even served, Cornelius’ men show up at the gate, asking for Peter.  And the Spirit tells Peter, to get up and go with these folks without hesitation, for the Spirit has sent them.

Now, has the voice of God ever been ignored before? Has the voice of God been ignored before in Joppa? Peter has a choice.  He can go down and meet these uncircumcised believers from Caesarea.  What will he say to them?
Or he can go down to the port and get on a boat to Tarshish. What will he do? 

The next morning, Peter brings along some believers from Joppa and sets off to Cornelius’ house.  When he arrives, the house is full of Cornelius’ friends and relatives, and they’re eager to hear from Peter.  
There, Cornelius and Peter talk openly and share their dreams. And Peter begins to share the good news of Jesus Christ.  And Peter preaches one of the most shocking and powerful sermons ever preached:  “I now know that God knows no partiality.” God doesn't pick sides, God doesn't have favorites.  God has no partiality. It was shocking then, and it is shocking now.  No partiality- at all.

And it is just after this sermon that the Holy Spirit rests on Cornelius and his family and friends, showing everyone that "these Gentiles are full members of the family of faith.  And then Peter opens the way for them to be baptized and become members of the family of Christ. Cornelius invites Peter to stay the night at his house:  hospitality seals their friendship and their kinship in Jesus."("Holy Calamity" by the Rev. David Lewicki)

Peter stepped out in faith, going to Caesarea, to a Gentile’s house.  And now that he's baptized these Gentiles, there is no going back. The whole next chapter in Acts is dedicated to Peter explaining back at the church in Jerusalem about his change of heart and saying now what do we do?

Peter's  relationship with Cornelius and all those people who are baptized with him in Caesarea has just set a new precedent for the church.

So what does this mean for us now?

Brothers and sisters, we are in a Joppa kind of time. Our world is changing.  We know far more people than we have ever known before, and that means we know more people who are different from us than ever before. This last week has been one of the more divisive weeks of recent history. 

I was talking with a friend of mine.  She was saying that one of her dearest friends from a long way back, had, on her facebook page, been updating, "This may be the last time that you hear from me.  I'm having to make hard decisions about my friendship list.  People who aren't following God, I just can't be around them."  This friend was in North Carolina, and she was distraught about all these people who were making decisions to support gay marriage which she felt was contrary to her belief about who God was and what Jesus was calling her to do. 

On the other side of the debate is a friend of mine from college, a faithful Christian and follower of Jesus, who I have considered open-minded for a long time, posted on her facebook page that she, too, was defriending people.  That it was too painful to hear bigotry and hateful things slung around. So she was just cutting that out of her life. 

But when you defriend people on facebook, aren't you cutting people out of your life? And you have to wonder, as Christians, isn't there something better we can do than cut the debate and cut people out?

How do we love one another when we have differences? And we have real differences.

We are in a Joppa kind of time. 

Do we get on the boat to Tarshish? Do we cut out the people that we don't want to tell about God's love? Or that we can't believe that God loves them? Or that we just simply disagree?

Brothers and sisters, there is another way.  It is a hard way, a difficult way. 

Caesarea may not be that far from Joppa, but it is very hard to go there. It means going into the territory of the other. It means giving up some of the things that we have held dear, that we have known to be right for so long. It means going and listening to one another's stories. It means holy listening. It means leaving room for the Holy Spirit to blow through our church, and I daresay, our community.

As we prepare for this election season, in which gay marriage will be on the ballot, brothers and sisters, I invite you to come along on the journey to Caesarea: to find out where God is at work in one another's lives, to listen to one another, to allow the love of Christ to infuse our hearts and our conversations. Amen. 

Pastor Abby d'Ambruoso

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