Sermon preached May 2, 2010
Text: Acts 11:1-18
A man brings his brother to a psychiatrist. “Doctor, my brother has a real problem. He thinks he’s a chicken.” “How long has he had this delusion?” “About three years, now.” “Why didn’t you bring him here earlier?” “Our family needed the eggs.”
Psychology often produces humor. It can also be dark. To some of his admirers, the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1897-1979) ranks with Freud himself as an original thinker about the human mind, the inner life. This same Wilfred Bion once wrote, “Life is full of surprises, most of them bad” (quoted in Eigen, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134). This is an exaggeration to be sure, but sometimes things feel just that way.
Last Sunday afternoon, our church hosted a concert by the pianist John Nilson. When John called to ask if he might perform here, we were not encouraging. None of us had heard of him and we knew that concerts can go poorly, especially when times are busy, like the spring, and the performer has no track record in the community. But John wanted to come because he was in the area and was willing to play for a free will offering. Four people came for the concert, including me. Talking with John just before he began, he was a little shell-shocked. “This never happens to me.” Life is full of surprises, at least some of them bad.
Last Sunday night, after the concert, I flew to Portland to attend a meeting of the planning group for the next United Methodist General Conference. Weeks like this can be a challenge when thinking about preaching for the coming Sunday. There is certainly less time than one would like to think about the sermon. Then, on my return trip, sitting in the Minneapolis airport on Thursday afternoon, Gate A5, I was coming to the end of a book about baseball (Baseball, George Vecsey) and was struck by these words of Casey Stengel: “Every day in baseball you see something you never saw before.” Surprises – surprised by surprises. Life is full of surprises, some good some bad.
But as Christians, surprise should not surprise us. The God of Jesus Christ, the God of our faith, the God of the Bible is a God of surprises - - - a God who breaks down walls, who stretches minds and hearts – a God of the fresh angle of vision. The God of the Bible is particularly adept at taking down walls we considered as permanent as the Great Wall of China – walls inside our hearts, minds, and souls, walls between people.
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Peter has been on a bit of a wild ride. You could say that it began with his vision in Joppa, but it really begins before, with the walls Peter has built up within himself of his ideas of clean and unclean. They are walls not unknown within his religious tradition. Part of my current devotional reading, which is a continuing journey reading through the Bible, has come from the book of Ezra. In the fourth chapter, exiles returning to Jerusalem, are rebuilding the Temple, and when local people offer to help them, that help is refused. “You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel.” In and out – clean and unclean, the categories were well-established in Peter’s mind, but God would blow his mind. God would break down inner walls and outer walls. God would surprise Peter by showing up where Peter did not expect. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning…. If 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?”
God surprises. God breaks through and breaks down walls.
There are inner walls which get in the way of life. Last week I quoted writer and minister Frederick Buechner who describes this phenomenon well. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from (Feasting on the Word, 431). I also appreciate the similar analysis of Elizabeth Lesser. I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart…. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness. (The New American Spirituality, 180). Even our ideas of God can become too walled in. MIT physicist and biblical scholar Gerald Schroeder in his book God According to God, writes: The problem so many people, believers as well as skeptics have with God really isn’t with God. It’s with the stunted perception of the biblical God we imbibe in our youthful years…. By abandoning our preconceived notions of the Author of creation and replacing them with the Bible’s description and nature’s display of God – we will learn about God according to God. (5) For Schroeder, the God according to God is a God who invites us into partnership to care for and repair the world. This God has a direction for the world – peace and goodwill, but this God can surprise us as we are invited to be partners with God in the creation of a newer world (215ff).
God surprises Peter by breaking through inner walls which strictly separated “clean” from “unclean.” God surprises Peter by breaking down dividing walls in relationships. Peter’s mind is changed, and his actions change. He spends time with uncircumcised people, much to the concern of the circumcised believers. God often surprises as God invites us into new relationships with people who are different from us, who may make us anxious in that difference, but whose humanity enriches ours.
God breaks down social walls. I am deeply saddened by some of the racial incidents that have recently plagued our local colleges. We should be at a better place. In a country steeped in biblical religion, with relatively high rates of religious participation, the majority of which is Christian, we, of all people, should understand that racial division and racial hatred are an affront to God. Yet we struggle as a nation. Reading the history of baseball this past week, I met once again, the anti-Semitism (Vecsey, 72-74) that has been a part of that history. I heard again the stories of the systematic exclusion of African-Americans from major league baseball until 1947 with Jackie Robinson (ch. 12). One of the people instrumental in breaking down that wall was a man named Branch Rickey – whose middle name happened to be Wesley!
Yet if we are, in hindsight, appalled by the slow pace of racial progress in society, we should note that the wider society often nudges the church along rather than the church leading the way in breaking down walls. Baseball integrated in 1947, though Hank Aaron was still receiving death threats as he neared and finally broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in the 1970s. The United Methodist Church maintained a separate structure for African-American congregations until 1968! Sometimes God surprises the church by working outside of it to accomplish God’s purposes of peace and goodwill. Maybe God is doing the same thing as the wider society grows in its acceptance of GLBT persons while elements of the church lag behind.
God is full of surprises, some of them uncomfortable, but always working toward the good. God is a God of surprises, of breaking down walls, of fresh angles of vision.
I was surprised in one final way this week, pulling together this sermon. When you fly, you have a lot of time for reading. In addition to the baseball book, I read a novel for a book group I lead – Flannery O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood. The edition I was using was packaged with a collection of O’Connor’s short stories, so I read a couple of them as well – and one, in particular struck me as I was thinking about Acts 11 and Peter’s surprise encounter with the Spirit of God breaking through and breaking down walls. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is about three girls, two fourteen-year-olds spending a weekend from their convent school (Mount St. Scholastica) and the twelve-year-old who lives where they are visiting. The fourteen year olds giggle with each other, calling themselves Temple One and Temple Two because their teacher had told them that they were temples of the Holy Ghost. Later that evening the older girls attend a fair, a small town fair set in the south in the middle of the twentieth century. Returning the younger girl is quite curious about what they saw. “All kinds of freaks.” When asked to explain, the older girls hesitated, but eventually gave in. They described a tent divided in two between men and women, and the “freak” who was on display. This person gave the following speech: I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way…. God made me thisaway and if you laugh, He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing his way. I’m showing you cause I got to make the best of it. The younger girl was puzzled still, and the older two told her that the person in the tent was a man and woman both. The little girl was still puzzled, but as she drifts off to sleep, she imagines the scene in the carnival tent, with the person saying, “God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute it.” She imagines a revivalistic response from the crowd – “Amen, Amen.” She imagines call and response. “God done this to me and I praise Him.” “Amen. Amen.” “He could strike you thisaway.” Amen. Amen.” “But he has not.” “Amen.” “Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?” “Amen. Amen.” “If anybody desecrate the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin, and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.” “Amen. Amen.”
O’Connor may have been trying to say something profound in her odd story – that God’s Spirit may be found in unlikely places, in surprising places. It is an Acts 11 story. Surpise. That’s who God is. God surprises. God breaks down walls. Maybe this story was a bit of O’Connor’s story, a devout Catholic in the south, a woman suffering from a crippling disease – lupus, which would take her life at age 39. Maybe she felt a bit like the odd object of a carnival show and needed to know that a God of surprises could surprise her by making her a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Who knows where this God of surprises will show up next? Who knows what walls God will take down? What we do know is to expect surprises. Amen. Amen.