Pushing the edges of love...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 13, 2012.  They are shaped by both the lectionary readings for the day as well as our faith community's recent commitment to explore more seriously the call of God's justice in our generation.  To give shape and form to the way God's love and joy can change our lives, I've looked at the transformation of Peter and what his journey means for our time.

Last Monday evening, some of us began a conversation that might best be called “a colloquy for the broken-hearted.” Using Parker Palmer’s new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, as our starting point, we tenderly and honestly shared out loud some of the ways we have all grown disillusioned, disappointed and even despairing about the state of our nation. 

It wasn’t a rant – there was very little partisan carping for we sensed there was more than enough blame to be shared by Democrats and Republicans alike – and it wasn’t mean-spirited as can sometimes be the case when we talk about our wounds. Rather, it was broken-hearted – a lament in the deepest sense of the word – as we tried to link language with empathy and acknowledge the brokenness and pain that surrounds and infects us all.

Palmer summarized our lament like this:
The truth is that Americans are suffering. We suffer from a widespread loss of jobs, homes, savings and citizen confidence in our economic and political systems. We suffer from a fear of terrorism and the paranoia it produces. We suffer from a fragmentation of community that leaves us isolated from one another. We suffer, ironically, from our indifference to those among  us who suffer. And we suffer from a hopeless sense that our personal and collective destinies are no longer in our hands.

Each of us around the circle that night – and I suspect in this sweet Sanctuary, too – “yearn for some-thing better than the divisiveness, toxicity, passivity, powerlessness and selling of our democratic inheritance to the highest bidder “ – that defines this moment in our collective experience, yes?  I ache for it – weep for it – genuinely feel heart-broken for it…

… and so turn to the words of Scripture for an alternative vision to the status quo.  The Bible, you see, is not fundamentally about history – although it tells us some of that, too – rather the sacred scriptures speak to us of a world shaped by God’s love.  To borrow from the wisdom of Walter Brueggemann:
The heart of the Bible is not the presentation of history but rather a font of imagination that hosts a world other than the one in front of us.  Now let’s be clear: by “imagination” brother Brueggemann does not mean “unreal” but quite the opposite.  He claims that the world we live in, the world where the empires of greed, fear, shame and violence rule, is the real parody.  All empires are acts of imagination: they present a world that lures humanity into its false hopes and lays claim to our hearts and souls as the unquestioned status quo.  (What does Satan say to Jesus during the time of trial in the desert:  follow me – bow down and serve me – and all of this can be yours?)

And before you know it, you are duped.  You take what the world offers – commodities, fears, prejudices, injustices, violence, false god – and you accept it all as a given.  Well, into this tired life, accepted as unquestioned reality, scripture offers another world, another way of being, that is both unsettling and comforting as it stands in prophetic judgment over the empires of the world. 

Scripture, in other words, is counter-imagination, a “rival eschatology,” as N. T. Wright puts it, a counter-cultural challenge to any system that claims “now we have arrived.” Empires do not like the promise of scripture because promise implies that the present is inadequate and incomplete.  Counter-imagination makes empires nervous. (Peter Ennis: rethinking biblical Christianity blog)

Are you still with me?  That was a long-winded theological mouthful, but is the point clear? 

·      That more than history or rules, our Scriptures offer us an alternative vision for living born of God’s imagination: a radical challenge to the cynicism of the status quo? 

·       A way to be informed by our broken hearts and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live into our best, God-inspired selves in this life – not just wait for heaven – but to embrace and share something of the kingdom of God right now?

Each of our texts tells us as much this morning in their own unique way. 

·       The letter of St. John says: Every God-begotten person conquers the world's ways. The conquering power that brings the world to its knees is our faith. The person who wins out over the world's ways is simply the one who believes Jesus is the Son of God.

·      The gospel of John puts it like this:  I've loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.  Remember: I've told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I'm no longer calling you servants because servants don't understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I've named you friends because I've let you in on everything I've heard from the Father

·      And then the wild story of St. Peter in the book of Acts proclaims: No sooner were these words out of Peter's mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners. The believing Jews who had come with Peter couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on "outsider" non-Jews, but there it was—they heard them speaking in tongues, heard them praising God. So Peter said, "Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? They've received the Holy Spirit exactly as we did." Hearing no objections, he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Each of these biblical passages speaks to us of God’s truth in our bleak time – that’s the broken-hearted part – and God’s hope when all we can see is darkness – that’s the prophetic and inspirational part.  But unless we know how to read Scripture as a declaration of God’s imagination, we will miss the point.

We’ll stay trapped in our suffering – wounded and afraid of the empire – shut off from the joy of God’s Spirit within and among us. That is one of the tragedies of biblical literalism: it gets most of the words right – although only mostly – while missing the deeper context of challenge, hope and inspiration.

So what I want to do this morning is take the person of Peter and give you a quick biblical biography of him so that you can see how he was transformed by his broken heart and God’s imagination into a person who brought hope and love into the world, ok?  Peter’s story is our story, too if we have eyes to see and hearts to comprehend.

There are five key stories about Peter that are essential – five encounters with God’s love and his own broken heart – that transform Peter – and hold some wisdom for us, too.  I’m just going to summarize them for you, but you might want to spend some time on your own reading and reflecting on what they might mean in your own faith journey, ok?

First, there is the story of Peter’s call by Jesus:  he’s a fisherman – nothing special – nothing ordinary – not particularly religious or intellectual - just an everyday working person like most of us who one day recognizes something is missing in his life.  And when the time is right, Jesus comes to him – notice that, ok? – Jesus comes to him in his everyday, ordinary working life and offers him a life with deeper meaning.  A calling – a way of living into God’s imagination – and Peter jumps at the offer and follows.

·         What does that little vignette say to you?

·         Does it offer any insights into the way God’s love works in the world? 

Second, let’s think about the time Peter confesses that he believed Jesus to be God’s messiah – the holy one anointed to heal the world – and what that might tell us:  Jesus has spent about three years in ministry – he has equipped his apostles with wisdom and spirit – he has taught them about prayer and rejoicing – he has trained them in living as God’s word in the flesh.  And now, Jesus in anticipation of his own suffering and death is taking the ministry of God’s compassion and justice into the heart of power:  Jerusalem.  So he asks his followers:  What are the people of the countryside saying about me? Who do they think I am?

·       Do you recall this story?  And what are the replies:  some call him Elijah – others think he is the essence of John the Baptist returned from the dead – and what does that mean?

·       And Peter says:  You are the Messiah of God, the living Son of our Lord.  And Jesus says, “You got that right, Peter, you are the rock upon whom I will build my church.  I give to you the keys to the kingdom of God.” 

But then, in the very next breath, after Jesus says, “Yes, I am the Messiah… let’s go to Jerusalem where I will suffer and die” what does Peter say?  NO, NO LORD, LET’S STAY HERE AND PLAY IT SAFE.  To which Jesus shouts:  GET THEE BEHIND ME SATAN… Those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who are willing to die for the sake of God will have lives of integrity and depth and joy.

·       First he’s the Rock who holds the keys of the kingdom; then he is Satan – what do you sense is happening here?

·       There’s a real humanity to Peter – a spiritual conflict – an enthusiasm and hesitation, right?

And of course that same combination of wisdom and fear – untested conviction in the presence of a broken heart – is the third story:  Peter’s betrayal of Jesus just before the Lord is executed on the Cross.  This is so tender and anguished, yes?  Jesus makes it clear that he must accept death to expose the way of empire and hatred and predicts that all those who love him will run away.  And what does Peter say:  NOT ME, LORD.  EVERYONE ELSE MAY FALL AWAY BUT I WILL BE WITH YOU FOREVER.  To which Jesus quietly says:  Even you, my man, my beloved, will betray me three times before morning comes.

·       Peter has already argued with Jesus about having his feet washed at the last supper and now he assures his spiritual master and friend that he will always be faithful only to betray him and run away in fear and shame 24 hours later. 

·       Does that story speak to to you in any way?  Are you sensing the relevance and complexity of Peter’s witness for each and all of us?

The fourth story is after the betrayal and the Cross, after the shame and the fear, when the Bible tells us that Peter fled everything and went back to his old ways:  what a great image!  Literally, of course, it means that Peter returned to being a fisherman – his old gig – but think about the symbolic implications here:  in fear and shame he returned to his old ways… 

And once again Jesus comes to Peter – this time on the beach while Peter is trying to fish and is discouraged – and after they catch a breakfast of fresh fish – and Peter recognizes Jesus in the sacred meal – Jesus says:  Do you love me?  This happens three times – do you love me, Peter – then act like it. Show it to the world.  Share my love.  The story closes with these words that haunt me even today:  when you were younger you went wherever you wanted – whenever you wanted – but now that you are maturing you will be lead into those place you do not want to go.

·         What do you hear in these words?

·         As you mature in faith, you will be led by another into those places you do not want to go?

And now the story from Acts where Peter realizes that one of the places God is leading him – a place he does not want to go – is beyond his own tribe into the world of the Gentiles.  Today’s text speaks to us of God’s spirit coming upon those outside of Judaism with just as much integrity and power  as traditional Jews– something that challenged both the religious and racial experiences of the faithful of the day – in ways that were totally outside the box.

Now let’s be clear that this new revelation of the Lord blows Peter’s mind, too – and here’s the context – that Peter has just encountered.  The Spirit called him out of Jerusalem – out of his traditional comfort zone – to meet and eat with Gentiles.  Those outside the fold of the faith, ok?

·       So Peter goes to the home of Cornelius – and dig this:  the story of Peter and Cornelius is retold four times in the book of Acts because we aren’t suppose to over look it – and while in this home of a Gentile a meal is prepared. 

·       Do you see where this is going?  Do you recall me talking about this with you before? 

Peter’s going to have to eat Gentile cooking – split-pea soup with hammocks, Lobster bisque, barbecued pork chops served with macaroni and cheese – all foods that are ritually unclean for a faithful Jew.  Talk about being led into a place he did not want to go, right?  So Peter keeps excusing himself while Cornelius is getting this feast ready – Peter goes up to the roof top for prayer – and each time he does this he gets the same new revelation from God that he later explains like this:

Recently I was in the town of Joppa praying. I fell into a trance and saw a vision: Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in. Then I heard a voice: 'Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.' I said, 'Oh, no, Master. I've never so much as tasted food that wasn't kosher.' The voice spoke again: 'If God says it's okay, it's okay.' This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled back up into the sky.

So Peter concludes after three visions – a number that is corresponds to the times he denied Jesus – that God’s new word must be part of the challenge, so he sits down at table with Cornelius and begins to join in the feast.  And just at that moment, the Scripture tells us:  Before I'd spoken half a dozen sentences, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us the first time. And I remembered Jesus' words: 'John baptized with water; you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' So I ask you: If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?

·       Fascinating stuff this alternative vision of God, yes?  Anything grab you?
·       Do you sense any connection between the heart break of Peter and his inspiration to reach out beyond the limits of his culture, tradition and even his faith with the grace and love of God as made flesh in Jesus Christ?

God’s people are truth tellers and hope bearers.  We know what it means to be broken hearted because we ourselves have wept and embraced our wounds. We know they are real – deep – systemic and cruel.  We have come to own our sin and guilt – our fear and inertia, too – for we’re not advocates of denial.  And, at the same time, in our lament we have heard something of God’s radical alternative – a way of love and healing – a life of compassion and connection – born of an imagination and truth that is bigger and more authentic than the cynicism and shame of this generation.

And that means by God’s love we have been invited – even led, beloved – into a place we do not really want to go:  we have been called both to speak of the heart break within and among us – not in sanitized or sentimental ways – but with truth and power; and we have been called to document with our lives the creative, compassionate, prophetic imagination born of God’s love made flesh.  I sense that this truth is what the Lord is asking of us in our time.  And, it begins in your heart...

To paraphrase Terry Tempest Williams:

The human heart is the first home (for God’s love.) It is where we embrace our questions.  Can we be equitable? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds and offer our attention rather than just our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, faithfully without ever giving up – ever – trusting that others might join with us in our determined pursuit of making God’s love flesh in our time?

The witness of Peter suggests that we can – so let those who have ears to hear, hear.


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