Sunday, May 30, 2010

Trinity Sunday

Psalm 8
1O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals* that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God,*
and crowned them with glory and honour.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

I spent March Break travelling back in time. The destination may have been Honduras, but we were really visiting the 60’s.

Honduras, it would seem, is unburdened by regulation. Remember littering? They have it. Remember a gang of kids riding in the back of a pick-up truck? Every day. Remember building a treehouse in the yard without the neighbour calling the city on you? In Honduras, there is no number to call.

We describe ourselves as a ‘developed nation’ as opposed to an ‘under-developed’ or ‘developing nation,’ but I think we have it all wrong. Canada is a regulated nation, and Honduras suffers no such burden.

When my brother needed a parking permit for the street, owing to the fact that his truck was too big to make it between the houses to the parking spot in the back, the city sent an inspector. The inspector came to the house, measured the truck and measured the gap between the houses, and said ‘yup, you can get that permit.’

At the risk of sounding like Rob Ford, or an editorial for the Toronto Sun, I say ‘really, a truck-house-gap inspector?’ Is that why I pay taxes?

In Honduras, they have no house numbers, and they have no street names. The post office just makes a guess. Your best bet, Anne Fowler told us, was to send packages to the “Muni,” the Centro Municipal, the town hall. And since everyone in town knows Anne, it would surely get to her.

And so it was during a raining day in the park back in March, picking up litter, I thought to myself, ‘I remember this.’ I remember those first anti-littering commercials in the 70’s, back when we naively thought caring for the earth meant refusing to throw you Styrofoam cup out the window at highway speeds.

And I remember begin told that throwing the old oil from my Mustang into the ditch was probably a bad idea, and I remember why I was being forced to buy unleaded gasoline, and I remember wondering if anything would kill bugs as well as DDT. Okay, I’m older than I look.

Was it a coincidence that we grew up in the Dominion of Canada and had a real sense that we had dominion over the earth? I guessing it was not. In a nation founded on exploiting natural resources, on beaver pelts and codfish, certainly the biblical notion of dominion would have some deep resonance. You might say it’s printed on our DNA.

Back in the winter, our Premier told an audience that Ontario had no future “pulling stuff out of the ground.” Then the backtracking began. I was like he offended some deep part of us, the part that sleeps soundly at night knowing that when everything else is gone, we’ll still have rocks and trees.

Just 28 verses into the Bible, about as near to the beginning as you can get, we read: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Seems pretty clear. And it seemed pretty clear the to thinkers who divided the earthly realm from the heavenly realm and said ‘God in heaven and humans below,’ each tending to their realm the best way they know. The human way is defined by consumption: utilizing each resource until that resource is exhausted, and them moving on the next. God in heaven and humans below.

The neat divide that divorced our actions on earth from the realm above came to an abrupt end late in 1966, when an American Professor named Lynn White delivered a paper entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” In it, White argued that the idea of dominion found in the Bible made it easier for us to justify damaging the earth, and them he went a step further. White argued that Christian theology has made us superior to the rest of creation, which has no "soul" or "reason" and is therefore inferior.*

For those on the science side of the religion versus science debate, White’s work became one more reason to abandon faith. Belief in God, and the order God ordained, was at the root of an emerging crisis and the church could therefore be condemned as backward and harmful to the earth.

On the religion side of the same debate, there was much soul searching. If this was true, that indifference to nature was rooted in our theology, then we would need to quickly disown parts of our tradition to make it right. On Friday night, our Moderator, Mardi Tindal, described joining a United Church task force in the mid-70’s to look at faith and ecology, and an appropriate Christian response what was newly being seen as a crisis.

And through the years, in studies and action, the consistent message we have tried to give as a church is ‘we no longer imagine we have dominion over the earth, we are now stewards,’ and that caring for the earth is one more way that we are building the realm of God here on earth.

It is always nice to be reminded that we’re on the side of the angels. It is nice to be reminded that our denomination has spent 35 years thinking about things that have only become trendy in the last few years. And it’s tempting to be smug, confident that we are ahead of everyone else and just a little more enlightened.

But a problem remains. In this church that is sometimes too quick to say “we were wrong,’ we have left hanging that matter of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8. We still have dominion, God says, and simply rejecting scripture and saying we don’t doesn’t change the facts on the ground.

We still have dominion both as a scriptural problem and we still have dominion as an ecological problem. If you need proof that we still have dominion, look no further than the Gulf of Mexico. Three weeks ago I stood here and said 800,000 litres a day. Now they estimate up to 4 million litres a day. If they can put a man on the moon, surely they can stop an oil leak a mile below the surface of the sea.

So, since the ecological problem is beyond me to solve, I turn to the scriptural problem and how we can live with the dominion God gave us rather than denying it exists. Can we reclaim dominion and save ourselves at the same time?

The theologian Clinton McCann would have us read Psalm 8 with an eye to the structure of the poem. This is not unusual, as most poems depend on words and the form of the words to convey a message. In this case, the author of Psalm 8 reminded the reader the we have dominion over the earth, that we are ‘little less than angels,’ and that we are crowned with glory and honour. You might say the psalmist is restating much of Genesis 1, or reminding us of the beginning of creation in poetic form.

But the poet does something else. In verse first verse of the psalm and the last verse of the psalm, the author reminds us that God is sovereign, and God’s name is majestic in all the earth. Suddenly there is a tension here. To have dominion is sovereign, a notch below the angels, and in Psalm 8 God is sovereign over all the earth. Like trying to figure out who is Canada’s Head of State, it would seem that there is dominion confusion. Someone is sovereign over the earth, and we thought it was us.

Clinton McCann solves this by suggesting that we have ‘human dominion.’ Like a constitutional crisis, it takes Psalm 8 to clarify that we don’t have dominion such as God would have dominion, we have a form of dominion that McCann calls “derivative,” which is something else altogether.

To derive something is to receive it from somewhere else. A derivative is something that only has value because it’s source has value. We have dominion over the earth because it belongs to God, the God that is sovereign over all the earth.

In other words, we are franchisee over this franchise called earth. Someone might want to retreat at this point to the familiar language of steward, and there is plenty of biblical links to do it, but I think it might be more helpful to stay with the slightly more crass idea of a franchisee. Or, if we wish, we could say we operate under license to God, much in the way a franchise owner is under license to Tim’s or Wendy’s.

If you screw up, or your work is shoddy, or if you misrepresent the values of the franchise owner, you lose the franchise. You license is revoked, lawyers come, and you’re out on the street. Why does the mess in the Gulf feel like just such a moment? And God has given us freewill: which means freewill to fail, and the rules of this particular franchise is you get one chance with the earth and that’s the sum of it.

So where is the hope? Where is the end of the disaster and the point were we see a future worth having? The answer, once again, is in the psalm. We are little less than angels, the psalmist say, crowned with glory and honour. We have a form or derivative dominion, but we’re not simply frail beings struggling with human sin, we’re also little less than angels, blessed with the reflected light of God’s glory.

Abraham Lincoln spoke amid the shadow of war to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” to meet the crisis. And I think we find our selves the same place. Like Lincoln in 1861, we are on the edge of the abyss, and it will take the ‘better angels’ that God has made within us to meet this crisis. This means we do not meet it alone. God suffers with the earth and God sends the Spirit to prompt those better angels, the part of ourselves that can and will change, the part of ourselves that will step back from the abyss, the part of ourselves that will honour God with a renewed sense of dominion.

God is with us, we are not alone, we live in God’s world. Amen.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 16
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you* a way of salvation.’ 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer* called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord* to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

People talk about senate reform, but no one has a solution to this perennial problem.
Government tries to control monetary policy, but the opposition accuses them of simply printing more money.
The unskilled are channeled into menial jobs with no hope of advancement.
There is a trend toward agribusiness, with many predicting the end of the family farm and the rural way of life.
People want to be entertained, with an explosion of nightclubs, theatres and stadiums meant to distract from everyday life.
People could eat healthy, but sugary drinks and fatty food are often the first choice.

I might be talking about the last decade, but I’m really talking about the Roman Empire in the first century after Christ. The more things change the more they seem to stay the same. And year by year, in Rome of old and Toronto of today, some see the malaise and most don’t.

The thing that seems to remain the most constant is the plight of the most vulnerable. The ‘unskilled in menial jobs’ remain at the bottom of the ladder, with the key difference that today’s minimum wage earners were more accurately described in Rome as slaves. The second key difference is that slaves made up 25% of the Roman population, while today the unemployed and the working poor seem to account for more.

Another parallel is the approach to mental illness. And this becomes a segue into our story from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Silas are tormented by a slave girl with gift. She seems to be able to see things, to name things that people do not necessarily wanted named. And like someone adept at guessing ages or weights, this girl has made her owners a great deal of money.

She follows Paul and Silas and reveals the truth of their visit to Macedonia, and shouts it in a loud voice: “These men are slaves of the Most High, These men are slaves of the Most High: they mean to tell you the way of salvation.” There is supposed to be no such thing as bad publicity, but Paul and Silas are not happy. The author of Acts says that Paul and Silas are annoyed, and that might be just true enough to cause what happens next: they heal the girl.

There is no joy over this miracle. The entrepreneurs that profit from her misfortune have witnessed the end of their small business, and decide to press the matter in court. The charge is lost to history, but the outcome is inevitable: Paul and Silas meet the magistrate and find themselves in a cell, shackled to the wall.

The final part of the story—the earthquake and the great reversal whereby Paul and Silas save the jailer from his own sword—mark the end of this miraculous day. But there will be more. Paul and his friends tour what we now call Greece and Turkey, making trouble in the Lord’s name (the original ‘holy terrors’) and making good on the poor girl’s original prediction, that these servants of the Most High will bring salvation everywhere they go.

I can only imagine the author’s delight in reporting this story. I can only imagine the delight in recording this moment when slave sees slave, as the girl calls out to her colleagues and names them for the Most High.

To our ears, of course, ‘slave of the Most High God’ sounds off, a tainted metaphor that carries the weight of history and does not live comfortably in our imagination. Nor should it. We can still marvel, though, at the unique sight this young woman possesses, that she can see herself in the two men before her, and see the parallel between her situation and theirs.

The key difference is that these ‘servants of the Most High’ have come to bring liberation, and free everyone they meet for whatever binds them or controls them. And this leads to the even greater irony in Acts 16, as the prisoners free the jailer.

To enter the Acts of the Apostles is to enter an upside-down world where the shackled are truly free than those with swords are only a threat to themselves. Where the possessed have true sight and reveal the secrets of salvation. Where the present order will end and freedom will come to those we see the world with new eyes. And where the gift of salvation can be taken home to a household of faith, and the Apostles move on, to bring Christ to a new town or village.

Today we welcome and recognize new servants of the Most High, those who choose to give their life in service of the Gospel. We welcome and recognize them, and applaud that they have made a commitment to Central and the church of Jesus Christ in Weston. We honour their willingness to serve, and put on Christ.

Now before I put Cassidy, Dana, Courtney and Paige on the spot, or burden them with the weight of the future, I would note that this journey of faith began long ago. I would point to Nylah, and the mark of Christ now upon her, and the formation that begins at the font and will continue until she confirms the vows make at her baptism.

Nylah, like all children, is both student and teacher. Nylah, like all children, can show us as much about the wonder of God as we can possibly hope to share with others. When we allow children to tutor us in the ways of openness and delight, we are closer to God and the world God intended us to see.

And here we can shift the metaphor once more. Paul and Silas are ‘children of God’: children of the Most High who live out the same wonder and openness that children bring. They gave their trust to God, and in doing so Paul and Silas began each day as an adventure.

I urge you to read on in Acts and join them in their adventure. The readings for Acts of the Apostles will conclude next week, but the spirit of Paul and Silas will continue in each story where the protagonist places absolute trust in God and God’s plan. It is only in trust and seeing each day as an adventure that transformation will come.

Paul and Silas don’t see a slave girl, they see a child of God.
Paul and Silas don’t see a jailer, they see a fellow prisoner in need of release.
Paul and Silas don’t see enemies or adversaries, only future believers whom God will save.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The world of Paul and Silas and the world we inhabit are mostly the same. The themes of human failure, of struggle, of servitude remain. And the failure to see remains, the inability to imagine a different future for those who struggle the most, then as now.

And yet, each generation, brings up a new generation of servants, to do the hard work of helping others see. Each generation brings up the next to continue this fellowship, to safeguard important work, and share the Good News of Jesus Christ in Weston.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Revelations 22
1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

John 14
25"All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
28"You heard me say, 'I am going away and I am coming back to you.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.

In Armageddon (1998), the team charged with destroying the giant meteorite and saving planet Earth suffers yet another setback. A scene later, Paris is destroyed.

In G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra (2009), evildoers with British accents develop nano-technology capable of laying waste to entire cities. Mayhem begins in Paris, as the nanomites eat the Eiffel Tower.

In the marionette classic Team America: World Police (2004), the team is dispatched to Paris to thwart a group of terrorists. The team wins the day, but not without destroying the Eiffel Tower (which then collapses the Arc de Triomphe) and the Louvre.

If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be don’t move to Paris. I’m not even sure if it’s safe to visit. And if your gift for mom today is a trip to Paris, I would have to ask ‘what were you thinking?’ In fiction, at least, it is not a safe place. Eveildoers, aliens, meteors, nanomites: these threats are real.

To quote Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: "It looks like the storm is following an unusual pattern of hitting the world's most famous landmarks first, then spreading to the rest of the world."

“Monumental Damage,” as some have called this trope, is really a kind of cinematic shorthand for ‘something serious is happening,’ perhaps the end of the world as we know it. When the Libby loses her head or aliens zap the White House, you know it may be the end of all things. And if the viewers remain unconvinced, we’ll always have Paris…


The Book of Revelation is a tough read. Some wonder why it is there are all, and some wonder why it has such lasting appeal. It takes the prize as the least understood book in the Bible, and among mainline Protestants, the least read.

First things first: Back in minister’s school, we were taught that every part of the Bible has meaning, even if that meaning seems hidden or hard to discern. The Bible is scripture, meaning it has authority for our life together as believers. Our task, we were told, is to find the meaning and share it in moments such as this. In other words, we must resist the temptation to omit the final book of the Bible or ignore it all together. We have to live with it.

So maybe the place to begin is a bit of a summary:

John has visions.
And sends messages to the seven churches:
Mostly he says “I know where you live.”
In John’s vision, we read the following:
The Lamb breaks seven seals bringing tribulation.
The Angels sound seven trumpets and bad stuff happens.
The Angels pour out their Bowls: total darkness and great pain.
Babylon, like Paris is destroyed.
1000 year reign of Christ
Satan returns, suffers defeat, cast into the Lake of Fire.
The New Heaven and New Earth.

If you were listening for anything familiar, chances are it was only the final line of my summary, the ‘new heaven and new earth’ that rang a bell. When we do look at the book, on the rare occasion we hear it read aloud, it tends to be the end of the story, the heavenly vision that makes up the last two chapters. The rest of it we have surrendered to the churches that look forward to the end of the world, or the people who are looking for the devil’s area code in every string of numbers.

We like to go to the pleasant ending, John’s vision of a world made new, and forget the rest. But if books and movies teach us anything, it is that the world has other ideas. A trip to the cineplex shows us an abiding interest in the stuff before the pleasant ending, not because people have it in for Paris, but because ‘world-ending’ ideas have currency in our experience.

A disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, economic collapse in Greece, volcanic eruptions continue: there has been so much news in the last week that the people of Nashville could rightly complain that they were being overlooked. The floods were terrible, but the other news items had that ‘world-ending’ quality that grabs the headlines and refuses to let go.

Maybe it is the age we live in. In this post 9-11 world, we seem to always be on the cusp of disaster, certainly much more than I recall in the innocent times before. In the period between the end of Communism in 1989 and 2001 people spoke of the ‘end of history’ and the beginning of some new age. But it was not to be. Our ‘world-ending’ urges returned, and we went back to living on the edge of the abyss.

So we are left with a conundrum. Are we always on the cusp of some ‘world-ending’ disaster, or are we just wired to see the world in this way? Yes and no.

If you ask people, they will identify that we live in troubled times. We experience more change that the generations before us. Kids respect their parents less than ever, Crime has never been worse. Times are hard. What is wrong with people today? The problem with these statements, is that every generation has said them.

Every generation assumes that things are in some sort of decline, that kids are ruder and people care less about their neighbours. But logic tells us that this can’t possible be so. And the facts don’t bear it our either. The crime rate in Canada has been dropping since the 1970’s, but in our minds, it has never been worse. ‘Worse than ever’ is not a reality, it is a state of mind, one that has existed as long as we have.

Revelations is nothing more than an extension of this. Part of the context is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the 9-11-like disaster that reverberated throughout the Jewish faith, Jewish Christians included. Part of the context was the endless conquest that happened in a land that was always on the way to somewhere else, and suffered from every passing army. But part of it was that same ‘world-ending’ theme, that sense that the age was unique and the struggles represented something final.

Now, having downplayed the disasters in Revelation and having questioned the extent to which our age is unique, I would be remiss not to note that our age is unique. Despite the skeptics, despite the snow last night, we do face a unique challenge in our age. And if the threat of global warming isn’t enough to change our habits of consumption, I hope the threat of 800,000 litres of crude leaking into the Gulf everyday is. This is one case where I hope ‘world-ending’ feels real enough to change out ways.

Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Jesus speaks to his disciples at a moment that is ‘world-ending’ for them, the time before his passion. What he says, in effect, is this: ‘The world will grant you no peace. Every age will seem like the last, and every crisis will seem larger than the last. This is part of the human way. But do not despair: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I am with you in the midst of the struggle, I am with you to the end of the age. In my presence you must not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.’

Later on, when someone asks you about Mother’s Day at Central, you can tell them that the preacher said the world is ending and don’t take you mother to Paris. Or you can tell them that the idea that the world is ending is as old as the world itself. Or you can tell then that Christ is the only constant in the midst of worry and strife, and the Easter message of new life is the only message we need. “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Fifth Sunday in Easter

Acts 11
Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

Hello, I’m a Mac.
And I’m a PC.

You know the ads: music box sounding piano music fills the background while Mac and PC have a conversation that somehow never ends well for PC. These celebrated and widely imitated ads are a stark example of what people in the business would call “appealing to your tribe.”

Tribes, you see, are a leading trend in marketing, the best way advertisers have found to break through the noise and reach potential customers. The theory goes like this: Rather than look at age bracket or location when looking for an audience, focus instead on interests or commonly held values.

It sounds almost self-evident, largely because it is. Where older ads might find a clever or compelling way to push a product, tribe-based advertising appeals to core beliefs. Mac guy is obviously self-satisfied, a little smug, and he genuinely seems to feel sorry for PC and the limitations of his operating system. Members of the Mac tribe get it, and the rest of us don’t. But that’s okay, because the ads are more about reinforcing a sense of uniqueness than winning new customers. Apple wants to honour their tribe and make sure they buy next year’s model.

The idea of tribes doesn’t sound new at all: it sounds ancient, largely because it is. Our ancient near-eastern forbears were tribal people, the twelve tribes that made up ancient Israel and the many tribes that inhabited the surrounding countryside.

And tribal religion, the origin of many of the world’s great religions, began in an effort to draw distinctions between the various peoples that inhabited the same land. Customs became laws and laws became religious precepts as each tribe attempted to build a fence around themselves and remain unique. Issues of clean and unclean began as an effort to safeguard the tribe, to ensure that the uncertain people over the hill remained there and did not dilute or contaminate what made our tribe unique.

These instincts remained long after people moved about in tribal groups. That movement from custom to law to precept proved a powerful force for cohesion and group identity, allowing each generation to pass on essential values to safeguard the whole. Restricting diet and regulating contact with outsiders reinforced the entire program.

It is tempting then to do a thought experiment regarding the beginning of Christianity. What if the movement was limited to those who met Jesus? Or limited to those who were first Jewish, as the earliest believers were? Or limited to non-Romans, those out of power or somehow oppressed? We will never know, of course. But it is certain that our Acts reading is a hinge moment at the beginning of the Christian religion, and ensured that a local movement would one day become global.

The hinge moment begins with two visions. The first vision is the angel of the Lord appearing to Cornelius, a centurion from Italy, and instructing him to find Peter. The second vision is Peter’s: a trance-like vision of a lowering blanket, laden with creatures forbidden to Peter and the rest of the Jewish people. The Lord speaks to Peter and says “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

Peter protests. In his trance-like state, he argues with the Lord and says, “I cannot, Lord, for nothing unclean has passed my lips.” But this God will not take ‘no’ for an answer: “What I have made clean, Peter, you must not call unclean.” At that very moment Cornelius’ people find Peter and beg him to follow.

The next day Peter meets Cornelius and a group of like-minded people. Peter reminds them that it is contrary to the law for him to enter the home of Cornelius, or sit at his table, but he is now compelled to visit based on a vision and a voice that said “don’t call unclean what I have made clean.” As each explains further what prompted them to meet, the work of the Spirit takes hold.


A few years ago, I had the privilege to hear Margaret Wheatley, a specialist in organizational behaviour. Many of her insights come from the world of science, both social science and the natural world. As she invited us to a discussion time, she asked the group to try something new: to try, wherever possible, to listen for differences. And then she told us why:

Humans, she argued, are hardwired to look for similarities. We look for patterns, we look for the familiar, and we look for allies. The last one is primary. We are hardwired to look for confederates or like-minded people because primitive people had to be ready for anything. And in being ready for anything, it was always useful to know who shared your approach or your worldview.

So Margaret Wheatley was arguing for growth through following the unexpected. Or following the disagreeable. Only by setting aside our ally-seeking tendencies would we receive new information, or be truly open to the new insight that someone else was bringing to the group.

Peter, then, is an example of listening for differences, opening himself to a new mode of being because the Lord insisted but also because Cornelius made a compelling case. When these two men met face-to-face, Cornelius described his experience:

“Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, 'Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter.”

And here is the paradox in the story of Peter and Cornelius: Peter was willing to set aside the rules of his religion in order to hear another voice, and a message that by its very source was contrary to his own. He followed voice and vision to an experience that would challenge everything he knew. And in doing so, he found a member of his tribe: the tribe of mercy and prayer.

The day held two surprizes for Peter then, the surprize that the old barriers were to fall, and that he would have more in common with this centurion than most of the members of his own religion. Call it the new tribalism, the desire to find fellow travelers, to find people equally committed to compassionate service and the need for prayer, and ignore the traditional differences that hold us apart.

So how do we resolve the paradox? How do we remain open to differences and all the while look for allies? How do embrace our differences while finding those things that draw us together? The answer, I think, is love. Listen as Jesus begins to say goodbye to his disciples:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The old campfire song goes “and they’re know we are Christians by our love.” And for those who sing carefully, the double meaning becomes obvious. Love is that which binds us, one to another, but love is also what compels us to serve others. We have the love of fellowship and we have the love of service. And they will know we are Christians by our love. They, whoever they are, will see us care for each other as we care for people we don’t even know. It is at the heart of what God is calling us to do.

So how do we resolve the paradox? How do we remain open to differences and all the while look for allies? This is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us daily opportunities to learn from differences while seeing commonalties. To increase our bond with one another while we open our doors to more. To remain unique in our mission and ministry while looking for fellow travelers. And to love, first and last to love as we are loved. Amen.