This is the sermon I preached Sunday at my hometown church. In an attepmt to maximize my time, you may see some parallels (or exact language) that I used at Beresheth last week. But that's the life. Again, I would suggest reading Acts 10 before you read this sermon.
“When I was your age…” I bet you could finish that sentence on your own. Whenever I hear these words come out of my well-intentioned grandma’s mouth I know I’m in for either a lecture or a good story. Like every grandchild I got the usual, I had to walk up hill both ways. Only with my grandma it was, “I had to walk uphill to school in the morning in the snow, then downhill to work in my parent’s restaurant washing tables and baking pies during lunch. After a half an hour, I’d scurry back up the icy hill to school again. Cause you know, we had to get the customers fed!” Or there’s the story about no air-conditioning and how my grandma and her siblings would beg the ice man, when he came to deliver the block of ice for the ice box to please shave them off a little bit of ice. Old fashioned snow cones only without the sugar! Sometimes what follows “When I was your age,” is a story about choices. “We didn’t have so many choices when I was a young girl. I’m so proud of you, but I worry too because you have so many things to choose from and I just can’t understand it!” From school, to the ice man, to choices in life, my grandma lived in a different world than I do now.
A perplexing subject. Often a confusing subject.
But a familiar one. Other than something we find in our pockets, and often accompanied by words like exact or spare, change, as a literal or philosophical turning or altering of our lives, is something we often need and something we often hate. Change can be a breath of fresh air, or change can threaten to suffocate us with the very air that once upon a time kept us alive.
In other words: change is beautiful, but it is rarely easy.
Change can be put more delicately when we describe it as a transition. “I’m transitioning into a new job,” as opposed to, “I’m changing jobs.” Or “she’s at a real place of transition in her life,” as opposed to “life is changing on her.” Or “we as a nation are transitioning into a new era.” smoother than the alternative, “the world has changed.”
Transitioning sounds nicer, slower, easier to ease into.
But the Bible talks a lot about change.
The Greek word for “repent” would be better translated, “changed and turned around to go a different direction.” Of course, that may be too many words to yell from a street corner or from a Sunday morning television set. Screaming “repent” at a stranger is so much more effective than getting bogged down with words or meaning or substance. (Smile).
In the biblical narrative, conversion stories or ministry stories often involved an abrupt change. Going from persecuting Christians to becoming one is quite a change; being healed of lifetime of leprosy with one touch, quite a change; being hailed the adored Messiah on Sunday to being the hated one on Friday, quite a change.
Abrupt change, sudden change, a change for the better, a change for the worse.
But the Bible talks about transition too.
“Be transformed therefore by the renewing of your minds,” writes Paul who discovered that just because he met Jesus on a road in a flash of blinding light doesn’t mean he got all the answers right away. Transformation comes from studying, listening, questioning, serving and loving God.
I imagine Mary went through quite the transition when she became pregnant with the Son of God. She journeyed to see her cousin Elizabeth, she talked with her fiancée Joseph, she adjusted to the idea of not only being pregnant, but being the mother of God.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites went through forty years of transition as they moved from Egypt to the promise land. And even after they “arrived” in the promise land, it’s wasn’t all like Jericho. The walls of every city didn’t just crumble at the blow of a trumpet. It was a process involving multiple wars, assimilation, and sometimes even retreating to the unpopulated hill country. God promised change, but change didn’t occur overnight. It took a generation of patient people transitioning from slavery to freedom.
So when I think about change or periods of transition, it’s hard to place my finger on what exactly it means. There’s a variety of ways to deal with change, even in the Bible. You know what the Israelites said to Moses when they got out of Egypt and began to experience the hardships of the Wilderness? “Thanks a lot for bringing us out here, Moses. We’d have been better off if you left us in Egypt! At least we had good fish to eat there! All we’ve got here is dry bread.” Imagine responding to God’s invitation to change that way. But change is hard and sometimes we respond with bitterness, anxiety, a fixation on the past, or ungratefulness.
However, according to the story we heard read from the book of Acts, we receive a different testimony about what it means to respond to change.
Peter thought he knew it all. He’d been with Jesus; he’d been misguided, but he’d been forgiven and now he understood what it meant to be a Jewish follower of Jesus Christ the Messiah.
But Peter had some more growing to do, a way to be more faithful to his calling in Christ. God had more in store for Peter than he could see with his own eyes. God was about to stretch Peter with a change: a change in perspective, a change in the way he would see God, see salvation, see people!
We meet Peter on the rooftop of a house praying like the good apostle that he was. Suddenly Peter enters into a trance, and sees a vision. From the sky he sees a blanket come down, I’m picturing something like what I’d take to a picnic. On that picnic blanket are all sorts of things that Peter, a good Jew, was not supposed to eat according to the Mosaic law. But as Peter surveys the blanket with its forbidden, unclean food, he hears a voice say, “Eat.”
“Lord, I can’t eat that,” Peter responds half in shock and half in righteous indignation. “The holy scripture says it is forbidden.” (As if he would need to remind God of what was in God’s sacred texts). But again, he hears a voice that says, “Eat.” And then again a third time: “Eat.”
Peter is confused, and rightfully so. He knows the law, had been reviewing and preaching the fulfilling words of Jesus regarding the law and the kingdom of God, and all of the sudden he is faced with a vision that seems contrary to that. Have you ever found yourself in that position? You always thought life would run a certain course, that some things would never change, that some people would never leave, that the world would go on turning as you know it because there has to be an unwritten rule somewhere that ensures that’s the way things should be and how dare the world or God change things up on you?
Peter knows something is happening, but he’s not sure what, and then he hears some men calling to him from outside the courtyard.
And Peter embarks on a journey to Caesarea.
When he arrives, he meets a Gentile, highly respected by the Jews, but a Gentile nonetheless. The two men pay their respects to each other and then Peter begins to realize what God is challenging him with. You see, Peter thought salvation was for the Jews only, he didn’t realize that the Gentiles, the “outsiders,” were a part of God’s redemptive process as well. But after a picnic vision and a visit to a stranger, Peter hears the testimony of the Gentiles, sees the Holy Spirit descend on them and it is Peter who believes. Believes that God is bigger, believes that God is more faithful, believes that he himself has some growing to do. Because truthfully, Peter didn’t have it all down, and neither do we.
But God had big things planned for Peter and big plans often means a change in the ones we’ve got.
When we first meet Peter in the gospels, we see a passionate but timid man who when faced with change and challenge of the loss of his Teacher to the Roman government, fails to be faithful and denies knowing Christ. Fast forward twenty years or so and Peter’s life demonstrates a faithfulness to God even in the most confusing situations. Then, Peter thought God sent the Messiah to lead in a Revolution, but he learned instead that, Jesus came to usher in a different kind of kingdom – Peter knows what it means to be surprised by God. Faithfulness for Peter now means always being open to the new things God had to teach him, being open to the new calling God was offering him, being open to receiving the new, fuller life God wanted to give him.
And God is offering us the same things.
But change is hard, adjusting is difficult, and trusting God can feel like trusting the clouds to hold up your weight. But we are called to a transforming gospel. And that always means change will be on the horizon. No matter how much I think I’ve got this God thing down. For you see, just when I put a book back on the shelf because I think I’ve mastered a truth about God, God opens a window to a whole new dimension of that truth. Just when I think I’ve got God’s character pigeon-holed, in flies a dove to lift my eyes up to a bigger God. Just when I think I’ve got the doctrine down, down fall the walls of my well-structured life, my expectations of tradition, community and the Bible, and suddenly a new understanding of God begins to be reconstructed.
Peter’s story is an encouraging reminder that we’re not God. And if we get to the point where we think we are God, think that we are the never-changing, all-knowing, think that we are the constant ones, think that we know the right way to live and that we are good at sharing that with others – if we get to that point, we’ve actually become unfaithful to the Gospel of Christ.
Because we serve a God who is in the business of change and transformation. The phrase used most by Jesus was “the kingdom of God,” and most often that followed an imperative to usher it in. God wants change. God wants to redeem the world. God wants our hearts to be healed, our lives to be altered and the world to be changed as a result of our transformation. God is constantly in the act of “saving” us. Salvation is not just a one-time event that happens when we’re nine years old. Salvation is God continuing to grow us, challenge us, and love us and push us out of the nest and into loving others with complete freedom.
So we shouldn’t be discouraged when we discover that the world is always changing; we’re always learning, and God is always growing us. We’re all in this together – we need to be faithful to live up to God’s challenges. Indeed, that means we are always changing, but that doesn’t have to scare us. It’s okay to live day by day doing our best - that’s what it means to be faithful. It’s okay to take one step at a time into the light - that’s walking by faith. It’s okay to feel like you don’t understand it all. Neither did Peter, the rock of the Christian church! And you certainly don’t have to have it all together. None of the apostles did then, and none of us do now.
We are all in community, seeking to be faithful even amidst change, and learning that transitioning through life may be the most faithful thing we can do as Christians. To be open to God moving in us – that’s faithfulness.
And that makes my heart pound with anticipation. Faithfulness is an openness to God, an ever-changing and ever-challenging sense of call, an exciting newness for my faith, and a recognition that God will always work beyond my wildest imagination.
Imagine a God so great that even the changes grandma describes pale in comparison. I mean can there be a greater revelation than adding syrup to shaved ice?!
It’s not only possible, it’s a promise.