01/08/2023 ~ First Sunday after the Epiphany ~ A.K.A. the Baptism of Jesus ~ Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17 ~ ALSO ~ 01/06/2023 ~ Epiphany of the Lord ~ Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12 ~ VIDEO OF THE SERVICE; PLEASE SEE THE NOTE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE VIDEO CONCERNING THE RECORDING: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/787979174
“Peter began to speak to [those gathered at the home of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius]: ‘Now I begin to see that God shows no partiality. I truly understand, that in any nation anyone who is in awe of God and does what is right is acceptable to God.’” — Acts 10:34.
When it comes to my reading list— my personal, general reading, and you mach. have figured this out from the Time for All Ages earlier— I am and have always been fond of biographies. I think one reason that’s true is no one, no individual, can be reduced to several words, several dozen words or even several dozen paragraphs.
To use today’s slang, no one can be or should be reduced to a sound bite. Indeed, I like biographies because most of the time you need at least a book length treatment of a person to do justice to, to delve into the personality, the complexities, the ambiguities of anyone’s life.
Let me use myself as an example. My wife, Bonnie— sometimes, and rightfully so— says I’m a geek. She thinks I can fix any computer problem. She’s wrong on that count but I am happy to let her think that.
So am I a geek? Well, she once got me a pocket protector as a present because I had the bad habit of carrying a number of pens of multiple colors in my shirt pocket. Occasionally, they leaked. Leaky pens in a shirt pocket— how geek-y is that?
Just so everyone knows— I have graduated from that. I now carry a set of pens in my pants pocket but they are always in a ZIPLOC bag (the pastor pulls out the bag)— no leaks this way.
On the other hand, there is a distinctly non-geek side of me. In my younger years I played second base on a softball team in a parks league in Queens, New York. That team finished in second place for the whole county. Mind you, we lost the championship game by a score of 19 to 1. But we did come in second.
Further, I was 35 before I had my first sit down, behind a desk, kind of job. Before that I was always on my feet. Even when I started to work at a Wall Street brokerage, part of my job was walking back and forth all over a floor of the 5 World Trade Center building.
That floor was the equivalent of a full square city block. I always wore a pedometer back then and most days I would log about seven or eight miles. That doesn’t sound too ‘geek-y’ to me. As I said, it is impossible to define anyone in a couple of words. We are all by far too complex for that.
That leads me to a story about something which happened to me when I was in High School. From the history about myself just outlined, you might be thinking— “Well, Joe only got geek-y, bookish when he got older.” And that would be wrong.
Again and as would be true of anyone, my story, my history is by far more complex and textured than that. The first two years of my High School career were spent in a parochial school under the tutelage of the Christian Brothers.
In a history class one of the teachers, a cleric, pointed out that the book of Luke and the Book of Acts were two volumes of one book written by the same author at the same time. The Gospel of John somehow got stuck in between.
Having heard that information, the geek-y, bookish side of this very active teen went home, pulled the Bible off the bookshelf and read through Luke and Acts as if they were one book. I have often said this. For me, reading Luke and Acts as one book was a conversion experience. (Slight pause.)
These words are from Luke/Acts in the section commonly called Acts: “Peter began to speak to [those gathered at the home of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius]: ‘Now I begin to see that God shows no partiality, I truly understand, that in any nation anyone who is in awe of God and does what is right is acceptable to God.’” (Slight pause.)
The lectionary readings we hear on Sunday often tell only a part of the story. So the full story can be more complex than the snippet we hear. More of the story in any assigned reading relates usually comes before and after the reading. So it can be wise to look at a passage in its broader context.
The story we heard really today starts at the beginning of Chapter 10. This is what we did not hear. Cornelius has a vision of an angel who instructs this Roman Centurion to seek out Peter.
Cornelius and all of the household of this Roman official are described as being (quote:) “God fearing.” In short, they are Gentiles who are probably attending a local Jewish Synagogue and believe the God the Jews proclaim is the One True God.
But, as Gentiles— uncircumcised people— even if they go to the Synagogue and believe, they do not conform to the law so they cannot be Jews. Hence, they can never be real, full members of the community.
About the same time Peter also has a vision. In the vision the Apostle sees a sheet lowered from the sky which has all kinds of animals in it. In terms of Jewish law, the animals Peter sees should not be together because some are considered clean and some unclean— animals fit for consumption and not fit for consumption.
An angel tells Peter to kill all the animals and to eat them all, an action which does not conform to Jewish law. Yet this action is contained in a message from an angel of God.
Peter is confused by all this. And that is when the people Cornelius has sent to fetch Peter show up and ask the Apostle to return with them.
Peter travels to the house of Cornelius and enters the house of Cornelius. The Centurion is a Gentile. This action, Peter entering the house, would have been against Jewish law. And this is where today’s reading picks up, with the response of Peter in the form of a sermon. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to what I have labeled as my conversion, to my taking the Bible off the shelf and reading the Book known as Luke and the Book known as Acts as if they were one book. If you do that— and, indeed, I suggest you do that sometime— sit down and read these books as one— I think you will find this story becomes pivotal. It sums up much of what the writer of Luke/Acts has to say.
And what is it the writer of Luke/Acts says throughout this writing? God is a God of all people, not just some.
Let me be more exacting and expansive than that. These are some of the things which can be drawn out of this writing. God is a God of the poor. God is a God of the rich. God is a God of the socially acceptable. God is a God of the outcast.
Further, God is not a God of retribution. Indeed, God is a God of mercy. God is a God of hope. God is a God of peace. God is a God of relationship. God is a God of freedom. God is a God of joy. God is a God of justice. God is a God of love. (Slight pause.)
I want you to notice something about what I just said. First, if someone pictures God as a God of mercy, hope, peace, relationship, freedom, joy, justice, love— that pictures God as having many attributes. God cannot be summed up one way. God is not one dimensional. God is not a sound bite.
On the other hand, when God is pictured simply as a God of retribution, that is a one dimensional God. God gets put in a box. God becomes a sound bite.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has said the God of Scripture is drawn with intentional, artistic illusiveness. Intentional, artistic illusiveness— you cannot and should not put God in a box. You cannot and should not make God a sound bite.
And the box in which we humans seem to try to place God most often says God is not a God of all people. God is only a God of my group, my tribe, my race, etc., etc., etc.
If there is any lesson to be learned, if there is any conversion which might happen when we read Luke/Acts, it is summed up in the words of Peter. (Quote:) “…God shows no partiality,….” (Slight pause.)
In part because we humans so often put God in a box, I think when we understand God accepts all people and can truly and faithfully embrace, live out the concept that God accepts all people, then we have had a conversion experience. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Let me end with this quote from theologian Richard Rhor: ‘Most of us were trained to think of Christianity not as a prophetic path, but as a contest, which immediately frames reality in terms of win-lose, winners and losers. The prophetic path says there’s no way of moving toward winning that includes losing. It doesn’t exclude it.’”
BENEDICTION: May the Spirit of the God of light and love, the God of truth and justice, the God of song and joy, the God of all, be with you this day and forever more. Amen.