It is a special joy and privilege for me when the scriptures I’m assigned were inspired by encounters with the Holy Spirit. Soon after Easter I eagerly await the gift and power of Pentecost. I need to be reminded that wherever truth and love break through, freedom and healing become a possibility. No matter how things seem. I wish for each of you present today – seated here or streamed- a full share of joy in savoring this good news. Joy is never inappropriate.
We must admit that Peter’s vision is a vivid one: a lowered sheet reveals a menagerie of animals, of which he is ordered to kill and eat freely. I think we could be forgiven for imagining – briefly of course! – that this dream-telling is a ruse of Peter’s. An effort to defusethe uproar he caused by skirting the rules: he is accused of “entering the strangers’ home and eating with them”. I can’t speak for the provenance of dreams, but this one grabs our attention, and we are alerted to the even more amazing story that follows.
I imagine that nearly everyone here could share a good story of hosting or being hosted, whether across economic, cultural, political, religious, or other differences. Some of those may give us entrée into Peter’s experience. Because literally walking into the lives and spaces of people new to us, invites us to further recognize our shared humanity, and expand our capacity to appreciate one another. Hosting and being hosted are roles that each require attending to others, surrendering some control, and “going with the flow”. I invite you to pull up if, you can, a snapshot memory of a meal or visit that stretched you in some way.
One trimester of my seminary program in Chicago I spent in the Cross-Cultural Mission Intensive. Placed for that stretch with hosts in varied neighborhoods, our class regularly joined Rev. Claude-Marie Barbour for outings. About these we were given little or no advance information.
One day a dozen of us carpooled to the small Cambodian Refugee Center and were seated at a long table. Several traditionally dressed Cambodian women entered and proceeded to serve us a lovely chicken dinner, setting our plates and standing behind us as we timidly followed their gestures to eat. They spoke no English, and no introductions were provided. We smiled into their somber faces and felt awkward. The women disappeared as they cleared our plates.
Then a few men – one who translated – came and talked to us, calmly at first but unsparingly, of the horror: torture, starvation, and massacres by the Khmer Rouge they had survived in their homeland. We were shocked and silent to the end when[lp1] the speaker thanked us profoundly for listening to their history, which he believed most of the world wouldn’t acknowledge. Then the men bowed deeply to us and left. As did we.
Outside, one teary student finally asked Claude-Marie why we were “set-up” in this way; why could not the women at least have joined us in the meal?
Her quiet response was that the women could afford enough food for us, their guests, and probably wouldn’t eat that day. But this meal was their gift of gratitude for our willingness to hear their story, to enter their world in that way, something so few would do. That brief connection across the chasm of their profound grief and dislocation, was worth a day of hunger, which they knew well.
There is no place, Dr. Barbour showed us, where love could not go. A survivor of torture herself, she knows that only love can heal the damage we do to one another, wittingly or unwittingly. Love doesn’t always need to bring answers, or respect conventions, or speak. The Spirit speaks eloquently in the silence we hold.
We never learned how she knew where to go, or if anyone other than the Holy Spirit called her. One midnight we were summoned to the America Indian Center because she’d learned of a planned rumble between rival gangs; other times we met in homes and on corners across the city and in Gary, Indiana. She can hold the rage and grief of others, always speak in a near whisper, and it would seem always leave peace in her wake. ***
In today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is summoned by the Spirit through a dream to meet Cornelius, a Roman Gentile. It is said that Cornelius may have been a descendant of those slaves freed by a man of that name, around 80 BCE, a man of many grateful namesakes.
Peter and he have each had compelling, compatible visions that bring them together. To make that happen, Peter stepped outside at least the conventions and previous experience of the apostles and believers in Judea. There is yet some debate as to whether or not Cornelius observed Jewish dietary laws, and whether the animals in the vision were only symbolic of the welcome of Gentiles among the followers or had anything specific to say about the diet of believers. But the story does indicate that Peter shared a meal with this household.
What is not debated is Peter entering the home and prayer space of a non-Jewish family who also prayed to the God of Israel but was not part of the temple worship. They must have been intrigued by what they had heard of Jesus and wanted to learn more.
Peter surrenders not to a random encounter with a stranger, but to the Holy Spirit, the key actor in this event. He and 6 friends accompany the Spirit into the home and lives of this family who are eager to hear his message. The Good News Peter shares, the basic kerygma of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus resonates in them, and as they open themselves to his teaching, the Spirit enters them fully. This is new! From this moment these Gentiles are now free to share fully in the promise and the mission of the Gospel. What’s more, this living Spirit of the one crucified responds to their readiness Even As they Listen to Peter’s proclamation. I can’t but think of the Emmaus encounter with the Risen Jesus, “Were not our hearts on fire even as he spoke, and in the breaking of the bread?”
I love that the Spirit isn’t waiting on a larger community’s approval or baptism ritual, She has the power: to call us, claim us, to free us. Joined now in this shared identity, Peter and Cornelius’ clan are witness to the power of God’s desire that All People become One. This is what Peter shares with the apostles upon his return: there is no distinction with God between Jew and Gentile. And everything we come to know of Jesus, tenderly shared one more time in today’s gospel, is that we are to live and love as he did, fully, inclusively, and to the end. We are each and all equally, fully loved by the God of Jesus.
This is the new challenge Peter brings to the young community of believers. This realization, accepted by them on that day, is what sends the Gospel to the whole world. and one we are still unpacking in our local communities and around the world.
THIS IS the New Heaven and the New Earth of the Book of Revelation. ALL THINGS made new. Even the most daily personal things as our families and our homes, our prayers and our politics, our money and our companions. None of it is outside the call to broaden and deepen our practices of love.
The power of entering the lives of others, of crossing thresholds and sharing life and food is so intimate in the lives we lead, and central to our worship. The possibilities within these encounters are also boundless; that is, of the Spirit: this is also the Milieu of the Divine. It’s core, its endless horizon, its mystery. Thus, our dance between engaging and contemplation.
What I learned from Claude-Marie Barbour echoes the teachings of Jesus and the global teachers of her generation: Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and others who have steadily stood up to oppression and witnessed the power of peace. Essentially, that there is no place: no street nor prison, and no peoplegathered by choice or accident- in which the Spirit of truth and love cannot break through. When it does, against whatever odds, liberation and maybe healing can begin.
And also that they laughed – or in her case giggled. They knew joy. Once we have witnessed the movement of the Spirit – in rather ordinary or more extreme situations, and sensed that power greater than ourselves, we know how we are called to live in this world. To this we aspire, against all odds and probabilities.
You have had your own teachers, practices, and encounters that form you yet. Bring them with you to this prayer, to this table. Break them open again with gratitude with this bread. Share them with the discouraged as they fit; share them with the seekers. Most of all, let’s keep our hearts open to scan the infinite horizon, or dive deeply into the center, to find where the Spirit of a Living God yet delights to free their beloved people.
Holy Spirit, source of Wisdom, accompany those who seek peace in this time of war, that powerful and wealthy nations may join to invest in a more equitable and sustainable future, we pray.
Holy Spirit, consoler of the broken hearted, comfort those who grieve the loss of loved ones, homes and communities, due to pandemics of greed and starvation, Covid and war, we pray.
Holy Spirit, author of truth and font of love, help us as we seek to weave new strands of trust in communities and our nation rift by lies and inequities, we pray.
Holy One, we thank you for hearing these prayers we raise, from a world increasingly fragile. We lift them in trust to you because Jesus taught us that your love is unfailing. In Jesus’ name, Amen..