The following sermon was delivered to Melrose Highlands Congregational Church. The reading was Acts 11:1-18.
My room is chaos. Stacks of mail and academic papers. Text books and library books. Shoes and clothes everywhere. The life of a seminarian can be chaotic, and I am afraid my life “runneth” over much like the piles that “cascadeth” over and off of my desk at times. I’m not happy about the chaos. I like things neat and organized and categorized, and by the way, could you put a label on that? The one area I feel I cannot allow into chaos is the kitchen. I’ve had food poisoning several times, and I’m a stickler for food safety. Which is fine if you live alone. But I don’t.
This year I chose to live in the Divinity School dorm, the last year the Div School will have a dorm. As an undergrad I lived in a fraternity house, but never in a dormitory, so now, in my mid-40’s, I’ve decided to see what dorm life is all about. And as a resident in a grad student dorm, I share a kitchen with a dozen other women and men from around the country and around the world. And I must confess, it drives me crazy. People don’t clean up after themselves, at least not in the same ways I would. And they eat food from other parts of the world that smells funny.
So I know how Peter felt. You want me to eat what? God, nothing personal, but this is a joke, right?
This was a critical moment in the history of our faith, this moment when Peter changed the dietary laws. The community of Jesus followers was evolving from a sect among many competing sects of pre-Rabbinic Judaism into an evangelical religion that welcomed all people, even the Gentiles as they are known in the scriptures, those who ate funny things and didn’t follow the same standards of cleanliness. And from their perspective, well, that’s pretty much us.
The four gospels, and here we have to include Acts since Luke-Acts was written as a single work, but had to be divided into two scrolls due to the limits of the technology of the time, these four gospels have very different understandings of the Law, that is the broad set of laws and codes we think of when we think of the Hebrew Scriptures, of the world of the “old” covenant. The author of Matthew seems to be all for the Law, although he records Jesus as extending the Law, including not just external practice but also internal and spiritual considerations. The author of John, on the other hand, seems to construct those who advocate the Law as the enemy, as advocates of what our own Protestant tradition condemns as “works righteousness.”
It’s all a bit more complicated than that, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had a tremendous impact on the formation of both Judaism as we know it today and our own Christian tradition. But it’s pretty clear that something happened in that early history, something involving Peter and Paul, that allowed the Jesus community to rapidly expand from its roots as a rural Jewish sect into an urban movement that crossed lines of ethnicity, gender, and class.
Luke records that Peter enters what the New Revised Standard Version translates as a “trance,” though the Greek actually reads “ecstasy.” And in that ecstasy, a voice instructs Peter to eat animals traditionally considered unclean, inappropriate for Temple sacrifice. We don’t know who is speaking to Peter, the text simply doesn’t say. And it takes three times for Peter to get it. Peter is a bit thick-headed at times, and three seems to be his magic number, three denials, three proclamations of love, each followed by an instruction to care for the flock, three instructions to eat. And so the most prominent of that group of women and men we call the disciples changed all of the rules, threw out much of the Mosaic Law, and opened the door to new believers.
But where did that ancient Law come from to begin with? I could bore you with theories, reconstructions, deconstructions. I could talk about the need to maintain markers of identity in a world with immigrants and conquerors, with external threats, in-groups and out groups. But I’m going to jump to the punch line. From my point of view, humans made most of those rules up.
Now the Neo-Pharisees, those contemporary Christians who approach the Scriptures with selective literalism, don’t agree with me. These are the people who oppose same-sex marriage, who have reduced Christianity to an obsession with homosexuality and abortion, who have constructed God as a gun-toting American capitalist. These Neo-Pharisees believe the rules came directly from God, over 600 of them, but they select which ones to take literally, and which ones to call metaphor. They believe that one of the reasons for these rules was to test the fidelity of the ancient Israelites. For the ancients and for the Neo-Pharisees, God was and still is a really really powerful human, one who like humans needs his or her ego stroked, who needs to test the faith of his or her followers. That his or her construction sounds awkward, but gender is part of humanness, and if we are going to try to fit God into human’s own image, we are going to fall into this gender trap. This God is petty and punitive, and it is not my God.
I have been very lucky this year to study with the constructive theologian Gordon Kaufman. Kaufman writes about the concept of God as a person in these words:
“Personhood is finite […] since a personal subject is determined by things outside of itself and becomes conscious of itself only in relation to other finite objects. To transfer the anthropomorphic category of personhood (an individual’s self-conscious self) to God goes against the infinitude of the divine.”
These musings, this mornings ramblings that started with my chaotic room and landed on Peter’s modification of the Law, all fall into a category theologians call the Doctrine of God. This is the realm of the omni’s. God is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal. It leads into problems like predestination, will you take single or double predestination? The more we try to attach human predicates to God, the bigger trouble we get ourselves into.
This is all a big fancy way of saying that I don’t think God cares whether I mix the fibers in my clothes, doesn’t care whether I put pepperoni on my pizza, and doesn’t care who I love. God, to be God, must be beyond these petty cares. And while we are at it, let’s stop blaming God when we do really really bad things, when we humans are at our worst. God the really big cop/judge in the sky might have needed to intervene as the Nazis raged through Europe. That God might dive into the seismic rift and stop the earthquake like a cosmic Superman. But the God I see every day, the God of our on-going creation, the God that lives in this community, in thousands, millions of other communities that try to live Jesus in this world, that God just doesn’t seem to work that way. God is mystery and amazing, but God isn’t a big white man with a rule book and a gavel.
This is all a bit awkward. Our tradition is built around notions of God’s conditional election of one people, an election that was later extended through Christ. This religious trajectory leads us to those who condemn others and picket at funerals, to Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps, to the self-righteous Neo-Pharisees who can’t wait for the Apocalypse, when they will be rewarded for obeying the rules, and the rest of us will be cast into eternal damnation.
But even in the religious trajectory of rules and judgment, there has always been a stream of thought that said, nope, we’ve got it all wrong, it isn’t about laws and its not just about us. God is bigger than that. It is about justice and love and peace.
This is the stream in which we find prophets like Micah, who says: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Okay, so we stumble on the concept of telling and requirement, but as progressives, we’re okay with the humbly part. In fact, the Neo-Pharisees could be a little more humbly and we’d be happy.
2nd Isaiah speaks for God when he writes “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
And yet we humans make rules and claim to know God’s will. We are terrified of things we can’t understand and can’t control, so we build little boxes to put them in. We make rules and categories, and we insist that science will figure it all out. We humans have always made rules. And we’ve made idols to explain the things that wouldn’t fit in our little cognitive boxes. In some ways, we humans have made God in our own image, we project our own desires and plans onto God, claiming divine endorsement for our human thoughts and schemes.
We have to be careful with God-talk. Very careful. It is so easy to fall off into idolatry, to worship a God we’ve invented! Even we progressives are at risk of constructing an idol, though ours might look more like a combination of Mother Jones and Gandhi. And if this was where things ended, where this sermon ended, we’d be in big trouble. We’d have no reason to consider God, God would be irrelevant to our lives. There’d be nothing to grab onto, just this beyond things that was scary and difficult. But it doesn’t end there.
God is unknowable. We are finite, we are like the ancient parable of the blind man and the elephant, trying to describe what he could not see, could not reach. And every time we encounter God, we perceive and conceive as humans, as finite beings. Divine revelation always gets remembered and recorded through the imperfect instrument of humans. And that’s okay! We are humans, and we are finite, and we are amazing miracles every moment. We are the inexplicable mystery of life and consciousness, we are love and we are transcendence. We are making it up, but we are doing it with humility and with love.
And then there is Jesus. Dashboard Jesus, Buddy Christ. Why can we depict Jesus in these ways? Because Jesus is an eruption of God-ness in the world. Because despite what Marilyn McCord Adams calls the metaphysical size gap between humans and God, Jesus is the bridge. Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the gospels is one of breaking the rules. Even in Matthew! Again and again Jesus seems to be saying, “Oh, silly humans. It’s not about rules and exclusion. It’s about radical love, radical selflessness. It’s about grabbing this amazing life by the horns and riding it for all its worth. It is about embracing life and letting life embrace you back!”
Kaufman describes it this way:
“The radicality of Jesus’ preaching and teaching (as we find it in the New Testament) simply cannot be lived out in any legalistic way […] it should also be clear that the radicality of Jesus’ demands may startle our minds into fresh thinking about how we humans need to reorder our lives and our world.”
There is the challenge before us. We progressives wrap ourselves in a blanket of tolerance and allow others to dominate the conversation, to recklessly claim divine endorsement, to claim America as the nation of the new new covenant. The idolatrous God-talk of the Neo-Pharisees is used to justify the destruction of other humans, of the very ability of the planet to sustain life. We need to sharpen our skills, screw up our courage, and take on those who claim to speak for God. We are the United Church of Christ. We are the church of God become human. Our God is not a petty and punitive dictator. Our God is the amazing radical love and service in Christ. We are a church that must preach the good news and denounce the idols. We must be one part Isaiah, one part Ezekiel.
Oh, I’ll still complain when I get home today that the stove top wasn’t wiped off, that the whole floor smells of fish. But even as I do it I’ll know that what really matters is Jesus. The Jesus who couldn’t color in the lines. The Jesus who was creativity and love incarnate. The Jesus who is with us when we gather around the table in the dorm kitchen and break bread together and discuss our sermons and our papers and our hopes and dreams. I hope that in the coming week I can embrace Jesus, that I can walk humbly with my God, that I can do justice. That’s all I can ask for. I hope that this week presents you with a thousand little miracles of life and love. And that’s enough to prevent us from placing God in a box full of rules.
I’d like to close with the finals words of a poem by one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.