May 15, 2022

Prayer of the Day

O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Amen.

Acts 11:1-18

1Now 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. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Peter’s vision of the sheet with animals, Henry Davenport Northrop, “Treasures of the Bible,” published 1894

Psalm 148

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord| from the heavens;
  praise God | in the heights.
2Praise the Lord, | all you angels;
  sing praise, all you | hosts of heaven.
3Praise the Lord, | sun and moon;
  sing praise, all you | shining stars.
4Praise the Lord, heav- | en of heavens,
  and you waters a- | bove the heavens.
5Let them praise the name | of the Lord,
  who commanded, and they | were created,
6who made them stand fast forev- | er and ever,
  giving them a law that shall not | pass away. 
7Praise the Lord| from the earth,
  you sea monsters | and all deeps;
8fire and hail, | snow and fog,
  tempestuous wind, do- | ing God’s will;
9mountains | and all hills,
  fruit trees | and all cedars;
10wild beasts | and all cattle,
  creeping things and | flying birds;
11sovereigns of the earth | and all peoples,
  princes and all rulers | of the world;
12young | men and maidens,
  old and | young together. 
13Let them praise the name | of the Lord,
  whose name only is exalted, whose splendor is over | earth and heaven.
14The Lord has raised up strength for the people and praise for all | faithful servants,
  the children of Israel, a people who are near the Lord. | Hallelujah!

Revelation 21:1-6

1I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 
 “See, the home of God is among mortals.
 He will dwell with them;
 they will be his peoples,
 and God himself will be with them;
4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
 Death will be no more;
 mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
 for the first things have passed away.”
5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sermon – Pastor Meggan Manlove

Patterns, habits, and routines are good. When I am with friends with little kids, I am especially mindful of this. But I also am healthier and more whole when I stick to a consistent bedtime, when I stick to an exercise routine, when life is somewhat calm and predictable. Disruption is hard on the mind, body, and soul. 

I appreciate routine and calmness in my journey of faith too. I like that our music changes, but that I generally know what to expect when I lead worship here or worship with other ELCA Lutherans. The routine lets me enter into the liturgy more deeply. Words repeated year after year, through songs, prayers, and creeds bubble up when I need them outside of Sunday morning. Furthermore, part of making a community of faith trustworthy is making it predictable. We build trust in one another and the God we follow through meaningful rituals and by predictably showing up for one another with our words and actions.

But sometimes the life of faith includes disruption. The Holy Spirit’s work often challenges our deepest assumptions about how Jesus Chris is present and at work in the world. We may look to things like the cross, the sacraments, and prayer as reliable places where God has promised to be available and gracious. 

But there are also times when the Holy Spirit works in ways that are unexpected, offensive, and downright transgressive. One scholar wrote, “The fact that a thing is transgressive does not make it holy, but it can—and often is—the case that Christ frequently calls us into encounters that upend our deepest theological commitments.” 

Peter has had a conversion experience of sorts. This experience has led him to a new understanding of the Christian community; it is a place where Jews and Gentiles participate together, on the same ground, in the salvation God provides. But everyone else has not reached the same conclusion as quickly as Peter. And the implications of Peter’s new understanding apply not only to him but to the wider church as well. 

When Peter returns to Jerusalem he gets a question, which sounds more like a rebuke: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Why did Peter accept hospitality from and share meals prepared by Gentiles? Peter had acted in ways that fly in the face of generations of practices that certain Jews adopted to honor God and safeguard holiness. 

Peter responds with a summary appropriate to his audience. He bears witness to what happened to him. He notes that he recognized in his new Gentile friends “the same gift” that God previously gave to him and other Jewish believers. He also calls his audience’s attention to something Jesus said back in Acts Chapter 1, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 

In other words, Jesus himself authorized Peter’s conclusion that God regards Gentile believers in the same light as Jewish believers, for Jesus identified the Holy Spirit as a gift from him. Peter urges his listeners to see his actions as a faithful response to God’s owninitiative, certified by Jesus himself. 

The witness itself is remarkable for several reasons. Peter has no textual witness to fall back on. He has no prophetic utterances to conjure from the collective memory of his people. Very little prepared him for this Gentile emergency, though he did stay with Simon the Tanner before his encounter on the roof. That stay, in an unclean house, perhaps laid some groundwork. 

Peter is speaking to those who knew him and know his faith. The only argument Peter could give with kinship eyes bearing down on him was no argument at all, simply an experience. This fact kind of terrifies me; makes me a little squeamish. Why? Because the idea of experience has gotten a bad reputation in Christian thought in recent years, and for good reason. 

Claiming an experience of God, of faith and truth, has served as a tool for every will to religious power. The claim to an experience has graced greed, violence, and oppression with a facade of righteousness. But, and this is a big but, Peter shows us its proper use, [experience] confronts the cult of the familiar—of family, faith, nation, and story. 

This story of Peter’s witness shows the breaking open of a life, Peter’s life, and the breaking open of a whole people’s life. God spoke to Peter and now through Peter God is speaking to the saints gathered there to hear. Peter remembered a promised baptism for the Jewish body and saw with his own eyes that baptismal promise stretched over Gentile bodies. “Gentile bodies have been touched by God, just as we have,” Peter states. 

The Holy Spirit is surely in this moment. The listeners all take note. They must consider their people’s relationship with God, going back centuries. God has again done a marvelous new thing beyond anticipation: even Gentiles receive the repentance that leads to life. 

Look what happens when you bear witness to Jesus and his good news with boldness and generosity. The church watches what the Spirit does, discerns whether there’s some kind of precedent for that, and follows where the Spirit leads. 

There is a lot about discernment in this story. In Acts, discernment comes about as communities of believers consider their circumstances, their convictions about Jesus, their sacred texts, their lived experiences, their values, and their hopes. In other words, there is a rich mix of influences: experience, scripture, memory, conversation. This defines the church as a community always endeavoring to live into the new possibilities it believes God has in store. When faced with challenging seasons of discernment, we should also make space for a variety of witnesses as we attempt to understand the Triune God’s work in our world.

Not much has changed really, as far as what goes into discernment. When I came to Trinity from rural Iowa, where everyone was still baptized whether they came to worship again or not, I had to do my own discernment with this congregation. Would we commune those who were not yet baptized? My own personal experience was that people came to the table and were hungry for the Sacrament. Hands were outstretched. I could not always be sure that these strangers were baptized. I read scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. I also read written witnesses by other people who had already gone through this conversion. Sara Miles’ book Take this Bread was at first a very disruptive read, but later everything she said seemed like common sense. 

In a literate society, books are often the medium for witness. Although podcasts might be bringing Peter’s oral witness back in vogue. Our time, some say, is the golden age of memoir. Everyone has a story to tell. Novels, memoirs, nonfiction books have taken me all over our country and all over the world, introducing me to individuals and cultures I may never have been exposed to if I had not opened a particular book. They have increased both my empathy and my imagination.

We know it’s true that written words hold great power and books can change readers’ hearts. English professor Farah Jasmine Griffin notes that many books, from the Bible to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Elie Wiesel’s Night, confront readers “with powerful narratives that not only tell the stories of oppressed people, but also hold the mirror up to humanity, often showing us parts of ourselves we’d rather not see.” As I read this week, “Books about difficult topics can show us our failures. They can impel us to make our society more just. They can transform us into more empathetic people.”

And so I was heartbroken this week when I read the article about the Nampa School Board banning 22 books forever from our school libraries. I cannot imagine the work of either formation or transformation in a world that simply erases these particular books. What’s more, the board set up a process for discernment and then ended its own process prematurely. 

Then on Thursday afternoon I went to an end of year event and chanced to talk with the librarian for our neighbors at West Middle School. She was still devastated, and new grief had come over her the last few days as she kindly asked students to please return various books on the banned list.

What does all of this have to do with the church? A whole lot. What happens after Peter’s witness was a very big deal and ushered in a whole new way of being church. Jews and Gentiles will participate together, on the same ground, in the salvation God provides. 

We too, as the church, are part of such a change. Depending on who you ask, the big shift began 50 to 100 years ago. It was accelerated by the pandemic. We have no idea how long it will take to all resolved, easily another 50 to 100 years. We are not going back to what was. We are in the midst of something big, what Phyllis Tickle called the church’s every-500-years rummage sale. 

What this means is, we are in the midst of big discernment. “Discernment” isn’t just a dressed-up word for “decision making.” Discernment is the process by which people, or a group of people, clarify their choices and values to see which next step best aligns with what they believe to be the right thing. And then they can decide. In some sense, discernment is a process of clarifying one’s choices and comparing them with one’s “yardstick” that holds meaning. And there is always an expectation that God is in some way present and active in the process.

As the community of Acts discerned what was next for them, so we are also discerning our next chapter. And here is what I know to be true. We are going to need all the influences and tools we can handle—experience, scripture, witness, memory, conversation, and yes, books that carry other people’s experiences and memories, even if those books make us uncomfortable. “Fear not” or “be not afraid,” appears over 90 times in scripture. We do not need to be afraid of what the Holy Spirit is doing in and for the church. We can simply trust that God is doing something new and follow where the Holy Spirit is leading.

Prayers of Intercession (Sundays and Seasons)

Set free from captivity to sin and death, we pray to the God of resurrection for the church, people in need, and all of creation.

A brief silence.

Loving God, lead us to follow your Spirit, rather than our own prejudices or desires, as the church cares for one another. Open us to perceive your gifts in those we least expect. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

Inspire us to praise you through the beauty and majesty of the natural world around us (local natural areas may be named). Urge us toward more deliberate care of the world you have made. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

Humble the rulers of nations before your splendor. Direct them to the people who need their attention most, and turn them from the temptation to hoard wealth or power. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

Hasten to dwell among those who are in pain or distress (especially). As Christ enters our deepest suffering, remain with those experiencing despair and great need. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

Place holy love at the center of all our relationships and communities. By your love heal us, convict us, and renew us. Bring an end to racism in our churches and communities. Let everyone know your goodness by the love we show one another. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

Give us a place in the diverse company of your beloved saints. Teach us the value of each person’s identity, and bless us with a shared identity as your children, kindred of Christ. God, in your mercy,

hear our prayer.

In your mercy, O God, respond to these prayers, and renew us by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Amen.

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