Wrestle with the Tensions in God’s Word and World (A Sermon on Acts 10)

This sermon was given at Colonial Church of Edina on Sunday, October 14, 2018. You can listen to it online.

Acts 10

 9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18 They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20 Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 21 So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22 They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.”

Opening Prayer

Let’s pray together.

God- for life, for your love, and for all living things… we give you great thanks. Amen

Sermon Intro

Well, good morning again! It is good to see you all this morning.

As you know (and if you don’t know yet then you will now know!), we have been/were in a process called “ReForming” over this past year. Through this time we have been discerning what God is calling us to next. This is some of the journey that we have been on together.

You all started this work before I got here—in the summer of 2017. Through prayer and discernment you’ve gathered together as a community to listen. And over this past year we’ve been intentional about this process; listening to each others’ stories and the ways in which God has shown up in the past, discerning God’s invitations for the future.

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 2.21.41 PMIn these past weeks we’ve been delving into the core values that emerged from this process. Our first one is….Welcome, beloved.

And our second? Risk together the messy path of faith!
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Well, this week we are moving into exploring our third core value, which is: Wrestle. Wrestle with the tensions in God’s word and world.

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Now, I had known about Colonial Church when I was growing up, even back to when I was in middle school.  And what I knew about this place was that it was a church where people got together—I don’t know if I would have said to wrestle—but I know that’s what I thought. It was a place where you didn’t have to leave your brain or your heart at the door; where together in community you would gather and engage in debates like the “Devilish Dialogues” and I love that about this community. In fact, it’s part of why I wanted to come and be on staff here because I knew that this is a place where I could join together in community with people—some of whom I’d both agree, and some with whom I would disagree—trusting that God’s Spirit would breathe in and on us as we do life and church, wrestling together.

So it was wonderful for me as a new staff person to join during this ReForming process, knowing that your stories and experiences in this place resonated with what I thought of you. For as we listened more deeply to all of you we realized that “wrestling with the tensions” is part of who we are and have been, and are also part of what we believe God is calling us to be in the future as the church on this block, part of the larger church. And today we are going to talk a bit more about that wrestling.

Sermon Body

JeffI wanted to begin this sermon about wrestling by telling you about my name. My name is Sara, and in my family as we were growing up we had plaques on the walls that depicted our names, their meaning, and a Bible verse. I couldn’t find mine, but here’s a great example (see to the right) : Jeff. Jeffrey means peaceful.

So in my family your name definition was really important. We would call each other by the name and refer to the meaning and the verses from our plaque regularly. Some of you know that my name, Sara, is often thought to mean “God’s princess.”

I’ll be honest with you, I hated my name.

I hated my name for two reasons: 1) Being the one in the family who gets the name that means “princess” just sounds a little like you are a prima donna. Like you are maybe, somehow, more important than the “joyful” or the “peaceful” ones. And I was profoundly uncomfortable with this insinuation. 2) Another reason I was uncomfortable with my name was because some of my Mom’s struggles meant that my name and its meaning got instrumentalized as a weapon when she would turn to me and say with dripping sardonic edge: “Oh, sorry that I’m not God’s princess.” And it was excruciating to hear my name being used against me.

So I never really liked my name.

That is, until my first year of seminary at Bethel. I was writing an exegetical paper on Genesis 32. Some of you may know this story. It’s the passage where Jacob wrestles through the night and God ends up changing his name to Israel, and we know him from then on as one who wrestles with God.

While I was reading commentaries on this passage, I realized that the Hebrew word of Israel, that means “to wrestle/struggle with” is transliterated into English as SARAH. When I read this, for the first time in my life I felt this gush of breath in my body and like God’s Spirit was saying to me: “Sara, you’ve always had the right name.”

Jacob Wrestling With God-2For me this was such a gift—to think of my name as being part of the lineage and tradition of Israel; that I, as Sara, am a part of the people of God who wrestle with God! Here’s a beautiful image of Jacob wrestling with God.[1]

So this name of Jacob “Israel” became the name of the people of God- the ones who struggle with, encounter, and are encountered by this God…the God who wrestles with them. One of the things that I love about this story is that at the end of this passage Israel names the place where he wrestled with God Peniel (which means the face of God) and from then on the Jewish people would not “eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.” (See Genesis 32)

One of the things that hit me about this story from Genesis 32 and as we look forward to the passage for today from Acts 10 is that what happened in Genesis 32 and Acts 10 was never really about the food…it was about the relationship. It was about the wrestling with this God that occurred in the long history of Israel, long before Peter ever knew breath. A relationship where we wrestle through the night with God to find our truest selves, to meet God face to face, and then to become a people who struggle with God in the midst of the world.

So we come to the text for today: Acts 10. One of the cool things about this passage is that this same scene is repeated three times in the book of Acts (See Acts 11:1-18 and 15:6-11).[2]Note: anytime you hear something repeated in scripture, pay attention. There is something important going on when this happens. We see something important unfolding in the story about Peter and Cornelius. Peter one of those people who are a bit intense in their embodying the things they believe. Peter is the guy who, in the garden on the night Jesus was arrested, cut off the ear of one of the soldiers, saying essentially: “I got your back, Jesus!” Then Jesus was all like: “Ok, Peter, I appreciate your loyalty and fidelity…take a breath.” And he instructs him to drop his sword.

This flourish of intense fidelity promises happens multiple times throughout Peter’s life that we have recorded in the Bible, and Acts 10 represents another one of those incidences where Peter is earnest, he is committed, and…well, he just misses some of the picture.  So God shows up and invites Peter to see a bit more of the picture, extending to him an invitation to see things differently.

Peter's_visionMany commentators label this passage from Acts 10 as being about Cornelius’ transformation. But I think that they miss the point. This passage is fundamentally about Peter’s transformation and his experiencing God’s invitation to experience God in a new way from how he had before. Suddenly, in his dream in Acts 10, Peter realizes and begins to discover that the promise God had made going way back into Genesis was that God’s love was for all people; and this continues in the book of Luke through Acts…a vision that the church would be for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Peter— even thought it takes him a little while—catches the vision. He sees and hears from the Spirit: “Don’t call profane anything (anyone) that I have called clean.”

Sometimes I like Peter because he makes me feel good about myself. “Thank goodness I’m not like him!” Just kidding.  I, and you, we are both very much like Peter. There are pieces of the vision of God’s love that are always more radical, and more loving, more inclusive of more people, and larger than we could ever imagine…or even expect.  And I know that my tendency at times is to think that I have God boxed in and figured out…and everything is OK cuz I know what God wants me to think about people and things. But then God shows up again with the breath of the Spirit, tapping me, tapping us on our shoulders, inviting us to see things and each other anew.

Peter is transformed. His vision is changed as he wrestles with God.

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Peter’s experience is SO the human experience, right? Sometimes we engage with faith as if it is meant to give us all the answers. This keeps us feeling safe; it keeps us feeling sure. But the point of a relationship, which I think wrestling is all about, is that it invites us to risk. It invites us to show up with our whole selves—to find and discover that the things that we thought we knew so well might be even more nuanced than we ever expected.

Steve Sandage is a professor of psychology at Boston University who taught me when I was a student at Bethel Seminary. Steve, along with some of his colleagues, has done a lot of work on relational spirituality.[3]In writing about this, they talk about how there are ways in our spiritual journey that we can seek and be “Questing” in our faith or we are Balancing-Spiritual-Dwelling-and-Seeking-Shults-Sandage-2006-adated-from-Schnarch“Dwelling”/rooting in. Steve, et. Al. don’t make these categories into a binary as in you have to pick that you are either going to seek and keep exploring and wrestling OR you are going to dwell and are going to stay stuck. No, they say that we need both: Some of the time we need to root in and ground ourselves deeper into our faith, and sometimes the questions rise and we are invited to wrestle.

The challenge happens when we either quit wrestling by either getting stuck or we totally leave. But the journey of relationship with God and God’s Spirit is one that invites us into a continual dance of transformation.

Let me say a bit more about this…some of you have heard me talk about Andy Garbers before (he’s married to me J) and one of the reasons I chose to marry Andy is because of all of the men who I knew who were single and around my age, very few of them were open to the possibility that they could ever be wrong…you know, about anything. Now I don’t think they were wrong about everything…but just that they weren’t right about everything!

So one of the things I loved (and love) about Andy is that he was a person who kept on learning and growing. I’ll never forget the moment when one of our African American friends at seminary started sharing his story (both Andy and I are white) of having some of our colleagues walking down the hallway at Bethel towards him and when they saw him they would freeze and quickly turn around to walk the other way quickly. Andy heard this. He responded: “That happens to you? That’s horrible.” Notice that he didn’t say: “Oh, common! You are overreacting! It couldn’t really have happened that way.” No, Andy believed him. He chose curiosity. He chose to hear people’s stories…and to believe them.

I knew that this was a person with whom I could do life because he was a person who would be able to wrestle with me no matter what would happy for he is a person who would be willing to show up for the dance of relationship with me and would be willing to be changed.  And he would be able to listen to and truly hear me. But doing this- being open to being disrupted by each other is hard because to be in relationship innately involves risk. It involves the ability to show up and wrestle with one another.

There are tensions. Everything isn’t perfect in any relationship. I don’t know everything about any of you and you are going to keep on surprising me…just like God keep on surprising us. This is what it means to follow Christ.

All of this makes me think about Martin Luther. Some of you know the work of Lutherimages-4 (we are getting close to Reformation Sunday though it’s not here yet!). I wanted to say a couple of things about him as it relates to Acts 10 and wrestling. Luther was a man who wrestled with God throughout his life in profound ways. Because of his wrestling, he ended up being a part of the transformation of the church that allows us to be sitting here today. imagesHe nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg in 1517. He disputated and wrote prolifically and wrestled, continuing to seek to understand God. In 1520 he wrote his famous “Freedom of the Christian.” In 1528 he wrote a hymn that many of you know “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

Here’s the deal about Martin Luther’s life: after he had posted his 95 theses his life began to be under threat. Like literally, the Pope wanted him dead and a lot of people wanted to kill him. I can’t even imagine living under the threat of such acute stress and terror like he was experiencing. But by the time Martin Luther gets near the end of his life in 1543, he ends up penning a piece which has gone down in infamy because of its horror. It’s entitled“On the Jews and Their Lies.” This 65,000-word anti-Semitic treatise was picked up by persons who sought to expunge Jewish people from Europe multiple times throughout  the 16th-20thcenturies…leading to the rise of National Socialism in Germany.

If I were to wonder and guess a little bit, I would say that because of Luther’s own fear of his death and how he was under attack he began to get locked in his thinking and openness to the world. He forgot that God was a refuge of safety, desiring to heal us, so that we can engage the world, but instead Luther began to lock in and get more afraid of the world, forgetting that God isn’t a fortress to keep us safe from the world, but the safety that allows us to engage the world from a place of love and safety we know because of faith.

And we are called to be a people who are called to wrestle. There are tensions in the life of faith. There are tensions in the world. What does it mean to follow Christ in the midst of learning about things like Quantum Theory? I don’t understand it. I don’t get how it all works. And it might ask me to ask new questions about what it means to follow God, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t follow God and learn about physics, right?

We live in a world in which cultures and races and people interact in ways that we haven’t in the past, but we don’t need to be afraid. We can be a people who continue to wrestle. A people who remember our name: the ones who struggle with God.

We are a people who are loved by God and God’s world and God’s way of loving is always more beautiful than we could have imagined. And yes, sometimes this relationship with God and each other and this world is scary. Sometimes, having things that you firmly believed be questioned and be uprooted can make you feel as if everything will implode. But as Jeff reminded us in the reading of Psalm 100: God’s love is steadfast. It’s a steadfast love that isn’t intended to keep us safe so we can fight off everything and everyone. It’s something that in our inner souls and beings invites us to keep breathing so that we can engage the world.  It invites us to keep noticing where we get hooked and get afraid…and then reminds us to keep on praying, opening our hands and saying: “God, show up in new dreams. If there are things I’m not seeing, if there are new ways of understanding your love I say YES and AMEN.”

This journey is filled with tension. This journey is filled with some grey and uncertainty, but we also know that above all of else this life is filled with God’s love. It’s filled with God’s grace. It’s filled with the presence of a God who is committed to showing up with US. We don’t wrestle alone as we wrestle in this life. We wrestle with the God of Israel, the God of Isaac, the God of Sarah, and Naomi. The God of Jeff, and even the God of this Sara too.

God is not a fortress who keeps us safe from the world. God is the Spirit who breathes in us and invites us to be a part of God’s vision for the world…To be a people who embody the handiwork of the love of God to all living things who God has named clean.

Frederick Buechner titled the story of Jacob wrestling with God “The Magnificent Defeat” and that theme is eloquently picked up in a poem by Ranier Maria Rilke that I wanted to close with. It is called “The Man Watching.” [4]

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after

so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes

that a storm is coming,

and I hear the far-off fields say things

I can’t bear without a friend,

I can’t love without a sister.

 

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on

across the woods and across time,

and the world looks as if it had no age:

the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,

is seriousness and weight and eternity.

 

What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights with us is so great.

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too, and not need  names.

 

When we win it’s with small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal

does not want to be bent by us.

I mean the Angel who appeared

to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:

when the wrestlers’ sinews

grew long like metal strings,

he felt them under his fingers

like chords of deep music.

 

Whoever was beaten by this Angel

(who often simply declined the fight)

went away proud and strengthened

and great from that harsh hand,

that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

Winning does not tempt that man.

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.

God’s love is the greater thing of which Rielke writes, and we are the ones who are named ISRAEL: the people who struggle with God. And like Jacob, and Peter before us, we are called to wrestle with God, with the world, with God’s word, and with one another. So let’s hold on, my friends, let’s keep breathing and keep expecting the Spirit to dream new dreams of who and what is clean and included in God’s family, because God is not done with us, or with this world, yet.

Let us breathe and let us be a people who wrestle with the tensions in God’s wonderful word and world. Amen.

 

[1]The image of Jacob Wrestling With God is  by Jack Baumgartner.

[2]To read more, see Eric Baretto’s piece on Working Preacher: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2421

[3]See especially his work with LeRon Schults.  The article I referenced here is his piece with Mary Jensen and Dan Jass entitled: “Relational Spirituality and Transofrmaiton: Risking Intimacy and Alterity.”

[4]I decided to insert this after reading Sara Koenig’s piece on Working Preacher: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=710

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