Monday, April 29, 2013

The Broken Record Gospel

A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” my music teacher would say. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” and he’d start to tell a story or a joke or an instructional anecdote that we almost certainly had heard at least a dozen times. Maybe a hundred. The story about the time he forgot his music for the concert. The example about how parties get louder and louder until you have to shout to be heard. The joke about accordions: “What’s the difference between an onion and an accordion? No one cries if you chop up an accordion.” 

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” he’d say. Sometimes we would actually try to stop him – we were obnoxious teenagers, so we’d roll our eyes and shout out the punch line before he got there. But on he would go, through the familiar stories and jokes, deaf to our objections, hitting the same familiar points, sometimes in the same words, until he reached the conclusion. 

Why do people do that? There are lots of reasons – sometimes we’re forgetful, and don’t realize we’re doing it. Sometimes telling the same tired joke becomes a beloved ritual, like this recurring exchange which used to take place in my grandparents’ house and now has been passed down to my parents and aunts and uncles: “Would you like to join me in a glass of wine?” one would ask. “Do you think we’ll both fit?” the other would always reply. 

Sometimes we tell the same story over and over again because we are making sense of it emotionally, learning to live with what we have lived through – often trauma survivors need to retell their story many times as they seek emotional healing. And sometimes, we tell the same stories over and over again because they are deeply important to us.  Whatever the reason, surely we all know people like
that – sometimes we even are people like that – repeating the same beloved stories and jokes to the same indulgent or not-so-indulgent audiences. 

Today’s lesson from Acts, at first glance, doesn’t seem to have this repetitive quality – perhaps you’re wondering why I’m talking about this at all! – but when I studied it this week, I noticed something odd. In the reading, we hear the story of Jesus’ disciple Peter defending himself to other followers of Jesus, his fellow Jews who are asking why he has been breaking Jewish customs by eating with non-Jewish people, presumably eating meals that would include non-kosher food. Peter explains his actions by describing a vision he has had while praying in the city of Joppa. He tells them that he saw a vision of a sheet descending from heaven, filled with non-kosher animals, which a voice instructed him to eat. When he objected that he has never eaten anything unclean or profane, the voice declared, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Three times this exchange repeated, and then the sheet vanished into the heavens. No sooner had the sheet vanished, than three men appeared at the door, inviting Peter to the home of a man named Cornelius, a Gentile. And so Peter went, following the call of the spirit, believing that the vision he had seen bore much greater import, freeing him and the other followers of Jesus from following the laws and customs that separated social groups, in this case Jews from Gentiles, and ultimately opening the early church to believers of both Jewish and non-Jewish heritage. 

We are taught in seminary that when we’re studying a text and preparing a sermon, we should make sure to read what’s around the text: what comes before it, and what comes after it. So I read what comes before and what comes after the story of Peter defending himself in Jerusalem to the other believers. Our reading comes from chapter eleven, in which Peter describes his vision to other members of the early church; but just before our reading, in chapter ten, the narrator describes Peter receiving the vision. The two accounts are equally detailed, and in fact, they are nearly identical, word for word. 

Why in the world does the narrator describe Peter’s vision, and then, only a few verses later, have Peter describe the vision, almost verbatim? Surely the same thing could have been accomplished with just a brief sentence. The narrator could have said something like, “Peter told them all of the things that he had seen,” or “Peter told them about his vision.” It would have been shorter, saving ink and precious parchment in a time when those things were valuable resources. But the narrator not only shares Peter’s words, but emphasizes the repetition by having Peter use almost exactly the same words to describe what the narrator has just described a few lines before. 

I think perhaps, when we hear Peter share the story of the vision he has seen, when we notice that we have already heard this story, it can remind us of something important. It is not enough for Peter to have a private religious experience and let that be the end of it. In fact, it is not even enough for Peter to have a private religious experience that changes the way he thinks and believes and acts, and then keep the reason to himself. 

Peter’s vision has offered him a glimpse into a new thing that God is doing. God is throwing the doors open wide, breaking down the barriers that have contained the good news within the Jewish community, sending Jesus’ followers out to build a community that transcends the social categories of Jew and Gentile. It is not enough for Peter to simply begin to eat with Gentiles. He is called to tell the story of the new thing that God is doing, to invite other followers of Jesus to join him in this new chapter of the unfolding story of God’s love. 

 This is the first most striking example of a story being repeated in the book of Acts – the telling and the retelling occur only a few verses apart, and are close to verbatim – but there are other stories, as well, that we encounter two or three times or more. The apostle Paul’s conversion story is told in Acts 9, but he retells his own story twice – first to a crowd in Jerusalem in chapter twenty-two, then to King Agrippa in chapter twenty-six. Furthermore, the book of Acts is crowded with speeches in which the various apostles tell the story of what has happened with Jesus Christ. 

It is not enough for the disciples to know the good news. It is not enough for us, the readers, to know that they know the good news. Again and again, we are shown the disciples sharing and telling others about God doing new things: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; the conversion of Paul, a former persecutor of the early church; the vision which leads Peter to start spreading the good news to Gentiles as well as Jews. 

To us, who know the story, it can sound a bit like a broken record. Peter begins to describe his vision and we say, “Wait, I’ve already heard this!” But Peter’s speech reminds us that there are others who have not heard Peter’s story. Peter’s speech reminds us of the vital importance of continuing to share the story of God’s unimaginably vast love with people who have not heard this good news – even if we sometimes feel like a broken record, repeating the same old story over and over again. 

A few nights ago, Bishop Gene Robinson was the interview guest on the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report. Bishop Robinson was the first openly gay bishop ordained in the Episcopalian church, and he has been a strong and faithful voice for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, as well as for civil rights for LGBT people. He was promoting his new book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage

I grew up in a church which became Open and Affirming in 1987, before I can remember. I cannot remember ever having been part of a religious community that didn’t openly, clearly, and loudly support LGBT inclusion and LGBT rights. And so as I watched Bishop Robinson speaking with Stephen Colbert, a lot of his arguments sounded a little bit old hat. The church of the past has gotten it wrong, he said. God loves each of us, just as we are, he said. There's no asterisk on "you are welcome here," he said. I’d heard it all before. I’d said it all before. 

I listened to Bishop Robinson speak passionately and faithfully and honestly about what he believes God is doing in our contemporary church. And as I listened, I remembered this week’s text from Acts – the same story, the same words, told to new people, because they hadn’t heard it yet. And I realized that every single time Bishop Robinson says those same words, proclaims that same good news, tells that same story of a God whose love is big enough for all of us, someone out in the world is hearing it for the first time. Someone is sitting in front of their television, or listening to their radio, or clicking around on the internet, who has only ever heard of a God of closed doors, a God of insiders and outsiders. Someone, for the first time, is invited to worship a God who is bigger than they had ever imagined. 

Was the conversation from today's Acts reading the last time Peter ever told the story of the vision he received that opened the church to people like you and me? No, I imagine he told that story many, many more times as he continued to spread the good news. Does Bishop Robinson get tired of repeating those same talking points, making those same theological arguments? I bet he does (Correction: he does not) – I know I sometimes do ; I may be a young pastor, but I remember having these conversations since I was as young as eight years old, and sometimes I feel like a broken record. 

Perhaps it’s the same for you: this church has, for decades, been on the forefront of issue after issue, trying to lead the wider church toward more justice, more inclusion, more light, more love, and sometimes perhaps we feel like we’re just repeating ourselves. 

But today’s lesson reminds us that, even if the story we are telling is so familiar to us that we could recite it in our sleep, we are called to witness to the good news of God’s love. Because out there in the world, there is a lot of bad news: bad news of hatred and violence; bad news of oppression and injustice; bad news of a God of insiders and outsiders, whose love is rationed out only to those who think correctly and believe correctly and love correctly. 

There is a lot of bad news out there, and there are many, many people who are thirsty for good news. Good news of love and compassion; good news of grace and mercy; good news of inclusion and welcome. We are called to proclaim that good news, whether we are proclaiming it for the first time or the thousandth. 

When we do that, friends, when we tell that same story over and over, we are not merely broken records mechanically repeating the same old song over and over. We are bearers of a sacred story, a story of God’s love for all of creation made known in Jesus Christ, a story which never changes but is always growing, overflowing every barrier, breaking down every door, taking root and flourishing in our lives, and making its dwelling place in our hearts. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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