April 28, 2013
Psalm 148 (13)
“I found Jesus! You can find him too!” This was a popular slogan on t-shirts and bumper stickers when I was in high school. A few years later, new bumper stickers began to show up that said, “Found Jesus? I didn’t even know he was missing.” Scientists now say they’ve found what they are calling “The God Particle.” But where do you look when you want to find God?
Culturally, most references suggest we look “up.” “The Man Upstairs” is “up in heaven,”—and so on. But I want to point out that in exactly NONE of our readings today is God UP. In fact, God seems to be making a deliberate point of never being where people expect!
In our reading from Revelation, John writes, “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her bridegroom.” And then–shocking GPS info. for those looking for Jesus—“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.” Wow. God is not up there, waiting for us to reach toward the sky; God on earth to encounter us!
And where is God in today’s reading from Acts? Peter, following our “up” convention, has gone up to the roof to pray. In his dream, God comes down to Peter in the form of a dream, a sheet descending from heaven. On the sheet are all kinds of things that Jews who followed the strict dietary laws in Leviticus were not allowed to eat. And in the dream God’s voice says to Peter, “Kill and eat.” Peter says, “No way! I’m a good Jew! I don’t eat unclean things.” But God insists, pointing out that all of these creatures were created by God and therefore a bit of the artist is found in every work of art. “What God has made clean, you cannot call profane, Peter.” As usual, Peter doesn’t catch on the first time, but finally after the THIRD time, God gets through to him: “I know this is not what you are used to, Peter, but I’m telling you, it’s ok.” And just then, some Gentiles arrive and invite Peter to go with them to the Gentile Cornelius’ house—which would not have been in keeping with Jewish customs. But he goes, because he figures that is what his dream was really about.
Could it be? Could God really be up to something new? Peter was not prepared for this. He’s deep in Gentile territory, but the idea is that he’s there to foster communities of faith among Jews who were interested in following Jesus. The church, as the disciples understood it, involved pulling people from their shared traditional Jewish faith into their newly-organized family of Jesus-trusting Jews. No one imagines that the work of a disciple might involve extending the Gospel to people who are unfamiliar culturally and religiously. No one expects Peter step out instead of pulling in. When word gets back to the other disciples that Peter is hanging out with Gentiles, eating and worshipping with them, they take him to task. They know where God is to be found, and it’s not among Gentiles.
It all reminds me of my friend Yvette’s first year of ministry. Yvette is a blonde German-American Lutheran from Seattle. Her first call was to a small, mostly-elderly, white congregation in Amagansett, NY, in the wealthiest part of The Hamptons. She isn’t at all the type of person you’d picture in the Hamptons, but that soon proved to be an advantage. Her calling was unique. Because Yvette is bilingual in English and Spanish, her congregation asked her to start a Spanish-speaking ministry. St. Michael’s quickly became a spiritual home for the mostly-Latino immigrants who work as gardeners, cooks, nannies, and other employees of the large Hampton estates. But instead of starting a separate mission, Yvette endeavored to create on worshipping community. Services at St. Michael’s began to be conducted in both English and Spanish. As it became evident that a large number of her parishioners had to commute for hours daily because there was no affordable housing in Amagansett, a portion of the congregation’s large property was developed into a affordable housing for people with low incomes. As word spread of St. Michael’s commitment to God’s hard-working, Spanish-speaking people, the tiny church grew and grew. Anglos and Latinos who appreciated the the diversity of the community were coming into the congregation with all of their fresh ideas and needs and ways of doing things.
Needless to say, all this growth changed the congregation, and not everyone was pleased about it. There were many old faithful members who felt they were being “pushed out” by newcomers. Some disliked how long the services had to be in order to accommodate the sermon, liturgy, and Scripture readings in both English and Spanish. Some were startled by the food that was being brought to potlucks, or by the unfamiliar faces and voices at council meetings. Some of the older folks had a hard time adjusting to squirming children in worship. Yes, everyone admitted that the Holy Spirit was at work in this place. And yes, the Gospel was being shared, but why, why, why was it necessary for the Holy Spirit to make St. Michael’s so different in the process? Why couldn’t all these new people do things the way the church had always done them? Why were the old-timers being inconvenienced for people who hadn’t yet served their time?
“See, I am making all things new,” Jesus says. It sounds like Good News, and we trust that it is. But sometimes it takes courageous hearts—hearts like Yvette’s and Peter’s—to insist that if we are looking for how and where God is at work in the world, we might be in for a shock.
Now does that mean I’m suggesting we start a Latino ministry here at Trinity? Not necessarily. I believe that the Holy Spirit who inspired many of your Norwegian ancestors to meet on this corner a century ago is still blowing in this neighborhood. But if we suddenly decided to offer worship services in Norwegian here tomorrow, I don’t know if it would be much of a ministry to our neighbors. Of course God is in our neighborhood, dwelling among us mortals. And God is inviting us, like Peter, to minister to those around us. The tricky part is figuring out what God is showing to us. Like Peter, we might not understand what God is calling us to do and be because it’s not what we expect. Perhaps, like Peter, God will have to patiently show it to us again and again. But if that’s what it takes, that’s what the Spirit will do, because God has a dream for this neighborhood, and is already at work here. What we get to do is participate in it.
God’s desire is to bring about a new Schenk-Atwood neighborhood, a new Madison. That’s not to say God will smite the old neighborhood. Revelation doesn’t say God is aching to create a different heaven and a different earth. Only that God wants a new heaven and new earth. God longs for a community where no one weeps, where there is no hunger and no shootings and no illness. God longs for a community of healthy relationships and happy homes. That’s God’s project. Now, how are we going to join in that dream?
The first step, it seems, is to see where God is already at work. Peter doesn’t start his ministry among the Gentiles by saying, “Here’s where I’m going to begin my circumcision ministry for Gentile converts to become Jews.” Nor would that be a very good evangelism strategy for….well….anyone. The first step is paying attention to what God is ALREADY doing. God doesn’t wait for the disciples to show up before speaking to the Gentiles. No, chapter 9 of Acts begins with God speaking to Cornelius, a Gentile man seeking God. God sends a message to Peter to go to him. And then Peter listens to what Cornelius has to say. Evangelism, or Peter sharing the story of Jesus, only happens after those relationships begin.
So how can Trinity do that? How can we listen to what God is already doing among the mortals here? Where are the places where there are tears and struggle? We know for sure that we will find God in those places. But also, where are the places where the hungry are being fed, where the lonely are finding companionship, and the hopeless are finding support? Those kinds of communities are places where God is already at work, bringing about a kingdom of love like the one described in Revelation.
I know that for a long time, the church taught we had found Jesus, and we showed by for others by bringing them into our experience. The idea was to pull people INTO our way of seeing and knowing God—our language, our women’s circle, our music, our way of folding the tea towels. That was what it meant to be Church. When Yvette first took her call in New York, when Peter first ventured out into Gentile territory, what people asked was, “How are you going to get butts into the pews to support our ministry?”
But what if that isn’t the question? What if the question is not how to get people into this space, but instead, how the Holy Spirit is blowing us OUT, into places and situations where WE are the strangers, where our first job is to listen and learn how God is already at work. God is not up in His heaven, far, far away, looking down at us.
In the person of Jesus, God descended from heaven to dwell among mortals, not as a king, but as a servant. And in our Gospel lesson for today, we hear that this is our calling as his followers. We are here to serve God’s vision for a world of wholeness and harmony in whatever way we can—sometimes among people of different languages and customs, who dress differently, or eat different kinds of food, or look for God in places we never think to look. Jesus is not lost, but found, when the Church exits the building.
Which leads us back to the question, “Where is the Holy Spirit at work in the everyday world, and how can we partner in that work?” Look for efforts to create community like the one described in Revelation—where no one is mourning or crying or in pain. Any place that where that kind of work is going on is a place of ministry, a place where the Holy Spirit is at work.
Wait? Am I saying that Operation Fresh Start, that place across the street where troubled teens learn how to build houses is a ministry? Is teaching self-respect and respect for others something that builds community? Yes. Is helping kids who seldom get a second chance try again a sign of grace? Yes. Then, yes, Operation Fresh Start is a place where the Holy Spirit is at work. How can we partner with what they are doing to support and engage how God is among those mortals?
Is the Canopy Center, which uses our building to teach and support parents who are at risk of hurting their children doing God’s work? Do you think God’s kingdom is a place where children feel safe and parents are able to cope with the demands and stressors of life? Yes. Then the work that they do is ministry. And it happens right here in our building. Are we listening to what God is doing in their midst, and helping them to build up the kingdom of God in these families?
I don’t have all the answers. I know looking for God’s work and partnering in it is what we are called to do. I know we are called to build up the kingdom of God that we have glimpsed. We have claimed by Christ, and heard of our belonging. We have read, sung, and prayed Love. We have shared resurrection stories and peace with each other. We have been fed at Christ’s table and washed clean in Christ’s forgiveness. We are a new creation. That much I know. And because we are a Church, we come at serving God’s world differently than other groups do. Trinity is more than a building for other groups to use—we are a community that has received mercy and healing, and grace. We get to offer these gifts to others.
It isn’t going to be easy. Gentiles and Jews, Latino and Anglo Long Islanders, didn’t always see life or ministry the same way. The early church was not without struggle as the disciples tried to figure out what it meant to be in community. There’s no reason to believe we won’t have growing pains too. There will be compromises that leave everyone somewhat disgruntled. We might have to let go of some of the things we have always done in order to let the Holy Spirit breathe fresh air in. Living as God’s kingdom means all people are welcome at the table, and remembering that it’s not our table. It’s God’s. We cannot send people away until they learn the proper vocabulary.
Yvette left NY years ago, and is now a pastor in Washington, DC. But St. Michael’s is a thriving multi-lingual congregation, and continues to provide vital ministries to the community. The work was not hers; it was God’s. And the home of God continues to be among mortals in that community. The people of the congregation keep looking for how they can serve God and love their neighbors.
Where is God in our context? To whom are we being called? Or who is the Holy Spirit sending our way? If we are looking for God, let us make sure to look in the unexpected places. You just never know where you might find Jesus!
~Pastor Susan Schneider