Sunday’s Sermon, May 5,2024: Pushing the Boundaries

Dean penny bridges preaching at pulpit

Penelope Bridges

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Once again our lectionary from Acts drops us into the middle of a story. So here’s the context: a Roman centurion named Cornelius, was what we might today call a seeker. He was exploring the monotheistic faith of the Jews and practiced charity with his neighbors. He had a vision to find Peter; at the same time Peter had a vision of God inviting him to eat non-kosher food and to receive the visitors at his door. Peter went to Cornelius’ home. Cornelius asked Peter to preach. Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit while Peter was still speaking. We pick up the story where the Holy Spirit interrupts Peter’s sermon, with the result that Peter baptizes Cornelius and all his family.

Peter and his Jewish companions have ventured into hostile territory. It must be uncomfortable for them, as observant Jews who aren’t supposed to enter a non-Jewish house, let alone one occupied by a Roman soldier. But, once Cornelius and his household are baptized, inclusion is total: the visitors stay for several days, accepting the non-kosher hospitality of this Roman family. There are no second-class Christians in this story.

If you remember last week’s readings, you’ll recall that we heard the story of how the deacon Philip was sent by God to meet the Ethiopian eunuch, with the result that the eunuch was converted and baptized there and then in the desert. And in between that story and today’s, we have the story of the conversion of the Pharisee Saul, through a dramatic vision on the road to Damascus and baptism by Ananias, into the Apostle Paul. Three stories of the most unlikely people: a person of non-conforming sexual identity, a fanatical persecutor of Christians, and a Roman legionary; one after another being confronted by the love and grace of God, and one after another being welcomed unconditionally into the household of God and the community of disciples. Hmm, what might the author of Acts be trying to tell us?

The lectionary today narrows our focus to the very end of the story of Cornelius. Peter’s rhetorical question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” echoes another rhetorical question that we heard last week, when the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”. The answer to both questions, obviously, is NO and NOTHING. NO, there is nothing standing in the way of God’s grace when someone desires to be baptized. NO, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ. And that love is manifested in baptism. Baptism is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is a sign of something that God has already bestowed, an adoption that has already been finalized. Continuing in this vein of rhetorical questions, who are we to judge the worthiness of anyone to be a child of God? Where are the boundaries, or even, are there any boundaries to this good news?

Boundaries are necessary: to health, of individuals and of communities. Our skin forms an essential boundary between the inside and the outside of the body, protecting us from harmful microbes and substances. The locks on the doors of the cathedral campus provide a sadly necessary boundary to protect this holy space from vandalism and theft. Limiting eligibility for church leadership to those who have made certain commitments and received certain training protects the health of the institution. But sometimes we get a little carried away with our boundaries; and maybe that’s more about wielding power than about true protection.

“Even the Gentiles”, it says in our reading. Peter is being stretched in his beliefs about what is clean or unclean, who is acceptable or not. Cornelius, too is being stretched as he responds to a vision telling him to meet with these subversive Christians. And when the church leaders hear about Saul’s conversion, they are really stretched to trust this man who has been hunting them down.  In our own era, the Church’s boundaries have been repeatedly stretched, as have our culture’s. It is a more complicated world when we have to take into account the many varieties of humanity. There are dimensions of accessibility; voice; economic and political power; the honoring of different cultures and heritages; the stepping back of our own power and privilege to make room for others.

 There are so many ways that we, as God’s people, are challenged to push out the boundaries of God’s love, so many places where our imposed boundaries have been arbitrary or cruel.

At the North American Deans’ conference in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago, the Anglican Indigenous Archbishop of Canada, the Most Reverend Chris Harper, spoke about the historic experience of his people in Canada, how they were regarded as “less than”, and how their culture was attacked. The European Canadians who governed under the British crown, aided by the Anglican Church, did their best to stamp out indigenous culture and practices. They insisted on boundaries around language, hair length, names. They placed people in scattered reservations so as to isolate them from each other and so weaken their power. When pressed, finally, to give reparation for the abuses, the government handed out large sums of money to people who had never traded with money and who didn’t know how to be good stewards of wealth, with disastrous consequences.

In all of these ways and more, the colonial authorities placed the first peoples of this continent outside their perceived boundaries of humanity, of civilization, of religious orthodoxy. And it was murderous. A lot of what Archbishop Harper said closely and painfully reflected the recent movie Killers of the Flower Moon. This is what happens when boundaries become a method of wielding power. And when we try to destroy what we regard as outside the boundary, we all lose.

At the conference, I was struck by the beauty of how Archbishop Harper spoke of the ceremonial feathers that he cherishes, feathers that represent peace, purity, wisdom, and longevity; and by the way his people use language. The  First Nations Version English translation of the New Testament  bestows names on Biblical characters that hark back to the original meaning of the Hebrew. So it refers to Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means “God saves”, as “Creator Sets Free”. Simon Peter is presented as “One who hears” and later “One who Stands on the Rock”, while Elizabeth is “Creator is my promise”. Hearing Archbishop Harper read a little from that version made me want to read the whole thing. When I think of all that we have lost by creating boundaries of power inequity, it makes me want to weep.

Even closer to home, the church has been full of leftovers from the bad old days: meeting and service schedules that favored those with flexible calendars; multiple floor levels that challenged the less mobile;  sound systems that were designed to work best with male voices; bathrooms that didn’t accommodate non-binary individuals. We are doing better now, as we remodel to maximize accessibility, as we install only single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms, as we intentionally seek to diversify our leadership and use Zoom for night-time meetings. These may seem like practical, secular measures, but there is a theological dimension. As we stretch to bring more and different people fully within our community,  whether we know it or not, we are stretching our concept of humanity; and as we know that humanity is made in the image of God, that then stretches our conception of the infinite God.

So, this is an ongoing project for each of us and for our institutions: pushing the envelope of what or who is acceptable to us and to God. Holding gala dinners and sound baths in the nave. Welcoming small children to receive Communion. Eliminating physical barriers like steep staircases, labyrinthine hallways, and an expectation of kneeling at the altar rail. For example, if you consider our welcome of Voices of our City and Black Xpression, if you look at the plans and drawings for our proposed music center, you’ll see how we are trying to make our music ministry as accessible and as broad as possible.

It can be uncomfortable, as we adjust to new ways of doing things, and the church can be slow to catch up to God’s imperatives – witness Peter having to be interrupted by the Holy Spirit so that Cornelius and his family could be baptized! In some cases we may have to make a decision: are we to err on the side of obeying the rules as they are now, or on the side of being unconditionally loving? 50 years ago this summer, a few leaders in the Episcopal Church went for the loving option and “illegally” ordained eleven courageous women to the priesthood. They were sanctioned and censured, but the Holy Spirit broke through and the Church managed to catch up a couple of years later at General Convention, passing the legislation that permitted women to serve in ordained leadership.

Today, like Peter, we can say that we are witnesses to all that God has done for us through Christ, and we are called to testify to the unconditional love and acceptance that our neighbors so desperately need to know. Having known it ourselves, how can we do anything else?

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