Sunday, May 21, 2006
Acts 10: 44-48
I have a small
confession to make. I feel I have been
involved in mission all my life. I was
confirmed by missionary pastors who were also my extended family when I grew
and struggling with the meaning of mission is of particular importance to
Foundry at this moment. Our Church Council
has taken a very difficult decision to close our
Our lectionary reading for today from the book of Acts tells the story of a critical moment for mission in the early Christian church. The book of Acts, which is part 2 of the Gospel of Luke, was most likely written after Paul's letters, not as a historical document but as a narrative written by later Christians seeking to understand their own mission. This narrative of a defining moment in the life of the early Christians offers powerful insights to us today at Foundry as we are at our own critical moment.
The reading today is part of the larger story
about Cornelius which was actually preached about at Foundry a couple times
earlier this year. You may recall that Peter and Cornelius
receive parallel visions. Peter is a
The interesting thing about this is that the Spirit works by giving a part of the vision to different people. No one owns the vision. So Peter has a part of it, and Cornelius has a part. I have seen that really happen in our ministry with day laborers. I thought about reaching out to day laborers by taking sandwiches and shared that with Ann Tonjes. She kept pushing me until I did it. Joyce McKee agreed to go with me. Myles Greene helped out last summer and kept it going. Michael Szpak has had all sorts of visions about this ministry such as English in the street, and lunch at Wesley. People in the community and the workers themselves identified issues that needed to be addressed. Yadira Almodóvar has led the area of health outreach. Amy-Ellen Duke is helping to plan for English classes. Janis and Anthony help with the Thursday morning outreach. None of this would have happened without people stepping forward and contributing as they felt lead by God. In mission, people bring different gifts which are all important.
In this story in Acts, each person has a part of
the vision and no one in the story knows what is going to happen, but they
are obedient to the call they have received.
I know we've
all had moments when we've been obedient to calls that take us in directions
that we don't fully understand. When I
finished seminary, I wanted to work in social ministry in the local
congregation, preferably in
Peter doesn't get a vision that tells him that he's going to be baptizing Gentiles. He gets a vision telling him to look beyond limitations, and to go to Cornelius. He doesn't know where it’s going to lead him. This is very important for us as we consider mission. No one has the whole road map. This is not to say that strategic and intentional planning is not a critical part of good stewardship. That is an essential gift that people bring to our work. But that also has to be balanced and is also a part of being open to where the Spirit leads, and not always having all the answers at once. So Peter and Cornelius say yes to the Spirit which called them to step out of their comfort zone and come into relationship with persons whom society would keep them separate from. For Peter, it is a huge lesson from the Spirit simply to go to Cornelius’ house, when Jewish law prohibited Jews from visiting the homes of Gentiles. Peter understands his earlier vision to mean that he is not to label people as clean or unclean, for “God shows no partiality.” But it doesn't end there.
The reading we heard today recounts how the spirit descends upon the Gentiles, which is a complete shock to everyone present. And not only that, but Peter responds to the action of the Spirit by then baptizing those present. And then, he does another revolutionary act by staying at Cornelius’ house.
What do we learn from this moment? Justo Gonzalez, Latino church historian calls Acts “the gospel of the spirit” because the Holy Spirit is the central character in Acts, constantly calling the disciples and church to new directions. The Holy Spirit in this case calls Peter to a group of people previously considered off limits. The Spirit breaks down our limitations that separate us from other people and instead calls us into equal relationship with all. The Spirit calls us to risk going into new directions without the full road map.
Now naturally when Peter returns to report back to the church, he is heavily criticized by the believers. That would never happen at Foundry, right? But what Peter says when he recounts the whole story is “how could I hinder God?”
Using this movement of the spirit in this Acts community as a lens to look at Foundry’s mission identity, the point I find in common is our identity as a reconciling congregation. The reconciling congregation movement in Foundry did not come out of missions but out of the committee for religion and race, I believe our identity as a reconciling congregation is the core of our mission identity. As a reconciling congregation we affirm that we are called to be in relationship with all people through Jesus Christ, for as Peter exclaims, God shows no partiality. As a reconciling congregation we strive for an inclusive community with just relationships.
It is this commitment as a reconciling congregation that calls us to be a prophetic community within our denomination for full recognition, justice and inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people. It is this commitment that calls us to struggle with the fact that people in our neighborhood live in shelters or on the streets and which has led us to our walk-in ministry, our Susanna Wesley house, our SOME and Christ House cooking groups. Currently we are meeting with a group of churches to continue to struggle with how we can be in greater relationship with homeless people and be a stronger voice on these issues.
It is this call as a reconciling congregation that has led us in our ministry with children. It has called us to walk down the street and meet the day laborers who work at 15th and P. It calls us to join other congregations of Washington Interfaith Network tomorrow to call upon our leaders to commit to increasing affordable housing and programs for youth. This is what calls us to be in relationship with people coming out of prison who are marginalized.
Our call as a reconciling congregation is rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ and his ministry with those who are marginalized, who suffer, who are oppressed. It is not just a call for including people, nor is it just a call for individual acts of charity and justice, but it is a call for constructing relationships of justice and healing in community. It is not that we take sandwiches to day laborers, but that we seek to be in relationship with our neighbors and know their lives. It is not that we march for immigrant rights but that we seek a larger community where people can work and sustain their families and be a full part of our community. It is not that we write letters to people in prison or help them when they come out but it is that we get to know and are connected with people who are marginalized.
As a reconciling congregation we are rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ, as well as the vision of the Acts 2 community that the Bishop talks about in the discipleship adventure where the believers care for each other in community. But we are also challenged to be an Acts 10 community where we recognize the gifts of the spirit in those who we previously considered to be “other.”
In Acts, we see the Spirit working through different and unexpected people, with no one's part making perfect sense to them, but each person contributing so that in total doing more than any one person can. We see people responding in faith and stepping out into new and unknown and risky directions. We see a mission that is constantly changing and evolving, but rooted in faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet there is another critical point. Because as Justo Gonzalez points out, although Peter baptizes Cornelius' family, Peter is himself converted. He is converted by the Spirit to a new vision, in this case that gifts of the spirit are for Gentiles too. So just as through evangelism we bring new members into our mission, so we are being converted by mission.
In this way we are converted by mission. I think anyone who has been on a VIM trip or helped out with walk-in mission can talk about this. I was converted by walk-in mission. Another confession: I was a little skeptical about this walk-in mission when I heard about it when I was interviewing. It seemed like such a band aid approach. But I was immediately converted by this mission of the spirit which I believe creates a spiritual community every Friday. The walk-in mission grounds my ministry every week. We are sent out by the Spirit but we are converted by what we find, by unexpected people. But it still doesn't end there. The Spirit keeps on moving.
Because as Peter was sent out to be converted to a mission of the spirit to the Gentiles, the church itself was transformed to a Gentile church. So the mission of the Spirit sends us out to new directions, converts us, and then transforms our community. It is not enough to invite people in and keep them on the periphery. Those who are marginalized are brought into our community and transform our community, and this transformed community must then be open to new transformations. We are often in danger of getting stuck at this point. We want to invite people in, but we are not always open to the change that may bring. And that is what we have to be open to, to take care that we do not hinder God. It is often what we are most afraid of. If you had told the early Christians that the church would be a Gentile church, they would have been most likely afraid. In the same way our country struggles with immigration because of what it means for the changes that are happening to our entire collective society. This congregation struggled with what it would mean to be a reconciling congregation. And being a reconciling congregation will continue to bring conversion and transformation to who we are, if we allow the spirit to work through us.
So, we are here at this moment in Foundry. We are a reconciling community in the city with the highest gap between rich and poor in the country, and the highest rate of poverty in the country when cost of living is taken into account, and the highest rate of HIV infection, where one in three children live in poverty. We are at a moment of discernment for mission. We've made some difficult decisions. It is difficult to realize that an important mission is ending. Yet the experience of Acts is that Spirit leads us to different missions at different times. We don't know yet what is ahead, but we do know that the Spirit will lead us into new directions, just as the early Christians were led, and will call upon each of us for our particular part of the vision. We can be open to where the Spirit will work through us, or we can hinder God with our fears and resistance and personal agendas, and I'm speaking to all of us, including myself, regardless of where we stand on whatever issue. It is a moment to approach prayerfully, with humbleness and yet with boldness. I believe our questions are where is the Spirit leading us, with whom, and to whom? How are we being converted by mission at Foundry? Are we open to Foundry being transformed by mission? How is God calling each of us to be part of this mission? Let us be in prayer on these questions and for the mission of the Spirit through Foundry.