Sermon of the Week:
A Good Heart
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Special Music: If We Could Speak
Hymn: Called as Partners in Christ’s Service
Keywords: Bundrick, Welcome, Runt of the Litter, Friends, Jesus. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I saw a puppy the other day.
Not just a young dog. A puppy.
Soft. Eager eyed. Maybe a week or two old.
Fur still had that brand new dog smell.
Such an adorable puppy.
It was a lot of fun to play with, even if it did want to gnaw on my fingers a bit.
She’ll make her forever family a great companion.
As I was playing with her, I remembered this story
That one of my favorite storytelling preacher types, Barbara Bundick
Used to tell. A story about puppies.[i]
Once upon a time,
a farmer in Wisconsin had some puppies he needed to sell.
So he painted a simple sign, advertising the pups
and set about nailing the sign to a post on the edge of his yard.
It wasn’t way way outside of town.
It was a good spot with people passing by.
He hoped it would get noticed quickly.
And as he was driving the LAST nail into that post,
Wouldn’t you know it
he felt a tug on his overalls.
He looked down, straight into the eyes of a little boy.
“Mister,” the boy said, matter-of-factly
“I want to buy one of your puppies.”
“Well,” said the farmer, as he rubbed the sweat off the back of his neck,
“These puppies come from fine parents and cost a good deal of money.”
The boy dropped his head for a moment.
But just for a moment,
Then he started reaching deep into his pocket,
And pulled out a handful of change.
He held it up to the farmer with a big hopeful smile.
“Hey, I’ve got thirty-nine cents. Is that enough to take a look?”
“Sure” said the farmer. And with that he let out a whistle,
“Here, Dolly!” he called.
Out from the doghouse and down the ramp ran Dolly,
followed by four little balls of fur.
They scampered close, kinda jumping on top of each other.
The little boy pressed his face against the chain link fence.
His eyes danced with delight.
As the dogs made their way to the fence,
the little boy noticed something else, though
stirring, back there inside the doghouse.
Slowly, another little ball appeared;
this one was noticeably…well, SMALLER.
Down the ramp it slid.
Then in a somewhat awkward manner,
the little pup began hobbling toward the others,
doing its best to catch up.
“I want that one! I want that one!” the little boy squealed, pointing to the runt.
The farmer sighed,
And kindly kneeled down to the boy’s side and said,
“Son, you don’t want that puppy.
He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would.
Take a look at the others…”
There was a brief pause.
And then the little boy stepped back from the fence.
He reached down,
and began rolling up one leg of his trousers,
Revealing to the farmer a steel brace
running down both sides of his leg
attaching itself to a specially made shoe.
Looking back up at him, the boy said,
“You see, sir, I don’t run too well myself,
and he will need someone who understands….
I think he’ll be perfect…”
A bit sappy, I grant you,
But this story brings into clear relief the best aspects of
the two scripture passages before us this morning.
This Season of Easter,
The period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost
Which comes up in two weeks
Is designed to walk us through how everything has changed
Now that Christ is ALIVE
and Death no longer reigns.
One way to do that is to look carefully at the story in the Acts of the Apostles.
After the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ,
these earliest disciples are TRANSFORMED
from FEAR to COURAGE
from DOUBT to HOPE
from CLOSED MINDS to OPEN HEARTS…
and ALL because of the work of the holy spirit in their midst.
The ACTS itself is a narrative of the early church wrestling with
the wild, unpredictable, unsettling movement of God in their midst.
And today’s reading
is about as clear an example of this as it gets.
One of the earth-shattering, mind boggling, out of this world
breakthrough events in the life of the early church
was the CONVERSION of the Gentile Cornelius.
That’s the guy they were debating about, in the verses just before this one…
Whether this guy Cornelius, who wasn’t Jewish
Wasn’t part of the covenant with Abraham
Wasn’t an insider,
didn’t know the customs
Probably ate all the wrong things
Should we let HIM be baptized too?
The early church was struggling with all sorts of practical questions:
What did it mean to BELONG to a faith community?
What do those who are part of this enterprise need to do?
What does it matter, anyway?
And what boundaries can we put on this thing,
because without some CONTROL,
some way to understand WHO IS IN
and WHO IS OUT
the whole thing might get a bit …unwieldy.
And time and time again,
we find that,
as these first Christians were struggling to find answers to what it meant to be part of the church…
the Holy Spirit was guiding them
to a DEEPER and WIDER vision than what their instincts were telling them.
And so, in our text today, as Peter is preaching,
the Holy Spirit fell on ALL SORTS of people—Jews and Gentiles
Men and Women
we might imagine, Servants and Freefolk, too.
I’ve always been kinda jealous of that kind of preaching
No one would have been facebooking or texting or talking during his sermons, no-sir-eee
(not that I care, you go right ahead…one of the benefits of online only worship)
But Peter is preaching, and that holy spirit
Which fell on faithful Jewish ears at Pentecost,
fell anew on so many others…it fell on GENTILE ears…
And when those who were part of the church WITNESSED this,
when they SAW with their own eyes
how God’s presence was moving among the gentiles,
they had no other choice but to EXPAND their understanding of the church:
Their heart had to grow.
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people
who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Who can withhold God’s overflowing water, God’s overflowing love?
This question of who could be ALLOWED to join the church was a really big deal.
It is maybe the main question that Paul is trying to address in his letters.
It’s the one headache that keeps him up at night
As everyone kept telling him “but Paul: we’ve never done it that way before.”
Paul, of course, knows that.
Peter does too. It takes three dreams and a warning from God—
Not to call profane what God welcomes as acceptable—
To change Peters mind.
But to many people, this sort of thing is scary.
It jumbles all sorts of things that we thought were settled.
Rules about what to eat. How to worship.
How men and women should relate to each other
(hint: the women always got the short end of that deal,
but that wasn’t so much a religious thing
as it was an everywhere thing)
It shouldn’t be a surprise to us how hard this is for people.
But, and this is key: we learn that the Holy Spirit has other plans:
and according to Acts,
the early church was going to be formed
not by what human beings decided was authentic,
but through of the expansive grace and gifts of the holy spirit
the Spirit which was being offered to ALL sorts of people
even those people, you know…
even people we might not have thought possible…
This question of who could be allowed to join the church was a really big deal.
and God answers that all sorts of people are welcome here…
That God should decide that, really.
Now, I do have a bit of sympathy for people who balk at this sort of change,
Who think they’re doing something for the good
when they’re really on the wrong side of things.
I’ve been that guy before.
And is it too much of a stretch to see the early gatekeepers in the church
as this kindly farmer and dog owner who wants to protect this little boy?
Perhaps, but the farmer clearly wants the boy to choose a good dog.
A sound dog.
A dog that seems to have all the dog-like-characteristics needed for a little boy:
one who will run, and play, and keep up with him….
The farmer didn’t have sinister motives. He was wrong. And so sure he was right.
But he wasn’t acting out of bad faith.
He just ASSUMED that the runt dog wasn’t worthy of the boy.
I really try to resist seeing these early “circumcisers,” as Paul would call them—
how’s that for a name?—
I try to resist seeing them as having any motivation
other than wanting to do what is right.
But they ASSUMED that the old ways of doing things were still in place.
They ASSUMED that the traditional walls that separated JEW from GENTILE
still were essential.
And while they might have meant well, they weren’t helping.
They were actively working against what God was trying to accomplish:
Expanding the welcome of the community of God.
Sometimes we get so FOCUSED on what WE think is right,
that we miss what GOD is trying to do in our midst.
That poor, somewhat hobbled pup was JUST the right match for the boy.
If the farmer had made the decision, it would have been the wrong choice,
even if he had good intentions.
Sometimes our bias and prejudice and presumptions
Show up strongest even in our so-called good intentions.
This is something important for us to pay attention to.
It’s not enough to want to be good, or to be acting out of a good motive,
When we aren’t rooted in God’s Spirit, God’s welcoming love.
And this is where we can thank God
that THIS is not about us. It is about God.
Even when we get this wrong, God works to make it right.
When God works in the world
God does so out of God’s expansive, deep reservoir of love.
God goes out of God’s way to welcome everyone, no matter what some people might say.
Which brings us to the other text we heard this morning from the Gospel of John.
This reading is from what is called the “farewell address” of John.
We hear in this part of the Gospel that
there are many rooms in God’s house, that’s from John chapter 14
and that Jesus goes ahead of us to prepare a room there. [Read more…]