Where Do We Go From Here? - Message from October 10, 2021
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Series: I've Been Meaning to Ask...
Message: Where Do We Go From Here?
Today concludes our five-week series of “I’ve Been Meaning to Ask…” We started with “Where are you from?” which we learned as a community needed reframing to be more culturally aware, and a better question is, “Tell me about your people, your culture, what you value.” Then we moved to “Where does it hurt?” and “What do you need?” We end today with the question, “Where do we go from here?” Last week, we spent time with Job and his three best friends who sat with him in his time of need for seven days. They mourned together and cried together in silence for a full week. But there comes a point after hearing the hurt and need of another, after being together in compassion and care, that we face the question of “Where do we go from here?”
In our scripture today from Acts, we find Peter, the apostle, living into the same question. The betrayal of Jesus, followed by Peter’s own denial of Jesus, then his brutal crucifixion and death has happened. The disciples and those who loved Jesus have grieved, their worlds have been turned upside down. In these moments, the disciples have been deep in the questions of “Where does it hurt?” and “What do you need?”
And as they wrestled with these questions, they witnessed miracles. Jesus has appeared to Mary in the empty tomb, affirming her dignity, personhood and belovedness. Jesus has been present to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, affirming that wherever we go, he walks with us. Jesus was with the disciples in the Upper Room, affirming that he will come to us even in our unbelief. Each time he appeared, he reaffirmed his fundamental message of love, hope, justice and peace. This was the truth of the Good News he had shared with the disciples and Peter while he was alive in body: their need is real and it can be met through turning toward God.
And so now, these followers of Jesus recognize a new chapter has begun post-resurrection. The holy spirit has inaugurated a new way of being community. There is a sense of opening, unfolding and the operative question is, “Where do we go from here?” Can you relate? Have you had a moment where you realize you’ve cried either all the tears you want to cry or all the tears you have to cry? Have you had moments where you look up from the dust and ashes and see glimpses of the sun that beckons? Or maybe it’s just a sense that it’s time to take the next step. These moments are holy moments. They are moments of conscious re-orientation to the new future that God is calling us into. I believe we are all in one of those moments now as we emerge into a new post-pandemic reality, though of course I recognize we are still struggling with vestiges of the virus. Still, after 19 months, we have to ask, “Where do we go from here?”
For Peter, and for us, this moment is more than just a re-orientation and emergence into a new chapter. Throughout the first part of the book of Acts, we encounter a Peter who seems a bit frantic in his zeal. He seems to need to prove not just his worth, but his basic goodness. He knows he has denied Jesus, as predicted, three times. In Jesus’ most dire time of need, Peter deserted him. And now, in this post-resurrection moment, we see a Peter in need of making up for his failure. We see a Peter searching for redemption.
What is redemption? Is it simply achieving release from guilt? Well, that’s a byproduct maybe. Let’s look again at the scripture. As the scripture opens, we meet Cornelius, a Gentile and Roman. Cornelius is described as a man who honors God, has a strong habit of prayer and gives generously to those in need. In a dream, Cornelius is told to send for Peter and listen to what he has to say. So Cornelius dispatches three of his soldiers to find Peter and bring him back.
At the same time, Peter, who is about a day’s journey away, goes to his roof to pray. The scripture tells us when he goes up to the roof, he is hungry. As he prays, Peter, too, has a vision. In it, animals and fowl that are forbidden to be eaten by Jewish law appear to him, and a voice tells him to eat them. He protests, but the voice insists, “What God has made clean you must not deem unclean.”
Last Thursday, Susan Jardin, our director of family and older adult ministries, and I had the rare opportunity to walk up to Shattuck together for lunch. I had a free lunch award for my birthday from the restaurant Vitality Bowls, so we headed there. We walked and talked about various plans for Epworth, then realized we had not seen the Vitality Bowls store. After some googling and searching, we discovered that it had been closed during the pandemic. We decided to go to the soup counter in the food court on Shattuck, but when we got there, we discovered that, too, has closed.
As we were considering where to try next, a woman came out of a side door in the food court and greeted us. She was wearing a name badge, so at first I thought she worked in the food court. But as we greeted her in return, I saw that her name was Brenda and her badge identified her as a vendor of Street Spirit, the newspaper written for and by unhoused persons in the East Bay. She asked for a donation to get something to eat, and Susan reached into her purse and gave her some money.
We wished Brenda well and were about to turn away when she became more urgent, asking us to follow her to the street where she could sit down and get the Street Spirit newspaper from her bag. As we walked, Brenda started explaining that she had put down her bag in order to go into the bathroom and wash. “I only get a few minutes,” she said, and described how the public bathroom off the food court was the only place she could wash. She kept saying, “I’m not dirty.” I wasn’t sure what the best way to respond was and so I kept saying, “That’s right,” and “No, you’re not dirty.” Susan and I were agreeing with her, but she kept repeating her story, so I felt like she needed something else, somehow our responses weren’t fully connecting or meeting her need. And so I said, “You’re clean.” And she stopped. She looked at us and said again, with more confidence, “I’m not dirty.” I realized in that moment that I wanted her to say more than just that she wasn’t dirty, but to say, “I’m clean.”
I thought about my own shower that morning. How it had been routine, not in any way remarkable or connected for me to my sense of being acceptable or my dignity or whether or not I am fundamentally ok. But Brenda reminded me that for some of us, being being able to be clean is not something taken for granted. To be able to wash, to have the safety and security to do so regularly and without being rushed, to care for one’s self in this fundamental way, is a basic of human dignity that everyone deserves. To be able to affirm as God proclaims, we are clean.
For Peter, the question of whether one was clean or not was connected to Jewish ritual purity laws. Ironically, in Peter’s zeal to redeem himself, to show himself as a true follower of Jesus post-resurrection, Peter was likely even more rigid about these rules of what is clean and what is unclean. But then he has this vision and hears the message, “What God has made clean, you must not make unclean.”
Now remember the soldiers of Cornelius, the Roman, are looking for Peter. They find Peter, the Jew, and tell him that Cornelius has had a vision to send for him and hear what he has to say. So Peter goes with these men to see Cornelius.
When they arrive at the home of Cornelius, Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet and worships him. And Peter responds,… “Please stand up. I am only a man, just like you.” Wow. Does that surprise you? This. Is. A. different. Peter. This isn’t the same Peter wrapped up in ego, who wants to be the best disciple, who wanted to build a monument at the top of Mt. Horeb when Jesus was transfigured and Moses and Elijah appeared, or who asked Jesus even after the resurrection, “Jesus, who do you love the most?” This is a Peter who understands himself to be one among many, a human like any other. Capable of great love but also great harm. A person in need of God’s grace and mercy in every moment. He finally understands that it is up to God to say who is clean, who is worthy, and in God’s eyes, all are worthy. This is a moment of humility. And this is the moment that we understand Peter’s redemption.
By understanding himself as one among many, not better or worse, but human, someone with needs, who makes mistakes, who is striving to know God, Peter makes sense of his own story. He recognizes that everyone deserves dignity. He realizes that in every moment—in his early days with Jesus, in his denial, through the resurrection up to the present moment—he has lived in God’s grace and been blessed by God’s mercy. Just like everyone else.
Peter then goes on to speak the words that Cornelius has been asked to hear, “You know,” Peter says, “I’m sure that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other… It’s God’s own truth,” he said. “Nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! There is no partiality based on who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to give control over to God, the door is open. The Message God sent to the children of Israel—that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again—well, God’s doing it everywhere, among everyone.”
On Thursday, as Susan and I said goodbye to Brenda, she hugged each of us. It gave me a sense of hope and peace. I wondered if she would have done that if she hadn’t felt clean. Brenda named Susan Mama, me daughter and herself, friend. A new community, each of us with different challenges and privileges to be sure, but all of us trying to answer where we go from here in this post pandemic world, forging ahead by reaching out. By stating our need, and responding to need. By risking of connection.
Redemption happens in community. In community we recognize ourselves in the other. We can forgive and be forgiven. And in letting go, we move forward together: worthy, released, made new, human, honored, loved. Amen.
Order of Service
The Community Gathers...
Rev. Jerry Asheim
Introit: "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah"
Welcome & A Covenant of Grace
Rev. Kristin Stoneking, Rev. Jerry Asheim, Annette Cayot, Judy Kriege
Prayer for Illumination
Opening Music: "More Love" (comp. Sid Davis)
To Hear the Word...
Scripture Reading: Acts 10: 1-33
Call to Confession - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
One of the things I love about the prayer of confession is it allows us to claim that we are works in progress, and there is beauty in that. You don’t have to be perfect here. You don’t have to have it all figured out here. You don’t have to have a five-step plan for what’s next here. You just have to show up with your messy, beautiful self, and be honest. So friends, let us be honest. Let us pray the prayer of confession together.
Prayer of Confession - Linda Rutkowski
Holy God, We are naturals when it comes to stalling out. We reach a certain point in the relationship, in the conversation, in our faith, and then we stall. We buy property on the top of the plateau and build a house there, destined to never dig deeper or climb higher. Forgive us for giving up on the things that matter. Forgive us for confusing the plateau with the mountain top. Forgive us for taking the easy way out instead of doing the hard work of curiosity, relationship-building, vulnerability, and connection. Inspire us to see new paths for where we can go from here. With hope and honesty we pray, Amen.
Words of Forgiveness - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Family of faith, We are works in progress, but we are works in progress designed, created, and claimed by God. No matter what you have done or left undone this week, today is a fresh start. Hear and believe the good news of the gospel:
God is with me on the mountain top, and God is with me on the plateau. I am loved, claimed, and forgiven. Thanks be to God! Amen.
*Affirming the Peace Among Us
You are invited to turn to the people around you and bow to each other as a sign of graceful greetings this day.
Anthem: "Home" (by Phillip Phillips)
Message: "What do we go from here?"
Rev. Kristin Stoneking