April 24, 2016
Back in the early 1990's, British writer, director and producer, Richard Curtis, had an idea for a television comedy about a woman vicar in the Church of England. The only problem was that women were not yet allowed to be ordained as priests in the Church of England. So he had to wait. But as soon as they were Curtis turned his idea into reality, and the result was The Vicar of Dibley. I know you've heard me mention this show before because it is an absolute favorite of mine. Although I consider it an instant classic, there were many other people in England who were not immediate fans. After all, the show's premise was about a change in the religious landscape of the United Kingdom that left many people unhappy, distressed and pretty angry as well.
The first episode, Arrival, dealt with the anger and fear this change wrought. In one scene three of the villagers watch the new vicar, Geraldine, and her lay pastor, Alice, walk into the church, and they discuss the issue of change. This is my rough approximation of the dialogue and an English country accent.
"Well, it can't be right, can it really?"
"Women vicars. I mean, Jesus didn't have women disciples, did he?"
"But things have to change, don't they?"
"Look at traffic lights."
"What bout em?"
"If they didn't change, there'd be terrible congestion."
"But then there's gravity."
"What about it?"
"If gravity changed, we'd all go floating up in space. We wouldn't want that."
"So there's good change and there's bad change."
"That's right. There's the changing of the guard, isn't there?"
"But then again, there's prawn flavored crisps."
So there's good change and there's bad change. I suspect that many of us feel that way about change. It can be good, but it can also be bad. Very. Bad. There are times when I crave change. I need to do something different – change my hair, rearrange the furniture, anything; just to have a little change. But in the larger picture, those are relatively small changes. The small changes don't always cause that much stress (although I have shed many a tear over a bad haircut). But what about the big changes? Shrimp flavored potato chips may have seemed disastrous to the good folks of Dibley, but that was a small change. However a woman vicar? A woman in robes and cassock preaching from their pulpit? That was a big change indeed; and it was a change that some of the folks fought tooth and nail. But it was a big change that opened the door to other changes -- good changes that revealed that God was still alive and well and working in that little village and in the world.
The problem with change is that at the outset we don't always know whether it will be good or bad. Sometimes what we perceive as bad is really good. I think that is what Peter was faced with in the story we read from Acts.
The apostles and believers who were in Judea heard that Gentiles – those others -- had "accepted the word of God." Apparently this was a change they weren't prepared for, so when Peter arrived in Jerusalem they wanted to know what happened. More specifically, these circumcised believers wanted to know why Peter, also a circumcised believer, ate with uncircumcised believers. They didn't ask him about the Gentiles’ acceptance of God's word or what that acceptance entailed. They wanted to know why Peter shared table fellowship with them, because if they were uncircumcised they didn't keep kosher. If Peter ate with them, then Peter was most likely in violation of dietary laws. So there had better be a good reason for doing what he did.
The reason Peter gave them was the recounting of this vision he received back in Chapter 10. He was sitting on the roof of where they were staying in Joppa. Peter was hungry and while he was waiting for the meal that was being prepared he fell into a trance. He saw a sheet being lowered by its four corners from heaven. On that sheet was every kind of creature imaginable: mammals, birds, reptiles. Along with the sheet of critters came a voice telling him to get up, kill and eat. It was the Lord speaking to Peter but Peter refused. He told God that he had never put anything profane or unclean in his body, and he wasn't about to start. Three seems to be a critical number for Peter, so in true fashion this happened three times. Three times God called Peter to kill and eat anything on that sheet. Three times Peter said, "no." But after the second time the voice told Peter, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." The sheet was lifted back to heaven and Peter's vision ended. But with the ending of the vision came the arrival of men sent by the centurion Cornelius.
Cornelius had been instructed by an Angel to send for Peter. Peter went and Cornelius and all of the people in Cornelius' household not only listened to Peter’s sermon, they also received the gift of the Holy Spirit and believed. Even though they were uncircumcised!
Peter told Cornelius that it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile, but he finally understood that his vision was not limited only to food. It was also about people. If God commanded that people were clean, then he could not call them unclean. If the Gentiles, the others and the outsiders, could receive the Holy Spirit just as Peter and the other believers had, then who was Peter to hinder God?
"Who was I that I could hinder God?"
I think it must be human nature to draw dividing lines between us and others, and to create categories and impose labels. This category is good. This category is bad. This food is clean and this food is unclean. This group is good and this group is bad. These people are acceptable. These people are not. These folks are the in group. These folks are outsiders. We all do it. Certainly the earliest believers in Jesus did it. However, when Jesus was living among them he spent a great deal of time not only blurring the lines they tried to maintain, but leaping right over them. If you recall, the cream of the religious crop had trouble with the folks Jesus chose to sit at table with. It's not surprising, then, that it seemed to be happening again.
Peter's vision did not just dispel the idea of clean and unclean food. It firmly stated that the dividing lines we draw between ourselves and others are ours, not God's. A famous quote attributed to Gracie Allen is, "Never put a period where God has put a comma." I think of that quote when I read these verses in Acts. Beware of thinking of thinking in terms of outsiders and insiders, because God has other plans.
But recognizing that God has other plans means that we must grapple with change. It means that we may have to look at ourselves, our beliefs, and scariest of all, our understanding of Church in a new way. The Vicar of Dibley may have been a television show, but it represented a truth about how people in England welcomed or didn't the ordination of women. It represented a real change, and change can be hard and challenging and downright terrifying.
It seems to me that the most significant lesson Peter took from his vision and his experiences was that trying to maintain the divisions he took for granted was not being faithful or helpful to God's work in the world. It was being a hindrance. If God sees food or people or ideas as clean, but I don't, then I am hindering God's work. I am hindering God's ministry.
I know that God can work through me and with me in spite of me, but how do I hinder God? How do I make God working through me a greater challenge than it has to be? What stumbling blocks and obstacles do I put in God's path? Well, I worry. A lot. Most of the time. I get anxious and I ruminate on what can't be changed and I spend a great deal of energy trying to control what cannot be controlled. I live fearfully. I try to be faithful on my own terms. I live small. I am so afraid to trust in the large things God can achieve through me that I narrow my world so I won't be hurt or disappointed.
I have to be honest that I am completely over the expression, "Let Go and let God," but while it may sound cliché, there is truth to it. I hinder God by trusting so little and believing so small. Yet God works through me in spite of me. God's going to change the boundaries and erase the lines and turn upside down who is in and who is out whether I like it or not. God is bringing about change -- in my life, in your life, in our life together. God will do what is unexpected and unlikely, and it seems to me that we can trust God or we can hinder God. God is bringing about great change in the world, in our community, in this place, in us. Who are we to hinder God?
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"