Delivered at Congregational UCC on Sunday, May 5, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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It is a genuine pleasure to be back here at Newton Congregational UCC (I preached at an Association meeting here a while back) and to be part of an effort to fulfill the United Church of Christ’s mission to be united and uniting.
It is easy, given our structure and polity, to opt out of being in relationship with other congregations. And you likely know the joke about the UCC: If you’ve been to one UCC church, you’ve been to one UCC church. We can be so very different because of geography, ongoing racial segregation, which stream of the merger our church came from (or if our church formed afterward), and our understanding about the leadership of women and the humanity of queer people.
So even though the six churches participating in this pulpit swap are within the same denomination, our willingness to participate represents a kind of boundary crossing and flexibility that is unusual between churches.
It is also a kind of boundary crossing and flexibility that is on its way to extinction in the world beyond our churches. Collaboration has become a dirty word and reflection, rather than reaction, a skill of the past.
But without both, how will our present and our future be anything but divisive and dividing?
Our story today offers some insight.
CORNELIUS AND PETER
We have, in our scripture and our church season, shifted from the time of Jesus the prophet to the reign of the living Christ. It is a shift, as we begin to see in today’s story, that makes for a massive crisis of leadership and the emergence of new doctrine.
Without Jesus, the man, present, who is in charge? How does the reaching, teaching, feasting, healing, praying, and protesting of Jesus before Easter align with the mystery of the Christ after? What does it all mean?
That is the context for the visitation by an angel of God to Cornelius, a Roman soldier, not a Jewish man of Israel. That angel sends Cornelius to Peter. Peter, at the same time, is visited by a vision of lizards and sheets.
When Cornelius, a lover of God yet stranger to Peter’s faith, arrives at the home where Peter is staying, that arrival gives Peter the key to interpreting his vision and the meaning the crucified Jesus and the ever-rising Christ.
Without getting into the story’s weeds about circumcision and food rules, Peter basically says that the message from God is to expand the boundaries of the movement to include people who are not Jewish, like Cornelius. This is significant.
At a time when we could reasonably expect the disciples to retrench, to become suspicious of newcomers and hoard their spiritual knowledge for their own people, Peter does not. Why? Is Peter just a bigger person than most? He certainly wasn’t when Jesus was condemned: This is the same Peter that denied knowing Jesus. What is it that allowed Peter to overcome his previous fears and to resist the human tendency toward tribalism?
Maybe it has to do with that angel.
I don’t know about you, but I do not have a strong relationship with angels or the notion of angels. They have never been part of my theology or lived experience of faith. Maybe that is simply because of my particular Protestant upbringing or my own skepticism of flying divinities. It feels like one thing to adore God, another to confess angels.
But the more I look, the more intertwined the two seem to be. Angels are present at some of the most important moments of our scriptural tradition:
- An angel provides guidance to Hagar when she and her son Ishmael have been cast out into the wilderness by the jealous Sarah and the weak Abraham.
- An angel wrestles Jacob, leaving him forever wounded and with the new name of Israel.
- An angel guides the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt.
- An angel appears to Mary to announce her unexpected pregnancy, as does one to Joseph when he hears about that pregnancy, and later when he needs to protect his family from a pogrom.
- Angels come to the shepherds in Bethlehem, an angel greets the Magdalene and the other Mary at Jesus’s tomb.
- And it is an angel opens the doors of prisons and locks of shackles that bind the disciples after Easter.
And look at what they do: Guide to safety, bring closer to God, offer reassurance at times of crises, announce hope to the hopeless, show a way out of no way.
Unlike other mystical creatures in the Bible, like the half-human half-divine Nephilim and the Leviathan, angels prove to be central characters at pivotal moments in our story. As in today’s story, where an angel is the catalyst for a greater, a more expansive understanding of God.
Which brings me back to the UCC, today’s pulpit swap, and our collapsing world.
The genius of the United Church of Christ is the room we give ourselves to be faithful to God through relationship with each other—or not.
We are, in our configuration, free to close ranks and reject people who are not just like us. We are also invited by that same structure to leave what is familiar, as Cornelius did, and to welcome those who the world would call strange, as did Peter.
You know as an open and affirming congregation that participates in the Poor People’s Campaign, that how we practice our faith as a church determines how we practice our humanity in the world. A world in increasingly desperate need of people like you who can overcome fear and resist tribalism to come through to a more expansive understanding of human interconnectedness and our universal status as children of God.
But getting that message out universally is going to take more than six congregations in central Iowa. I think it might take some angels. It might require faith not only in God but hearts and minds open to whatever impossible and improbable and even jarring way God is seeking to guide and direct us now.
After the mosque and the church and the synagogue shootings and bombings, in the midst of our flooded cities and farms, abusive basketball coaches and the people defending him, and senators comparing criticism of their words to the persecution of Jesus Christ, we need to be shaken up, redirected. We need an angel from the God of the outsider, the God of the slave, the God of the open table.
An angel to reassure us all about the future and to how, like Hagar and Mary, and Joseph and Jacob, and Peter and Cornelius, we might get there together.