Balancing Act

May 19, 2019

Series: May 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Acts 11:1-18

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5"I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.  AMEN.

Balancing Act

          Today we have our baccalaureate service for our graduating seniors.  Graduation can be such a poignant time.  It’s one of the few rituals we still share as a society, this chance to reflect back and look ahead.  The irony is that many, if not most, graduates have no idea where they are really going, nor should they.  We put too much pressure on them to expect that.  Perhaps this moment could simply serve as a chance for us all to stop for a moment to reflect on where we are now.

          It’s the time of year when commencement addresses circulate.  Interestingly, thought, it’s been the young people who have done much of the inspirational speaking and acting as of late.  I think students such as Emma Gonzalez, one of the survivors of the Parkland, Florida shootings.  I remember having lunch with Pastor Emeritus Doug Huneke this year and him speaking passionately about how he thought Gonzalez should be given the Nobel Peace Prize.  As you may remember, just days after the shooting, Gonzalez addressed a crowd at televised rally.  She did two things that took incredible courage at the outset:  She asked for silence and she cried.  Each is an act of vulnerability.  To call for silence is to risk someone else taking the floor back, interjecting; it’s to risk losing control yet again.  To offer tears is to risk showing what some will deem weakness.  And for a girl to do either is doubly risky.

          Risk, Gonzalez did.  Gift us, Gonzalez and her classmates have.  She didn’t stop at silence and tears; she spoke up to the adults.  How scary must that have been?  And, she called them to account.  On all the excuses offered as to why things can’t change, she called “BS.”[1]  Prophetic speech is always offered in the vernacular, the language of the people, the language of the street.  The number one responsibilities adults have toward their young people is to make sure they’re safe, and she made it clear in no uncertain terms that the adults had failed. 

          I think too of Greta Thunberg, who wasn’t even old enough to graduate when she started to make waves. This teen from Sweden has called out the broken promises of the generations above her.  Speaking to House of Parliament in the UK just a few weeks ago, she recounted being told as a child to “dream big,” that she could be whatever she wanted, that “the sky was the limit.”  Because of the climate breakdown plaguing the skies and seas alike, and the inadequate action, Thunberg told the adults at Parliament in no uncertain terms, “You lied to us.”  To those who say she should be in school rather than leading climate strikes, she reminds them what school is supposed to prepare you to do, and she asks chillingly why she should be preparing for a future that she and her peers may not actually have.

          Thunberg, as you may know, has Asperger’s.  She’s on the autism spectrum, and while you might think I’m including that as an additional challenge, which is how many people think of it, Thunberg credits this as an asset to her.  She says her Asperger’s keeps her from being overwhelmed or intimidated by all the vitriol and death threats directed her way.  She is unafraid at international climate gatherings, then, to call out the hypocrisy of those who come in search of solutions yet arrive in private jets.  She says her piece, and then she gets back on a train to go home.[2]

          I have two emotions when I think of such young people and I think of our young people. I’m incredibly proud, though proud is something you are of some beneath you.  Maybe a better way of saying it is I look up to these young people.  The second thing I feel is incredible sadness.  It makes me so sad that people of this age should have to see the things they have seen which have led them to say the things they have said.  I say this even as I realize young people around the world endure things no child should all the time, from going to bed hungry to waking up to an unsafe neighborhood and school.  To living in a home or area ravaged by drugs to living in a literal war zone.  I can’t get the image I have of Syrian children swimming in the crater from a rocket attack.

          It’s big stuff.  How do we go forward in a world such as this?  Today, we are given two readings to consider.  One might question the wisdom of reading Revelation on graduation Sunday, this apocalyptic vision, but I figure if we can handle HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” we can handle John’s apocalyptic vision which plays a little like “Game of Thrones.”  Revelation depicts a cosmic struggle over who occupies the seat of true power in this world.  Revelation is a trippy dream-like making sense of the collapse of the Temple in the year 67, and it’s a critique of the worldly powers of the day, which is one reason it’s precisely a text to share after speaking of Gonzalez and Thunberg.  Revelation is also an image of the transformation of all things within Christ, the eternal love of God, always giving birth to the new.  After all the smoke and fire, and yes, blood, Revelation peers over the rubble and says, I see a new heaven and a new earth.  You can cry and God will wipe every tear from your eye.  Death will be no more.  There will be a fountain of life from which all will be invited to come and drink. 

          Acts takes a slightly different approach, and deals with what you’re allowed to eat.  “Make sure you have some things that are green,” I believe my mom said to me when I went to college.”  Does Mountain Dew count?  This vision is one of a sheet coming down from heaven, with all kinds of food on it and all are okay to eat.  It seems God is more permissive than my mother. 

Now what does this have to do with anything?  Actually, this peculiar passage is wrestling in its own way with what we’ve been talking about, “How do we live together?”  Living together isn’t only about big ideas; it’s about practical questions of everyday life.  As this new religious form was born, they had all kinds questions about which practices they were going to follow because different people had different rules.  First, they seek the Spirit, a greater wisdom.  They go beyond themselves, and the solution they come up with is one that favors inclusion.  It’s okay to eat it all. 

          My word to the graduates, and my word to the rest of you, is that both are important, to be able to see the bigger picture, to have a vision of how it can be, and the ability to roll up one’s sleeves and get into the weeds…though I guess if you’re working in the weeds, you’d want your sleeves down.  It’s a balancing act.  All vision and you end up spinning in circles and never getting anywhere.  All practical and the train leaves on time, but it’s still heading for a cliff.    You will have to be a part of crafting a vision, the big picture, of where we’re going, and of the less than glamourous details of getting us there.  If I’ve learned anything in the little growing up that I’ve done, most of this is accomplished not in the big moments, the glamorous ones.  Rarely are you awarded and sometimes your best work is unnoticed.  It’s the groundwork, though, the bedrock, important for anything lasting.  It’s the daily work or relationship-building that enables anything great or small to happen.

          Now this is the point in a commencement speech where I’d give you quippy advice for how to proceed, but this is a sermon.  I’m not concerned with where you’re going...I’m more concerned with where you are now, which is where and when you will always be.  You don’t have to know where you’re going if you know who you are.  Invest in being like those early followers of Jesus, seeking a greater Spirit in your life now, open your heart and mind, and where you are going will unfold.  My parting words to you will be a prayer I’ve carried for a long time, by a man named Thomas Merton.  This is what he prayed, and if you carry it with you, you can take a picture of it, but I’d commend paper. Sometimes you need to be able to put your fingers on something.  He begins in a place we can all recognize:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

 Remember this and you’ll keep your balance.  Amen.