Sunday, May 2, 2010

Time for a Paradigm Shift?

RCL Easter 5C
2 May 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

+ Holy One, may our love for you and for one another be a sign of your love made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The story is told of a young Baptist preacher beginning his ministry in a small congregation in the tobacco-growing region of North Carolina. On his first Sunday in the congregation, he chose to preach on the evils of drinking. At the end of the service, the Board of Deacons came to him and praised him for the sermon he had preached. The young pastor was buoyed by the praise.

The next Sunday the young pastor chose the topic of adultery and how it shattered the family. Once again his preaching was praised, not only by the Board of Deacons, but by some of the members of the congregation. Two Sundays of homiletical success elevated the young pastor’s self-confidence, so, on his third Sunday, he chose the evils of smoking as his topic.

After the service the Board of Deacons and a larger crowd of congregational members descended upon the young pastor who was somewhat confident that he had succeeded once again in winning the praise of his congregation. This confidence was rapidly shattered when the Chair of the Board of Deacons announced without preamble, “Pastor, you’re fired!” “Why?” asked the young pastor, “I’ve preached on smoking and adultery and won your praise.” “True enough,” said the Chair, “but you’ve moved from preaching to meddling.”

Some may find my sermon today to border closely on meddling, but that is the risk that any preacher faces when trying to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

While I was driving home this week, I was listening to ‘On the Coast’, the afternoon show on CBC 1. As I was listening, I heard an interview between the show’s host and the owner of an auto body shop in Coquitlam. This man's shop is located in a part of the city where there is a forested area frequently used by homeless people as a campsite. Over the years he and his employees had become friends with many of the people who used this forested area. The workers and the owner had begun to supply the homeless with food, with clothing and with other small services that made their lives a little bit easier.

Recently a company that is in the business of converting shipping containers into temporary housing units contacted the owner of the body shop and asked if he would be willing for them to put one of their units on his property. He immediately agreed. Within three weeks the city of Coquitlam sent the owner a notice informing him that unless he closed the housing unit he would be subject to fines of up to $150 per day. The notice informed him that his business was located in an area zoned for industrial use and that the small self-contained temporary housing unit was in violation of the zoning bylaws. Let me say that the housing unit has electricity, a small bathroom and has been certified by the CSA and fire departments as safe and sanitary.

Let me give you a bit more background about this story. First, his activities were supported not only by charitable organizations but also by the other businesses located near his body shop. Second, this man had been involved in a housing task force in Coquitlam that was looking at the problem of housing for the homeless. This task force, however, envisioned such housing being online in three to five years. Furthermore, they were not supportive of this temporary solution and supported the city's decision to shut it down. When the interviewer asked this gentleman why he had done this, why he, a business owner, was trying to help the homeless rather than move them out of his area, the man spoke of his own life's story, a story that had had its ups and downs, though homelessness had never been something he had suffered. As the interview drew to an end, he said something very simple, yet something that struck me quite deeply. "They are people like you and me," he said, "and they deserve more than they are getting."

Now this may seem to some of you a strange story with which to begin a sermon given the readings that we have heard this morning. But there are at least three things about this story that I want to hold before you today:

i) a man has an experience which redefines the boundaries that had previously described his world;
ii) the man is changed by this experience and
iii) the old world fights back.

There really is something remarkable about our first reading today. You may not know that what we heard this morning is actually the retelling of Peter’s experience which it takes place in the previous chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. This experience is so important to the writer of the Acts that it must be told twice, in Acts 10 and then Acts 11, as well as form part of the background to the events described later in Acts 15. In Acts 11 Peter retells the story of the dream that led him to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a Gentile with whom Peter should have no contact. In his encounter with Cornelius Peter sees the Holy Spirit at work among the Gentiles, the family of a man who serves in the army that is occupying Palestine. Peter is forced to make a choice. He can ignore what he sees and follow tradition or he can do what his instincts tell him he must do and recognize the reality of the Holy Spirit working in a person whom Peter has always been told is outside the boundaries of God's activity. The good news for you and for me, Gentiles living some two thousand years after the fact, is this: Peter decides to act on his instincts rather than his tradition.

But let us notice how quickly Peter’s decision to act on his instincts rather than in accordance with the tradition brings him into conflict with members of his own community. The events described in today's reading occur in a time in the history of Israel that is fraught with danger and uncertainty. If we are to believe the stories of the New Testament, then the events surrounding the death of Jesus as well as his resurrection would have caused grave concern to both the Roman and Jewish authorities. There were already various groups seeking to overthrow Roman imperial control of Israel. There were already serious divisions among the people of Israel, religiously and politically. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were only able to maintain some degree of influence because the Romans permitted it. The Romans had little or no respect for Jews, for the Jewish religion or for the influence of foreign gods and foreign ideas upon Roman military officials. Does it surprise us that the leaders of the small Christian community in Jerusalem, all of them Jews, all of them with family and friends who were either believers or nonbelievers in Jesus of Nazareth, would have concerns when they heard this story about one of their leaders, Peter, becoming involved in the life of a Roman soldier?

Yet there is something compelling about this story that Peter tells. Those who are critical of Peter's actions begin to realize as they hear the story told that there is something more going on here than they may have expected. One biblical commentator writes that, "Key to Peter's explanation is that this is God's doing. Belief in Jesus and in the outpouring of the Spirit are God's gifts and are not controlled by the apostles. Likewise, the ability to respond to God's gift with 'life-giving repentance' is given by God, first to Israel . . ., now to the Gentiles . . . ." (The New Annotated Oxford Bible, 3rd ed.) The situation is no longer, if it ever was, in the control of the tradition, the leadership or, for that matter, the political powers that still hold the people of Israel under military rule. Peter has an experience which redefines the boundaries that had previously described his world and he is changed by that experience, but the old world fights back.

Today's readings from the Acts of the Apostles as well as the story with which I began my sermon today are stories about conversion or, as the New Testament Greek would have it, metanoia. Those who heard Peter's speech today believe that they are witnessing the repentance of the Gentiles from their ways of life that are contrary to God's word. It must be said that the Jewish tradition, in a manner similar to many other traditions, assumed that the Jewish way of life was superior to the Gentile way of life. For Jewish believers in Jesus to hear this story of a Roman soldier confessing that Jesus is Lord seemed to them to be a vindication of the Jewish belief in the Messiah and in the Jewish faithfulness to a manner of life which showed their belief in God’s purpose for the people of Israel.

But there are other connotations to this wonderful word metanoia. Metanoia can also mean ‘a change in the way that we think’ or ‘a change the way we look at the world’. Some might find the phrase, ‘a paradigm shift’, a helpful parse. True, there may be some repentance in that experience, but to understand the word metanoia as I have just described it gives the word a positive and future orientation. In other words, repentance can sometimes be a way of dwelling on the past and comparing my present always with my past. But if the experience that I have is one which changes my perspective, changes the way that I think about my life or even changes the way that I look at the world, then my present becomes the foundation for my future.

The man of whom I spoke the beginning of my sermon demonstrates, in my opinion, all the signs of a man who has experienced metanoia. Whatever his life experiences have been, they have combined to transform him into a person who only sees the humanity of those who many in our society would see only as signs of human failure, victims and perpetrators of their own sorry condition. So, when a man such as this body shop owner, the owner of a small business, a person who is often typecast in our society as one who sees the homeless as an obstacle to business, responds in an unexpected way, in a manner that seems to threaten the status quo, the world fights back. Letters arrive from the city administration warning him that he is in violation of city bylaws, but these letters are not accompanied by information regarding how the city is going to address the needs of the people whom this business owner has identified as being in need and in trouble. With any luck this one good man's metanoia may result in the transformation of Coquitlam, just as Peter's metanoia resulted in the transformation of the world as you and I know it.

My sisters and brothers, God is at work here and around us. Sometimes God's work finds expression in our traditions and in the ways that we have found work for us in this world and in this life. But sometimes God's work transcends our traditions and even challenges the ways that we have found to order our society, to order our lives and perhaps even our religious faith. Certainly Peter discovered that his religious faith, as he understood it to be, was challenged twice in his own lifetime, once by a rabbi from Nazareth, once by a dream that led him to a centurion in Caesarea. Certainly my unknown friend in Coquitlam was challenged in his own lifetime and it has led him to challenge quietly but firmly the commonly held expectations about how to run one's business.

Here at St. Faith's I have no doubts that metanoia will be in our future if it is not already in our present. The metanoia of which I am speaking is not one of repentance but one of a transformed way of looking at the world and how God would have us live and be in it. Even as I speak of it, I am aware of the resistance that can spring up in my own being to the new ways of being church that the future seems to be holding before us. I hope that all of us will face the challenges that are before us in the spirit of Peter and in the spirit of a Coquitlam business owner who defied expectations by providing safe and sanitary housing for eight people who find themselves homeless in "the best place on earth". May God show us here in Vancouver how we can provide a house of study, a place of prayer and a source of pastoral care for those who find themselves faithless in this "best place on earth". Amen.

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