Sermon: Astounded in the Spirit

“Astounded in the Spirit”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 6, 2018

Isaiah 43:18-19

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old. 
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

Acts 10:44-48
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

To get the full effect of this morning’s New Testament scripture, we need a little background, because there is some DRAMA going on.

This all takes place after Jesus has been resurrected and asked the disciples to go share the good news of God’s radical love with the world. And that’s what Peter, as a disciple, is out doing – but so far, he’s stuck with fellow Jews. That’s understandable – after all, Jesus and all his followers were Jewish, and the Jewish people had for millennia lived as a chosen people, sealing their holiness in large part by maintaining their separateness from other nations – from Gentiles. So the disciples started off where they felt comfortable.

But now, they’ve traveled quite a ways from Jerusalem, and through a series of visions and dreams have wound up at the house of a Roman Centurion – the most Gentile of all Gentiles, representing not just a pagan religion but the political power oppressing the Jewish people. And a whole crowd of gentiles has showed up at the house to hear Peter preach.

So Peter gives it a whirl, doing his best to translate the story of a Jewish Messiah to those outside the religious tradition – how this Messiah went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed, because God – a God his audience probably didn’t know much about – was with him. How this Messiah was killed by the powers that be but raised to life, even eating and drinking again with his followers. How a whole bunch of prophets these Gentiles had never heard of testified that everyone who trusts in this Messiah is liberated from their mistakes and healed in the love of, again, this strange and singular God.

And an unexpected thing happens. The Gentiles get it.

Moved to conversion on the spot, they start speaking in tongues and praising God, a sure sign in ancient days that the Spirit of God was upon you.

We can gauge just how absurd this seems to Peter’s Jewish companions – the “circumcised believers” – by the word used to describe their reaction: they were “astounded,” from a Greek word that means literally “removed from a standing position.” It’s as if a rug has been pulled out from under them, as if their legs have collapsed in shock. Nothing in the thousand-year history of their people had prepared them for the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, to manifest in people who were the very definition of “unholy.”

If you need a modern reference point, I think imagining one side of the aisle in the House of Representatives or the Senate suddenly having mystical visions telling them that the other side is just as righteous and filled with God’s spirit as their own might do the trick. Mind-blowing.

This epiphany is one of my favorite parts of the New Testament. The insiders have witnessed undeniable proof that God is just as present with the outsiders as God is with them – and they roll with it. I can’t imagine what it must have taken for Peter and his friends to rearrange their entire worldview in the space of a few moments, and then to act on it by immediately having the Gentiles baptized – many of us take quite awhile to adjust to even moderate change before we start living as if it’s true or has any authority in our lives. (Think about the last time your garbage pickup day was changed, or the last time the order of the communion liturgy changed.) The response of Peter’s followers is a testament to the human capacity to be open to revelation, to metanoia – a complete reorientation of our beliefs and lives.

Today is the 11th anniversary of Park Avenue’s commitment to being an Open and Affirming church – a designation for UCC churches that welcome into their full life, leadership and ministries persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It’s a testament to this community’s willingness to be open to God doing a new thing, or rather to God reorienting us to see more clearly God’s vision for a radical inclusivity that leaves behind the traditional markers of who’s in and who’s out around which we’ve been taught to build our lives.

And make no mistake: while we have come to see our Open and Affirming status as blessedly normal, it is indeed still radical. In a world that still sees disproportionately high rates of suicide and homelessness for LGBTQ youth, where just this past week, anti-gay graffiti shows up on our high school’s walls (not to mention anti-semitic graffiti), and where the established right of Massachusetts transgender people to be safe from discrimination in public places like hotels and restaurants is up for a public referendum in November, saying that our community is not complete without the full and active participation of our LGBTQ members and friends is a radical statement, a radical way to live.

Radical, you may know, comes from the Latin for “root” – and so when we do something “radical,” proclaim a “radical” message, it is simply a reminder of our roots – of what anchors us most deeply to the substance from which we draw life. In this case, “radical” is a reminder that Jesus, the founder of our faith and the one we have chosen to follow, was not and is not in the business of excluding people based on their identities. He loved and welcomed all kinds of people seen as “less-than” by society, publicly reclaiming them as what they have been all along: God’s own beloved.

“Radical” also reminds us that we are rooted in a tradition that sees God as always doing a new thing – “do you not perceive it?” – a tradition that sees even our sacred scripture as a live conduit for a still-speaking God to lead us into uncharted territory. Despite the prevailing sense that scripture is a closed, static rulebook, Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews that “Indeed, the word of God is living and active.” (Hebrews 4:12)

One place where I think God may be leading us anew is into the latter half of the LGBTQ acronym. Many of us have the privilege to be or to know folks who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual and to affirm the gifts and graces of LGB humans in ourselves, our families, and our community. Once we get to T – transgender – and Q – queer, though, there’s a lot less familiarity, a lot more uncertainty, many more questions. Gender is one of the most enduring, seemingly rigid categories of human culture – and it can be a real moment of knee-collapsing, rug-pulling-out astonishment to wrap one’s mind around individuals who are either transgender- meaning they identify as a gender other than what they were assigned at birth – or gender queer, meaning they don’t identify at all with conventional gender categories. The celebrity of people like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Chaz Bono have certainly begun to normalize the existence of transgender people in our culture, but many of us still don’t personally know someone transgender or gender queer in our lives – or we don’t know them well. There’s a lot of discomfort, a lot of head-scratching, a lot of fear of using the wrong pronouns or offending without meaning to. There’s even a lot of “I just don’t get it. Why? How?”

One of my first experiences with someone who was openly transgender was at the Southeast conference of the UCC. I met Michelle (whose name I’ve changed) at this regional gathering of churches and, thanks to her outgoing personality, I soon knew a lot about her story. In middle age she had transitioned from living as a man to living as a woman, her internal gender identity; she and her wife had already been married several years and her wife supported her through the whole process. They lived in South Carolina; before the Supreme Court ruling on equal marriage, Michelle used to joke that theirs was the only lesbian marriage that Mark Sanford, then-governor of South Carolina, couldn’t touch because Michelle was listed as a man on their marriage certificate. “He must lose sleep at night over us,” she would chuckle.

Michelle and I ended up serving together on a committee to call the next Conference Minister for the Southeast, and I learned to appreciate her candor, insight, and enthusiasm for her work – and her inquisitive, robust faith as she pursued ordination through a program designed for lay leaders. I also learned to refer to her with female pronouns, despite some initial cognitive dissonance with a voice register and facial features I had been taught to associate with men. By the end of our time together, Michelle was simply Michelle – funny, persistent, and absolutely unashamed of who God had created and called her to be. I realized that my asking “Why?” or wanting to know the details of her transition (a natural curiosity) were all secondary to my experience of her as a person, to our relationship.

The same experience has followed of my friendships and acquaintances with gender-queer folks – people who don’t feel they fit traditional categories of “male” or “female.” I’ve worked hard to follow their lead and let the relationship become the focus rather than my curiosity or my missteps. (Those are two things, by the way, that are easily cured – the first by Googling “what does it mean to be gender-queer or transgender, anyway?” and the second with a quick but sincere apology that doesn’t make a big production over my saying “him” when I meant “her” or “she” when I meant “they.”)

It feels, I have to say, a little like the “circumcised believers” witnessing what seemed to them an entirely new phenomenon, but choosing to focus on God’s obvious presence in those they had always seen as “other”: a task that is not always easy or comfortable, but something that enriches my faith, grows my compassion, and reminds me just how radical – just how rooted – in God’s extravagant welcome I want myself – and the church – to be.

Marianne Williamson, bestselling author of “Return to Love,” says [in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that is worth a listen] that one of her favorite prayers to recommend to others is “God, I am willing to see this in a different way.” If you think about it, that is probably the most powerful prayer there is – because it opens us to the possibility of following God’s lead into a new landscape, of living into a new-to-us paradigm that will change everything – liberating our hearts, deepening our relationships, and revitalizing our community, until the newness becomes, once again, a blessed normal and we can’t imagine returning to the way we lived before.

As I think about Peter’s followers, jaws on the ground over this radically different way of seeing things, I imagine God, then as now, smiling with love and tenderness over the places we all struggle to embrace what is new or strange to us. I imagine God boldly encouraging us to perceive the springing forth of this new thing – whether it is actually new or simply new to us – and to get in on God’s ever-expanding love for each and every one of us.

May we continue to be open to being surprised by the reach of God’s love and affirming of the gifts of all those whom God has called – for in that love and affirmation is rooted the kindom of heaven here on earth. Amen.