Cutting Down the Box – No Going Back!! A Reflection on Acts 10:44-48
On Tuesday morning after everyone was gone off to school, I was excited… I thought I had nothing on my schedule (that’s another sermon) and there was a new BBQ in the garage waiting to be put together…
Yeah, I know.
Not everyone gets excited about putting a BBQ together! But I do! Jenn was a little surprised that I didn’t take Kent up on their offer to put it together at no cost.
I didn’t do that for three reasons:
One, because when asked if the ignition system was battery operated, the young sales person did the right thing and said they didn’t know… but then reached down and took the switch apart and broke it in the process looking for the battery… nope. Not going
The second reason that I didn’t take Kent up on their kind
And finally, perhaps the most important reason I didn’t leave the assembly in the care of the fine folk at Kent, Trinity Drive – was because I was in Moncton that day with my little car, and I wanted to get the BBQ home that day, and if they put it together there was no getting that BBQ in the car once it was put together…
So, on Tuesday morning there I am in the garage… I had read the instruction book cover to cover over a third cup of coffee… and I stand there, looking at the first page of instructions – and it tells me visually, in a nice easy to understand diagram, to cut the box down two sides… and I realize… not only will I never get this thing back in the box if there is something wrong with it… but once I cut this box there is no going back!
Have you ever been there? Started something and quickly realized – or maybe not so quickly realized, that ‘there ain’t no going back’?
That’s where we find ourselves this morning… There is no going back.
The book of Acts, is commonly understood to have been authored by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, recounts the journey of this early band of Jesus followers – and, its often referred to as the story of the Gentile mission. Most of the 28 chapters of the book of Acts tells the story of how “The Way” of Jesus expanded from its origins in and around Jerusalem to gain followers all around the Middle East.
This was no easy feat. To adapt from Jewish into non-Jewish cultures required excruciating growing pains. Did new followers have to be circumcised — as adults? Did they have to follow Jewish dietary customs? None of these questions brought unanimity.
It is somewhat encouraging to remember that good church folks have been fighting with each other since the beginning — it makes today’s church fights seem less threatening.
People of faith have always disagreed about the path of integrity. Perhaps we always will… some say our arguing will one end when Jesus in glory comes again…
While I’m waiting for that I’m going to get another cup of coffee…
All of this provides important background for what happens in the reading we heard this morning.
The wheels have already come loose on the church bus – and it is barrelling down the highway about to lose its wheels…
Here’s a frame-by-frame slow motion recap of unfolding situation:
Scene 1: We meet Cornelius, a Roman army officer. He’s not Jewish, but he respects God deeply, gives to charity, and has a robust prayer life. And he’s having dreams.
Scene 2: Peter, the leader of the apostles, is seeing things, too. There’s a white sheet that descends from heaven containing every known animal, clean and unclean. Peter is told to “get up, kill and eat” (and you thought Jung”s dreams were weird!). Peter rebels — what?! I don’t do that! We can’t do that! How will we maintain our religious identity if we don’t separate ourselves by our unique practices?
Scene 3: Messengers from Cornelius arrive seeking Peter. Peter is not sure where he’s going, only sure that God is directing him. He’s not driving this bus after all.
Scene 4: Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house. The two men talk openly, sharing their dreams.
Scene 5: Peter preaches one of the most powerful sermons in history: “I now know that God knows no partiality.” It was a shocking declaration then. Truthfully, it may be just as shocking today for those who have been on the business end of Christianity’s judgment stick — and for those who have wielded it.
Scene 6: The Holy Spirit rests on Cornelius and his family, showing everyone that these Gentiles are full members of the family of faith. Cornelius invites Peter to stay the night at his house: hospitality seals their friendship and their kinship.
Scene 7: At the beginning of Acts 11, Peter tells the Jerusalem disciples his experience with Cornelius. After a (long?) moment of silent shock, a word of praise emerges: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
Once the box is cut down there is no going back: God shows no partiality.
It’s taken us a while to get here. It began in 1972 when the General Council commissioned a comprehensive study of human sexuality and in 1980, a task force on sexuality presented its report In God’s Image…Male and Female. It concluded:
“there is no reason in principle why mature, self-accepting homosexuals, any more than mature, self-accepting heterosexuals, should not be ordained or commissioned.”.
The General Council called for more study… and then, in 1980 Susan Mabey, an openly lesbian candidate applied for ordination through Hamilton Conference. She was turned down because of her sexual orientation.
In 1982 gay and lesbian folk within the United Church formed Affirm and the Church established a task group to study sexual orientation and the ministry. They received input from the newly created Affirm group. They also listened to the United Church Renewal Fellowship, which had been formed in 1966 to promote a return to traditional values within the church.
And then, in 1984 the task group’s report, Sexual Orientation and the Eligibility for the Order of Ministry was issued. Section E, Recommendation 7.1.2 recommended:
That in and of itself, sexual orientation should not be a factor determining membership in the Order of Ministry of the United Church of Canada”
Response from the church membership, to judge by letters to the editor of The United Church Observer was largely negative.
At the General Council of 1984, a motion was presented to recognize two members of Affirm as non-voting, corresponding members. It was narrowly defeated. This triggered the creation of a new group within the United Church Friends of Affirm. Council decided to postpone a decision on “The Issue” until a subsequent meeting.
By 1988 (the year I entered AST to begin my MDiv) many hundreds of local discussion groups had debated “The Issue”. About 90% of their reports were opposed to ordaining non-heterosexuals. The National Coordinating Group… issued its final report in early 1988. They deviated from the clear message sent by the local groups by recommending:
that the church welcome “sexually active single adults, lesbian, gay and bisexual people into all aspects of the life and ministry of the Church. that the church “develop liturgies celebrating their covenantal relationships.”
(Same-sex marriages were still 17 years down the road…)
The reaction across the Church was explosive. The Community of Concern was organized to oppose the report; they issued a Declaration of Dissent. A poll taken by the Church revealed that only 28% of the membership favoured the admission of active homosexuals into the ministry.
At the General Council, two members of Affirm and one member from the Community of Concern (COC) were elected as non-voting corresponding members (delegates). A group of Christian, anti-homosexual fundamentalists from the United States crashed the meeting and attempted to disrupt proceedings. They were gently ejected.
Some have suggested that their open display of hatred for gays and lesbians may well have changed many delegates’ minds in favour of the ordination of homosexual persons…
After much heated debate, General Council passed a resolution with approximately a 3 to 1 vote:
“A) That all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, who profess Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, are welcome to be or become full member of the Church.
B) All members of the Church are eligible to be considered for the Ordered Ministry.”
A strange event had happened.
The majority of delegates had come to the Council with a bias against ordaining gay and lesbian individuals, but with an open mind. They heard the heart wrenching testimonies of devout gay and lesbian church members.
Many delegates probably met an openly lesbian or gay person for the first time in their life. They debated little else among themselves. They searched their souls and prayed to learn God’s will. And most changed their mind!
Once the box is opened – there is no going back… and some would shout – Amen!
Remember the visions and dreams of Peter and Cornelius and their sharing with each other. In 2013 Susan Mabey shared her story with Ken Gallinger – in response to the question, “Why did you want to be a minister?” she responded:
I was alone in a football field in the middle of winter, snow coming down. And I was suicidal. I was 16, and my guidance counsellor said that unless I accepted myself as homosexual, there was nothing more she could do for me. I thought my life was over, so I found myself kneeling down, in the middle of this field, praying, “God, if you can do anything with my life, take it. No one else can do anything for me.” And a voice came down and said, “Go home and go into the ministry.” That’s what I did.
I believe in the core of my being, that our story, the history of the United Church of
We, as the early Church did, understand in a new way, that indeed, “God knows no partiality…” and, after last Sunday, not only have we cut down the box, but we’ve put it to the roadside in a blue bag… and, as Annie Dillard would suggest, we put on our crash helmets:
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.
There is no going back. We’ve been drawn to a place and a vision of open and affirming community from which we can never return. This Church isn’t ever going to fit in in the back of a hatch back ever again – for God continues to draw us to people and places we’ve never before imagined! Thanks be to God.