Shifting Ground Is Holy Ground

Sermon Preached May 10, 2015
Easter 6B (Acts 10:44-48)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

When I was a junior or senior in high school, I sat in the pews of First Presbyterian Church in Wausau, Wisconsin on the day that the Session – the Presbyterian equivalent to our Vestry – announced that The Rev. Sheila Gustafson would be our new senior pastor.  I knew nothing about how this whole process worked in the Presbyterian Church.  Pastor Tom had been our minister for as long as I could remember and, our associate, Pastor Bob was in charge of our youth group – and had been in his position for quite a few years as well.  So, when our church announced the new pastor’s name and she stood up to be recognized, the first thought that went through my mind was, “Wow.  I can be a minister.”  Think about that for a moment.  My thought was not about the new pastor, it was instead about the recognition of a whole new possibility for my own journey. 
I had been assisting or teaching in the Sunday School since my freshman year in high school along with many other women in the church.  I participated in the youth group when my mother was one of the lay leaders.  Many of the women in the church served as deacons – a role similar to that in our churches in terms of ministry but different in the sense that it is a lay order, not an ordained order of ministry.  So women in the Presbyterian did a lot of really important things.  But, on that Sunday morning, the ground shifted when I became aware for the first time that women could be ordained.  And the ground shifted within me when I realized that I was called to that ministry and just never knew it was an option.
I know I am not unique in this experience. Many have told me how they felt a call to be an altar server but were told it was “only for boys.”  Many of those are now adult acolytes in Episcopal churches and, I understand, some are now altar servers in the Roman Catholic church as well.  The ground shifts, our minds open, our hearts expand and God’s embracing love is understood more and more.
Last Sunday evening a friend of mine shared a story with me on Facebook.  It is the story of Rich and Eric McAffrey [click here for more recent updates] and their adopted son Jack.  Eric and Rich have been members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral in Orlando, Florida for a while and are raising their son in that community of faith. Recently they felt called to have their son baptized and began conversations with the Cathedral’s Dean for the baptism to take place.  After taking part in pre-baptismal classes with several other couples whose children would be baptized, the sacrament was scheduled to take place on Sunday, April 19.  Family and friends from out of town bought plane tickets to be present for this beautiful sacrament of welcome and new life in Christ.  However, on Thursday, April 16, just three days before the baptism, they received a phone call from the Dean who told the couple that there were members of the congregation who opposed Jack’s baptism because his parents were both men.  He went on to tell them that this wouldn’t be such a big issue if they weren’t the Cathedral Church, but, because it is the Cathedral Church, there would be a lot of exposure.  And so the Dean of the Cathedral offered an apology and turned Jack away three days prior to his baptism.  Now, what caused Rich to McAffrey to share this story so publicly – in a Facebook post last Sunday – was the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which we heard read that day:  the Ethiopian eunuch, reading Scripture with Philip, sees a body of water and shouts out, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"[1]  The ground shifted and Jesus’ command to the disciples to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth was being fulfilled.  For Rich and Eric, the ground shifted as they realized that they were most grievously wronged; as they felt that the Dean’s decision was not about the Good News of Christ but was instead about protecting the image of an institution.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells another store of earth-shifting faith formation.  To fully understand it, we need to back up a bit to get the context. The story begins in Caesarea with Cornelius, a centurion – that is, an officer in the Roman army – having a vision in which an angel of God says to him, “send. . . to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter.” And so, Cornelius sends two of his slaves and one of his soldiers to find Peter.[2]  In the meantime, Peter who has been traveling throughout the countryside with the other believers, is, in fact, in Joppa and, as he is praying, we are told, “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (in other words, a whole lot of unclean food! – yuck!). Then Peter hears “a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”[3]
Now, while Peter is still trying to figure out what on earth this heavenly message from God could possibly mean – you have to remember this is the same Peter who was a little slow on the up take throughout Jesus’ life! So, while Peter is struggling with this bizarre vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrive and call for Peter to come to Caesarea to share his message with Cornelius. So Peter got up and he went. That’s it – he just got up and went. He was not stopped by his knowledge of the law – the law that taught it was unlawful for a Jew, like Peter, to associate with or to even visit with a Gentile, like Cornelius.  But, because of his vision – which now becomes clear – Peter just gets up and goes.  And while Peter is sharing the good news of Christ Jesus with Cornelius, his relatives, and his close friends,
“the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers [that is, the Jews] 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?’”[4]
Through the waters of baptism, we understand that Cornelius and those with him who also receive baptism that day, are transformed.  But what I love about this story is that Peter and the Jewish believers with him are also transformed by their encounter with these Gentiles.  While on the surface it might seem that Peter is walking Cornelius across the line of faith, the reality is that both men are already on a journey and, at this time in their lives, their journeys cross and both men are transformed.
I believe that our lives are filled with opportunities to be transformed.  I also know that it is easier to see those moments in other peoples’ lives --- can’t that Dean in Orlando see that the ground has shifted, that God’s love is bigger than human judgement?  Can’t that parent see that clearly their approach to parenting needs to change?  The bigger challenge, of course, is to be open to those moments in our own lives - to be transformed as Philip was by the Ethiopian eunuch’s; to be transformed as Peter was in his vision of the unclean food; to be transformed by the love of Eric and Rich; to be transformed by the articulate vision of the young protestors in Baltimore.  The bigger challenge for you and for me, is to be open to the transforming love of God which is before us all the time if only we will open our eyes to see it, open our minds to explore it, open our hearts to feel it, and open our lives to be a part of it.
Wow, I can be a minister.  Wow, an Ethiopian eunuch can be part of God’s kingdom. Wow, the gentiles have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Wow, two men can be an image of God’s loving embrace. Wow, protestors in Baltimore can be God’s prophets.  The ground shifts beneath our feet.  May we be open to the possibility that the shifting ground is Holy ground and may we find in the shifting an invitation and a welcome from the Holy Spirit.  Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ?

[1] Acts 8:37
[2] Acts 10:1-8
[3] Acts 10:9-16
[4] Acts 10:44b-47