Grace to you and peace, friends, from our risen savior Jesus Christ. AMEN.
Yesterday at our service for Pat and Ro Frodigh, I reflected a bit on this same Gospel text, so this morning I’m going to look at the first lesson from the book of Acts.
Peter has a clear understanding of what the right thing to do is. He’s known his whole life. Peter was raised by good observant Jewish parents, Peter himself has observed the Jewish laws. He has, for the most part, eaten and lived and made distinctions appropriately throughout his life. And then he meets a Jewish rabbi named Jesus, and continues to practice the Jewish customs and rituals. Even after the resurrection. Peter was Jewish, even as he followed and preached and healed in the name of Jesus. The name Christian had not really emerged; Peter was still Jewish...just as Jesus was always Jewish. And that meant practicing certain rules and customs that set Jews apart from the rest of the culture. What rules and customs do we/you practice that set us/you apart from the rest of the culture? (Praying at meals, going to church on Sunday, tithing, Ash Wednesday, non-violence?)
For Peter, eating certain foods was forbidden. It was unclean. It was against the law. For it represented a wiping away of distinctions, and blending, an unclean blending and mixing with the culture of the day. (BTW, I love how the Jews-of-Peter’s-day paid such close attention to what they put into their bodies, not just (or maybe not at all) as a matter of health, but as a matter of religious practice.)
It was all about making distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, between us and them. And Peter was observant, he was keeping the law...always had.
Imagine, doing something, believing something, one way, the same way, your whole life. That’s how Peter had practiced/observed...his whole life, the same way. And he was old!
That’s a little background. And our text in Acts today picks up when the “apostles and believers” — the other insiders — call Peter out: “We’ve heard that you’ve been going to, talking to, mingling with, DINING with Gentiles! What’s going on?” So Peter shares what had happened to him. That he had had a vision from God…
How many of you have ever had a vision from God, that totally changed the way you thought about something?
It was a couple years ago that I took my Confirmation kids at that time up to camp — a great class of 5 kids — and as you probably know, it’s a great chance to minister alongside other pastors and youth directors...all people that are passionate about the faith development of our kids. We teach side by side in the mornings with the camp counselors, and then in the afternoon, when the kids are doing the fun camp stuff, we have some time to visit with each other about life and ministry. I love it, especially as a chance to get to know some older, seasoned pastors from around our church. Rare experience, to get away, to relax a little bit, and share and enjoy God’s creation, etc…
That summer 2012 I got to know a pastor who I had met once or twice before, but who I really didn’t know that well, other than that he was my best friend Brain’s pastor when he was growing up in Salinas, CA. I had heard stories second hand through Brian, how wonderful and kind he was. How much he loved the church, loved music, and cared for the youth of the church all those years. His name is Wendell Brown.
I thought that he had retired at that time, but that summer, he was apparently serving at Hope Lutheran in Atascadero (central California), a good distance from Salinas. And he and I got paired together as a teaching team with two counselors, and so we would talk a little about the lessons, and then work and play with the kids. And one afternoon we’re playing ping-pong together and we get to talking.
As we’re talking about our congregations, and our experiences, at some point, I simply ask him why he had moved from Salinas to Atascadero. Just a basic chit-chat question, right? Pastor Wendell Brown responds by saying, “Well, God gave me a vision.” This old time Lutheran pastor, solid head on his shoulders, solid credentials, a life of solid ministry — I’m sure BLC and any congregation would love Pastor Brown...up until this point. But he wasn’t ashamed, or forceful about it, but I was asking and he tells me plainly: He had had a vision, and it was from God, and it changed everything. This dear man’s credibility is getting a little crumbly for me, at this point, but my interest is solid rock. I gotta hear this, right? (And BTW he gave me permission to share this story.)
Apparently Pastor Brown was not beloved by everyone in the Northern California synod over the past 30 years. I had no idea, but Wendell Brown was a name at Synod Assemblies that everyone knew meant staunchly anti-gay. When conversation got heated on the Assembly floor, Wendell Brown was the name at the fore in the Sierra Pacific Synod. He was the one at the microphone, with tears in his eyes and a bible in his hand, saying, if we accept gay and lesbian pastors into our churches we are breaking with the Bible and breaking with God.
He had had the passion and the certitude of Peter and Paul combined. He had the Bible study clear in his mind, the certain verses set in stone in his heart, he had the majority of the people on his side (at that time), he was a champion and a warrior, and he wasn’t about to sit back and let his church go down this “liberal” road.
(I actually know a gay pastor from that area, and I’ve since asked him about Wendell Brown, and he shutters just at the thought of the man and what he stood for at assemblies.)
But about 2 years before our meeting in 2012, Wendell Brown went away on a retreat, just he and his wife. And he started reading, and he started reading scripture. This man knows the Bible backwards and forwards, but he started reading Acts again, and he read this passage for today, and something started to shake him from the very core, and he had a vision, and he was sure it was from God, and I WISH I could tell you what that vision was. I’ve been trying to contact him this week to get the details. What I remember is, his reaction to vision, and the exploding of this text: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane...who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter cries in Acts. Weeping and weeping was PWB’s response! This is a good stoic German Lutheran older man. But he’s melting down before God. He’s looking back at all the things he’s said and done, and questioning it all. He’s looking back at scripture and seeing it in a whole new way. He’s feeling called to go back to his dear congregation, and tell them what’s happened to him...in joyful, post-resurrection, Easter energy — that he’s been wrong about his stance on gay and lesbian pastors and the LGBTQ community in general. How he had a vision from God, and while he suspected he’d find some resistance back home, he had to go and tell his beloved congregation, no matter what it costs him.
Needless to say, Pastor Wendell Brown loses all kinds of support back at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Salinas. That’s putting it lightly: People felt betrayed. I mean,
people had joined that church — that church had grown by leaps and bounds over the years — because of his previous stance. And now he’s saying something totally different!
You can just imagine the un-doing, the fall out. But he had no doubt in his mind, that this was what he had to do. He ended up being edged out of that congregation, which he had served for almost 20 years. (Long answer to my question, huh?)
I was with Brian this week in MN (preaching conference; Brian’s a pastor in SoCal), and we talked about ol’ Pastor Brown again. Brian added to this and told me that there was a beautiful exchange that took place at his ordination reception, where both Pastor Wendell Brown and Brian’s uncle—who was the gay pastor who had often gone head-to-head with Pastor Brown at synod assemblies—were present! Apparently at the water, the water cooler (great baptismal image), Pastor Brown: “Do you remember me?” Uncle Howard: “Yes.” Pastor Brown: “I had a vision. And I am so sorry. And I am with you now.”
Friends, I’ve never heard a story quite like this. Where an older, settled, deeply rooted man has a complete change of heart, mind and (I’d say) soul...and the courage to act in life-altering ways in response to that vision. I leave it to you to determine whether his vision came from God, or from somewhere else. Personally, I find this to be a modern-day parallel to Peter’s vision...only on a much smaller scale. Because, frankly, our contemporary controversies in recent decades around human sexuality, pale in comparison with the Jew-Gentile issues with which the apostles were dealing!
Still, sisters and brothers in Christ, know that the Holy Spirit is still working in our lives in this Easter season and always. Who are we to hinder God?
Know that the Holy Spirit is still working on us, here at BLC, in our individual and communal lives. Who are we to hinder God?
Pay attention to your dreams and visions. Know that God is still speaking in our lives, in many and various ways.
This is our God!
A God who’s Gospel shakes down the Law.
A God, whose cup of grace never runs dry,
A God who makes us new day after day, regardless of our age, or our life-long convictions.
A God who carries us through our darkest days, who forgives us our past iniquities, and lifts us up now to be the people that we are called, blessed, baptized and sent to be in this hurting and broken world.
That God “was there to hear your borning cry,” invites us to the water, the table, and goes with us now and always. AMEN.