The (Re)Birth of the Church, X: Generosity
Our autumn sermon series is from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the tenth of eleven sermons that we’re doing from Labor Day through to the first Sunday of Advent.
In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.
About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 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. Then he heard 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.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Saints Peter and Paul bestride the Book of Acts like twin Colossi. They didn’t work together much, staying in their separate lanes but charging hard toward the same finish line.
They didn’t work together much because at the beginning they clashed over one key question that turned out to be revolutionary for subsequent world history: Who was Jesus for?
Peter thought the very Jewish Jesus came only for the Jews. Peter thought Christianity was and should ever remain a subset of broader Judaism. If you weren’t Jewish, you could convert, but you’d have to keep kosher and honor the Sabbath till the last of all your days.
Paul, on the other hand, thought Jesus was for everybody, regardless of your ethnicity. Paul eventually won the argument when Peter changed his mind, and Peter changed his mind because of the trance I read about a moment ago.
So that little trance is the reason why everyone in this room, unless you are Jewish or Native American, is Christian today. If Peter hadn’t experienced that little trance and Paul hadn’t won that argument, you and I might still be worshiping trees like our ancestors the Druids, the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons, the Gauls, the Picts, and the Celts.
Before the likes of Patrick and Columba brought Christianity to Europe and Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, our ancestors practiced a nature-religion with sacred trees, wells, and streams, presided over by a whole battalion of Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Greek, and Roman gods with names like Thor and Wotan. Before Patrick and Columba, Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon life would have looked very much like Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Game of Thrones.
Those old Norse Gods live on in our names for the days of the week: Wednesday is Wotan’s Day and Thursday is Thor’s Day. Even long after the first missionaries won Europe for Jesus, Thor’s Hammer was often carved next to Christ’s Cross on obelisks and funeral urns. Why take a chance, after all?
It was just a waking dream, a brief psychotic episode, but it was epochal in world history and in our own personal spiritual journeys. Peter’s on his way to meet a Roman soldier named Cornelius, a Gentile, obviously, but a gentleman and a scholar and a God-fearer in every way, when in his midday trance, Peter sees a gigantic sheet, or maybe better a sprawling fishing net, which seems to have trapped every extant critter in common experience, kosher and unkosher alike.
A Voice says, “Go ahead, Peter, it’s all yours.” Peter says, “Are you crazy? I haven’t touched a slice of bacon or a lobster roll in my life.” The Voice says, “Peter, what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter changes his mind about what’s clean and what’s unclean, and the rest is history.
Christine and Katie and I wanted to wrap up our fall sermon series on Acts with three sermons on generosity. Katie’s sermon from last week and my Stewardship Sermon next week define generosity in the very conventional sense of sharing what we have with others.
This morning I want to think of generosity in a more expansive sense. I want us to be generous in our definition of generosity. I’d like to suggest that we be generous not just with what we give, but also with what we think. I want us to be generous—that is to say, expansive, spacious, giving, indiscriminate—in seeing the other not as profane but as sacred. What God has called clean, we must not call profane.
Do you think the world could use a spirit of spaciousness just now, or an attitude of generosity. Do you think maybe we could stop calling each other profane or unclean? Does it seem as if our world is shrinking, shriveling, suffocating, airless, dangerous?
We’ve stopped treating each other as fellow Americans, stopped granting each other the respect every child of God deserves. It’s a colossal failure of perception: it no longer seems to us as if we’re all traveling companions as we walk our halting, stumbling way together straight into the kingdom of God.
Last week a caller left a voice message at the office of Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. “They ought to try you for treason,” he screamed. “I hope your family dies in front of you. I pray to God that if you’ve got any children, they die in your face.”
That’s a profanity. What God has called clean, we must not call profane. Not “You’re wrong,” but “You’re unworthy.” Not “You should be voted out of office, but “You should die.”
This kind of pinched and parsimonious perspective is on display everywhere in our world just now—at Representatives’ Town Halls, at school board meetings, at the homes of election officials, on airplanes and on street corners. It is as if the better angels of our nature have been banished from the land.
Parents in Tennessee want to remove a book about Ruby Bridges from the curriculum. Too negative, they said. How would you like to go to a school where you don’t learn about Ruby Bridges?
A generous spirit which sees the sacred in the different will make our lives so much larger and more winsome. “Social exploration,” says David Brooks, “is a skill. It requires the ability to not merely tolerate difference, but to greet it with a generosity of spirit. Walking into each room confident in your convictions but humbly aware that they are not the only convictions. Being slow to take offense when somebody says the wrong thing, quick to forget the transgressions of others and honest in acknowledging your group’s past wrongs.”
One last thing and then I’ll quit. This story is only loosely connected with my main point this morning, but it’s adjacent. It’s about a generous spirit that adds space and grace to a sad situation.
There was a wonderful article in The New York Times after the fourth game of the World Series. You remember this? The Houston Astros were down three games to one, an almost insurmountable deficit in a seven-game series. Almost but not quite. Six teams in the history of baseball have come back from a 3–1 deficit and ended up winning the World Series, including my heroes, the 1968 Tigers—Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan—and of course—glory be to God!—the 2016 Cubs: Lester, Bryant, Rizzo; don’t you miss those guys?
After four games in the 1979 World Series, the Pittsburgh Pirates are down 3–1 to the Baltimore Orioles, that almost impossible deficit, and the Pirates are headed back to Three Rivers Stadium for Game five and a chance at redemption, but on the way to the Stadium the Pirates learn that Manager Chuck Tanner’s mother has just died.
They get to the Clubhouse and the players are sitting there staring blankly into space, not knowing what to say to Coach Tanner, and then the Coach walks into the clubhouse and says, “I know you heard about what happened to my mother. It’s OK. She knew we were in trouble, and she went to get help.” I thought that was so wonderful. Suddenly in that dejected room, there’s space and grace and humor.
You know, there’s nothing good to say at a time like that. There’s nothing right to say at a time like that. So help each other out. With a generous spirit, add some space and grace and laughter to a sad time or desperate situation.
And oh, by the way, Mrs. Tanner got the help the Pirates needed; they won the Series four games to three.
So friends, be generous not just in your giving, but in your thinking. Be expansive in your welcome; curious about, not afraid of, the Other and the Different; indiscriminate in your acceptance; forgiving of error; slow to anger; and humble in your certitudes. What God has made holy, we must not call profane.
“Wotan” is Richard Wagner’s name for the God often called Odin.
Lisa Lerer and Astead W. Herndon, “Menace Enters the Republican Mainstream,” The New York Times, November 13, 2021.
David Brooks, “How to Beat Trump on Immigration: A Generous Vision of a Multicultural World,” The New York Times,” November 8, 2019.
David Waldstein, “The Recipe for Coming Back From a 3–1 Deficit? It Varies,” The New York Times, November 1, 2021.