Let me tell you about this thing I did: I needed to run the dishwasher and I was out of soap. And I needed gas and really needed a coffee, you’ll understand in a minute. In the gas station they had some soap, I grabbed a bag headed home, ran the dishwasher, and it started oozing soap. Here’s everything else that happened: as I put the soap pod in, I squished it a little because it was squishy, so you might know what happened at the store… I had a very reasonable thought: Tide, we’ve used Tide, that’ll be fine. We’ve all done things because we weren’t thinking, this was embarrassing because I was, and I was completely rational, and wrong, and I knew better.
We all make mistakes. And I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it because it was easy to clean up and fix and, again, embarrassing. Sometimes our mistakes are bigger, more consequential, they hurt someone. We try to hide those. Present our most perfected selves. Flawless. But one thing we learn from Sociologist Brene Brown is that even our mistakes are part of us, they can be gifts, they can make us more compassionate and empathetic and human, when we believe and function in away that all the awesome parts of each of us, and the broken and scarred, and the mistakes make up us, and God already called us good.
In our story today we meet Cornelius and witness his conversion story. This is the 3rd conversion story that we’ve looked at in 3 weeks. One might wonder if there is anything new to say… I wondered that. So let’s take a look at last three conversions. We started with Philip in Samaria and the disciples were surprised, maybe even annoyed that the Samaritans were becoming followers of Jesus, because the Samaritans were awful, their enemies, their… distant cousins who had charted their own path and it was wrong. But the Samaritans, for all the dislike and distrust, were Jew–ish. They had been part of the united nation of Israel 1000 years before Jesus. For better or for worse, they were family.
And the Ethiopian Eunuch and there were several reasons that he would be kept at a distance. But also, about 1000 years ago, King Solomon had a thing with the Queen of Sheba-Ethiopia. And there is a legend that members of the Tribe of Dan, one of the 12 tribes that established that united Israel, left Egypt and headed south instead of north. Regardless, there are Ethiopia Jews today that have a connection to the ancient world. So maybe this Eunuch was family too.
And Saul, he was a deeply committed Jew, he was family.
Cornelius? Not family. Not distant family, not ancient tribes, not shared stories, not shared history, not shared trauma, not family. Cornelius was Roman, he was a member of the occupying nation, he was a centurion–he commanded 100 soldiers, he was the violent force that demanded peace. For a faithful Jew to enter his home would make them ritually unclean and probably a traitor. For a follower of Jesus, we’re not so far from Roman soldiers executing Jesus on a Roman torture device.
Cornelius was also a good man. His soldiers respected him and spoke well of him. He gave to those in need. He showed compassion and kindness to the Jews around him, to the point where they cared about him too. Perhaps he was the token Roman folks would point to. “I don’t hate all Romans. I like Cornelius.”
And Cornelius had a call from God to bring Simon Peter to join him.
Peter is becoming a significant leader in the church, he’ll be known as the first Bishop and Pope of the Catholic Church. He walked with Jesus, he knows Jesus, knows the stories, knows the mission, knows the Jewish laws, and knows what it means to be living as a Jewish follower of the Way. He knows the food laws. So I bet that when he had this vision he wondered if he was being led to temptation and he would not mess up, he would not make a mistake, he knew the right answer! He would not be tricked by the bacon and the shrimp. And yet, God had other plans. “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”
Imagine being Peter, hearing this in a vision of God and then meeting these folks asking you to see the Centurion–roman, uncircumcised, unclean, enemy to the cause! Asking Peter to go to Joppa. I wonder if he thought about running away from the place that Jonah had run to. I wonder how grudgingly Peter packed up that night and left the next day. I wonder if he thought that he was going to save Cornelius, reveal all the ways that he was in the wrong and outside his community. Maybe he thought he would only tell the stories of Jesus that were aggressive. Maybe he would tell the worst stories of God.
What he found when he got there was Cornelius who already knew God. He found that God was already there. He found the light of Jesus in the face of Cornelius.
Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr talks about the Universal Christ. Christ, the Word, was present at creation, infuses creation, creation is saturated in Christ. The very fabric of creation is soaked in the presence and love of Christ.
Imagine what that means: There is no where that we can go where God is not. There is no person who stands before you who is not a Child of God. It means when the ancients would anoint a place with oil, it wasn’t to bring God to the place, but to mark a place where they saw God and didn’t expect to. Leading Jacob to say, “God was here and I knew not” and Peter to say, “I’m learning that God doesn’t show particularity.”
And we, the church universal, have a history of missing the point, of not noticing God, of not believing that the very fabric of the Universe is Christ, that God created it all and is already there. The church’s history with mission was often one of bringing God to the heathen, to the Godless, to the other. It’s the savior model: I know better than you, I will fix you. We’ve done it internationally or locally, systematically or haphazardly, as a way to control a population, or with the best of intentions. St Patrick and in Ireland, Native Americans, so much of Africa–even if we don’t account for slavery.
It’s a story I heard this week from professor Bill Walker. As a college kid he went with a group of students to Latin America as young missionaries, to stand on the street corners proclaiming the Good News of Jesus to save those who might hear from fires of hell, when a group of citizens stopped to talk, to ask what these young people knew about those living in the city and walking the streets. The young people spoke about a distant hell but they did not realize the systems of oppression that keep them poor, that underpay them, that destroyed their economies, that make their lives hell today and how that kid, how we, are complicit in the systems.
We do our best, but our understanding of God only goes so far, and if we’re not willing to admit that we’re not always right when we have made God to be only so big and that some are included and others are not, that we have to teach them the right way, or turn them away.
But maybe we realize that we can’t truly understand the vastness of the cosmos and so we’ll never fully understand the God who must be greater than what was created. So maybe the love of our God is more expensive than we can even imagine. Include more love and more people than we can imagine. God is already there, already everywhere, already loving all whom we might find unlovable, all whom we might otherwise ignore, reject, or whatever else we think we need to do.
So maybe, instead of thinking we need to save someone, or change someone, or convince them of God’s love, we take a moment, see God in the face of the person in front of us. We notice that God is already there, already working. And our call Church, is to recognize, to see God, to honor the spark of the Divine in all of creation.
For a moment, consider the poem on our bulletin today. Nichole Nordeman, who we talked about months ago, in her song “Dear Me” wrote: You cannot imagine all the places you’ll see Jesus. You’ll find him everywhere you thought he wasn’t supposed to go.” Nichole’s music is usually easier for us to handle. We might ignore the work of an artist like Tupac when we don’t think their work appropriate, or swears too much, says things the wrong ways. But maybe, and it’s a much larger conversation, he was a prophet in the concrete city. Maybe our call is to notice the rose that rises up out of concrete–the work of God in the life of someone so different, so unexpected, so unlike what we thought God’s work would look like. Maybe then we recognize that God is at work in the rose and the sidewalk, as much as the rain and the sun that nourishes it.
The mistake that Peter could have made that day was to not choose love, to not be open to the expanding love of God, to not recognize the work of God in the world. But he did, he moved in love, in the expansive love.
May we enter into strange and unknown to us places and say like Jacob, God was here and I knew not
And may we meet unfamiliar faces and say like Peter, I am learning God does not show partiality.
May we be the church that learns and learns to see God.