“Narrative, Dreams, and Visions”
Sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
April 28, 2013
Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-5
Our first passage for this morning is from the book of Acts of the Apostles, which is also regarded as the second volume of Luke’s Gospel. Just as Luke’s gospel is the story of Jesus’ life and mission, so Acts is the story or stories of how the ministry Jesus began is carried out through those who followed him being led by his Spirit. That Spirit led them, and leads us into deeper understandings of how we are to relate to others. It also gave them the power to move forward into this new territory. Acts 11 is a story of Peter retelling a story of a vision he had that led him to reach out to and eat with Gentiles (literally, people not like us), which up to that point, had been considered taboo.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
Our second passage is from Revelation, the last book in the Bible. Revelation is filled with the outlandish and often difficult to interpret visions of a man named John, on the isle of Patmos, where he was in exile. Presbyterians don’t tend to spend a lot of time in the book of Revelation, but we do read this passage at funerals and memorial services because it speaks a comforting and unambiguous word about God dwelling with mortals. God is with them–Immanuel. It’s a passage about the redemption of creation and how all flesh will see it together. You could say it’s a passage about how our story comes to an end.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’
I think the novelist and essayist Barry Lopez is right. We are held together by stories. Stories and compassion, that’s what holds us together. The stories we tell ourselves and each other, the narratives we construct to describe human experience, these are the things that hold us together as individuals and as communities. A big part of what it means to be human is to tell and listen to stories.
Last night Judith and I went out to dinner with our daughter, Martha. She spent much of the time regaling us with stories from the McLean High School band trip to Orlando last weekend. We had not yet heard the stories. She went on and on, telling us about what they’d experienced together. How she had the butter beer at Harry Potter World, and how she went on some rides but didn’t want to go on others. So she was glad she was with the wimpy group so she didn’t have to ride them. We listened intently.
We are a storied and story-telling people. You get together with old friends at a high school or college reunion, you say goodbye to a loved one at a memorial service or a leave-taking, and what comes to mind? Stories. Stories of the times you shared together, the things those experiences taught you.
It’s not that concepts, ideas, and principles aren’t important. They are. But the way we come to understand what they mean is often, most often, through stories: narratives we tell ourselves or others tell us to illustrate the point, to connect it to the real world in which we live. Jesus knew this. That’s why he did so much of his teaching, particularly in Luke’s gospel by telling parables. What are parables, but stories told to illustrate a point?
I’ll never forget preaching one Sunday five or six years ago. I can’t recall what I was preaching about, I don’t know what the text was, I have no idea what I said, but I do remember that the children were still in the service. They were singing that day. There was no morning hour. And so there they were, all lined up on that front pew.
As my sermon droned on, (I’m sure it was electrifying for everybody else, ha!), the kids became increasingly preoccupied. It didn’t take long: looking down at their bulletins, doodling, poking each other, looking around in space, but near the end when I launched into a story, I’ll never forget what happened. Every one of their heads swiveled toward me. I had their attention. They were mine. Eyes fixed on me, leaning forward to hear a story. Stories.
What is the last story you shared with somebody? It might have been telling somebody about a particularly helpful salesperson. It could have been a story that poked fun at yourself, or, hopefully not, but possibly, painted someone else in a destructive light. It might have been a story about some joyous occasion, something that happened here at Immanuel, or at your work, or at home, or on a trip. That’s why trips are so important, by the way, they create shared stories. Those of you who went to Peru with me have stories you can tell. They create shared stories. So those of you who went to Peru with me on two different occasions, we have stories we still can share. Trips create shared stories.
Next weekend, I’ll be in Austin, Texas for my brother’s wedding. He’s finally tying the knot. And he’s asked Judith to officiate so that I can be the best man. I’ve never been a best man before. As I prepare for my duties, you can bet I’m going armed with plenty of stories, not all of which I will tell. And, you know me, I’ll come back with stories, too. Probably not all of which I will tell.
It is important to pay attention to the kinds of stories we tell ourselves and each other, the kinds of stories we tell our children. The kinds of stories we listen to day in and day out because stories shape us and they shape them too.
William Bennett, who was the Secretary of Education during Ronald Reagan’s second term, was known among other things for compiling and publishing The Book of Virtues – a Treasury of Great Moral Stories.  I listened to those stories on tape going back and forth from my first church. It is a great collection of stories.
Bill Bennett knew the importance of funding our imaginations with good stories. The stories we tell about ourselves and each other and life are important – and I think there is some value in the old adage – “garbage in, garbage out.” So what you want to do is put good stories into your brain, heart, and soul. Stories that will nurture and shape you for the better. The thing you want to do is tell and hear good stories.
I know of more than one therapist who will tell you that as young children, we create a story about ourselves and we spend the rest of our days gathering data that supports that narrative, and rejecting, ignoring, discounting, or not even seeing evidence that runs counter to it.
So if I begin to believe early on that I am loved, cherished, and capable no matter what challenges life throws my way, then I live that narrative, and treat as an aberration anything that runs counter to it. But If I begin to believe early on that my worth and security are tied to making other people happy, that I must have approval in order to survive, then I will see things that bear that out too and discount things that don’t bear it out. If I am told early on and begin to believe that I am worthless, that I can’t accomplish anything worthwhile in life, that’s part of the story I begin to tell myself. Then I’ll see things that bear that out, and discount things that don’t.
We have to pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves and our children because often these things can become self-fulfilling prophecies. That doesn’t mean we are locked into the narrative that we’ve told ourselves. We can adopt a new one and not be held captive to the old one. I love the way one person summarized the gospel in less than seven words. It was part of a project for The Christian Century in which prominent pastors and scholars were asked to sum up the good news in seven words or less. This person wrote: “Everybody gets to grow and change.” So, we are not locked into old narratives, but we need to be intentional about changing them.
Over time we don’t just create a story about ourselves, but we create a story about the way the world works and how we view those who are different from ourselves. We operate out of certain narratives, assumptions which often go unexamined and unchecked. They become biases, prejudices and stereotypes. We tend to be more critical of the narratives others operate out of than our own. And we tend to not be attentive to what runs counter to our narrative. We see what confirms it, and ignore what challenges it.
Let’s engage in a little exercise for a moment, shall we? I want you, in your mind, to complete some of the following sentences. America is always… Conservatives are. .. Liberals are… Asian Americans are… Homeless people are…. Muslims are… Christians are… African-Americans are…
I’m not sure how you completed those sentences—we could go on and on with sentences like those (people who vote one way are… people that vote the other way are…)—but let me suggest that the way you completed those sentences has something to do with a deeper inner narrative that you carry around with you. And that narrative may be supported by stories that fit the narrative, but you may have missed or ignored other things that run counter to it. And if you paid attention to them, your biases might change.
The Apostle Peter had a narrative. He understood who he was. He knew that he was Jewish and that Jewish people ate certain things and there were certain things they didn’t eat. And he knew that Jewish people ate with certain people, namely other Jews, and that there were certain people with whom they didn’t eat. He knew that God was primarily concerned with a certain group of people and there was another group of people that God really didn’t have a lot of concern for.
Peter learned that narrative. And he spent three years with Jesus. But narratives are hard to examine and to change. Sometimes it takes something big to bump us out of a particular narrative. Sometimes it takes a dream or a vision.
What happens with Peter is that he is on the rooftop in Joppa. The last time I preached on this, I asked this question. But does anybody know who else went to Joppa in scripture? Jonah. Jonah, arguably the only successful prophet in all of scripture because when he goes to deliver God’s message – to Assyria, to Nineveh, the heart of Assyria – and preaches, they all repent. Even the cattle put on sackcloth and ashes! But before he goes there, he decides he’s going to go as far away from Nineveh as he possibly can because he has a narrative about Assyrians, and he has a narrative about God, and he has a narrative about himself, so he goes to Joppa to get on a boat to Tarshish.
So Peter’s in Joppa, which Jonah showed us is where people go to escape from God’s call to love people not like them. While he’s in Joppa he stays in the home of Simon the Tanner. I was talking to Nadine Van Orsdel last week and she was relating to me her experience in Morocco. She went to Morocco on a photography trip and while she was there she visited a leather factory. She learned something about how leather is made.
There are people who work in that leather factory who anybody knows will only live thirty or forty years at best, because they are dealing with smelly, nasty, animal carcasses and awful chemicals that are used to treat the skins to turn them into leather. It is a nasty job to be a tanner. Simon Peter went to be with Simon the Tanner, and what tanners were was unclean, because they dealt with death all the time.
So Peter is there with Simon the Tanner in Joppa and he has this vision of a tablecloth being lowered and on that tablecloth there is all sorts of stuff that a good Jewish person wouldn’t eat. There is a ham sandwich. There is shrimp cocktail. There is clams casino. Anything that you could imagine that a good observant Jew of that day and time would not want to eat, it is on that sheet. And God said, “Eat up, Peter!”
Peter says, “No, no, no!” I know what the book says. The book, our story, is very clear on this. We don’t eat things like that. And God three times, always three times with Peter, never just once, three times says, “Eat it.” And when he finally does, he gets the message, “What I have called clean, you must not call unclean.”
Of course, that’s not just about food. There at the home of Simon the Tanner, another Simon, Peter, the one who denied Jesus, learns something about people not like him and God’s love for them. Maybe he comes to understand that If he, himself can be regarded as clean, then who is to say the Gentiles can’t? So when some Gentiles show up at the door, he can understand that God wants him to love and reach out to them as well.
When the apostles back in Jerusalem ask him, “Peter, why are you doing that? Why are eating with people not like us? Why are you reaching out to people who are not like us? Why are you doing something that the book says not to do?” Peter says this, “Let me tell you a story…”
 This is a paraphrase of Barry Lopez’s quote on the front of this morning’s bulletin: “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” You can read more about and from Lopez at his website: http://www.barrylopez.com/
 William J. Bennett, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993).
 Lillian J. Daniel, “Everybody Gets to Grow and Change: The Gospel in Seven Words or Less” The Christian Century (November 11, 2011).