The Fifth Sunday in Easter: The Rev. Katharine Flexer

Kate Flexer headshot
The Rev. Katharine Flexer

Peter was himself disgusted by the vision, so maybe that’s the point, to give us a sense of how strong a reaction he had to hanging out with those Gentiles. Fine. We get it that we stink. But Acts has to go through the whole story not once but twice: first it happens in all its gory detail in chapter 10, and then Peter has to tell the whole disgusting thing over again in chapter 11, today’s reading. How about a nice salad for dinner then?

So, a show of hands: Is anyone else grossed-out by the story from Acts? Peter the apostle gets the message that all are part of God’s people, Jew and Gentile alike. Great message, and it led to us all being here today – but I wish the message came another way: Peter has a vision of a whole lot of animals, snakes, and birds in a sheet and hears a voice telling him to kill and eat them. Yuck. Ok yes, I was vegetarian for many years and still mostly avoid meat, so I’m a special case, but I’ve had a visceral reaction to this story since long before that – it’s just a disgusting image, a big white sheet with panicked cows, crocodiles and slimy lizards, ostriches with feathers flying, wildebeests, all jumbled up together and trying to escape, and Peter the apostle wading in with a fork and taking a big bite. If it had to be a vision of how dietary laws don’t have to limit our lives, why not just a ham sandwich on a plate and a glass of milk? Or some mussels and fries? But no.

Especially because ‘get up, kill, and eat,’ is just about the opposite set of instructions than we need today. Americans already eat way too much meat. And it’s one of the reasons our planet is dying. But, some Christians say, that’s ok! After all, like Revelation today tells us, God will create a new heaven and a new earth after we’ve finished off this one and killed the sea. So taking care of this planet doesn’t really matter. Let’s go ahead and polish off those reptiles.

Now I suspect that we don’t have many here today who think along these lines. I don’t know many New Yorkers who argue about the facts of climate change. Some of you probably even recycle more than you used to, though this West Coaster can’t help but be amazed how many don’t bother. You might save up your food scraps for the NYC compost bins and carry a reusable bag to the grocery store. You might already have LED light bulbs, and maybe you’re eating less meat than you used to. Every little bit of our consumer choices and actions makes a difference, as we all hear over and over again, and we might be finally paying more attention to that in these last few years.

And I know that many of you have talked about how you experience God sometimes even more in nature than in church – that there is something about the sunset and the ocean waves, or the birdsong and the green woods, that stirs you to awe and wonder. Even if you’d never in a million years go along on a St Michael’s church hike in Harriman Park, you enjoy your walk through Central Park and the freshness of the air there. You already feel some sense of God being revealed in creation. You know that caring for our creation is important.

But here’s where I’m going: God used the image of a sheet full of animals as a sign to get Peter to see that the divisions of in and out, people chosen and people scorned, was not God’s desire for the world. And for us, mass extinction, extreme weather, and rising sea levels are a sign too, a sign that something is terribly wrong…all of it a disastrous symptom of our disordered existence. It’s not just about how we feel about sunsets and trees. The sickness of our planet in the 21st century shows that our presence in this world continues to be a problem. We still can’t get right our connection to and relationship with all that God has made.

There was an article in the NY Times the other day about communities in America’s heartland responding to climate change. In places like Davenport, Iowa, and Clarksville, Missouri, where the rivers have flooded this spring, cities are taking steps to protect against and plan for climate change – but without saying the words ‘climate change.’ Because saying those words is deemed too political. One mayor said that taking a stand on climate change would be too divisive. So instead they’re dealing with it, but just not calling it by name. I suppose that’s better than actively attacking attempts to save our planet, as some others are doing. But the whole thing boggles my mind. Why on earth did climate change become a topic for partisan debate? I cannot see how anyone benefits from denying that it is real, except probably the executives of oil and gas companies – who actually have been planning for climate change for years themselves. Maybe someone can explain it to me after the service.

But maybe people’s resistance to this science is more personal than that. Maybe it’s simply that to accept our role in the environmental crisis asks too much of us to be comfortable to most people. It requires us to make too great a change in our own lives. To acknowledge that the way we live is harming our planet is to acknowledge that our lifestyles are harmful and sinful and out of control – and that those of our parents and grandparents were too. Maybe that’s just more truth than we want to deal with – and more change than we want to make.

Climate change shows us, I believe, that we cannot keep objectifying others for our own use. We’ve allowed ourselves to settle into an ‘I-It’ relationship rather than ‘I-Thou’ – where I relate to the other as an object, not as another being with whom I am in relationship. We live as consumers, not as members of community. I’m not connected to you, I’m the only one whose desires matter, I can take what I want unless you fight to stop me. It’s the world according to Thomas Hobbes – nasty, brutish, and short. There’s a reason, I think, the show ‘Game of Thrones’ is appealing to so many – the fight for power and resources is our basic sense of the world. We do this in our jobs in the pursuit of money and legal victory, in our schools in the climb up the ladder and the ranking of who is better than whom. We do this in our relationships, where my pleasure and my happiness are paramount, greater than such things as fidelity, duty, placing the other person’s needs before my own. We do this even with our own bodies, trying to plump them up and slim them down for our next selfie profile shot. And we do this above all in our treatment of the whole of creation beyond ourselves. We act like it’s all there for the taking – even as mass extinctions and ecological devastation take it forever out of our reach.

Jesus tells his disciples that the one commandment they have to follow is to love one another as he loved us. It’s the one thing he expects of us. So simple. And yet to love as God loves – to love the creation just as the one who created it loves all that she made; to love in a way that means pouring ourselves out for another, laying down our life for the other; to love knowing that our very breath is a sharing in spirit with one another – that’s not so simple; that is everything. And if we understood that love as something to share with all of creation? Because we all, plants, birds, animals, all, are created and loved by God? What might that change in how we live?

I’m sure you’ve all seen lists of ways to live more lightly on the earth, which require paying attention to what we buy and what we throw away, and yes, eating less meat, whether it comes in sheets or not. I won’t go into all that here. But consider – or be reminded – that doing so is not just a good civic duty, but is truly a faithful way to live. Living as stewards of creation, all of it made by God in its wonderful complexity. Living as part of creation, interconnected by our very breath with one another and the Spirit that moves through all. Recognizing in each creature the hand of God at work, for us to respond to with love. All of that is worth more than the convenience of a single-use plastic bag.

And as a faith community, we can and will do more as well. We already take in food waste from our neighboring stores and give it out again to people who need it at our Saturday Kitchen. Our facilities manager Raj is on a mission to change every lightbulb at church to an LED bulb. We’ve signed on to using 100% green energy in the last few years for our buildings. We have labeled recycling bins and food scraps pickup and sometimes we remember to use them properly. But we still use way too much throwaway plastic in our kitchen and maintenance, we’re inefficient in our purchase and use of supplies, and I’m sure further attention to energy use would show us what we have yet to do, and so on. Maybe you’ve noticed some of these initiatives, maybe not. If you’ve got a passion for this, I hope you’ll help us do more. Because again, it’s important for us to do this as a Christian community. It’s how we live out who we are meant to be.

Maybe that disgusting vision in the book of Acts got us somewhere, as Peter began to see that God’s world was bigger than he had thought, that he needed to change his whole life and leadership in the community. And maybe our shock and fear at the disasters unfolding around us can open our eyes too – not to the stupidity of the partisan debate, but to who we are created to be as part of God’s world. It should just change our whole lives too, and our leadership as people of faith in a world that seems so without hope. Love one another as I have loved you, is God’s one commandment – God’s one commandment to all of us, God’s creation. That’s love as an active verb. So let’s follow that.

Let us pray.

O God, the ground of being…forgive us from viewing ourselves as separate from and dominating creation; give us instead a humble sense of ourselves as belonging to the earth so that we use our skill and power as stewards of the land from which we come and to which we return, through Jesus Christ who took on our flesh, and with you and the holy Spirit lives and reigns, forever and ever. Amen.