Posted on behalf of Reverend Tim Gray
Date of sermon: 10 May 2015 (5th Sunday after Easter)
Where: St Francis
I recently watched a film called “Lars and the Real Girl” about a young and socially inept young man who lives in the garage of his deceased father. His married brother lives in the main part of the house but the conversations and interaction between them are always laboured.
One day Lars announces that he is bringing to visit a girl who is a missionary of Brazilian Danish descent whom he has met on the internet and whose name is Bianca. The family is very excited and pleased until they discover the girl is a blow up doll that Lars has bought on an Adult Website. Lars in his delusion treats the girl as a real person.
The family persuade Lars to take Bianca to a local doctor who is also a psychologist. She suggests that the family (brother and wife) go along with the delusion and act as if Bianca is a real person. The story is how the whole community takes responsibility for Lars by acting out the delusion. The story is really about the many things that various people in the village/community have to work through in order to accept Lars, but the space and acceptance they give him leads to his eventual healing.
We are in the post Easter period and quite naturally we are reading from the book of Acts, which is written by Luke, who is also the author of the gospel which bears his name. Luke’s stories always emphasise the outsider and marginalized person, and he has a wonderful way of making these people significant. Luke is the one who in his gospel stories gives much space to the marginalised person. It is he who has stories such as the good Samaritan (or the good heretic) and the prodigal son. Inclusivity is a key theme of his.
It is natural at this time to read the Acts of the Apostles because historically the book tells us of the post resurrection church in action …. the church affected by the Risen Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But Luke does not lose sight of the transformations necessary in individuals in order to be the inclusive community of God – the community capable of putting aside its ego to embrace and accept others just as they are.
If you read the book of Acts, it is really the story of two enormous characters/personalities of the New Testament church – Peter and Paul. Luke tells us their personal stories and the transformations and conversions they have to go through to be leaders in the new and very inexperienced church of what we call the first century.
The conversion story of Paul is probably the story we are more aware of.
Paul (initially known as Saul) persecuted the early Christian community. We first come across him in Acts at the death of Stephen. Stephen is stoned to death and we are told that the coats of those who did the stoning were laid of the feet of Saul who consented and presided over the event. And he seemed to have a personal zealous commitment to this task — way and above his appointed responsibility to reign in the rapidly growing Christian community. He ranged over the area between Jerusalem and Damascus arresting people. And then of course the Damascus road experience. I can only imagine it is like some ISIS zealot suddenly coming to their senses and in one wild moment recognizing the depravity of their actions and succumbing to a blinding psychological trauma which throws them to the ground. We should pray for those conversions and transformations.
The account of Ananias having to overcome his fear of Paul and, in obedience, going and praying with him, is an important part of the story. Ananias had to overcome his own assessment of Paul and has to embrace Paul without any guarantees of his own safety. But the power of inclusion and acceptance is enormous. And the existence of the New Testament and Paul’s work among the gentiles is testimony of the value of Ananias’s obedience. As a result Paul’s energy and intelligence is harnessed for God’s purposes.
The story of Peter is not too different. He is a key leader in the Christian community but the Holy Spirit is not finished with him. A major lesson for him is that he has to put aside his personal ego and historic baggage in terms of the gentiles and realise that he is not to close the doors on what God has declared clean. And that is the importance of the story of Peter and Cornelius – of which we read just a little bit this morning.
I think I went through something of a conversion experience some years ago in terms of environment and in my attitude towards that which is other than human. I raise it again to see if it may have resonance with you. I have used the story of Ishmael the gorilla frequently to draw attention to our anthropocentric natures.
Ishmael is the title of a book by Daniel Quinn. It begins with a somewhat disillusioned young man responding to an advertisement in a paper which says “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” The young man eventually responds and discovers the advertisement has been placed by Ishmael who in fact is a gorilla who has learnt to speak. Ishmael was rescued from captivity by a Jew whose family had been through the holocaust. It is really a story about captivity and the myths and narratives which capture us and hold and affect our attitudes and behaviours.
There are many conversations between Ishmael and the young man and their dialogue gradually focuses in on one presiding myth which Ishmael wants the young man to realise and discover for himself. The young man eventually blurts out. “Man is superior to all other creatures.” In other words, that humans are the pinnacle of evolution, that the world was made for man, and that man is here to conquer and rule the world. I don’t know about you but I am greatly challenged by that assumption. The degradation of the world and the environmental crisis we are gradually becoming aware of seems to be directly related to that assumption of human superiority.
The story of Paul and Peter in the Acts of the Apostles was about two people becoming aware of assumptions that were detrimental to the gospel. It was personal transformation where historical and cultural understandings were overcome and new inclusions made possible. Just as Lars eventually emerged from his delusion because the acceptance he received from his community gave space to his healing and functioning, so the putting aside of our own assumptions enables space for new relationships and healings in our own societies and world.