When God Tells a New Story

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday of Easter + April 24, 2016

Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-16; John 13:31-35


 

“Millennial” is one of the biggest buzzwords of the day. It’s the label given to my generation: people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. One of the hottest topics right now is classifying Millennials, and I’m sure you’ve all seen some of these articles; the stories range from “Millennials are self-entitled and refuse to wear anything but flip-flops” to “Millennials are optimistic and highly likely to volunteer and donate.”

In my experience as a Millennial I’ve noticed something that all these articles seem to neglect: there is a huge swath of us Millennials that really, really likes Harry Potter. Even nine years after the release of the last book in the series and five years after the last movie hit theaters, not a day goes by without a Harry Potter-related post — or ten — popping up on my Facebook newsfeed. A seminary classmate of mine told me that if she hadn’t gotten married by the time she turned 30 — if she hadn’t gotten to have the bachelorette party and the wedding reception — she was going to throw herself a party with her best friends at the Harry Potter-themed amusement park at Universal Studios. I’ve spent hours with friends — and strangers — talking about which Hogwarts House we’d be sorted into. (TEAM HUFFLEPUFF!) Maybe once or twice we even pondered which House Jesus might belong to, and how the answer might explain our understanding of the gospel.

Jesus Hogwarts

“Which House would Jesus belong to?” — just a snippet of the conversation.

All that to say: I know I’m kind of a nerd, but maybe it’s not that strange that as I mused about this sermon, my thoughts wandered to the Harry Potter story. The main conflict of the Harry Potter series is, on the surface, the fight between Harry and the evil wizard Voldemort. But really the conflict is wider and deeper than that: it is a fight between two opposing stories of how the world should be, two opposing stories of who belongs in the community of wizards and who is an outsider.

Voldemort’s story might be titled “Magic is Might.”[1] People with magical abilities are obviously the most powerful, and so they are a higher class, the ones meant to rule. People without magical powers are lesser beings, and creatures of different species — magic or not — are low on the ladder. And even within the group of magical people are different classes: “Purebloods” — people born of two magical parents — are the cream of the crop, and those born from non-magical parents are openly insulted. Voldemort’s followers aren’t exactly supporting him; they are supporting the story he tells about the world.

Harry Potter represents a different story. In this story people are not judged by birth or ability, but by their love and compassion. And even for those who do wrong there is room for forgiveness and redemption. Those who fight on Harry’s side are fighting for this story of how the world should be.

If we can get past all the crazy Harry Potter vocabulary — wizard and muggle and mudblood — that conflict begins to sound very, very familiar. We are all constantly telling stories that define and redefine who is “us” and who is “them.” And those stories can be messy: they change depending on the people involved and the issue at hand. My story is obviously right to me, and your story is obviously right to you, and a third person might offer a completely different interpretation. And our stories play out in how we define what is right and wrong, just and unjust, necessary and flexible.

Despite all that gray area and disagreement in our world of stories, it’s hard to imagine someone reading the Harry Potter books and thinking, “Harry is so misguided. Purebloods are clearly superior to mudbloods.” That’s because of the way the story is told: even though it is told with some sympathy toward the villains, there is no gray area about who is right in the series. The storytelling leads us to side with Harry; and not just with Harry, but with the enslaved house-elves, with the werewolf Professor Lupin; readers even feel sympathy for the giant spiders that live in the forest behind the school — all because of the way the story is told.

The stories we are told have a great impact on the way we feel and think and act in the world. The stories we hold on to give us the structure by which we make sense of facts and statistics, Bible passages and the face of the person next to us. Our stories often affect whether we see God active in the world around us, where we see God, what we hear from God.

But then, sometimes God says, “I’m overriding your story,” steps in, and tells us a new story.

That’s what happened to Peter according to the story we just read from the book of Acts.  Peter was praying on a rooftop, started to get hungry, and then had a vision. Something like a sheet descended from heaven, and all these different creatures were hanging out on it together: pigs and sand lizards and ravens. Peter heard a voice say: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

But Peter had God figured out. He knew this vision was a test. He knew the story that God had told to Moses: in this world there are clean animals and unclean animals. And God’s people do not eat the unclean animals (Lev. 11). So hungry Peter replied obediently, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

I wonder if Peter expected to hear something like, “Well done, Peter! You passed the test!”  Instead, the voice reprimanded him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter and God went through this routine three times before the sheet-thing went back up to heaven (Acts 10:9-16).

Peter knew the old story that had been passed down to him. The story of clean and unclean animals was important to his people, his culture, and his religion. During the Maccabean Revolt against the foreign armies occupying Jerusalem, about 200 years earlier, people had been martyred for refusing to betray their Jewish identity by eating pig meat (2 Maccabees 7). It must have been terribly difficult for Peter to believe that God was telling him a radically different story.

But the main point of God’s new story was not “go ahead and eat all the animals.” The new story really started when a Roman centurion asked Peter to come visit him.

Peter would have had a good reason to avoid visiting Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile, a non-Jew, someone from outside the circle of God’s chosen people. But Peter interpreted this fact through the new story God had just told him: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

This visit got Peter in trouble. Our reading started with a group of Jewish Jesus-followers criticizing Peter: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Why did you fellowship with the unclean gentiles?

They were living in another story; Peter had to bring them into the new story God had told him. Peter told them about the vision with the sheet and the animals and the voice. He told them that this Roman centurion had been visited by an angel, and that while Peter preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his family; they began speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter explained, “If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

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Pentecost, Estella Louisa M Canziani (1887-1964)

It is a testament to how difficult this story was to the early Jesus-followers that it appears twice in a row in the book of Acts: we walk through it with Peter in chapter ten, and then in chapter eleven Peter tells the whole thing, in detail, to those who criticized him. In fact much of the New Testament is devoted to telling and re-telling God’s new story: a redefinition of who is part of God’s people and what it means to be God’s people.

God continues to tell this story to us today. And the story is always new, because God is continually updating the categories. To hear that God is at work among the Gentiles does not surprise us here today; after all we are Gentiles, and we believe that God is at work among us. But what if the story is: God is not only at work within the ELCA, but also within Methodist and Roman Catholic and Baptists churches, and even — gasp — within the Missouri Synod? What if the story is that God is at work within Democrats and Republicans and those who have given up on the political system? What if the story is that God moves in the prayers of both illegal immigrants and border patrol agents? What if God is still transgressing the laws we thought God had given us?

If God is moving in all those different places — does that change how we understand one another? If those are the stories God is telling — does that change our own stories?

On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus, that great storyteller, told a few last stories to his disciples. We catch a very short one in our gospel reading for today: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Okay, so that’s more a commandment than a story, but I call it a story because it asks us to remember the entire story of Jesus’s life, and all the little stories that make it up. It makes us remember and tell all those stories through a certain framework, and that framework is love. He didn’t say “As I proved the Pharisees wrong, you also should prove others wrong,” or something like that. He said very clearly: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love ought to be the basic framework for every story we tell as Christians, every story we tell about others and about ourselves. Love ought to be the framework for the stories we use to make sense of what is going on in the world — and even the stories we tell of our enemies, impossible as that feels. And when stories of love become hard to tell, we need to listen in again for the story God is telling us.


[1] This is the title of a statue put up in the Ministry of Magic after it is taken over by Team Voldemort. The statue features a wizard and a witch sitting on thrones made of humans. (Described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

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3 thoughts on “When God Tells a New Story

  1. Even better the second time! I was tired yesterday and missed some of the details – so thankful to be able to read it this morning. May I share it with some of the candidacy committee? I think they would enjoy and appreciate it.

    Have a good week! Amy

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  2. Love to read your sermon series. Itried to push like, but computer wouldn’t let me get on. Anyway, thanks for sending . Keep them coming. So happy you are here

    Like

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