Peter's Invisible Fence

Down came the blanket with those creepy, crawling snakes and vultures and other weird animals on it.  In fact, the heavenly blanket came down three times. And each time the blanket descended, Peter said, "No, not me!"

Peter's response to God's picnic invitation was not mere squeamishness.  Peter found the menu repulsing.  None of those animals was acceptable food.  Peter's "no" welled up from deep within him.  An observant Jew, Peter had spent a lifetime trying to remain ritually clean.  His "no" to the heavenly invitation was the visceral, reactive, reflexive result of years of religious conditioning. 

I learned a little bit about behavioral conditioning from our Golden Retriever, Bailey.  And so I beg your indulgence of another sermon story about a family pet.  Bailey is as lovely and true and kind as any best friend a family could ever have.  An indoor/outdoor dog, Bailey spends most of her time on a porch we enclosed for her.  Bailey's palace we call it.

From this porch perch Bailey presides over all the goings-on in our wooded back yard.  She also enjoys the freedom to slip through a doggie door whenever it suits her fancy, to chase a squirrel or answer nature's call.  But there are bounds to Bailey's realm.  Bailey is not allowed outside of the backyard.  For beyond the backyard are the suburban perils of the street, getting lost, and the dreaded dogcatcher.

Now Anne and I could have built a traditional fence, but that would have ruined the wooded feel of our grounds, both for us and the neighbors around us.  So, instead, we decided on an invisible fence, one designed specifically to contain canines.  The invisible fence kept Bailey on the grass and out of the wooded, unimproved portion of our backyard.

An invisible fence has two components:  a wire buried along the desired boundary and a dog collar that sounds whenever the boundary is approached.  Bailey learned the boundary in three ways, mostly.  First, she had the visual cue of the edge of the grass.  Second, she had the audible cue from the collar whenever she approached the buried boundary.  And, finally, Bailey could count on a mildly unpleasant tingling sensation from the collar whenever she actually crossed over.  So with practice and conditioning, Bailey learned to stay in the backyard.  Crossing the invisible fence became repulsive to her.

In our passage from Acts, the blanket from heaven carried with it the promise of God's unimaginable generosity for all humankind.  God's blanket was blotting out the boundary between Jew and Gentile, a boundary that God found unnecessary.  What God had made clean was clean indeed.  But thought of crossing that boundary and being among the unclean was repulsive to Peter, even as crossing the boundary of our backyard was repulsive to Bailey.

Tradition and laws around ritual cleanliness made table fellowship with the Gentiles strictly taboo.  For Peter, Gentiles were as unclean as the weird cuisine in the dream.  Peter refused God's invitation to get up and eat, three times.  Earlier in Acts we learned that Peter awoke pondering the meaning of the dream, but remained frozen at least at first behind an invisible fence buried deep within the precognitive, reptilian part of his brain.

Aren't we all bounded by invisible fences?  I know that I am.  And it seems that God makes great sport of revealing those fences to me from time to time.

I met Jason in the late 1990's when I was practicing law in Atlanta.  Jason was Senior Counsel for a corporate client in San Francisco, and he and I struck up a friendship during our defense of a contentious piece of litigation.  After a particularly long day of mediation preparation, Jason and I left his office for a quick bite.  The dinner conversation soon turned to our careers.   

Jason was a Southerner, and I was intrigued to know why he had left his sweet home in Alabama.  And so I asked him how he had landed in California.

Jason smiled politely and responded, "Well, I just feel more comfortable on the West Coast.  Alabama really isn't home for me anymore."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "I am just more at ease here, politically and socially.  San Francisco is so much more accepting."

There it was--God's holy blanket spread out before me, the blanket that erases boundaries, the invitation to dine at the table of God's generous inclusivity, a blanket like the one God presented to Peter.  This time the blanket fell for me in a restaurant in downtown San Francisco.

And there I met my invisible fence.  I found myself frozen, unwilling to hear what Jason was trying to tell me.  Jason measured the moment, surely exasperated that he had to explain what should have been plain.  Jason then looked me in the eye, and pushing past my prejudices, my reactivity, the barnacled accretions of many years of conditioning, Jason said, "You know that I am gay."

And I thought, "This cannot be you, God."  And in my heart, I heard, "Yes, Dick, it is me.  This man before you, Jason, is made in my own image, an image that looks a lot like you, if you haven't noticed."

Well, I had noticed.  Like me, Jason was born in the South.  Like me, Jason had graduated from a Southern college and a Southern law school.  Like me, Jason had clerked for a federal judge.  Like me, Jason worshipped in the Episcopal Church.  Like me, Jason served on the vestry of his parish.  Like me, Jason had a life partner.  Only while my partner was Anne, Jason's partner was a man, Mark.  Jason was my first openly gay friend.

Thanks be to God for Jason and others who followed, who together encouraged me to cross over my invisible fence and accept the invitation to participate in the breadth of God's welcome for all.

Now, God had presented the heavenly blanket of inclusion to me not just once, not just three times, but probably 33 times before.  But this time, God delivered that invitation personally--through a person, through Jason.

And so it was with Peter, too.  Peter did not cross over his invisible fence until after he actually met the Gentiles.  First the Gentile cohort that we learn later in Acts was from Cornelius the Centurion, who had sent to fetch him, and then from Cornelius himself and his family and friends.

Peter moved across the boundary only after his encounter with particular people.  Only then did Peter understand that God shows no favoritism.

In our so very polarized society, Jesus calls us to cross invisible fences that wall us off from those in that other political party, that other denomination, that other faith tradition, that other ethnicity, that other socio economic class, that other race, that other sexual preference.

Closer to home, Jesus calls us to cross invisible fences that separate us from those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt, Jesus calls us to cross all of these invisible fences, so that we may see and love others as God sees and loves them.

Through the mystery of the incarnation, God showed up for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  And the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, still dwells among us, as we see Christ in other people, Christ who calls us to a conversion of the heart so that we may cross the invisible fences that separate us from each other.

Bailey died just a few days ago.  And we are so very sad.  We miss her company.  But she has left me with one other piece of teaching.  The invisible fence kept her bounded for many years until the blizzard of January 2011.  Snowmageddon, as the media called it, shut down Atlanta for a week. I received a telephone call from a neighbor at about 9:30 in the morning, the first day of the blizzard.  Bailey had escaped.

Why this time and not on other snow days? Well, this time school had closed.  And that morning children--including my own--were whizzing down the best sledding run in the neighborhood, which happens to be located in our side yard, just beyond the invisible fence.  The blanket of snow from the heavens obscured the boundary of the yard, as it had on other snow days.  But what caused Bailey to cross that day was children at play.

As was true for Peter, and for me, and is true for you as well, real live human beings--children in this case--caused Bailey to cross over.  I had to laugh that morning as I found Bailey unbounded and happy and carefree, romping and running and chasing the sledders as they sped along.  That seems to me a lot like God's own joy available for us, too, on the other side of our invisible fences.

So let us pray:  Oh Lord, whose love exceeds all imagination, help us cross over the invisible fences that separate us from each other.  Open our eyes that we may see you in each other.  Warm our hearts that they may be new.  Teach us to love as you love.  And all for your name's sake.  Amen.