Sunday’s sermon: Where We Go From Here

Dark Woods 9 cover

Texts used – Ezekiel 36:24-28; Acts 10 (read throughout sermon)

  • Fitting that today is often thought of as the end of summer → today = the end of our summer-long journey through the Dark Wood[1]
    • Certainly not the end of all our journeys through Dark Woods → find ourselves in the Dark Woods = any time we face challenges/difficulties in our lives
      • Moments of pain, loss, worry, grief, fear, doubt, anger, frustration, lostness
      • Unintended and unexpected part of our journeys → No one plans to pass through the Dark Wood. No one chooses to be in those moments of hurt and ambiguity.
    • Journeys that are complicated and trying, to be sure, but journeys that also reveal unanticipated blessings even in the midst of the struggle
      • Challenge of uncertainty reveals opportunity to trust in God
      • Challenge of being emptied makes room for God in our lives
      • Challenge of being thunderstruck reveals flashes of God’s inspiration and guidance among the ordinariness of our days
      • Challenge of getting lost allows us to be found by a God of immeasurable love
      • Challenge of temptation reveals our truest and most genuine call to God’s work in this world
      • Challenge of disappearing relinquishes all the false labels that restrict us and allows us claim the true name of beloved Child of God
      • Challenge of being a misfit reveals our most authentic and essential community of others traveling through the Dark Wood with us
      • Elnes: People are making their way into the Dark Wood. There they are finding a sense of wholeheartedness that comes when body, soul, and the call of the Spirit converge. Some call this convergence point their place in this world. Others call it the kingdom of God.[2]
    • We’ve spent the summer talking about all of these blessings and the ways that they affect our lives and our faith. So now the question is: Where do we go from here? To answer that question, we’re going to walk through one of our Scripture stories that is a Dark Wood journey in and of itself, and we’re going to see how we come out on the other side. → going to take a mini Dark Wood journey, if you will
  • Scripture story comes from Acts
    • Main character = Peter → perfect Dark Wood character
      • Started this whole Dark Wood journey this summer with Peter → failed attempt to walk on water when Jesus comes to his rescue
      • Fitting that we end this journey with Peter as well
        • Elnes: I have come to realize that Peter’s accomplishments did not happen despite his shortcomings and failures but in and through them. Peter was a Dark Wood wanderer. He was intimately familiar with experiences of emptiness, uncertainty, and temptation that open us up to the Spirit’s guidance and clarify our next steps.[3] → Today’s story is just such an experience.
  • Story begins not with Peter but with someone who will play an important role is Peter’s Dark Wood journey of faith
    • READ Acts 10:1-8
    • Recap of what’s been happening in Acts up to this point
      • Acts = written by same author of Luke’s gospel
      • Very beginning of Acts = Jesus’ ascension followed by story of Pentecost → Peter’s first sermon to the crowd
      • Between then and now in our story, Peter has been sharing the good news only with other Jews – other chosen people, others who are considered worthy … part of the fold … appropriate and acceptable people. But all of that changes with Cornelius because Cornelius is a Gentile.
        • Not circumcised
        • Not kosher
        • Not a Jew → We have to remember that throughout the Old Testament, the people of Israel are told again and again to keep to themselves – not to adopt the cultures of others, not to marry people from other cultures, and so on.
          • About preserving their heritage
          • About preserving their faith
          • Goes back to God’s covenant with Abraham: When Abram was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. … I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you.[4] → As a Gentile, Cornelius isn’t part of this covenant. He is outside the faith. And at least at the beginning of the church, Peter was pretty adamant about keeping the good news only for the people of the covenant – the people of Israel – because everyone else was unworthy in his eyes … in his And yet, as our story begins today, it begins with just such an unworthy one as that – with Cornelius the centurion who Scripture tells us is a pious, Gentile God-worshipper.
  • Peter enters the story in a pretty easy-going way – heading up on a rooftop to pray – but things don’t stay easy for Peter for long
    • READ Acts 10:9-23
    • Peter goes up on the roof to pray but finds himself in the midst of the Dark Wood – his encounter with the Holy Spirit one of uncertainty, to say the least.
      • Animals in the vision = all animals that had been forbidden for the people of Israel to eat for centuries
        • Goes back to the book of Leviticus, supposedly recordings of the conversations between God and Moses as the people were wandering in the wilderness → all the “dos and don’ts” for the people of Israel – where, when, how, and why of:
          • Appropriate offerings to make
          • Purpose and timing of festivals
          • Care/generosity for those less fortunate
          • Priestly activities
          • Animals that can and cannot be eaten
          • There are whole chapters – long chapters! – in Leviticus devoted to exactly which animals can and cannot be eaten.
        • And yet here’s Peter’s vision – text: He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”[5] → Peter is proud of this. He’s proud that he has remained kosher his entire life. He has remained clean, righteous. It’s a badge of honor for him.
      • Uncertainty arises – text: The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven. Peter was bewildered about the meaning of this vision. Just then, the messengers sent by Cornelius discovered the whereabouts of Simon’s house and arrived at the gate. → “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” Hmmm. Something tells me this isn’t really about food.
        • Elnes: As he prayed, Peter probably tried to assess where the vision was coming from. Was it the Holy Spirit or his stomach talking? While the book of Acts makes the origin of the vision clear – it is indeed from the Holy Spirit – we must not assume it was so clear to Peter, at least initially.[6]
      • Peter suddenly finds himself in the Dark Wood, and he is struggling.
        • Peter is struggling with uncertainty to be sure. He’s uncertain whether this message is truly from God. He’s uncertain about what it means. He’s uncertain about what he should do. He is uncertain. → voice urges him to trust … but trust is hard
        • Peter is struggling with emptying himself – emptying himself of all his preconceived notions, all his prejudices, all his former ways – to make room for the instructions from the Holy Spirit. → voice urges him to empty himself … but it’s often hard – so very hard! – to get out of our own way
        • Peter is struggling in the dark, hoping for something to illumine the path ahead. Whether consciously or not, he can feel the rumbling thunder of the Holy Spirit deep within him, but he’s waiting for that lighting flash – that thunderstrike – to light up the path more clearly for him. → voice urges him to forge ahead … but it’s hard to walk in the dark
        • I think we could pretty easily apply just about any of our Dark Wood lessons to Peter’s predicament here.
          • Temptation to do the good that he has been taught since birth – remaining ritually clean – instead of following the instructions of the Holy Spirit
          • Need to disappear from the labels of kosher and unkosher, clean and unclean, pure and tainted that he has held his whole life and turn sideways into the light of God’s pureness
          • Need to get lost in the moment – losing track of those rules that he believed were so crucial … need to get lost in God’s command and God’s goodness
          • Need to find community in the midst of those unexpected wanderings – people wandering and wondering and wavering just like him
    • And in the face of that need, enter Cornelius.
      • READ Acts 10:24-48
      • In the midst of that Dark Wood wandering, not only was Peter able to find blessings – blessings of trust and being filled, of guidance and inspiration, of calling and claiming and community. Not only was Peter able to find those blessings for himself, but he was also able to be that blessing for Cornelius and his household.
        • Hearing and validating Cornelius’ witness
        • Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ
        • Baptizing Cornelius and his household, welcoming them into a community that only the day before, Peter himself would have thought closed to them
        • Elnes: In taking a step toward Caesarea, Peter stepped away not only from his house in Joppa but from the figurative boat of his tradition – from nearly a thousand years of faith and practice – and set foot once again on the stormy sea of uncertainty. Only this time he was less afraid than the first. Peter knew it was safe to take a risk – even a large one – if he sensed the Spirit calling him to do so. He had learned firsthand that when you follow your deepest sense of call, you do not step out onto that sea alone. If you lose your nerve and sink when following the Spirit’s call, you need only reach up for help. You will discover yourself grasped by a power that is not ready to let you go.[7]
          • Reassurance of Ezek rings true: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe by case laws.[8]
        • So as we leave this exploration of the Dark Wood behind, friends, take heart, take courage, and be reassured. In the midst of whatever Dark Wood journey you may be facing in your own life – today, tomorrow, or whenever they come down the road – you do not walk alone.
      • Blessings from Elnes:

May the Spirit of the Living God,
Made known to us most fully within life’s Dark Wood:
Go before you to show you the way;
Go above you to watch over you;
Go behind you to push you into places you may not necessarily go yourself;
Go beneath you to uphold and uplift you;
Go beside you to be your strong and constant companion;
And dwell within you to remind you that you are surely not alone,
And that you are loved – loved beyond your wildest imagination,
And may the fire of God’s blessing burn brightly
Upon you, and within you,
Now and always.

For this final Sunday in our summer-long series going through the Dark Wood with Eric Elnes, we used a KT Tunstall song as our charge and benediction. It’s a song that I was unfamiliar with, but I was working on my sermon last Sunday morning and it came on the Pandora station I was listening to. The minute I heard it, I knew it was perfect to wrap up this particular series. So let the words of British pop artist KT Tunstall close this sermon experience for you:

The lyrics for this beautiful song can be found here.



[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 2015.

[2] Elnes, 168.

[3] Elnes, 171.

[4] Gen 17:1, 7.

[5] Acts 10:

[6] Elnes, 174.

[7] Elnes, 177.

[8] Ezek 36:25-27.

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