There are some stories that are so interesting it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not.
Did you know that the standard us railroad gauge, the distance between the two rails, is exactly 4 ft 8.5 inches? This is an odd number. Do you know how this gauge was determined? The people who built the first railroads in the United States were English expatriates, and that was the gauge used in the first railroad system back in England.
OK. So why was this gauge, 4ft. 8.5 inches first used back in England? Because the people who built the first railroads in England were also the same folks who built the first tramways, or streetcars. Why was that gauge used on those tramways? Well it turns out that the gauge on the tramways also happened to have the same wheel spacing of wagons and carriages. So why did wagons and carriages have that peculiar gauge of 4ft. 8.5 inches?
The wagons and carriages had that wheel spacing because if they didn’t the wheels would break on the old, long distance English roads. Those old roads had wheel ruts that measured 4 ft. 8.5 inches. So who built those old rutted roads?
Those first long distance roads were built in Europe and England by imperial Rome for travel by their soldiers. These roads have been used ever since. So what explains the ruts on the road and that odd gauge? Roman war chariots made those ruts. So why did Roman war chariots have that odd specification? 4 ft. 8.5 inches, was the approximate width of the rear ends of two horses used in Roman war chariots. And there you have it. The general measurement of a horse’s derriere has been a key determining factor in the construction of our principal means of mass travel for close to two thousand years. There’s even a cosmic twist to this tale. There were two rocket boosters that sit on the side of the fuel tank of the old space shuttles. They are not designed to optimal capacity, according to the engineers who designed them. They should be wider, but can’t be. And do you know why? Because the only way the factory in Utah, where they are made can get them down to Florida, is by railroad. And the railroad passes through mountain tunnels, which as we know by now, were made only slightly larger than the width of two horses’ behinds.
Isn’t that quite a story? It’s been demoted to urban legend status – before the Civil War the US had any number of railroad gauges. Our story, however, carries an important lesson that would do us well to pay attention to.
What starts out as perfectly functional, an excellent idea, a brilliant plan, can over time turn out to be constricting, ineffective and counterproductive. Our needs change. Our horizons shift. Our capacities deepen and other doors begin to open. The old fades away, things become new. Our journeys take new twists and turns. If we want to stay on track we have to be able to change the gauge. Most of the ruts we fall into are not on the side of the road. Most of the ruts we have trouble with are in our hearts and in our attitudes. And if we want to follow Jesus’ command to love each other, we have to be willing the change the gauge.
Our readings today show us two remarkable visions of God changing the gauge. In our Acts text, Peter is recounting his experience of change at the first serious meeting called by Christian leaders of Jerusalem. Although still a part of the Jewish religion, the Christian movement had grown and was accepting many non-Jewish converts in to membership. There were many who believed that these new members should first convert to Judaism, which meant circumcision for the men and keeping the kosher dietary laws. Others, like the apostles Peter and Paul, had been led to believe that converting to Judaism was not a prerequisite to be a follower of Jesus.
So Peter gets up and shares the vision he had. A vision of the heavens opening up and all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds, animals unclean by Jewish dietary law. Peter is told, get up, kill and eat. This vision happens three times. Peter is horrified -- he has always kept kosher. Peter is led to visit, then eat and drink with Gentile Christians. This created an uproar, and Peter was criticized by other believers. But Peter responded, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter’s recommendation was ultimately accepted, and the gauge was widened, forever changing the course of the Christian movement.
The text from Revelations gives us another vision, a vision received by the exiled seer, John, toward the end of the first century. As we discussed last week, Revelations covers a time when the Christians are in the midst of terrible tribulation. The fall of Jerusalem has happened. Christians have been excommunicated from the synagogues, persecution is widespread. The visions in the book tell of great battles and suffering, but here in chapter 21, the vision shifts. Out of the heavens comes a New Jerusalem. A new heavens and new earth. Death, sorrow, crying and, pain, have passed away.
The gauge has changed. God has conquered death. God is the one who makes all things new. How could these suffering believers come to grips with this amazing vision? Are our hearts wide enough to accept this vision? We don’t understand. But we recall Peter’s words: Who am I to hinder God?
That’s the problem with gauges. They work well for a while. Then they no longer work so well. Who goes around on war chariots and wagons? The tracks have been laid. It is costly, time consuming and disruptive to widen the gauges to make them work for a new age. So we try to make do.
We do this all the time. God calls us to journey out, to risk, to deeper intimacy, to greater integration. Life is getting too big for the gauges of a Roman war chariot.
We face challenges no less daunting than Peter, Paul, and John. We are a part of a church that struggles to be faithful in the context of inclusiveness with the LGBT community, and understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in other cultures and faiths.
We live in a world where communication and travel connect us across the globe faster than ever before, yet our moral gauges have not widen enough to keep pace with the technological and economic changes. We still allow people to die of hunger, children to get sick from contaminated water when it is needless. We still let people go without medicine when it’s there, at the drugstore shelves. Families sell their children into slavery, education is forgone, because we allow top salaried CEOS to earn almost 300 times the entry-level worker, let alone what is earned in developing countries.
Our moral gauge is still based on Roman war chariots. We got to widen the gauge. That is the moral and spiritual task that lies before us. To love one another, Jesus commanded, as he loved us. That’s our gauge. And it is a gauge wider than the mountain ranges, deeper than the oceans, farther than the stars in the sky. And we have a ways to go.
That the vision God is giving us today. The old labels, of conservative, liberal, evangelical, Presbyterian, Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran , Anglican, on and on, are going the way of the Roman war chariot. Those gauges aren’t worth more the width of two horses’ you know what. All around us we hear voices telling us the church is dying, the church is irrelevant. But that’s the church of the roman war chariot. Worship, Sunday at 11:00a.m., may be giving way to worship on different hours or days of the week, to different ways and places of worshiping, serving, sharing. The church of Jesus’ gauge, that makes all things new, now that’s the vision we need to seek.
Like Peter and John, we are recipients of a new, great vision – what God has declared clean, you shall not declare profane. Like John, God’s home is among God’s people. And it is God’s will to dry the tears of those who suffer. And there’s a vision ready for us, knocking at the door of our hearts waiting for us to open the door – to begin to comprehend the great thing God is about to do. Some practices may go the way of the dinosaur -- but not God’s Holy Spirit – Not the movement of Jesus Christ – which is making all things new.
We are the church of the new gauge. Isn’t the life that God is calling you, calling us, much bigger, maybe overwhelming, but more exciting than you can imagine? Our world has become too little. God has something new planned. Your life, my life, needs a bigger gauge, one only Jesus can provide.
We are the people of the new gauge, building a gauge wide enough so we can take this journey together, no one left behind. This week is the 50th anniversary of the Children’s March in Birmingham, AL – when a new gauge was laid. This was a brave, risky move of the civil rights movement. Children marched for civil rights. They were arrested. They returned to march. They were blasted by high-pressured water hoses. They were clubbed. Police dogs were set loose on them. Pictures of children being attacked outraged a nation. The actions led to desegregation of downtown stores, and threats to expel the students met with a resounding condemnation. Rev. King said of this march: “Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of mankind.” They opened a wider gauge. And that’s what we are called to do. Widen the gauge. With love, caring and commitment we see the journey has just begun.
This is the Gauge of Jesus: A New heavens, and a new earth—where God lives with us – drying our tears, transforming our suffering. We are the gauge changers of the new world. We make all things new – in the name of Jesus – through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so we rise from the ruts – to see a new heavens and a new earth. Amen.