Here is one of my all-time favorite tall tales that I never tire of sharing, and from which I have learned a lot.
Did you know that the standard United States 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. 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 two yoked horses used in Roman war chariots. And there you have it. The general measurement of two yoked horses has been the key determining factor in the construction of our principal means of mass travel for over 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 built 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 yoked horses.
What starts out as perfectly functional, that 4 ft. 8.5 gauge, can over time become constricting, ineffective and counterproductive. Our needs change over time. Our horizons shift. Our capabilities develop, grow and deepen. New doors open. In midst of all this, Jesus, our Divine gauge, calls us to love one another, to even love our enemies, and to do good to those who persecute us. If we want to stay on track with Jesus, we have to be willing to change our gauge.
Most of the ruts we fall into are troubles we have to shift our hearts and our attitudes. If we want to follow the gauge Jesus set forth, say, for example, in the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, in those words of forgiveness from the cross, we must commit ourselves to change our gauge to He who is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Our readings today reveal two powerful visions of God changing the gauge for us. In our Acts text, Peter is recounting his experience of change at a meeting called by Christian leaders. Although still a part of the Jewish religion, the early 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 he sees all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles and birds, animals unclean by Jewish dietary law, being lowered on a large sheet. Peter is told, get up, kill and eat. This vision happens three times to Peter. Peter is scandalized -- he has always kept kosher. What is God doing? Next Peter is led to visit, then eat and drink with Gentile Christians. This creates an uproar, and Peter was criticized by other believers. But Peter responded, “Who was I to stand in God’s way?” Peter’s recommendation was ultimately accepted, and the gauge was widened, forever changing the course of the Christian movement. They praised God, because God changed the gauge - so that even Gentiles received the repentance that leads to life.
The text from Revelations gives us another stunning vision, a vision received by the exiled seer, John, toward the end of the first century. 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 horrific battles and great suffering, and ultimate conquest -- but here in chapter 21, the vision shifts. Out of the heavens comes a New Jerusalem- not the Jerusalem where conflict still rages between Jews and Muslims and even Christians. There is a vision of new heavens and new earth – this earth where Satan has spread oppression and sin, and humankind has filled the air and land with poison and corruption — God brings forth a new earth, where death, sorrow, crying and pain pass away. This new earth is where God makes his home among humanity; God is with his people and is their God. The old order has passed away. Behold I make everything new! Says the triumphant Lord.
The gauge has again changed. A gauge widened to Alpha and Omega – from A-Z. From beginning to End. Jesus, the gauge, encompasses the totality of the cosmos and all creation. This text invites us to open our hearts to be to the Lord who declares: “Behold I am making everything new!” As Peter invites us to proclaim with him: Who am I to stand in God’s way?
The visions of the scriptures depict a God who is constantly widening the gauge so we might journey out in faith, risk deeper intimacy, and find greater integration in our life as followers of Jesus. The gauges of a Roman war chariot are too little for the life of faith. We are called to follow the divine gauge, Jesus.
We are a part of a church that struggles to be faithful in the context of inclusivity. So the Spirit reminds us when it gets hard, change the gauge!
We are faced with welcoming the immigrants and those who are different in our midst. Let us change the gauge!
We see the need of the poor and vulnerable. Let us change the gauge!
The lonely and lost! The Addicted and ill. The forsaken elderly. Let us change the gauge!
We hear hate speech and prejudice that divides our country. Change the gauge!
We live in this world where communication and travel connect us across the globe faster than ever before, yet our moral gauges are not wide enough to keep pace with the technological and economic changes. We still allow people to suffer famine and disease, children to go uneducated and unloved. We still let people go without medicine and treatment when it’s there. We allow people to earn less than a wage that’s sustainable for life. The world’s moral gauge is still based on those Roman war chariots. As disciples of Jesus, we got to work to the change the gauge!
That is the moral and spiritual task that lies before us. To love one another, Jesus commanded, as he loved us. Because Jesus is our gauge, a gauge he created in his life and teachings, his death on the cross and through the power of the resurrection. The new gauge is there, if we just align ourselves to it.
This is the vision God is giving us today. The old labels, of conservative, liberal, evangelical, Presbyterian, Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, on and on, are less important than following the gauge of Jesus. All around us we hear voices telling us the church is dying. But that’s the church of the roman war chariot. The church of the gauge of Jesus, now that is a church open to the vision of the new heavens and a new earth. It’s the gauge that the Holy Spirit is working to straighten our lives - to broaden our circle, to teach us to love, forgive, to be tolerant and have mercy – with Christ as our gauge, we can become one human family.
We are the church of the new gauge. Isn’t that the life to which God is calling us, one much bigger, more holy, more whole than we can imagine? God has something new planned. Your life, my life, needs this bigger gauge, one of healing, redemption and transformation, one only Jesus can provide.
This is the Gauge of Jesus: where God lives with us and works through us–to lay the tracks of love, righteousness and justice across the world. We are the gauge changers of the new world. Let us retire the gauge of the war horses once and for all. Let us turn to the gauge of Christ. In doing so, may we find ourselves changing from being self-centered to Christ-centered, and other-centered: and together make of this old world a new world. For who are we to stand in the way of God? Amen.