Memorial United Methodist Church, White Plains
April 24, 2016, 10:00 a.m.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 11:1-18 (Peter extends his ministry to the Gentiles)
MIND general meeting
Armenian Martyrs’ Day
Hymn of Preparation Help Us Accept Each Other UMH #560
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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
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I don’t know about you, but I greatly prefer to discuss politics with people who agree with me. This is actually true / not just of politics, but also of religion, and contentious issues of any sort, really. It’s so much easier, and more fun, to have my already-formed views reinforced, and to bolster the views of the like-minded. I don’t have to be concerned with explaining myself; if I’m a little foggy about the specifics of a thing or two, nobody minds; I can pretty much just press “play” and tell people what I think without the bother and fuss of actually having to do any thinking.
I was reminded of that this week when I found myself in a conversation with someone in my neighborhood while I was out walking my dog Henry. It was election day, and I guess politics were on my neighbor’s mind. We don’t know each other well at all--he knows I’m a Christian pastor, and I know what block he lives on--and we both had apparently made assumptions about each other that turned out to be incorrect. I think he saw my picture in the paper last month, but didn’t read what I said.
My neighbor said something about needing our next President to stand firm on immigration.
Uh oh. I said, “What do you mean by that--standing firm on immigration?”
“You know, we need to be careful about who we let in.”
“Is there somebody we shouldn’t let in?”
“You know, all those Muslim terrorists. They get off a plane at JFK, they go through a back gate, they get on buses and go to their training camps. We invite them right in and give them ID’s and money and houses and food and let their kids into our schools. They’re coming here to kill us.”
Ummmm. Well. We stare at each other for a moment. I’m digging around in my head, thinking what on earth I can say next. I say something about almost all of US terrorists since 2001 being home-grown, and more of them right-wing Christian extremists than any other kind. There’s an awkward silence, and I say, “Have a nice day.”
It’s hard to talk with someone when you have very different ideas and assumptions about what’s going on and how the world works. I wonder whether this is how Peter felt when he went back home and had to explain himself to people who had no idea what he was talking about. Here’s what happened.
You remember last week, when the disciple Tabitha died, Peter went over to Joppa and raised her from the dead. (If you missed that, I suggest you take a look at the story, in Acts chapter 9.) Peter stays on in Joppa for a while. This is all told in Acts chapter 10. He’s up on the roof patio at lunchtime, and he’s hungry. He has a vision: the heavens open up and something like a large sheet drops down in front of him, with all kinds of animals in it, clean and unclean. A voice says, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”
“No way,” says Peter. “I’m a good Jew. Unclean food has never passed my lips and it never will.”
It happens twice more. And then the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter comes to himself, still sitting there on the roof, still hungry, and says, “Wow, that was weird.”
And right at that very moment, messengers from Caesarea arrive at the door asking for Peter. They’ve been sent by Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who had a vision of an angel who told him to send for Simon Peter, because Peter holds the key to the next step of Cornelius’s spiritual journey. As they are knocking, the Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with them, so he does.
When he gets to Cornelius’s house, he tells everyone about Jesus, and about God’s faithfulness and God’s love, and forgiveness of sin for those who believe. While he’s talking, the Holy Spirit comes and it’s Pentecost all over again, except in a Roman centurion’s house, which nobody ever expected. Peter says, “Well, they’ve already got the Holy Spirit, so I guess we should baptize everybody. Who am I to tell God no?” And so he baptizes the whole household--and they become the first Gentile Christians Peter has ever seen.
He had never imagined there could be such a thing. And I tell you, neither have his companions, when he gets back to Jerusalem. They have heard that he ate with a bunch of Gentiles, and they are outraged. The boundary-crossing: where will it stop?? (Apparently they don’t know about the baptisms yet.) In the reading we heard today, Peter tells them what happened--the sheet, the angel, the trip to Caesarea, the preaching, the Holy Spirit, the baptisms. In my favorite translation, it says, “Once the apostles and other believers heard this, they calmed down.” Hey, maybe God does things we haven’t thought of. Maybe God is at work in other people’s lives too--people who don’t share our rules or our assumptions. Maybe God loves them too.
Ya think? Ya think it might still be true?
Yesterday I had an extraordinary experience. I went to Torah study and Shabbat worship at Congregation Kol Ami, where they were welcoming some very special guests: 14 German Lutheran pastors. On the first full day of Passover. The task for the day: to discuss the meaning of “Never Again.”
Five of the German pastors had prepared remarks to present. None of them were alive during WWII, but their parents and grandparents were. They told of not knowing what their families had done, and the shame around what remained unspoken and unknown. They told of their understanding that nationalism / and dictatorship / and war are deadly, not just to bodies but to spirits--and of their resulting commitments to inclusion, democracy, and peace.
One pastor spoke of Kristallnacht, in November 1938. You probably know that this was a pogrom carried out against Jews by German paramilitary forces and civilians, while the authorities stood by and watched. All over Germany and Austria Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed and burned, the shards of broken glass littering the streets. 30,000 people were arrested and sent to concentration camps that night. This was the inaugural event of the Holocaust.
Though many Germans were ashamed, and many tried to help their Jewish neighbors, what this Lutheran pastor from Duesseldorf highlighted yesterday was this: the failure of the churches to resist. The Sunday after Kristallnacht, it was not mentioned in any church. The Catholic and Protestant churches all officially chose to be silent. The Nazis were testing how far they could go, and they learned that they could do anything.
And to that we say: never again. We must never again make anyone so “other” that we will hate them without even knowing them.
Another pastor, who is a school chaplain, told how their gym has been turned into a shelter for refugees. Before they share any language at all, the children learn to cook together, the German students and the refugee children. They make meals, set the table, eat together, clean up together. The German children ask their teachers: how can we put up walls against our friends? How can we let their families drown in the sea?
The conversation yesterday continued, people taking turns talking and reflecting. Just before we adjourned to set up for worship, and then to have lunch together, a member of Kol Ami spoke. He said his family taught him as a child to hate Germans. All Germans. He came unwillingly yesterday morning to the synagogue, dragged there by a friend. And, he said, he does not hate all Germans any more.
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A voice says to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” What God loves, you must not hate.
What God loves, we must not hate. And what does God love?
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I notice something about this story. Peter’s conversion is around food. God could have just sent an angel to tell him the Gentiles are okay. Instead, God sends new kinds of food when Peter is hungry, food that Peter has previously despised. His friends back home are upset because Peter ate at the same table with a bunch of Gentiles. Peter is convinced that God loves the Gentiles too / when he eats their food. When we come to the same table, we become family. When we tell our stories, we learn we are more alike than not. Everyone suffers. Everyone struggles. Everyone longs for love.
As our own country is in a fear-induced meltdown, let us be those who say: never again. We must never again make anyone so “other” that we will hate them without even knowing them.
How do we do this? One story at a time, mostly. One person, one conversation, one meal at a time.
Whose story do you need to hear? Is there someone of whom you’re a little bit afraid? (Let’s start small.) Whose life or choices you condemn behind their back? Someone you don’t understand? Would you be willing to call them up and meet for a cup of coffee? Would you be willing to hear their story?
We say: never again. Never again to hatred and fear. Never again to making the “other” less than we are. Never again is a habit of mind and spirit, and we must carefully cultivate it. One story at a time.
The word “again” here reminds us that, as human beings, we are inclined to tribalism--to prioritizing our own desires and experiences over those of others. Human beings seem always to have done this--it goes back at least as far as page 2 of the Bible. The love of God transcends these boundaries, and if we are to transcend them as well, we must practice. Never again is a habit of mind and spirit, and we must carefully cultivate it. One story at a time.
Because what God loves, we must not hate. Amen.
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As we move into our time of prayer, I want to note that Friday was Earth Day; that today, April 24, is Armenian Martyrs’ Day; and that General Conference is coming in two weeks.
Prayer Song Heleluyan UMH #78