Peter is staying with Simon the tanner in Joppa. It is early days in his evangelizing ministry, and he still has a few things to figure out. For example, one of the big questions is who gets to receive the Good News. Is it just for the Jews? Or is it for everybody? And if the Good News is indeed for the Gentiles, do the newcomers need to follow Jewish rules, such as circumcision and dietary laws? Or does everyone start from scratch?
In answer to this question about who gets to hear the Good News, we get this story of Peter and Cornelius. “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:1-2). This is not the image of the Roman oppressor we might expect. I’m not sure which god he’s praying to, since he’s a Roman. The God of the Jews? We are not told. Anyway, Cornelius is an overall good guy. He has a vision: An angel of God tells him to send to Joppa for Peter and have him come to Cornelius’s home in Caesarea. So Cornelius sends a couple of fellows to Joppa.
Meanwhile Peter, over in Joppa, is hungry. While he’s waiting for his meal one day, he goes up on the roof to pray (roofs in that region were flat), and he has the same vision three times: a large sheet full of animals forbidden in the Jewish diet lowers from the sky. A voice says, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” And Peter, good rule-following Jew that he is, refuses to eat anything profane or unclean. The voice responds: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:10-16).
This vision prepares Peter for his encounter with Cornelius. He travels to Cornelius’s home to tell him and his household the Good News of Jesus and God. As Peter starts preaching to the household of this Roman commander, Holy Spirit interrupts. Suddenly all the Gentiles are speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter, who wouldn’t take the unclean animals in the vision, now gets it. He affirms that Spirit is indeed moving in these Gentiles and orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus. And then he stays with them for several days, getting to know them.
Gentiles and Jews were one way of thinking about “us/them” in Peter’s day. As we contemplate this reading, I invite us to consider all the places in our world today where we are tempted to divide people into “us” and “them.” Where do you see examples of that? [Input. For example, race, orientation, urban/rural, political parties, gender, religion, BLM/Proud Boy, citizen/immigrant, vaccinated/unvaccinated, Jew/Palestinian, Jew/Nazi, Husky/Cougar, chili with beans or without, ketchup or mustard.]
I want to talk about the us/them of racism that permeates our society and how it showed up at the Pacific Northwest Conference Annual Meeting last weekend. We approved a change in a section of the conference’s constitution to say we are working toward being antiracist. And then we got to the budget. A whole lot of money for the conference staff. A whole lot of money for the two camps. And a new line item: $2,000 for diversity training. The time came for questions, comments, and discussion. One woman said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m trying to choose my words carefully.” So already we know there’s a problem. She said, “A budget is a moral document. If we say we are taking seriously the work to become antiracist, putting just one line item for $2,000 is offensive. Antiracism work has to permeate everything we do.”
Of course she was right. So there went the agenda and the scheduled breaks. Holy Spirit just entered the meeting and laid out the work we needed to do. The UCC has a motto: “That they may all be one.” We had tried to say it in our constitutional revision, but we weren’t living it in our budget. We weren’t actually embodying the change that we said we sought. And we got called on it. Thank God!
We heard from a number of our UCC people of color. We all did some deep listening. The white people among us had to confront our privilege, our blinders, and our discomfort. People asked questions. People suggested solutions. It took several hours, including meetings in Zoom chat rooms during lunch. It was not easy, but it was real. In the end, that line item went from $2,000 for diversity training to $52,000 for antiracism work. How that money will be spent to embody this work will be determined, but now it is an option. So stay tuned.
Here’s what happens when we are open to Spirit entering the room: important, difficult, soul-changing, life-giving experiences. We are not the same Pacific Northwest Conference that we were at the start of that meeting. And that’s a good thing.
Here at Prospect, we have an Antiracism Book Group that has now completed four books. Our eyes and hearts are opened in new ways to the racism that permeates our culture—the racism that white people are trained not to see, because when we see it, we get uncomfortable.
I want to show you a video of what happens when we don’t dare to let Spirit into the room—when we think we’ve got God all locked up in a safe box and we don’t want anyone to change that.
Michelle Horsley ((20+) Michelle Horsley | Facebook) story time #10, “The Church We Killed”)
Spirit left that congregation because the people stopped living out love of neighbor and invested instead in fear of neighbor. Because the neighbors didn’t look like the people in the sanctuary. Living in fear instead of living in love means Spirit has left the room.
But notice where Spirit went: outside to the people worshiping in the parking lots, in the streets, on the grass. Spirit was always alive and well—just not inside the building. Spirit recognized the hearts that were open and went there.
Peter and Cornelius, the Roman officer, are both portrayed as good people striving to follow God. They have more in common than they have differences, but they have to reach across the social us/them divide in order to find that out. Both of them cross that divide. And both are changed by the experience.
Leonard Pitts, Jr., wrote in his syndicated column last week about the us/them divide. [Leonard Pitts, Jr., “The other side has no ideas,” Seattle Times, May 2, 2021, p. D3.] He said that, throughout his 30-year career in journalism, he has gotten plenty of feedback from readers who disagreed with him. After writing about the origins of gospel music, he received a letter from Minnie C. Howard, a church musician. He writes that she “politely sliced me up with such surgical precision that, though I was bleeding from a dozen rhetorical wounds, I could only admire the cutting.” So he called her and they actually had a good discussion.
Nowadays, though, the tenor of responses from people who disagree with him has changed, and he mostly just hits the delete button after reading their comments. He writes, “Thus, on the one side you have many of us grappling with era-defining challenges: climate change, immigration, aging infrastructure, poverty, pandemic and race, to name a few. Meantime, on the other side, . . . the only serious issues for which they show any appetite involve banning voters from voting and protesters from protesting.”
Do we always reach out to the other? Do we always try to cross that us/them divide? I’ve been wrestling with this, because it’s a nuanced answer. When it’s a matter of justice, of serving the oppressed, of finding commonalities, God clearly steers us to cross the us/them boundary and share the Good news—to be open to and changed by our experiences of everyone. We welcome people into the church not for them to become just like us, but for both them and us to be changed by the experience.
But if a Proud Boy or a Derek Chauvin shows up in our worship service and wants to hate and rant and oppress and murder, then we have to draw the line. Let us always stand for love and justice, for inclusion of all who earnestly seek God—even the Romans, even the other. Amen.