Peter is learning that Spirit doesn’t just stay among God’s “chosen people,” the Jews, the circumcised, the ones who follow all those rules for what you eat and with whom. Spirit is working the whole room, including the Gentiles, those heathen that Peter had once thought were not invited to the party.
How many times have we heard instances of Christian churches not inviting people to the party? In fact, taking it upon themselves to consign whole groups of people to hell rather than break bread together? Is this the way to make friends?
When I was in college, during breaks I would visit the homes of friends, including my roommate Laura. I went to church with her family, and I took communion. Laura had to tell me I was not invited to partake fully in communion because I wasn’t Catholic—not invited, even though we worship the same God, even though I’m confirmed in my church and understand what communion is all about. I had to learn how to worship as a second-class citizen, to be uninvited to the party. Like that’s how Jesus modeled God’s love for us.
In the reading today from John 15, Jesus calls the disciples “friends.” What does that mean? Not servants or slaves, but friends. “Friends”: people you treat as equals. With respect, listening, learning from each other, accompanying each other, sharing, sticking together. No longer rabbi/teacher and disciples/ students. The time has come for a shift. It’s as if we disciples are graduating with a shiny new degree: not students anymore but ready to figure out how to be leaders, professionals, even teachers. Ready to go out into the world and share what we know, share who we are, be a blessing to the community. Hang onto our old friends, but make new friends too.
Another word Jesus uses in this passage from John is “commandments.” “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” What was that main commandment again? Oh that’s right: love one another as I have loved you. “As I have loved you”—meaning, inviting everyone to the table, being willing to live for your friends and even to die for them, to speak truth to power with them on behalf of justice for them. Oh, that kind of love. That doesn’t sound like the kind of love that excludes anyone from the table.
Bishop Royster at the Annual Meeting break-out session talked about organizing a group called POWER in Philadelphia, where he was born and raised and founded a UCC church. POWER is an interfaith group committed to improving Philadelphia and neighboring parts of Pennsylvania, particularly for poor people and people of color.
POWER members have conducted more than 1,000 face to face conversations with fellow and sister congregants, peers and neighbors, in order to identify shared dreams and concerns, and common themes of both struggle and hope. The thousand stories we heard revolve around five key policy areas – Jobs, Schools, Safety, Housing & Health. [https://powerinterfaith.org/mission-and-history/]
In 2011, POWER held its Founding Convention in a huge UMC temple. They invited the mayor to come speak to their convention. No response. Invited him again. And again. Finally someone from the mayor’s office said to them, “Yeah, so how many people you think will attend this conference? Maybe 200?”
But finally the mayor agrees to come. And when he steps out to address the members of POWER, he sees 2,000 faces staring back at him. Whoa. All of a sudden POWER is a force for good that has to be taken seriously in that city.
And POWER came prepared to its meetings with the City. When the City proposed closing 60-some public schools, which happened to be in the poorer communities of color, a member of POWER from one of its synagogues sat down with this data list and that data list and mapped out something that no one else had bothered to track: that the poorer schools with more students of color received $1700 less per student per year than the wealthier schools. That may not sound like much until you do the multiplication. Say you have a school with 500 students—a typical elementary school. 1700 times 500 is $850,000 less per year for that school’s budget than for a school in a wealthier neighborhood elsewhere in town.
So POWER shows up at school board meetings, at City Council meetings—wherever this proposal is being debated—and presents this map. And no one can argue with it because 1) it’s right; and 2) no one else has done such a good job crunching the numbers. And the City cannot move forward with its plan to close 60 schools because it is so clear that this is not a just or fair plan.
POWER began to find itself in the situation of being contacted ahead of time on issues that were arising. “What does POWER think about this idea, or that proposal?” Because leaders in that city realized that POWER was a force to contend with, that it was going to work for the greater good of all people, and that you wanted to be on the right side of POWER and not across the table from them.
Another thing that happened when POWER brought people together is that they got to know and respect each other despite some theological and political differences. So at gay rights rallies the Catholic priests would be on one side of the street and the gay Protestant clergy were on the other side, and from time to time they would meet in the middle. They refused to demonize the other side because they knew each other.
My friends, we have some great friendships here at Prospect. And to be about God’s business, we need to make some new friends. In fact, we need everybody. We need to be actively engaged in the sorts of networks that POWER is building in Philadelphia. When we had a listening session a couple of months ago, one person suggested that we go in pairs, like the disciples, and knock on doors of our neighbors who have signs in their yards about justice issues that we care about, too. Maybe we would make some new friends. Maybe we would find out what they are passionate about, what they love, what concerns keep them up at night. So maybe we will learn how to meet our neighbors in this way.
Mandy Manning, the 2018 Teacher of the Year, is not afraid of teaching and befriending students from countries all over the world. In her Spokane classroom, she has students who come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere. When the president hosted her at the White House on Wednesday, she was not allowed to give a speech in which she talked about her immigrant students, and the president did not mention that she works with immigrants. But she’s not afraid to make friends with people who don’t look like her, don’t speak English well, didn’t start out in this country. She makes friends across all kinds of borders. So in her speech, which she later shared in part with CNN, she “referenced the immigrant students she teaches as well as her support for gay and other marginalized students.
Manning says her purpose is to tell those students "that they are wanted, they are enough, and they matter," and listed names of her students who she says rely on America's policy of welcoming immigrants and promoting peace.
"Like Sultan's, who escaped war in his country, and understands the importance of the United States to be peacemakers," she says.
"Most of my students come to the U.S. seeking safety, but they don't always feel safe here," she wrote in her application. "I must help them understand current events, know their rights, and provide a safe and welcoming environment." [https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/teacher-of-the-year-shares-speech-trump-wouldnt-let-her-read-to-reporters/ar-AAwNRD3?ocid=spartandhp]
We are stronger together. We are stronger when we know our neighbors near and far, whether we agree with them 100% or not. We are stronger when we reach out as friends. When we listen to our neighbors, get to know what drives them, what worries them, what we have in common. We keep the old friends, but we also keep moving, keep reaching out, keep making new friends, keep showing up for each other, keep standing together. And in that way, may we always keep abiding in Christ’s love. Amen.