Sunday, June 21, 2015
Text: Acts 10:1-17
Somewhere in the back of mind I had begun a different sermon this week. I suppose it might have been a kinder, gentler one until a lone gunman entered a church and murdered nine people at prayer. Everything changed. At least, it did for me. Once more gun violence has reared its hideous head in our so-called sophisticated society. Once more racism runs rampant in a heinous act of bigotry. Once more we are at risk to wring our hands in dismay only to move on shortly after, shaking our heads and changing nothing. I don’t have ready answers to either racism or gun violence but I believe with all my heart that something has to change.
I look at the pictures and read the reports about the young man who perpetrated this evil and I cannot help but think, he did not love himself, so he could not love his neighbors. This is neither an excuse or rationalization for what he did. It’s just an observation of what I see as an exceedingly sad reality. I will not be so presumptive as to try to analyze Dylan Roof. I’ll leave that for others more experienced, more expert, than I in the present and for history to determine in the future. But I do know that his action did not stem from love for self or love for neighbor.
Let me leave my rant for the moment to consider the theme and text for today. Maybe it well help to bring some balm from Gilead, some healing to the wounds. Perhaps it will tell us something about how we might move forward in this troubled, troubling world. The portion of Acts 10 that Alan and Melanie read for us this morning does not make the lectionary. I’m not sure why. It tells a powerful story of double vision brought into focus through the work of love for self and neighbor.
First, we have Cornelius, a man of might and privilege, a high-ranking Roman official, a man used to giving orders and having them followed. Surely he evoked fear and disdain in those over whom he ruled. We know the Jews of this period had no love for their oppressors. But there was something different about this warrior. Luke writes that Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God…gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Not your prototypical Roman officer. Something or someone had touched Cornelius at the depths of his being. He didn’t have all the answers, but somehow he knew he was a child of God. He also could sense God alive in those around him and thus his compassion. I suppose you could attribute his respect or love for himself to his position of power and influence. That must have been a factor. Still, Luke says something more was going on. It looks a lot like love.
When he has his vision, he doesn’t hesitate to send for Peter. From his place of privilege, it is not surprising that he would simply go after what he wanted. Note he has slaves and soldiers to do his bidding. But I also think he was eager to hear what God had to say to him, to teach him through the Apostle. It was a word he longed to experience.
Now Peter, over in Joppa, is about to have his own vision as God brings this odd couple together. He was hungry. His stomach was growling. He was ready for dinner but dinner wasn’t ready for him. He thought he would just stretch out for a bit, take a little nap before the meal was put on the table. His physical hunger invites the dream, and what a dream it is! Rutabagas, liver, pickled herring, limburger cheese – all those things he was loathe to eat – appeared before him. Definitely appetite killers. Yuck! If this is the menu, I’m starting my diet today!
OK, I’m being a little flippant. What appeared before Peter was not just stuff that he would find personally disgusting, it was all stuff by ancient law and sacred tradition forbidden for him to consume at all. It wasn’t just yucky. It was a little frightening. It was so shocking, it took three appearances before he realized the invitation to “kill and eat” was a serious one, not just hunger pangs or indigestion.
“Lord Almighty, no! I’ve never let anything unclean or profane pass my lips. My religious identity, my sense of self-respect, is wrapped up in keeping the law. How can you ask me to do such thing?” Is this some sort of test? Well, yes and no. Is God hoping Peter will say “no” and earn God’s favor? No, I don’t think God works like that. God’s not likely to trick us into doing the right thing. But God is asking Peter to take a risk, to step outside his comfort zone, far outside his comfort zone. Does he trust God enough to take a risk? Cornelius has. Will Peter reach out to meet him somewhere along the way?
I may be wrong, but I think it takes a measure of self-love to take such a risk. You see, this kind of self love is not self-absorption, not self-aggrandizing, not selfishness. It is a self-love, a self-respect, that leads to a certain righteousness, to right living, to right relationship with God, with self and with your neighbor. Brian McLaren writes about love for self. “God wants you to love you the way God loves you, so you can join God in the one self-giving love that upholds you and all creation. If you trust yourself to that love, you will become the best self you can be, thriving in aliveness, full of deep joy, part of the beautiful whole. That’s the kind of self-care and love that is good, right, wise, and necessary” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 224).
You hear that? “God wants you to love you the way God loves you…” There’s a challenge for us. Love the way God does – with infinite patience and amazing grace. “Don’t call profane what I have made clean.” Take a risk. Get outside your comfort zone. Join “in the one self-giving love that upholds you and all creation.”
So how does the story end? In Peter’s case, the messengers show up with Cornelius’s invitation, Peter decides to take the risk in the service of God’s call, he travels to Caesarea, the gospel is proclaimed and Cornelius and his household find salvation. How will we respond to such a challenging vision and risky call? Will we find the sort of love for ourselves that allows us to love others? Again Brian McLaren reminds us, “Where the Spirit is moving, love for God always, always, always overflows in love for neighbor. And according to Jesus our neighbor isn’t just the person who is like us, the person who likes us, or the person we like. Our neighbor is anyone and everyone – like us or different from us, friend or stranger – even enemy” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 216).
So it seems to me that Dylan Roof could not see, could not understand, could not embrace, his neighbor in love. But before we pass final judgment on him, we might ask ourselves where we, too, fail to see, to understand, to embrace in love, our neighbor. “Don’t call profane anything I have made clean.” We would never do that, would we? Love as God loves – yourself and your neighbor. Jesus said that everything depends on this, along with our love for God. In fact, are they not they not two sides of one coin? Is this not a bringing into focus any double vision about love in its essence? Out of a growing understanding, respect, love for themselves as children of God, Peter and Cornelius come together in Beloved Community. Will we commit ourselves to such gracious activity across all the lines that divide us and threaten to do us in, whether see them as sacred or secular?
Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. and DePayne Doctor bowed their heads as Pastor Pinckney led them, along with other members of “Mother Emmanuel” AME Church in prayer. Tragically they were not able to finish their prayers last Wednesday, so I’m thinking this morning we might lift some words from Martin Luther King, Jr. on their behalf:
“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
“I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
And if they take your life, then let the wounded body of Christ take up your prayer and sing your song. “Our lives,” yours and mine, “begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And black lives matter. The lives of Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., DePayne Doctor and Pastor Clementa Pinckney matter. We cannot live with double vision here. We need to focus clearly on what matters. No more gun violence. No more racism. No more self-loathing. No more hatred of our neighbors.
I imagine as the service comes to an end, with heads still bowed and eyes closed someone began to softly hum that gently powerful refrain: “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart. Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart. Lord, I want to be more loving in my heart.” As an act of solidarity and hope, would you sing that last verse with me right now – “Lord, I want to be more loving…” Amen.