Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sermon from April 24, 2016 The Beauty of Diversity

The Beauty of Diversity
Acts 11:1-18
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church

A professor of child psychology lived next door to a family with several children. He had no kids of his own, but enjoyed a warm relationship with his neighbors and their children, though at times he couldn’t stop himself from offering advice and comments about their parenting. In particular, he felt that the parents were sometimes overly strict, and he would admonish them that what their children most needed was unconditional love.
    One day the professor had a new sidewalk poured, and before the concrete dried the neighbor kids came over and made a mess of it with their footprints. The professor was furious and began yelling at the children. Hearing the noise, the parents came out, saying, “Wait a minute professor! You’re always lecturing us about unconditional love! To which he replied, “I love them unconditionally in the abstract, but not in the concrete!”

Today’s scripture is about Peter who is someone who gets in trouble for applying his faith to the concrete situations of life.
So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,
11:3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?"
In todays’ scripture Peter is called to account from his behavior in baptizing and eating with Cornelius and his household. Peter has been on trial before but now it is his friends who are judging him. They may of supported his teaching and preaching about following Jesus, who welcomes all, but they did not like the concrete application of this message, of taking Baptism to the gentiles.

In his defense Peter explains his reasons for doing so, by explaining the vision he has in a dream. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8 But I replied, "By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. Peter has what must have been a nightmare of a middle age Jewish man of the first century in killing and eating animals that Leviticus taught were unclean.
However, God helps him see the beauty of diversity, nothing in the world is unclean because God has created it all.
We too can witness the beauty of God’s creation, in the diversity around us, the multitude of wonders we see each and every day. On Friday, as I when I went to visit Ron, I saw the purple of the Jacaranda trees that line the streets. I have been enjoying the variety of roses that have been in bloom, and how each is a wonder.  Just a little while ago I went to Descanso Gardens and enjoyed the beauty of the God.
God has made a diverse world, and each piece of creation each flower, each tree, each animal; each human is unique and yet so beautiful.
So, we should learn from this diversity Peter learns in his vision, we need to see that all of God’s creation is beautiful, is worthy of delight and wonder. As one popular bumper sticker says: God does not make junk.

Peter wakes up: At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
So Peter goes into a gentile’s home, even worse, that of a Roman soldier, and when he tells the collected gathering about Christ the Holy Spirit falls upon them. So he feels compelled to baptize them all as God has clearly set this up. The Spirit tells him not to make a distinction between them and us.

It is God working through Peter, and fortunately all who hear the explanation recognize, this and drop their judgment.

Today, as we live in this time and place, we still live with the reality we are living in a racially divided Western World. We hear peppered in our conversations the “us and them” language. We are divided into rich and poor, republican and democrat, white and black, Methodists and Baptists, etc.
Yesterday at the La Crescenta Prayer breakfast, one of the things that Congressman Adam Shift reflected about the speaker for the morning was that when they worked together on a case, they were on opposite sides of the argument, one prosecuting one defending. But at the end of the day, the two could put their work aside and take a moment to have dinner, to find common ground and have a relationship outside of the courtroom. The congressman then paused and said, I miss those days, it seems like today it is hard for him to find colleagues who are willing to cross the aisle and come together in respect to share a meal.
 In the  “Working Preacher” commentary Professor Mitzi Smith (Found at see below) suggests that behind this division is fear off the other, and in minds of the friends of Peter this fear is fueled by a sense of superiority. There is the fear that this status might be lost if the other is allowed to get too close, and this should not be strange to us as our own history of prejudice condemns us. She says:
An “us and them” mentality should haunt our human sensibilities if we would experience and benefit from our common humanity. We need to allow our biases and stereotypes to be checked. It is imperative that we engage with others different from ourselves, in more than superficial ways. And most of the time it will not happen when “us” keeps our distance from “them.” This construction of others who are different from us as “unclean” based on those differences signifies a belief in our superiority. If we get too close, live too close, interact too much, we risk contamination and becoming unclean too. Sometimes our self-definition is constructed upon differentiating ourselves from others, instead of upon who we are in God.

(Mitzi J. Smith
Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity
Ashland Theological Seminary
Detroit, Michigan)

It is difficult to overcome the biases and prejudices we have inherited and made our own. Some are so hidden we ourselves are not even aware of how much the fear and judgment rules our behavior.  The first step then is for us to examine our attitudes and our judgments and make sure that we can say they are the way God wants us to behave. Clearly Peter’s vision that nothing that God makes is unclean is an important vision for us today.

But the only way we begin to put an end to making distinctions between “them” and “us” is to learn to recognize and admit our biases and their impact on human relationships. Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other biased behaviors and thinking are not godly; they are motivated by fear of the other and not by love of humanity. “God shows no favoritism” for one human being other another.
(Ibid Mitzi Smith)

Unfortunately history is a sad testimony to how religion has been used to foster misunderstanding and violence between believers.  Even though we hear all those who hear Peter’s explanation understand, we know the early church faced opposition again and again, leaders were rounded up and martyred, communities persecuted, and yet, even then the Jesus movement grew and the Spirit would not be defeated.

But that does not mean we give up and just give in to the fear. To believe in the beauty of diversity, to believe in the power of resurrection means we will strive to transform the world, to a place where fears are healed, prejudices are cast away, and we see each other in this world as God’s creation, each one of us as flawed and sin filled that we are sometimes.

Yesterday was a good morning as the leaders of the La Crescent Community came together to pray, there were many churches represented, many from our local government, and yes those running for office. But it was not a day for politics; it was a day to pray for our youth, our community, our world and how we can come together to make a difference.
As a people of the resurrection we continue to have faith in the God who has made us all, to bring into our souls the renewing presence of the Holy Spirit, which will lead us, help us, to let go of our fears, and learn to celebrate the diversity in our world. And as we celebrate the unique and wonderful talents, gifts, intellect, beliefs of this world, we will see that we dependent upon one another to cooperate to meet the needs of this changing world, to transform lives so all of God’s people, all of God’s creation will be healed and made whole.