April 24, 2016
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Anthem: Gloria in Excelsis DeoSenior Choir
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
What rules did you grow up with?
(Pause for answers)
The rules are never simply about what is right and what is wrong. The rules are also about who is in our group, our family, our people, and who is one of “them.”
For years, Charlotte was a sundown town. If your skin was dark, you knew better than to be in town after the sun went down. We may not like this part of our town’s history, but to not acknowledge it is to never learn to live better than it.
If we had grown up in the US as an African American, and especially as an African American male, we would have had “the talk.” The rules would have been explained to us very early by our parents about how to act at a traffic stop, how to talk to the police,
Angela Jackson-Browne, a 46 year old mom in Indianapolis, Indiana wrote:
I have raised a white stepson, who is 26, and my own black son, who is 24. My conversations with them concerning the police are different depending on the circumstances they are entering into.
When they are together, I have taught my white stepson that he will be treated for all practical purposes the same as his black stepbrother. He gets that his white privilege is null and void when he is hanging with the “brothers.” I have also taught my white stepson that when he is alone or with white friends he will be treated with a certain level of privilege that his black stepbrother will never know, and he has seen this happen time and time again. Ironically, he is the one who likes to sag his pants, yet he has never been harassed by the police even in situations where he probably should have been.
My black son—I have always taught him to treat the police the same way he would a Klansman, because in parts of the south where he grew up, they were often the same. He is taught to interact with them as little as possible. Get stopped for a traffic violation: Use your Sunday school manners. Keep your hands where they can be seen, and above all else, do not argue. My daddy passed on that lesson to me, and sadly, if I have grandchildren, it seems they too will have to get this same, dirty lesson.
How many of you know what The Green Book was? It was a motorist guide for people of color to know which towns they could safely travel through, which motels were safe to stay at, and which would not. It was published from the 1930s until the 1960s, as a way to vacation with your family if you were black and not run afoul of the Jim Crow laws and other racist problem.
It was the rules of Jim Crow laws that made it necessary for the Green Book and the Talk.
I never knew about the Green Book until this year. I never got the Talk. My family did not need it. That is the definition of privilege.
Not too many generations ago, it was a clear, if unspoken, rule that a good Congregationalist would not date a Catholic. Now we have families dear to us who have married across those formerly bold lines. And we tend to have a much more deeply ecumenical view of life.
Peter knew the rules. These were the ways he knew he was Jewish. These were the ways his people could tell they were not Egyptians or Canaanites back in the day. This is how his great-great-great-great grandparents knew they were not Babylonians, how his great grandparents knew they were not Greeks and how he knew he was not Roman.
You do not mix cloths in a garment, you do not eat shellfish, you do not cook meat with milk, you do not work on the Sabbath, you do not eat pork. That is what “they” do. That is how you know you are part of the group. And everybody inside the group knows who is in the group. And everybody outside the group, the insiders know they are outside.
Peter knows the rules. He grew up with them. And now others who have grown up with the rules are questioning why he is eating and teaching and visiting with those Gentiles, those outsiders, those ‘not us’ people.
But Jesus changed all that. How many times did he teach, “You have heard that it was said…; but I tell you….” Here are the rules you grew up with. Now it is different.
So Peter lays it out, step by step. He tells them about his time praying, when he was hungry and it was lunchtime, and he had a vision. Three times he has this vision. Remember “three times” is Biblical code for “do you get it?”
And this sheet is lowered, and on it is all kinds of food, including all those things you do not eat. Peter knows the rules. But God is speaking, and so Peter is listening.
And God keeps telling him “kill and eat,” even the unclean animals. Why? Because “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
And then the vision goes away. Three times he is told “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And immediately – so quickly that you might think this is the Gospel of Mark instead of John – Peter is told that a Centurion of the Italian Cohort is asking for him. Not just a Gentile, a non-Jew, but a Roman. Not just a Roman, but a member of the Roman army that is occupying Israel.
The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
And Peter, fresh from a dream about the rules about food, listens to the Spirit telling him, “It isn’t about food; it is about people.”
What God has made clean, you must not call profane.
We all grew up with rules, whether spoken or unspoken, about who is good and who is bad, what kind of people to associate with and what kind to avoid, where we drive and where we do not. We are all walking encyclopedias of distinctions and differentiations and judgments.
But the Gospel is like that magical eraser you can buy that gets permanent marker off of walls. It erases lines. It blurs distinctions. It says, “They are all us; we are all them.”
As Paul discovers: What God has made clean, you must not call profane… The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
As Jesus says,
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Thanks be to God. Amen.