All Means All

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”  This is what Peter says when he realizes God’s grace and love are for EVERYONE.  I am exploring more of the Acts text this week, so I’m including that too.

John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our embracing God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

This gospel piece is the last passage of the longer one we read together on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.  This is the text that is pointed every year for Maundy Thursday, and we explored it in detail just over a month ago.  And so while this “new commandment” Jesus gives is the operative phrase of the day, I want to take a deeper look at the Acts reading.

Acts 11:1-18

11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

Last week at our Synod Assembly we heard a dynamic speaker, Dr. John Nunes, who spoke about how to communicate in divided times.  Like many, he emphasized that relationship is the key, and pointed out that “whoever stops listening to others, soon stops listening to God.”

This is most certainly true.  If I stop listening to other people, I run the risk of convincing myself that I am the only one who’s right, the only one with all the answers.  There’s categories for this kind of behavior in modern psychology.

This is the spot in which Peter finds himself in our reading from Acts today.  He is being called out on drawing lines in the sand, according to his religious tradition, that determine who is welcome in God’s kingdom and who is not.

This is a great lesson, one that holds a lot for us to consider – and a lot of places where we might find ourselves reflected.  I know I sure did.

And Peter’s conclusion is so accurate:  Who was I that I could hinder God?

When Peter utters these words it is a transformative moment for him.  He comes to grips with the understanding that it simply is not possible to put God in a box.

He realizes that the overwhelmingly binary way he has used to move through life to this point will no longer work.  There’s no more either-or.  His field of vision has just been cracked open, and the line he’s always known dividing clean from unclean and sacred from profane has been irreversibly blurred.  He comes face to face with the truth that Jesus’ saving action, God’s amazing grace, is for everyone.  “The Spirit told me,” said Peter, “not to make a distinction between them and us.”  [finger snaps]

Peter goes through this whole vision he’s had – “he explained it to them, step by step” – which makes me think he must have been a good storyteller – and paints a very linear picture of how his thinking is now broad and expansive and inclusive.

In seminary we read a phenomenal book called “On the Mystery” by process theologian Catherine Keller.  She examines this either-or way of thinking as it relates to theology, and proposes a third way, one that is itself “on the way” as Karl Barth insisted all theology is.  Instead of the absolute and the dissolute, she proposes a third way, which she calls the resolute.  It is neither compromise nor midpoint, but an entirely new way of thinking about God.

I read a striking op-ed piece in the New York Times last Wednesday morning, one that read more like a regular article.  It’s called “President Trump, Come to Willmar.”

Willmar, as in Minnesota.  West-central MN, aka Luther Land.

Author Thomas Friedman’s aunt and uncle moved to Willmar in the 40s and opened a steel distributing plant there.  He visited them many times and decided to return to the town to see how it was doing.

I commend this article to you.  I will link it on my blog when I post this sermon later today.  It is a fantastic piece of journalism, one that I’m going to ask your council to read before our next meeting.

Friedman writes:

The cliché about America today is that we’re a country divided between two coasts — two coasts that are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing and modernizing. And in between is “flyover America,” where everyone voted for Donald Trump, is suffering from addictions and is waiting for the 1950s to return.

That’s not what I’ve found. America is actually a checkerboard of towns and cities — some rising from the bottom up and others collapsing from the top down, ravaged by opioids, high unemployment among less-educated white males and a soaring suicide rate. I’ve been trying to understand why some communities rise and others fall — and so many of the answers can be found in Willmar.

The answers to three questions in particular make all the difference: 1) Is your town hungry for workers to fill open jobs? 2) Can your town embrace the new immigrants ready to do those jobs, immigrants who may come not just from Latin America, but also from nonwhite and non-Christian nations of Africa or Asia? And 3) Does your town have a critical mass of “leaders without authority”?

These are business leaders, educators, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs ready to lead their community toward inclusion and problem-solving — even if formal leaders won’t. These leaders without authority check their party politics at the door and focus only on what works. They also network together into what I call “complex adaptive coalitions” to spearhead both economic and societal change.

Willmar has the right answers to all three questions. It has almost zero unemployment. If you can fog up a mirror, you can get a job in Willmar — whether as an agriculture scientist or as a meatpacker for the Jennie-O turkey plant. The math is simple: There just aren’t enough white Lutheran Scandinavians to fill those jobs.

Many of the people coming here for work are people who practice faiths not previously common in these parts, like Islam, Bahai and Buddhism; whose skin is much darker than the locals’; and whose women often wear head coverings that aren’t baseball caps. They also don’t speak with Minnesota accents like those folks in the movie “Fargo.”

Have no doubt, the battle for inclusion is a daily struggle in Willmar and across Minnesota — and in some towns the battle is still being lost. But if you are looking for a reason to be hopeful, it’s the fact that in places like Willmar, a lot of people want to get caught trying.

(Here is a link to the entire article:  Thomas Friedman, NY Times, 5-14-19)

This town has decided to abandon the binary thinking that was limiting its ability to thrive in the 21st century.  It has not come without struggle, and it is by no means perfected, but it IS on the way.

The reality of our world is that many, many things are throwing more of us together with more so-called “other” people, in more places, than ever before.  Things like economic opportunity, globalization, war, climate change.  Perhaps you remember the refugee resettlement after the Vietnam War?  The Lutheran Church was the primary agency assisting in that resettlement.  That’s why Clint Eastwood says in the movie Gran Torino, “Everybody blames the Lutherans.”  [I wear that badge proudly.]

But if you’ve seen that movie, you know what happens.  [Side note, if you haven’t seen it, see it.  It is a great film.]  What happens is that Eastwood’s embittered character is eventually drawn in by the hospitality of the Hmong family next door even after their son violates societal norms and trust.

What is happening in Willmar, MN tells you just how deep this unfolding diversity is going and why every town in America needs to get caught trying to make diversity work — or it will wither, says Friedman. It’s that simple.

Friends, our gospel lesson gives us the most basic and simple of directions here:  love one another as Christ has loved us.

And it’s the second part of that phrase that bears consideration today.  As Christ has loved us.

What does that bring to mind for you?

For me, I think of utterly unconditional acceptance.  Of challenges.  Of encouragement to try something new.  Of an urgent yank backwards so that I am reminded to rest up before heading out again.  And the times of tough love, too.

And I hold all of that with the community organizing template spelled out in this profound article, and I think YES.  YES.  We do not live as Christians by withdrawing into our safe spaces, but rather by stepping out into the world to work with our neighbors near and far to make the world a better place.  As Jesus demonstrated in last week’s gospel, we let our actions tell the world that Christ dwells within us.

We are on the way, dear friends.  And thanks be to God that through all the shifts and changes this world brings, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.  For that is the only constant we need.

Amen.

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