Easter 5 2007 | Acts 11:1-18
Whenever I hear about how far America has come with regard to civil
rights, I think of my own grandmother. This is a woman raised in
poverty in Oklahoma, who fled the dustbowl during the depression to
find a better life in California. Her husband, my grandfather, would
rather send his children and grandchildren into debt than to admit that
he had any “Injun” blood—which he did, Cherokee, and
rather a lot of it. I remember my grandmother saying that she believed
that “colored folks who were Christians were brothers and sisters
in the Lord,” but quickly added that it was only proper for them
to worship in their own churches, not in hers.
My parents scandalized my grandparents by adopting a full-blooded
Native American infant, whom they named Tiffany. This is just the
beginning of the scandal, however. Tiffany later scandalized our
grandparents herself when she married my brother-in-law, Edward Scott,
an Oakland native, former fullback for the Miami Dolphins, and black as
Ed and I were born on the same day, oddly enough. Not just the same
date, but the same year, the actual SAME DAY. So we have long enjoyed
joint birthday parties whenever I am visiting my parents over
Christmas, events which always involve way too much sports on the big
screen for my taste, but I am not complaining. Much.
I remember my grandmother saying repeatedly that people in mixed-race
marriages should not have children, because it would not be fair to the
children, who would be mongrels and would not know who they were. This,
fortunately, did not dissuade Tiff and Ed, who have so far produced
four strapping boys, the oldest of which is now in college.
My grandmother, bless her, did not take any of this lying down. Once,
when Tiff, Ed, and the boys were visiting grandma in her LA home, she
told Tiffany that she and Ed would have to sleep in separate rooms,
because, and I quote, “my granddaughter is not sleeping with a
black man under my roof.” On another occasion, my mother came
downstairs one day to find that my grandmother had lifted Joey, the
oldest of Tiffany’s boys, up onto the kitchen counter, with his
hair in the sink. She was digging at his wet hair with a brush, trying
to straighten the kinks out of it.
The family made excuses for her and tolerated all of this with a roll
of the eyes and a guarded exasperation. And then something tragic
happened. My grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. He wasted away
far more quickly than any of us anticipated, and when he was in his
final weeks, Tiff and Ed took off work and went to LA to help.
It was Ed, of course, with his athletic build, that was called upon to
lift my grandfather in and out of bed every few hours to use the rest
room or to be bathed, and later, cleaned. And Ed did this without
complaint. In fact, he rarely left my grandfather’s side. And
because of this, he underwent a bit of a transformation in my
grandmother’s eyes. He stopped being “that black man my
granddaughter married,” and he became, simply, Ed. A real person,
with feelings, needs, and something to offer the family.
My grandmother, admittedly, has gone a little overboard, for now Ed can
do no wrong, and Ed is indeed as fallible as the rest of us. But no
matter. He is, at long last, a human being in her eyes.
It is strange, and sad, that it often takes such miracles to get us to
see other people as actual people, worthy of our attention, respect,
and love. In our reading from Acts today, the Christians at Jerusalem
were just as racist in their own way as my grandmother ever was, only
for them their prejudice was against anyone who was not Jewish. They
confronted Peter, and said, “How dare you! You entered the houses
of people who were not Jewish, and you even ate with them! What were
And Peter understands this. He knows the laws against eating with
Gentiles, and he has always respected and kept them. But he tells them
of a vision, wherein he was shown a great sheet lowered from heaven,
filled with animals that the Jewish people had been forbidden to eat by
the Law of Moses. A voice from heaven commanded him to eat them, and
he, being a good, observant Jew, refused. Then the vision was repeated,
not once but twice.
Soon after, Peter was summoned by some men—not Jewish men, but
Gentiles, who begged him to come with them, to be their guest, to teach
them, and to baptize them. Before the vision, Peter would have refused
out of hand, but Peter was not as thick as he is usually given credit
for being. He got it, he went with the men, received their hospitality,
and taught them. For if God had called them to follow Jesus, who was he
to say otherwise?
No one knows if this story is history or mythology created by
Paul’s community, who were, of course, mostly Gentiles. But it
doesn’t matter. It is a TRUE story, whether it relates history or
not. Who is Peter to call common what God has called clean? Who are any
of us to say who is not acceptable, when Jesus has welcomed everyone,
everyone, everyone to his table?
The mainline churches today are being ripped apart by this very
question of who is acceptable and who is not. I remember Richard
telling me of a National Association Conference dinner he was at where
a woman leaned over and whispered, “What is your church doing
about the GAY PROBLEM?” I don’t remember his reply to her,
but I do remember his delight at the absurdity of the question.
What it comes down to, whether you want to call IT racism or
heterosexism or goyaphobia—or, more broadly, xenophobia—is
this: the inability to extend empathy. This is the evil that permitted
otherwise fine, upstanding Christian men to sell their fellow human
beings into slavery. This is the evil that drove the genocide of the
Tutsis. This is the evil that permits us to go to bed bloated and full
after a night of snacking in front of the TV while
thousands—THOUSANDS—of people starve to death every day,
many of them in our own country. It’s not that there isn’t
enough to go around. It’s that we don’t care enough to make
it happen. It is an evil evident even in modern day Joppa—where
Peter’s vision according to the text, actually took place, and
which Flavio and I visited last year—where the poverty and
squalor of the Palestinian neighborhoods stand in sharp contrast to the
high-rise wealth of their Jewish neighbors.
These are all, to use the psychological term, “empathic
failures,” and they are no less common today than they have ever
been, despite how “enlightened” we like to imagine
ourselves to be. Perhaps it is human nature to be tribal, to see those
who are different from us as “the other,” as somehow less
than human, or less human, or a lesser form of humanity than we
Even in this pocket of liberalism we speak the “us” and
“them” language that contrasts the “Red State”
mentality from those of us privileged to live in more Blue
environments. I personally have great difficulty seeing fundamentalist
Christians as being just as loving, sincere, and pleasing to God as I
myself endeavor to be. They are all of these things, of course, but in
my objectification of them, my own love is diminished.
It sounds very simple to extend empathy to others. Mencius, in our
reading from the Confucian tradition this morning, says it elegantly:
“All you have to do is take this very heart here, and apply it to
what is over there.” Sounds so, so simple. But it isn’t.
Resentment, anger, fear, and ignorance all oppose us in our efforts. It
is, in fact, the hardest thing in the world to do.
It’s easy to laugh at the overt racism of my grandmother, but if
I am honest, I must admit that my world is full of “others”
that I deem somehow less than myself. Prejudice and objectification may
have no place in my ideology, but it nevertheless takes up an awful lot
of space in my living room.
Part of what it means to me to follow Jesus is to take seriously his
commandment, that we love one another just as he loved everyone he met:
without regard for race, or politics, or criminality, or sexuality, or
any arbitrary standards of worthiness or unworthiness. This, he says,
is how they will know we are his followers. By the record of history,
we have made a miserable job of it. But failure in the past does not
justify complacency in the present. The commandment is still in effect:
“love one another.” Not just the insiders, not just
community members, not just those of your color, or social strata, or
nationality, or political stripe. Not just “good people,”
whoever they are, not just believers, nor just unbelievers, for that
matter. Not just those you love, or even those you like. Not those who
are pleasant to look at, or who don’t offend your olfactory
sensibilities, or those who think like you, or those who do not think
What Jesus showed us was something humankind had never seen before:
that God loves everyone, everyone, everyone—without condition or
reservation. And that God expects us to love everyone, everyone,
everyone, in exactly the same way. It may be the hardest thing that
will ever be asked of us. And yet, it is so simple to do. “All
you have to do is take this very heart here, and apply it to what is
over there.” Let us pray…
God of love beyond reason or measure,
You have laid a hard thing before us,
To actually live up to our own ideals,
To actually live out what we say we believe,
To take our words and make them flesh
In ways that are liberating and real
for the people we meet every day.
We can’t do it alone,
because so much of our prejudice and pain is hidden from us.
Grant us visions, O God, and reveal to us on that sheet of yours
Everything we hold to be unclean,
so that we may confront our own revulsion,
so that we may reach out to every person that sheet contains,
and love them with the love that you possess,
that you give without reservation,
that you require from those who choose to follow in your Way.
For we ask this in the name of the one who commanded us to love,
even Jesus Christ. Amen.