Beyond Us and Them – 5,06,07

Well, it’s been a long day.  I’ve gotten in the habit of getting up early on Sunday mornings and spending some time in solitude and quiet prayer, and stillness in preparation for the service.  But with the Flying Pig run this morning I spent a couple hours next to thousands of other sweaty people, surrounded by cheering and clapping, and instead of all that stillness, plenty of constant movement.  I think next week I’ll go back to my normal routine of solitude, quietness, and stillness for preparation, but for today my prayers for the service involved a lot of sweat and grunting and muscle depletion.  Maybe you’ve heard this line before, “there are two kinds of people in this world…”  I’ve heard this line go a number of different ways.  A couple examples: “There are two kinds of people in this world: the givers and the takers.”  Or “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who do the work and those who take the credit.”  A quick Google search of the phrase revealed some other interesting variations.  “There are two kinds of people in the world: complexifiers and simplifiers.”  “There are two kinds of people in this world: Beatles fans and Elvis fans.”  One of my favorites was: “There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can count and those who can’t.”  There was another that seemed to be one of the most quoted: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.”  Believing that there are two kinds of people in the world has been especially prevalent in our country these last number of years.  Being attacked has a way shifting people into this way of seeing the world, almost as if it is some kind of automatic reflex encoded into our DNA.  The world becomes very black and white.  There is us and there is them.  Evil lies within ‘them’ and must be destroyed.  You’re either with us or you’re against us.  As much as we disagree with this philosophy, we peace-loving people are hardly exempt from us/them thinking.  We can just as easily fall into thinking “There are two kinds of people in this world, those who want peace and those who want war.”  It’s still us and them, the lines are just drawn differently.There is a remarkable line in the reading for today that comes out of the mouth of Peter.  Peter had been used to drawing the us/them line between Jew and Gentile, but was a witness to a work of the Spirit that made this line collapse.  He essentially has a conversion experience where the Spirit enabled him to move beyond the us/them mindset into a new place where it was just “us.”  From what was read earlier, Acts 11, verse 12 Peter tells this to his fellow believers of Jerusalem, reading from the NRSV: “The Spirit told me not to make a distinction between them and us.”  What was it that happened to Peter for him to make a statement like this?  What kind of world is it where we no longer make that distinction between them and us? As every teacher knows, repetition aids learning.  Many times we have to hear the same thing said six or seven different ways before it actually starts to sink in.  Being the teacher that he is, Luke, the author of Acts, is well aware of this.  We have already looked at Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.  Saul who drew the lines so sharply between the insiders and the outsiders only to discover that he had placed God on the outside.  Blind Saul becoming Paul who begins to see the world in a whole new way, that God is present in the outcast and the ones he had considered “them”.  That how you treat the outsider is how you are treating God.  This story actually gets repeated two more times in the book of Acts, in different contexts, as Paul tells different people about this experience.  For the reader who has already heard the story it is a notice to pay attention and recognize the importance of this event.  In case we hadn’t experienced the conversion with Saul the first time, Luke gives us two more chances for the scales to fall from our own eyes.       This reading from Acts chapter 11 is actually somewhat of a flashback, with Peter recalling an event that had already happened.  This is the second time in two chapters Luke is letting us hear this same story.  So it is probably fair to say that he would like us to pay attention.  The story is that one day around noon Peter was hungry and instead of sitting down to a nice proper meal, he has a vision, which involved a whole bunch of animals that the law of God declared unclean to eat.  They were off limits and considered profane.  Sticking with the idea that repetition aids learning, Peter is given this vision not once, not twice, but three different times.  Each time he hears a voice saying “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”  He refuses each time.  There are boundaries he simply can’t cross in keeping true to God.  But each time he refuses to eat, the voice says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  This happens three times, and then it’s over.  The animals are gone and Peter hasn’t eaten anything.  At this point Peter is rather confused.  The NRSV says he was “greatly puzzled.”  Was this God telling him to violate what he thought was God’s law?  Maybe this was a vision from the devil, a temptation.   Whatever it was, it was commanding him to violate a core principle of his faith based on scripture: there are animals for eating and there are animals which must not be eaten, period.  While he’s confused, and still hungry, three men come to him and invite him to come with them into the house of Cornelius who is a God fearing man and wants to hear Peter’s message and who, by the way, is a Roman centurion, a Gentile.  Sometime during their walk to Cornelius’ house it begins to dawn on Peter that this vision wasn’t so much about animals as it was about people, unclean people, or at least people he had thought were unclean.  When Peter arrives he makes this statement, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Chapter 10 v. 28.     Theologian James Alison suggests that there is a particular moment in this story that we should freeze frame.  A certain moment where there is a depth of experience that relates directly with our own experience in breaking down barriers in our minds and relationships.   Peter’s statement here feels like the point of a breakthrough, like the us and them between Jew and Gentile is being broken down.  But this moment Alison would like to freeze hasn’t happened yet.  Peter begins speaking rather eloquently about the inclusive nature of God.  In verse 10:34-35 he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  He goes on to tell about the life of Jesus and his death and resurrection.  But before he can finish speaking, something very unexpected happens.  V. 44 phrases it that “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”  This is what Alison says: “The frame I would like to ask you to freeze is the frame where the Holy Spirit is falling on the gentile listeners, and Peter is looking stunned, trying to work out what on earth this means.  There is much, much more going on here than meets the eye.  What looks, in cinematic terms, like a straightforward scene from a Pentecostal or charismatic rally, is in fact a cultural earthquake of immeasurably greater proportions.”  Alison suggests that this still frame of Peter watching, with a dropped jaw, the Spirit of God at work outside the previous boundary of pure and impure people is a key for us coming to allow God to break through our us/them mentality.  If we are willing to watch for God’s Spirit at work we may begin to feel the tremors of this earthquake.     In the summer of 2004, after my first year of seminary, I had the chance to go to Barcelona Spain and attend the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.  Being a theology student, a major part of my interest was in learning about the ways these different philosophies would find common ground and how people would deal with the differences.  I attended some fascinating seminars: “Middle East stories: The significance of the Holy Land in our Sacred Texts,”  “A Buddhist-Christian dialogue on responses to environmental violence,” “Interreligious dialogue and non-negotiable dogmas.”    There were many opportunities to talk with others about their faith and my own.  But one of the highlights of the week for me had very little to do with dialogue or abstract theology.  Every day of the Parliament for lunch those from the Sikh religion prepared, cooked, served and cleaned up after a free lunch for everyone who wanted to eat with them.  They had set up a huge tent for their kitchen and dining area.  Being a poor seminary student, I went every day.  So did many others.  The food was great.  Each time I went it sunk in a little bit more just what this was all about.  Rather than going off on our own to different restaurants in the city, the Sikhs were providing hospitality and food for many people to eat together metaphorically and actually “under one tent.”  This would be a time that I would say that I experienced this freeze frame of Peter observing the Spirit at work in the “other” people, the hospitality of the Sikhs.  Although I never stood there with my jaw wide open in amazement, it was essentially a similar experience to Peter.  It was clear that the Spirit of God was being poured out through these Sikhs in a way that was breaking down barriers between us and them.  Going back a few years before this, while I was still in college I got a letter in the mail from my brother, Luke.  It said, essentially, “Joel, I think I’m gay, and I’m not sure what to do.”  I wasn’t quite sure what to do either.  I had recently been thinking about wanting to get to know my brother better, like we hadn’t really connected below a surface level in our young adult lives.  So here was an invitation to go deeper.  But I didn’t know at all what I thought about gay people and whether or not they were really gay or just confused heterosexuals.  Over the course of the next few years there were chances to talk one on one with Luke, chances to talk as a family, chances to read and think and pray and observe.  And what I observed I would again characterize within this freeze frame of Peter watching the Spirit descending on the Gentiles.  Over the course of these years, within the life of my brother, I watched as he came to embrace his identity as a gay man and began to experience healing within himself.  He has come to have a fullness of personality that I can only see as a gift from God.  He has made a covenanted commitment to his life partner, Christian.  I continue to observe the Spirit actively working in Luke.  Not the charismatic showing of the Spirit that Peter observed, but the kind of the signs of the Spirit that Paul would call the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Galations 5:22-23.  This has been for me again an experience of God’s Spirit breaking down a barrier between us and them and overcoming previous notions of what is clean and what is profane.   I recognize this is a controversial issue within the church.  Probably the hot button issue of this decade.  And people of genuine faith have strong convictions that differ from one another.  But this is the way I have come to see my interactions with the gay community and see God present there.   James Alison also says this: “In the frozen frame we see the dawning realization that God likes the ‘impure’ people, that God wants them to be on the inside of God’s story just as they are.  God is not confronting them to get them to repent, or even inviting them to become something else.  God is possessing them with delight, and they are delighting in being possessed.”Peter saw God loving Gentiles as Gentiles, and when he shared this with the other disciples in Jerusalem, they agreed that the Gentiles need not become Jews to be on the inside of God’s story.  In our pluralistic culture it can be difficult and confusing to know whose on the inside and whose on the outside of God’s story.  Even though we’re usually in the business of drawing lines between us and them, God doesn’t seem to be so concerned about this.  God is much more interested in moving in the midst of what we consider to be profane to making it clean.  The Spirit is active outside of boundaries we draw to contain it.  Active in people of other faiths, active in people of other nationalities, of other political and theological persuasions, even within fundamentalists.  Active within gay, straight, bi, trans, everyone confused about their identity, everyone assured of their identity.  The Spirit is active to make us, “us.”  A human family where Gentiles are loved and saved as Gentiles.  Because the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, grows on all sorts of trees.  Trees we thought God didn’t want to include in the orchard.  Strange trees that look and act different than us, but are bearing the same recognizable, visible Spirit fruit.

Fortunately God gives us time to allow for this reorientation.  God knows that repetition aids learning.  This isn’t something any of us learn all at once.  But we do keep observing, keep listening, to places where we believe God’s Spirit is moving, and slowly we allow ourselves to be changed by these experiences.  We live within this freeze frame of Peter: watching, astounded, as the Spirit of God moves us all beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’ toward becoming simply, “us.”