Tuesday, 06 January 2009 19:40

January 4, 2009 Sermon

“Imagine Peace with Justice”
Acts 10:34-48
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 4, 2009
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Have you noticed that the days are getting longer?  It feels good.  I just got back from cloudy Cleveland, Ohio.  I’ll take 20 degrees colder and sunny over perpetual gray skies any day.  I welcome the increasing light.  At the New year, we have the opportunity to invite the light of the world into our hearts.  We look forward to a new year.  We make resolutions.  We get out thank you notes for gifts we have received.  We anticipate a change in leadership in Washington and a shift of priorities in the world.  We look forward to a new start.  Why not start the new year by imagining peace with justice?
You see, we need to make the shift from imagining peace as we did during the Advent season anticipating the arrival of the prince of peace.  That’s the easy work.  Imagining peace.  We imagine the opportunity that is there in the infant Jesus.  But then the hard work begins.  Justice is what makes peace last beyond the cradle.  Justice is peace all grown up.
And we see how difficult it is.  We see the Hamas rockets going into Israel and the killing of 100 times as many people in retaliation by the Israeli military.   Peace cannot happen until the fighting stops, but it is more than that.  Peace also means the presence of justice.  This means that the Palestinians need to have a homeland that is large enough to sustain them, instead of the current Bantustan-like conditions in which they presently live.  The presence of justice is the thing that will do the most to stop the terrorist attacks.

It’s epiphany, the day of light and enlightenment.  Today’s scripture is an enlightenment story and it is at the heart of the Gospel.  Imagine if you will, this radical statement, which is at the heart of the quest for peace and justice: "God shows no partiality."  As we encounter this radical statement, may we see the light at the end of the perpetual tunnel of fear, terror and warfare. 

God shows no partiality.  That means that regardless of what popular culture would have us believe, God does not prefer one class, one race, one nationality, one gender, one sexual orientation, one party, one team, or even one church over another.  God is above all of that.  The question is, are we above that, too?

Do we show partiality to one group over another?  Are we willing to only set ourselves up with the best people?  Are we willing to have the mind of God when it comes to things or people we do not understand?  Are we quick to judge someone simply because they are different?  We remember Jesus' words: "judge not, lest you yourself be judged."  "Judgment is mine", says God in the scriptures.   Remember, God shows no partiality.

Yet throughout the history of Christianity, as well as Judaism is the belief that God does show partiality.  According to the Bible, God did for instance pick out the people of Hebrew descent as the chosen people.  The Bible does have a bias toward men.  The Bible does have a bias toward misogyny.  The Bible does have a bias toward xenophobia.  The Bible has a bias even toward slavery.  Yet none of that is the basis for our faith.  The scripture today says that God shows no partiality.  The scripture is talking about nationalistic partiality.  It is also emphasizing that God is partial to justice—more on that in a moment.

How do we reconcile restrictive Biblical passages with today's scripture that God shows no partiality?  How do we wade through these murky waters?  These are the questions for the faithful student of the Bible and the sojourner seeking the way of God.

Our Bible is full of restrictions.  These restrictions mirror the fears we have in our lives.  The book of Leviticus is largely a set of restrictions against outsiders, against certain kinds of food, about when men and women could come into contact with one another and so on.  Most scholars agree that Leviticus was written after the Hebrew people's 6th century BCE Babylonian exile when the people needed to distinguish themselves from other nations and other religions.  It was a shaky time for the Hebrew people.

Tom Robbins, in his book Skinny Legs and All said:  "The level of structure that people seek always is in direct ratio to the amount of chaos they have inside."

The Temple had been destroyed and the people of Israel were forced to flee heir own land by order of king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.  For 50 years they lived amongst another culture, another race and another religion.  They wept and wailed, "How can we sing the sacred songs in a strange land."  They ran the risk of losing their individuality and their heritage.
Some of the most restrictive writing of the Hebrew Bible is traced to this period.  Leviticus with all of its duality is a daughter of the need for national unity.  Naturally, that national unity became synonymous with contempt for other races and religions.

The recent election gives us pause and hope that we might finally move beyond the easy judgmental restrictiveness based upon race, but when a crisis exists, all of that fear seething just below the surface can rear its ugly head.  We need a word from God amidst all of this.
Thank God for the revelation to Peter.  By his statement, "I perceive that God shows no partiality" (a statement that he would repeat in I Peter 1:17, as would Paul in Romans 2:11 and James in James 2:1) by this statement, through God's revelation to Peter, the restrictiveness of Leviticus was virtually eliminated.  Think about that the next time someone lobs a Leviticus bomb in your general direction.  And the passage of scripture which we have today, brings the light of the word for the first time to the Gentiles.

The 10th chapter of Acts opens with a Centurion named Cornelius having a vision from God.  Now, this vision did not just happen to someone who could be counted off as crazy.  A Centurion in the Italian Cohort, which is where Cornelius served, had a bout 100 men under his military command.  But Cornelius was not the typical Roman soldier.  Acts 10:2 says that Cornelius feared God as did his whole household, he gave alms liberally to the poor, and prayed constantly to God.  When you fear God, pray constantly and give alms, chances are that you will be more attentive to God, and you may hear God's voice more clearly.

Well, God did speak to Cornelius, but not late at night in a dream.  No, God chose to send an angel to speak to Cornelius at the ninth hour of the day.  That's 3:00 in the afternoon in plain daylight, probably while Cornelius was at work.  The angel said to him, "Cornelius...your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial to God.  Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter."  So Cornelius sent about three men to Joppa in order to find Peter.  That's a 30-mile trek.

Meanwhile back in Joppa, God was at work with Peter.  There he was up on the roof praying in the noonday sun.  But while he was praying he started to get hungry.  He probably smelled the food cooking in the streets of Joppa below him.

Peter tried to go back to his praying and get the food out of his mind, but God would have none of that.  In a vision, Peter saw the heavens open up and something descending, which looked like a great white sheet--a big tablecloth.  And on that sheet were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  And there came a voice to him that said, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat."  But Peter, whose mouth was watering by now, knew his Leviticus and knew his kosher upbringing said, "No, Lord, I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean."  Peter was safe within his little box where all of the rules were clear.  But God was sick of those restrictive boxes and was about to break them open.  The voice from above said, "What God as cleansed, you must not call common."  And Peter being Peter, had to have this vision three times it says in the 16th verse.  Peter had a thing about the number 3.  He fell asleep of Jesus three times.  He denied Jesus three times.  The risen Jesus had to ask Peter three times if he loved him.  God was going to make sure that Peter got the point.

Enter upon the scene, the men sent by Cornelius.  The Spirit said to Peter to accompany them without question or without delay.  So in silence, they all set out to Caesarea, again, another 30 miles in the desert.  Are you beginning to catch on to the humor in this story?  We who think we are so smart with out nice neat ways of looking at the world are bound to get confounded if we stick to them without being ready to be open to the revelation of God.

When Peter arrived in Caesarea, he saw that Cornelius had gathered quite a congregation of kinfolk and close friends knowing that Peter would be visiting.  And not one of them, as far as we know, was a fellow Jew.  Now, we need to remember, that the Jews and especially the Christian Jews were suspect in the eyes of government authorities.  Both Cornelius and Peter were taking quite a risk on behalf of their faith.

How often do you take a risk on behalf of your faith?

When he saw Peter, Cornelius, a Roman soldier who could easily have killed him, fell down at Peter's feet and worshipped him.  Clearly Cornelius had a lot to learn about Christianity.  And Peter was just the one to teach him.  God taught Peter something about Christianity through Cornelius, though.  It was something that would change the face of Christianity, as we know it.  Cornelius showed Peter that God could speak to other races, other cultures, and other lifestyles.  Peter's and the Christian world's mind was expanded because of how God worked through his relationship with Cornelius.

The first thing Peter said to Cornelius was, "Stand up; I too am a man."  Immediately, Peter the apostle saw Cornelius the Centurion, a gentile, as an equal.  As they looked at each other in astonishment and wonder, Peter broke the silence:  Beginning in verse 28 he said, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to even visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."  The two of them then exchanged stories of how the Spirit had brought them together.

Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew, "You have heard it said, "Love your friends and hate your enemies."  But I say to you, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?""

God shows no partiality.  Peter and Cornelius realized once and for all that whatever differences they may have had, they were both created by the same God, had similar hopes and dreams and benefited nothing from their fear and judgment of each other.

I think about today's conflicts and mistrust between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land today.  I think about the splits among Baptists and others.  I think of racial strife and economic fears in our own state and country.  And I think we might need to listen once again to Acts 10.

Then Peter turned to the masses of people that Cornelius had gathered and said eight words that would change the course of Christianity, and open up the gospel to the Gentiles.  Eight words which we still have a little bit of trouble swallowing, if we are completely honest about it. "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality."  “…But in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God."

And then Peter went on to explain that Gospel from Jesus' Baptism to his resurrection.  And the church was never the same again.  Sure there were groups of Christians who did not like what Peter had to say and wanted to keep Christianity for Jews only.  But those people's churches did not last very long.  

The fact that God shows no partiality is our true heritage.  The problem is, that in order to save Christ from the sins of the world, we have moved away from the belief that God shows no partiality and have set up barriers between those who can call themselves Christians and those who cannot.

People actually believe God wants them to kill others because of their different beliefs.  Of course we can think of the Ku Klux Klan or the Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian fundamentalists who use terror as their means.  But hear again what Peter says: "God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God."   The partiality that God does show is that we are to do right.  If we all do right, embracing justice instead of just us, then there is the possibility for real, lasting, grown-up peace.  In this New Year, may we get beyond the myopia of nationalistic or even religious exceptionalism and superiority.  May we embrace the light of the vision of peace with justice.  May we remember that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears (respects) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.  May we embrace the inclusiveness and radical acceptance that is at the center of the Gospel.

Sisters and brothers, the good news is that God accepts you if you fear God and do what is acceptable to God.  No one can take that away from you because it is given to you freely as a divine gift.  The challenge for us is to believe enough in ourselves to know that God shows no partiality, for God wants the best for each and every one of us.

I pray that our leaders may have the trust of Cornelius to seek out the truth, which makes us free even if it is beyond what we presently see as acceptable.  May we be mindful and patient, like Peter, of those who need to reminded of our visions two or three times before we believe and get it right.  And above all, may we remember that we follow one who lived and died that we all, ALL might be free.  For God shows no partiality.  May we imagine, embrace and implement God’s vision of peace with justice in this New Year.  That would be good news indeed.