Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “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. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The 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. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If 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?” When 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.”
At the beginning of this past week I was asked to write a position statement about the Boston marathon bombing for InterFaith Works. Specifically, we were worried about any anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of the events of last week. Let me share with you what I wrote:
In times of great threat or tragedy like the one occasioned by the bombings at the Boston Marathon, our minds always seem to want to find a reason that things happened, or better yet, someone to blame. It somehow makes us feel better if we have someone to pin it on. But our spiritual traditions advise us not to look “out there” but rather “in here.” They also suggest that we look in a different way.
When we operate out of fear and then leap to blame, we are probably using the wrong part of ourselves to find the meaning and the answers we seek. The hardwiring of our rational minds will inevitably take us to the impasse of “us versus them.” And that invites us to scapegoat those whom we see as different. But only as we find an inner place of stability and enter the undividedness of the heart can we truly read the signs of the times.
Last week we saw the hand of God in the unselfish actions of those race officials, the law enforcement officers, and the spectators themselves who raced directly and immediately into the fray in order to assist those who had been injured. And we also saw the witness of compassion in the runners who, having already covered the 26 miles of the marathon, ran straight to the hospital in order to give blood for the victims. Those who helped represented the wide and wonderful diversity of our nation. They were people of all faiths and ethnicities.
In the wake of this tragedy let us not sink down into the mire of accusation and blame against our Muslim brothers and sisters or against people of any particular ethnicity. Our strength lies in our openness to diversity, and our willingness to be led by our compassion. This is what makes us one as a nation under God.
But there were other reactions and responses to this tragedy of a very different nature. Fox News contributor Erik Rush tweeted to all who would listen, “Let’s kill them all.” Of course, this happened directly after it was ascertained that these young men were Muslim. Following the faulty generalization that moves directly from the particular to the general, he was suggesting that we wage war on and destroy all Muslims. Indeed, we have heard reports in other parts of the country that there have been retaliatory attacks against American Muslims. Moreover, in light of all that has recently transpired, there has also been some new and quite negative discussion in the Senate about the present immigration bill. Before long there will undoubtedly be cries for our nation to close our doors to all immigrants and refugees who are seeking asylum and a better life in America.
My advice to us all is that we choose our heroes carefully, very carefully. And we must judiciously choose the voices we will listen to. You can keep your television tuned to certain cable news stations and hear the most unbelievable hatred and animosity spewed out 24 hours a day. Certainly that is anyone’s right and privilege. But is that really the well from which we want to draw our water?
Or shall we look to scripture? Take for example the reading we heard this morning from the Acts of the Apostle. It has to do with Paul’s vision and the resulting trajectory of the Christian church. Of course, at that point in time the young church was actually not even a church yet; it was nothing more than a struggling group of rag-tag disciples trying to figure out how to live in the wake of all they had experienced and how to gather a community together. The question was—would they try to gather together just like-minded folks like themselves, people from their own common heritage and worldview, or would they reach out beyond themselves to people who were much different. And then Peter had a vision in the form of a dream. The bottom line of that vision is the understanding that the doors should and would be open not only to Jews like themselves, but also to Gentiles.
Now, you might think that the Jews and the Gentiles would comprise just two of the many peoples of the world. But for Jews in that time these two groups actually included all the people of the world—because there were Jews and there were non-Jews—and non-Jews were called Gentiles. So when Peter received his vision, it completely opened things up to everyone.
Here’s the point. The Gospel is always pushing us outward and stretching us to include and embrace the Other. (This is Other with a capital “O.”) The Other very specifically includes those who are different from us—even those with whom we might not agree. The Gospel imperative is that our doors should always be opened further and further to include those of every size and shape, every stripe and color.
From here I need only take the smallest step to remind us that on this day we are honoring the life work of one of our own parish family members—Nona Stewart. A lifelong champion for social justice for the weakest and most vulnerable of our society, Nona worked tirelessly for many years to settle into our Central New York community refugees from all over the world. She has expended much of her life energy trying to make a better life here in this country for those who were persecuted and tortured in distant places. And when any of her refugees were treated unfairly or attacked in any way here, she was willing to intercede in any way that was necessary.
Nona, it is true, displayed no small amount of tenacity for the families she settled. But more than just this kind of firm resolve, she also manifested love. This was a love for those who were different from her—people with different customs, different languages, different ideologies, and different faith traditions. But instead of dealing with all these differences with judgment, she touched them with respect and offered them dignity. She was able and willing to see through all of the differences to locate the common humanity underneath. Always curious about others who were outside of her frame of reference, she only wanted to understand them better. Consequently, Nona has made friends with people from the farthest corners of our world.
So I say, pick your heroes carefully. Will we listen to those who sit back and spread demonizing propaganda, hatred, and fear? Or will we follow those who were willing to jeopardize their own safety by running to the aid of those who are wounded? Will we listen to those who use tragic events like the one in Boston to spew hatred and division? Or will we allow ourselves to be inspired by people like Nona Stewart—saints who are willing to challenge certitude and to risk complacency by embracing those who are different?
I’ll take Nona.