This is the sermon from Acts 10:38-42 that I preached the day after the passage of GA-1327, Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All on Wednesday, July 17, 2103 in Orlando, Florida.
The Wind Again Blows
Big week. A lot of important stuff has gone down this week. Trayvon Martin? George Zimmerman? Seriously?
Stand-your-ground? As a point of personal privilege, since I have the mic, let me just say that I much prefer the stand-your-ground of John Lewis and his friends on the Edmund Pettis bridge over the kind that took a young African-American man from the arms of his family.
Because Christians believe in stand-your-ground too . . . we just happen to use different weapons.
Or what about yesterday? Kind of a big deal, right?
I, for one, am grateful that we did it—glad for my brothers and sisters who finally find a little hope in a church that has often turned its back, ignoring the discrimination and bullying that has taken the dignity, a host of opportunities, and the lives of so many who happened to be born a particular way.
But the line of our brothers (because that’s mostly what they were yesterday) standing in opposition yesterday showed how strong is the fabric of our unity . . . but also how potentially fragile it can be. We still have work to do.
But that line of opposition highlights the potential risks of doing what you believe to be the right thing—perhaps especially when you do what you think God wants you to do.
It’s hard to do the right thing—hard to do what God wants you to do.
I think about ol’ Peter. There was a time when he couldn’t be trusted even to know what the right thing was. Remember?
“There’s one of his followers. Right there. Yeah, that guy. I saw him with that crook they’re getting ready to string up. What’s his name? Jesus. Right. I saw him with Jesus.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Jesus. Never heard of him. I’m from Schenectady. Just in town for a shower curtain ring convention. You must be thinking of somebody else.”
But then came Pentecost. Remember that? The Holy Spirit descended on the terrified followers of Jesus, and they broke loose from their fear and started living out loud.
Since then Peter’s been tromping all over Judea enthused, ready with a word at every turn. He’s been the center of attention. Big crowds. Lots of conversions. The offerings are beginning to look a bit more respectable. God is moving. Excitement fills everything they do. Peter figures he pretty much has this whole thing figured out.
And then one day, as we find in the beginning of chapter 10, Peter is praying on a roof in Joppa. He gets hungry, and the text says he fell into a trance. “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.”
And a voice says to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” And Peter, always the stubborn one, says, “No, I’m not gonna do it. I’ve never eaten anything profane or unclean—and I’m not starting now.”
The voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times.
Well, of course, we find out that what this vision is speaking about is about to unfold in the approach of some envoys from a Roman centurion named, Cornelius, who wants Peter to come talk to him about God. The problem, of course, is that, on the one hand, Peter is a Jew, and, on the other hand, Cornelius is a Gentile.
As you may know, Jews and Gentiles just didn’t mix. Gentiles weren’t allowed into their country clubs. They didn’t want those Gentiles dating their daughters. And, if you can believe this, they even had separate drinking fountains and everything. No, Peter was brought up in a good home, and he knew not to associate with those people.
Peter, as it turns out, finally understands the vision to mean that God is sending him to the Gentiles. And Peter, foot-dragger, and dawdler that he is, says, “I’d rather spit on my dead mother’s grave than mix with their kind.”
And the voice says, “I made everybody. So there’s only one kind.”
Three times this happens. Peter is bound and determined to stay, and the Holy Spirit is bound and determined for him to go. So that, finally, when Cornelius’s people come, Peter tired of fighting with God, just packs his shaving kit, picks up his overcoat at the door, and goes.
When Peter and his gang finally get to Cornelius’s house, he says, “You know, I’m not really supposed to be here. If my daddy saw me right now talking to a Gentile, in a Gentile’s house … I don’t even want to think about it. But here I am anyway, so what do you want?”
Cornelius says, “God told me to send for you, so I did.”
So Peter tells him about Jesus—how he suffered and died and was raised on the third day. And, lo and behold, our text for today says, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
Let me ask you a question: Had you been able to ask Peter before the trance whether or not he wanted to go talk to some Gentiles about Jesus, what do you think he would’ve said? Do you think he would’ve wanted to go?
Now, let me ask you a more important question: Do you think God cared what Peter wanted? When God called, do you think God fretted over Peter’s inadequacies, about whether or not Peter wanted to go?
So, let me ask you this? Why didn’t God care a bit about what Peter wanted, or about whether Peter was even prepared to talk to a Gentile (because ostensibly, Peter had never really conversed with one before)? Why?
Because this story’s not about Peter; it’s about the Holy Spirit.
According to this story, there’s a whole world of people God is after—people some folks think ought to just stay out. But God’s relentless.
God comes to us and says, “There are some folks who need my love and compassion. I want you to go to them. I want you to love them for me.”
“All my children. You know who I’m talking about, the ones no respectable church wants. The ones who’ve been systematically told they’re not welcome. The ones who don’t have anybody to speak up for them. Don’t talk right. Don’t dress right. Don’t have the right kind of money. Don’t live in the right part of town. Don’t love the right person. Don’t have the right skin color. I want you to go to them.”
“Those people? You’re kidding right? Those people? Really?”
“Don’t you get it? There are no those people. All means all. There are only my people—the ones I created, the ones I brought forth from their mothers’ wombs, the ones I love and cherish, even when nobody else will. I want you to go to them. I want you to stand with them—and if necessary, stand between them and a world that would throw them away in a thousand and one dumpsters set aside for those people.
“Do what I tell you. Do the right thing. I will breathe and let loose my spirit in ways that will stun the world, if you’ll only do what I tell you to do.”
I remember as a kid we used to play baseball in the field behind my house. Neighborhood kids. I played little league, too. Don’t get me wrong. But most of the time I spent playing baseball was in a field—not a baseball field, just a field. We had to trampled down the grass sometimes to find the ball.
The age ranges varied. We played with kids older and younger. One of the guys, was quite a bit older and bigger—like twenty years old. He had a beard. He was a swimmer. In fact, he held some national records. That he established those records in the Special Olympics didn’t mean much to us. We thought Tom Palmer was a great guy—very nice, polite.
He’d been born with a mental handicap that made him years younger than his actual age. So, it was cool with us to have him around. What made it cool was that Mike Royhans, the oldest, coolest kid in our neighborhood said it was cool. We never questioned anything Mike said.
One day, something happened in the game. I don’t even remember what, but big Tom Palmer got really upset. He started charging toward us, the younger kids. We froze. What else do you do when you’re ten and a twenty year-old man comes barreling straight for you?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mike Royhans, then 14 years-old himself, rush up from the side and tackle big Tom before he got to us. He was brave, but at 14 not nearly strong enough to take on a full-grown man. Mike got beat up pretty good—a black eye and a bloody nose. But to us, he was like Superman—taking a beating to save us from one. It was like an episode of The Wonder Years.
I remember that, now almost forty years later, not so much because of Mike’s heroics in tackling a guy much bigger than he, or even because in the process he took the black eye and bloody nose that would surely have been ours . . . but because of what he did afterward.
My younger brother and I went home, still amped up on adrenaline. We were telling my mom about the whole thing, when a knock came on our screen door. My mom went to get it. Standing on our porch was Mike, his eye almost swollen shut, blood on his shirt … with his arm hanging over the shoulder of big Tom—who was sniffling. Even though it was he who delivered the beating, big Tom stood on our front porch in tears.
Astonished. I couldn’t believe it. How do you stand there comforting a guy who, not a half hour before was pummeling your face? It was beyond my comprehension.
I said to Mike, “Are you ok? What are you doing with him?”
And, with wisdom that still strikes me with its profundity after all these years, Mike said, “Listen, I know that must have been scary. But you can’t blame Tom. He didn’t mean it. Sometimes he just gets mad, and doesn’t know any other way to show it. I just didn’t want you guys to think he was a bad person.” And Tom cried.
I’ve often wondered how Mike Royhans is doing. We moved away not too long after that incident. I heard he became a police officer. I’d like to tell him how big an effect he had showing up on my front porch, comforting the very man who’d just thrashed him—I’d like to tell him how often I think about it when I have to figure out the right thing to do in a difficult situation, how often I think about it when there’s a question of speaking up for people everybody else would just as soon discard.
Where does that come from? How do you get to be that kind of person—the kind who does the right thing even though doing so might cost you a black eye and a bloody nose—or worse? And then, to let that black eye and bloody nose accompanying the hand around the shoulders be a put forward as a gesture of reconciliation?
You want to know where I think it comes from? I think it comes from the breath of God washing over us—if we’ll just let it. If we’ll just get up and go.
We’re none of us too brave on our own, none of us too wise. We’re just as prone to screw it up as not. If we’re ever going to do the right thing, it’s going to have to come from a power greater than anything we can muster up on our own.
The Spirit of the Lord moves, and the wind again blows, and just about anything can happen.
By confronting what you believe to be injustice, as well as by helping those who oppose you to find a seat at the table through authentic reconciliation . . . even fourteen year-old kids can change the world. Just ask me. One changed mine.
Who knows? Even the dead might be raised.
We follow Jesus. Death is what we do best, right?