Acts 11: 1-18

Feel the Spirit

Carla Wilks – Mount Seymour United Church

May 19, 2019

A couple of years ago I saw a video called Love has no Labels.  It showed a large black screen set up in a public place, the size of our screen here.  But it was a special x-ray screen.  When people walked behind the screen, all you could see on the front of the screen was their skeleton, just like the image on our screen now.

Couples would be standing behind the screen, embracing or kissing or holding hands and then they’d walk out around to the front where they could be seen, and you’d see a mixed race couple, or a family with two dads, or two people dressed in different traditional religious ceremonial clothing, or two friends, one with Down’s Syndrome.  The words on the screen changed depending on the grouping of people.  It said “Love has no gender,” “Love has no religion,” “love has no disability,” “love has no race.”  The video was a powerful reminder that underneath the different exteriors, we have the same makeup, and also a reminder of the biases or judgments that we sometimes make based on that exterior or based on past beliefs.

Today’s reading actually begins the chapter before, in chapter 10 with the story of Peter and Cornelius and continues on through chapter 11, where we find the part of the story that we heard today.

In the reading, the apostle Peter is torn between the laws and customs that he was taught to follow, and the vision that told him the opposite.  The apostle Peter spends time with people that everyone else avoids.  Peter takes the time to eat and talk with these outsiders who are not accepted because they don’t follow important laws and customs.

Peter is confronted by his peers. “Peter, how could you spend time with… them?!

Peter says, “Well, here’s the thing.  I was in the city praying, and I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven. As I looked at it closely I saw unacceptable food on it – the food we are forbidden by law to eat.  Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Eat!  For what God has made, you must not reject.’  At that very moment three people who were outsiders showed up at the door.  I remembered my vision and knew that those God has made, even the people we’ve learned to reject, must be accepted”.

In his vision, God asked him to accept the foods that he had been taught not to eat, and to accept the people he had been taught to find unacceptable.

God’s vision for humanity was much bigger than the barriers that had been put up by humans in their interpretation of who God was.  Laws about cleanliness, diet, sacrifice and social behaviour were all developed based on hygiene practices and social norms, and people were told to follow these laws in order to live a Godly life.

So here is Peter, saying that he has a vision, telling him just the opposite, that those laws were not necessary, that God was not confined to those laws.  And that the outsiders – in God’s vision, they were not outsiders.

Peter was moved by the Spirit to see this new way of seeing, a new way of being, one that went against all he had learned in the past about how to follow God’s way, which was by following a prescribed set of rules.  Instead this new way was to be led towards greater love and acceptance.

As I was sitting with this scripture early in the week, trying to listen to the message that it was trying to bring to me, what came to mind was the various times throughout the history of the United Church, when the Spirit has guided the church to make a decision that went against the socially accepted ways of the day, often times at the risk of splitting the church and putting the very stability of the institution at risk.  The ones that come to mind particularly are in 1936 when the first woman was ordained in the United Church, and in 1988 when the United Church stated that all people, regardless of sexual orientation are eligible for ordination in the United Church.

There was a particular Spirit led moment that for me was when I was most proud to be part of the United Church, and it was in the late 1990s when I was a student at the Vancouver School of Theology and I attended the BC Conference annual meeting.  At that meeting we heard from Willie Blackwater, a survivor of the Port Alberni residential school.  He spoke of his experience of physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the school, how the way of this church-run school was to tear children from their families and culture and strip their heritage from them.

It was a horrific experience that he spoke of and not something I wanted to believe that that my beloved United Church could be capable of.  My experience of the United Church was one that had loved and nurtured and supported me throughout my life to that point.  But here we were, face to face with the reality of this destructive time in our church’s history.  What happened next is something I will always remember.

The United Church in Port Alberni brought forward an apology, acknowledging the participation and complicity of the Church in the severe damage affecting generations of First Nations people as a result of the Indian Residential Schools which were run jointly by the church and government.  The intention was that this apology would be adopted by the BC Conference gathering and then forwarded to the national United Church as well.

At the BC Conference meeting, we were advised by legal counsel against particular wording and sections of the document as written because it would mean admitting fault, which could put the church at risk for future lawsuits.  There was a lot of discussion back and forth, and I remember when it was time to vote on the document.  In this room were the people who were most invested in the institution of the United Church – ministers and representatives from congregations, many whose livelihoods depended upon its survival – yet when it came time for the vote, it was an overwhelming majority who voted in favour of the apology document.

I remember thinking at the time – if these people, who are so invested in the institution of the United Church are willing to risk that very institution for the sake of doing what is right and just, for the sake of greater love, then this church can no doubt survive anything.

I was in my 20s at the time, and somewhat of an idealist, but I really felt as though that decision was led by the Spirit.

Now, more than 20 years later, we still have a long way to go toward reconciliation with our Aboriginal neighbours.  How will the Spirit continue to lead us forward in these relationships towards greater love?  How can we at Mt Seymour be part of that reconciliation?

The church’s Spirit-led experience throughout history has brought new insights regarding things like slavery, racial equality and justice, women’s ordination, and LGBTQ dignity. Some of that may look obvious when we look back on history.

Encountering the Spirit who is alive and pushing the church in new and astonishing directions can be frightening. However, the Spirit is not random or incoherent. The Spirit always pushes the church into greater practice of God’s love for all people of the world.

When we are constantly bombarded with the news of more barriers being created to cut people off from fully living, I realize just how much work we have to do.  What specifically came to mind this week was the decision banning abortion in Alabama, even in instances of rape – where women now have less rights to their own bodies and if they go against the ban, they face greater punishment than their attackers.

It is not hard to think of examples south of the border where the fear of the ‘other’ or the outsider is encouraged, border walls to keep people out, travel bans to keep others out.  But, we don’t have to look south of the border to find examples of this – we have our own issues to work on right here at home.  All Canadians don’t have access to the basic necessity of clean water – some communities have had boil water advisories for 20 years.  Racism is still prevalent in our society.  Women are not treated equally, and we still have many groups who are seen and treated as “other.”

This is a text about crossing borders. We know how contentious that can become! We put up walls, concrete or steel or metaphorical. It would have been more comfortable and seemingly safer for the early church to keep Cornelius and his Gentile household at arm’s length. They could have had a probationary period to make sure everyone understood where the boundaries were. But God apparently had no patience for such things.

The church is always working toward a fuller understanding of what God is doing and listening to hear from surprising sources what new things God is doing.

While the news from Alabama this week seemed like we went back in time, the Spirit was moving forward this week in Taiwan, where they became the first Asian country to legalize same sex marriage.

In our scripture today Peter doesn’t give an abstract theological defense of his actions. Instead, he tells the story of God’s grace toward these people.

Whose stories do we need to be willing to hear?  Who are the people in our experience that we need to look at through the x-ray screen so that we can see past the barriers we build between us and see them to be just like us.  And Mt Seymour specifically, as a church in this neighbourhood, as we explore new ways of serving the needs of the people in our community, how can we be an expression of the great love that has no bounds?

Like Peter, we can be open to this new way of being when we feel the Spirit’s nudging and allow ourselves to be led by God’s unconditional love for all people, a love that sees beyond barriers, a love that has no labels.