Getting Out of God’s Way

John 13:31-35    Acts 11:1-18

April 25, 2010

Simon Peter’s revelation put him in an awkward position.  His vision basically told him that everyone deserved to be shown God’s love.  Everyone was worthy of hearing the message of Jesus Christ.  As Peter put it, “If God, then 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?” Based on his vision, no one was to be excluded, no matter what.  

Now, maybe Peter and the others had not really set out to exclude anyone, but you know how it goes.  You feel more comfortable with folks who are similar to you, and so, you just gravitate toward them.  It is easier to talk with people who share your values, your history, your perspectives on the world.  It is simpler to stick with who and what you know, rather than venturing out into a whole other way of being, a whole other group of people.  That’s one of the most difficult aspects of really being the church, I think.  Breaking free of our own safety zones and moving out into the world in a way that brings us into contact with new people, places and ideas.  It plays out even in small ways such as after worship, when we stand around with a cup of tea or coffee and talk with folks.  The very easiest thing to do is to talk with people we know.  When someone new comes to church, it can be hard for us to go and speak with them, rather than gravitating to our usual circle of friends.  The conversation just doesn’t flow as readily, when we don’t have a shared history with someone.  This sense of needing to stay within our comfort zone stretches throughout all of our lives, often in ways that are not even noticeable to us.  What begins as a simple fact of operating within our comfort zones can easily turn into something else.  We may not even realize that we don’t trust people who look or act differently than we do.  We may be unaware that we discriminate against people solely because we do not know them.  

There is a great story told of a man who went out to chop wood one fine Spring day only to discover his axe was missing.  He was certain that he had stored the axe where it always was, right in his woodshed.  But it wasn’t there.  He searched other possible places, but without much hope.  As he searched, he noticed his neighbor’s son skulking around next door and thought he looked pretty suspicious  “I’ll bet that boy has stolen my axe,” he thought to himself.  “He looks pretty guilty to me.  In fact, he looks like a thief.  How did I never notice that before?”  As he stewed about how he would confront the boy, or maybe the boy’s father, he worked a bit more around his yard, picking up debris from winter, stretching out the tarps that he used to cover his woodpiles.  There, underneath one of the tarps, he couldn’t believe his eyes, but his axe was laying right there.  “Hmm, I must have left it there after I chopped wood one of those cold winter days,” he thought to himself.  He picked it up and sharpened it, scraping off the rust so it was as good as new.  His neighbor’s son was out in their yard again, and as he watched the boy he couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t really look anything like a thief at all.  He actually looked like a fine, upstanding young man.  How could he have possibly thought otherwise?

Well, he could have thought otherwise because our minds dictate what we see to a very large extent.  If we make assumptions about a certain person or type of person, then when we see them, we see what we first imagined would be there.  Reality, unfortunately, does not play much of a role in what our eyes see, at least in these kind of circumstances.

This is why, I think, God first sent a vision to Peter.  God knew that Peter would probably dismiss any request for information, teaching or especially baptism from anyone who did not fit into his idea of the people God wanted him to be dealing with.  God needed to get Peter out of his comfort zone, and that was not an easy thing to do.  The vision he had during prayer set things up, and then God ensured that Peter would have an opportunity to act on it right away by sending the strangers to him, asking him to teach them and then baptize them.  Through this, Peter realized that he needed to be responsive to what God wanted in a situation, and not make judgments based on his own limited knowledge.  Basically, Peter discovered that he needed to get out of God’s way and let ministry happen, let the message move out into the world wherever God wanted it to go.  In our day and age, this is still important.  We need to learn, as Peter did, to get out of God’s way and allow ministry to happen.  Sometimes it will happen thanks to us or through us, but quite often it will happen in spite of us.  God sees things so much more clearly than we do.  God sees people so much more clearly than we do.  God’s understanding runs deeper than ours, and isn’t fooled by the surface appearances that throw us off so easily.  

Our gospel reading this morning speaks of the commandment we have to love one another.  This isn’t just another nice idea, but is the heart and essence of Jesus’ teachings.  If we are to do anything in Jesus’ name, we need to first learn how to love one another.  If we could love, really love as Jesus loved, then we would be well on our way toward living in such a way that we upheld all of the other ideals that God would want us to uphold.  We would see one another through the eyes of love, which would ensure that we saw first and foremost, what is best about each person, rather than their faults or shortcomings.  The world would be a different place if we were to begin each relationship with a basic acceptance and understanding, with the sense that a person is innocent until proven guilty - no matter what the charge might be - in all streams of relationship, the personal as well as public.  Our past here in this country, is filled with examples of our having jumped to the wrong conclusion about people just because of their ethnicity - the Japanese internments and mistrust of German-Americans during World War II to the extreme at which the names for common foods were changed in order to avoid saying even a German word.  More recently, people of Middle-eastern descent have been under intense scrutiny because of our ongoing struggles against al qaeda.  

How can we change our perceptions such that each person is seen as him or herself, rather than as a part of a nationality or social group that we may or may not trust?  When we don’t see people as individuals first and foremost, then we misjudge much more often than we judge correctly.  We condemn people as guilty before they even have the chance to open their mouths, as the man who lost his axe judged the neighbor’s son.  When we stand in judgement of others, then we often give up the chance to get to know them for who they are.  And sometimes, even if we do know someone, we may lapse into judging them if people of their ethnicity are called into question, because fear in the right atmosphere can be so much more persuasive than trust.

So, how can we quiet the judgments that murmur endlessly in our minds?  Is it possible for us to embrace the assumption that each person we encounter is one of God’s children, just as we are?  What does that feel like in daily practice?  What does it look like in our interactions in the community and other places?  What does it mean, practically speaking, to get rid of the “us” versus “them” mentality?  I think loving one another is one of the most difficult directives we were given by Jesus.  And to up the ante, you will recall that in another place Jesus actually said we were to love our neighbor as ourself, again, an incredibly difficult thing for most of us to do.  Where can we learn about this kind of love?  Is it modeled anywhere at all?  Has anyone besides Jesus managed to actually do it in real life?  Is it even possible?

My sense is, that the answers to these questions lie in the everyday lives of everyday people just like you and me.  We all have moments when love is the only thing we are reacting to, when we are not judging at all, when we are simply being in the moment in an open and compassionate way.  So, instead of looking to the saints for examples of love being lived out, we just need to look to one another.  There are so many beautiful and simple ways that God’s love comes alive in our midst through the thoughts and actions of people around us.  The crucial thing for us is to notice, to recognize it when we see it, and then to carry it on in our own lives and in our own unique ways.  The secret is, that if we are aligned with love, then we can be certain that we are not standing in God’s way.  We are more likely to be contributing to good in the world, rather than raising the incidence of fear and mistrust.

Loving God, you created us to be alive in this world as your children.  You ask that our hands reach out to help where they can.  You want our hearts to be open and compassionate.  You encourage us to speak in ways that build others up.  Give us the strength to do these things.  Help us to be the kind of people your children should be and can be.  In Christ’s love and name we pray, amen.