“Acts of Kindness”

A few weeks ago, I was honored to be invited to talk with Sky Li’s World Religions class at her school. At the end of the class I asked them to help me choose the scripture that I would focus on in this sermon and they chose the text from Acts 10 that Jean read. As you might imagine, Sky Li’s class was an inspiring group of young people to talk with! After I told them a little about my history, they asked me questions for over an hour about my spiritual journey and my beliefs. It was a very challenging discussion. They asked:

  • how my experience in Palestine shaped my faith
  • what faith tradition I would choose if I were I not a member of the UCC
  • why I remained a person of faith
  • and whether I have ever doubted my belief in God

While speaking to groups of people is something I do with some frequency, each time I’m asked I have to shake my head because there’s a part of me wonders why anyone might want to hear what I have to say. That self-doubt is one of those tapes that plays in my head that I talked about a couple of months ago. But having Sky Li in the room made a big difference. Hers was a friendly and familiar face amid a group that were complete strangers to me, and vice versa, and that helped us share an interaction that was based on multiple layers of trust. And this helped me feel welcomed; it gave me a sense of belonging, and a sense that everyone was being heard and received with grace. But belonging is not always the norm. I invite you to think of a time in your own life when you felt separate, like you didn’t belong, and when you weren’t heard or received with grace. Those are likely painful memories.

In order to more fully understand today’s scripture, we need to look at other texts from earlier in the Acts chapter and we need to go all the way back to the book of Genesis. Let’s begin with Genesis 25 verse 23: “God said to Rebecca: ‘Two nations are in your womb and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other.’” The two nations that God refers to would become Jews and Gentiles. Now we come to the book of Acts. Earlier in the chapter, Cornelius the Gentile is in Cesarea. He has a vision in which an angel of God tells him to send two of his men south to Joppa, which is today known as Jaffa, a suburb of Tel Aviv. There the men will find Simon Peter the Jew whom they are to bring back to Cesarea. In his own vision, Peter sees all manner of beasts and fowl being lowered from heaven on a sheet. A voice commands him to eat them. At first, Peter objects to eating the animals that are unclean according to Mosaic law, but the voice tells him not to call unclean that which God has cleansed.

When Cornelius’ men arrive, Simon Peter understands that God has commanded him to preach the Word of God to the Gentiles. Peter travels with Cornelius’ men back to Caesarea where the two men share their visions with each other. Then, Peter tells the gathered people of Jesus’ ministry and about the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit descends on everyone: “All who heard the word were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out for everyone.” Peter then commands that Cornelius and his followers be baptized. If this setting of Jews and Gentiles sounds familiar, you may remember this from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

While Peter’s sermon in Cesarea serves to make the letter real, Peter still has a lot to learn. Peter asks the crowd whether anyone can “withhold the water for baptizing these people” who are different from him. This is both a rhetorical question and it also tests the limits of resurrection life and our human tendency to place limits on the power of God. It’s as if Peter is saying “Ok, last chance? Can anyone think of a reason to prevent this baptism?” They cannot. They are now joined together by the stronger bond of God’s Holy Spirit. God breaks through human limitations.

Everyone is of God, everyone, without exception, and this is good news indeed. But this story illustrates the importance of intentionality on the part of the people. All along the way, in order to break through the old barriers of tradition and law the people that God called had to hear and follow what God was saying to them. It wasn’t automatic. Let me give you an example. As spacious as this building is and as open-minded and welcoming as we intend to be, there is much more that we can do to make our church space, and our attitudes, more welcoming and inclusive, especially for those with special needs or those who struggle with stairs or other physical barriers. With all of our diversity, like that jigsaw puzzle on the cover of your bulletins, this won’t happen simply by desiring it.

An important part of the work of our Faith Formation Team is examining what we can do to educate ourselves about how we can create a more inclusive space both physically and spiritually. Recently, we held a Family Gathering where those who attended learned about how each of us has our own individual “handling instructions.” Some of us are huggers, others not so much. Some of us like to talk on the phone, others prefer text and email. In June, the team is hosting an evening film series and discussions on inclusion, and we’ll pick up this issue again in the fall. And our May 20th bike ride will have two bike routes, a shorter and a longer one to try to accommodate as many of our members as possible.

Earlier, I asked you to think of a time in your own life when you felt separate, like you didn’t belong, and when you weren’t heard or received with grace. I invite you to help us think about how we can take intentional steps to create a more inclusive space so that everyone, without exception, might feel more included and loved, here in this beloved community. Here are some things we’re already trying to do in our growing inclusion ministry:

  • Adopt a shared vision about inclusion
  • Claim inclusion as a value
  • Create programs to support inclusion

As a city, Minneapolis ranks 256 out of 274 cities on overall inclusion and 273rd on racial inclusion. The Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, whom I volunteer with, has a campaign going on right now to establish a Municipal ID card in Minneapolis that would help reduce the barriers to gaining employment and getting housing, as well as promoting more full participation in our society for the homeless, LGBTQ communities and immigrants. This past March 9-18 the winter Paralympics were held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This is what the president said about it: “What happened with the Paralympics was so incredible and so inspiring to me. And I watched—it’s a little tough to watch too much, but I watched as much as I could.” These comments are cruel and are exactly the opposite of what God intends. There is much more work for us to do both here in our church and in the world to manifest that the Holy Spirit is poured out for everyone.

When I walked into Sky Li’s school, she was waiting for me at the information desk, and she walked me to the classroom. When I walked into the class her teacher greeted me warmly and offered me a cup of water. When the class began, everyone introduced themselves and the teacher gave me a short backgrounder on what the class was studying and who some of the previous guest speakers were. These small acts of kindness may seem like common sense but they were invaluable to helping me feel included and welcome. Small and invaluable acts of kindness but filled with intentionality.

No more need for priestly vestments
or plots to overrun that godforsaken mount –

just walk in my ways
and you will find your way there:
a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple
in any land you call home.

Enter the gates to
this holiest of holy places,
lift up its fallen walls,
relight the branches of the lamp
so that my house will truly
become a sanctuary
for all people.

Yes, this is how you will

restore the Temple:

not by might, not by power
but by the spirit
you share with every
living, breathing soul.[1]

 

Amen.

[1] “This Is How You Will Restore the Temple,” by Rabbi Brant Rosen.