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For Sunday April 24, 2016

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)


Acts 11:1–18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1–6
John 13:31–35

This presidential campaign will be remembered for many things, but especially for the way it has degraded our public discourse and civic virtues in ways that seemed unimaginable not long ago.  I'm thinking in particular of the way Donald Trump has vilified so many people with such vulgar language.

The reading from Acts reminds us that God calls us to live and speak and act in radically different ways. The story of Peter and Cornelius begins with a tiny detail that Luke repeats three times.

Luke says that "Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon."  A few sentences later, he repeats himself: "Send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Peter, who's staying with Simon the tanner." And then again, one page later: "Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner."

Simon the tanner was a socio-economic outcast. He was a "dirty" man in both a literal and a figurative sense. Tanners worked with dead animals. The filth and the stench were awful. Imagine how Simon looked and smelled at the end of a hot day. He would have been the object of social disdain. Almost anyone would have felt superior to him.

But Simon the tanner had joined the Jesus movement.  He found acceptance there that society never gave him.  And so Simon the tanner hosted Simon the apostle.

Given our human propensity for justifying ourselves and scape goating others, the Jewish purity laws lent themselves to a moral hierarchy between the ritually "clean" who considered themselves to be close to God, and the "unclean" who were shunned as "dirty" sinners who were far from God.

Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people who were considered polluted or contaminated. Jesus rejected ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.

 Martin Niemoller.
Martin Niemoeller.

In a marvelous stroke of irony, Luke says that it's in the home of Simon the tanner, a Gentile who handled animal carcasses every day, where Peter the conscientious Jew had his vision — surprise! — of unclean animals. Peter learned that even though purity laws forbid him to associate with Gentiles, especially one as "dirty" as Simon or as suspect as a Roman soldier like Cornelius, "God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism."

Peter's revelation reminds me of the remark by the German pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892–1984), who protested Hitler's anti-semite measures in person to the fuehrer.  He was eventually arrested, and then imprisoned for eight years at Sachsenhausen and Dachau. In words that paraphrase those of Peter, he once confessed, "It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies."

In the movie Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Eva Kor describes how she and her twin sister Miriam spent ten months in Auschwitz, where they were subjected to Mengele's horrific experiments. She returned to Auschwitz for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camps in 1995.

On that occasion, Kor did the unthinkable: she read aloud her "official declaration of amnesty" to Mengele and the Nazis. To be liberated from the Nazis was not enough, she said.  She needed to be released from the pain of the past. To extend forgiveness without any prerequisites required of the perpetrators was an "act of self-healing." Some Jews were outraged that she dared to do this. But for Kor it was "the feeling of complete freedom from pain" though the act of "forgiving your worst enemy."

Disparaging others as unclean and impure, drawing boundaries between In and Out, Us and Them, hating our enemies, all that is easy.  Loving indiscriminately is hard.  That was the lesson Will Campbell learned.

Campbell was born and raised in the rural and very poor deep south of Mississippi. He was "ordained" by family members at a local Baptist church when he was seventeen, and, in a delightfully improbable life, played a central role as an activist on behalf of African Americans.

 Eva Kor.
Eva Kor.

In 1957, for example, Campbell was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School.  He was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The hate mail from the white right poured in.

As he matured, Campbell had a self-revelation similar to Peter's — that he hated those redneck bigots who hated blacks. Strange, he thought, how he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people that he hated.  Campbell eventually came to realize that after twenty years in ministry he had become little more than a "doctrinaire social activist," which was something very different than being a follower of Jesus.

The key? "I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides." Campbell saw how he had played favorites and taken sides; he had subverted the indiscriminate love of God for all people without conditions, limits, or exceptions into a ministry of "liberal sophistication."

Acting upon these convictions, he started sipping whiskey with the Ku Klux Klan. He performed their funerals and weddings, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. "Bob" Jones. When they were sick, he emptied their bed pans.

And then the hate mail came from the liberal left.

Extending mercy to all, and judgment to none, has been central to the ministry of Pope Francis. On December 8, 2015, he announced the beginning of an "extraordinary" jubilee Year of Mercy, which will last through November 20, 2016.  His new book is called The Name of God is Mercy (2016).

Francis began the Year of Mercy with a symbolic ritual — knocking on the massive bronze doors of the Basilica of St. Peter, and then walking through them.  Whereas the door is usually sealed, this jubilee year the Vatican expects about 10 million pilgrims to walk through that same door.

 Will Campbell.
Will Campbell.

The symbolic significance? "I am the door," said Jesus in John 10:7. And so Francis prayed, “You are the door through which we come to thee, inexhaustible source of consolation for everyone.” 

“To pass through the Holy Door," said Pope Francis in his homily, "means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”

"How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we affirm that sins are punished by his judgment before putting first that they are forgiven by his mercy!"

"It is truly so," said Francis, paraphrasing James 2:13: "We have to put mercy before judgment, and in every case God’s judgment will always be in the light of his mercy."

In his homily, Pope Francis put it this way: "You cannot conceive of a true Christian who is not merciful, just as you cannot conceive of God without his mercy. Mercy is the key word of the Gospel…  We should not be afraid: We should allow ourselves to be embraced by the mercy of God, who waits for us and forgives everything.”

Image credits: (1) Martin-Niemöller-Schule Wiesbaden; (2) Dallas Morning News; and (3) Belmont University.

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