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Sunday, May 6, 2018 | 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
Astounding and Abounding
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
1 John 5:1–6
The grace of God is dangerous.
It’s lavish, excessive, outrageous, and scandalous.
God’s grace is ridiculously inclusive.
When we are surprised, it’s often when our preconceived ideas are challenged. Surprise indicates something is happening we did not expect. Surprise also reveals our prejudices. We are surprised when we see that someone we excluded as an outsider actually belongs.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises depicted in film is in the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The movie shows the surprise and struggle of parents, on both sides, when a white woman, Joanna—raised by purported liberal, upper-class parents—and a black man, John—a widowed, well-educated physician—make known they are engaged. The film was produced when interracial marriage was still illegal in seventeen states in our country and released just six months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws dating back to the late-seventeenth century, which had enforced racial segregation by criminalizing interracial marriage. At one point in the movie, Joanna’s father says he cannot bless this union for fear of the hurt that his daughter and her fiancé would encounter from racial prejudice. Years before, the rationale given for making interracial marriage illegal was to protect the purity of the superior white race. God surprises us when we are shown that people we regarded as outsiders or inferiors actually belong and are equal brothers and sisters.
Surprised—astounded—was what the Jewish believers were while they listened to Peter preaching about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They were surprised because the Holy Spirit interrupted Peter’s speech by falling upon all who heard the word—all, everyone, including even the Gentiles. The circumcised believers had previously thought that God’s Spirit would only come upon their own circle: the Jews who followed Christ. Their religious and social beliefs had made clear demarcations and distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders. Yet this distinction, these boundaries, were precisely what God subverted by sending the Holy Spirit upon them all. Even the “foreigners” were included to become followers of Christ.
Peter was not astounded like his hearers were, at least not at this point. His astonishment came earlier, recounted in the previous verses of the tenth chapter of Luke. You may remember this beautiful story.
First we meet Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a devout Gentile who feared God, was generous to the poor, and prayed constantly. One afternoon, through a vision, God tells Cornelius to send a few men to Joppa to meet Peter. The next day, while those men were traveling to find him, Peter had a vision while he was hungry and praying. He saw a large sheet coming down from heaven that held all kinds of four-footed creatures, reptiles, and birds. Then Peter heard a voice that said, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter protested, saying, “No way. I have never eaten anything profane or unclean.” The voice said again, “What God has made clean, you must not profane.” This happened three times before the sheet and creatures were taken back up to heaven. While Peter was still greatly puzzled by what he had seen and heard, the men sent by Cornelius appeared at his door. They gave Peter the message that Cornelius had been told in a vision to send for Peter to come to his home so Cornelius could hear what Peter had to say.
After giving his visitors lodging overnight, Peter, along with a few Jewish friends and the Gentile men sent by Cornelius, arrived at Cornelius’s home the next day. Many were assembled in the home. Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. . . . I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” He is Lord of all. Then, while Peter taught them more about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and forgiveness, the Holy Spirit interrupted him by falling upon all of his listeners. All of them—including the Gentiles. The circumcised believers were astounded that the Gentiles were filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues and praising God. They never expected to see such a thing. God was enacting before their eyes what Peter had just preached: that anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. And not just acceptable to God, but welcomed, included, and empowered to be vessels of God’s Spirit in the world. Peter ordered that those Gentiles be baptized. After their baptism, they showed hospitality to Peter and his friends by inviting them to stay with them for several days. All of this astounded those who previously excluded the Gentiles, assuming they were outside God’s circle of grace.
This was a major paradigm shift for those earliest believers. They had to rethink totally who they were, as well as who the Gentiles were. They had to reshape their understanding of who God is and how God acts. God shattered any grounds for segregation. God reached out especially to the oppressed. Previous boundaries were no longer legitimate. Categories of clean and unclean fell apart. God shows no partiality. God’s grace is wide, radically inclusive, amazing, and abounding. In spite of humanly constructed divisions and distinctions, God breaks through. God is a God of justice for all, with a heart especially for those marginalized by society.
I experienced the working of God’s Spirit this past week in our church at the graduation ceremony for the guests of the Chicago Lights Elam Davies Social Service Center who completed the Open Door program. Open Door provides yearlong support for guests to reach goals they have set for themselves. This support comes through pairing a guest with one of our social worker staff as well as through a weekly small group of those enrolled. One of the graduates, Frances Cox, eloquently spoke to us about the impact of the program. She told us that before she enrolled in Open Door, she saw in herself only lack and deficiency. She did not see that she could be a positive influence on others. She was grateful that Open Door provided “a protective environment for my hidden malaise.” She described Open Door as supporting her and her colleagues for “birthing new ideas about one another and ourselves, watching our own habits, challenging our own stereotypes, creating space within ourselves to hear without judgment, and respect without reserve, the struggles and viewpoints of others.” She was describing the work of the Holy Spirit. When people move towards one another with respect, when our own giftedness and self-worth are drawn forth, when unity is deepened among us, that is God’s transforming Spirit at work.
I encourage you to think about the places in your life where you have been surprised. When have you encountered the unexpected? What mental framework or prejudice or stereotype was shattered? These reveal places where God’s Spirit blasts through barriers and human-constructed boundaries and widens our minds and hearts.
Such a surprise came for me last week when I attended the annual benefit for Growing Homes, which runs an employment program for people with criminal records, histories of homelessness, limited formal education, and other barriers that make it difficult for them to find and keep good jobs. Growing Homes uses urban agriculture—similar to what we do at our Chicago Lights Urban Farm—to bring jobs, job training, and fresh food to their neighborhood, in this case to Englewood. One of the speakers at the benefit, Colette Payne, is a graduate of their program. A confident, impressive public speaker, she currently is a community organizer at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, helping girls and women who face similar challenges to her own. I was surprised at how much resilience, persistence, capability, and hope Collette has after living through very difficult struggles with domestic and community violence, incarceration, drug abuse, racism, poverty, and sexual assault, living in a drug-infested and gang-ridden neighborhood. I don’t think I could have gone through all that and come out still claiming life in all its fullness.
But then I was surprised by my surprise. I have advocated for employers to get rid of the box on job application forms that applicants are supposed to check if they have a criminal record. I am against this because it keeps formerly incarcerated people from being employed. Yet here I was, my own limited thinking being similar to that which keeps employers from giving people a second chance, which prolongs their poverty. The surprise revealed a place in me where God’s Spirit blasts through barriers.
Yet another surprise came while I was watching the DVD series Race: The Power of an Illusion. Robert Crouch and I are currently co-teaching an adult ed class based on this series, and we’d love for you to join us.
I was surprised to learn that race is a fairly recent concept. Ancient societies divided people up according to religion, status, class, or even language, but not by physical differences. I was also surprised to learn that, genetically, human beings are far more alike than the superficial differences in our skin tone and facial features suggest. There can be more differences between two people categorized in the same race than there are between two people of different races. We think the people with whom we share similar DNA are those who look most like us, but that is not the case. Race is actually a human construct, created as a social and historical framework, which has used biology as a false excuse for horrific treatment, injustice, and degradation of people of color as if their differences made them inferior.
These stories reveal that God’s Spirit is always at work, breaking down distinctions and discriminations we construct against ourselves and one another. God’s Spirit is constantly moving people toward one another, where we discover our common dreams, hope, faith, and Source of Life. God’s Spirit breaks through our narrow prejudices and empowers the very ones we thought were most unlikely to be vessels of God’s love in the world.
It is very important for the church to proclaim that God abounds in grace for all people. God has created all of humanity in God’s image. A week ago, the minister noted for founding black liberation theology died. He was James H. Cone. An article in the Washington Post quoted Dr. Cone saying, “I was within inches of leaving the Christian faith.” By the late 1960s, James Cone had immersed himself in theology for a decade, poring over the teachings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, studying for a doctoral degree, and following the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Then he heard Malcolm X speak, who declared that “Christianity is the white man’s religion,” one that encouraged African Americans to wait patiently for a “milk and honey” heaven. The assassination of Malcolm X, and then Martin Luther King Jr. three years later, plunged Cone into a full-fledged spiritual crisis. To gather his thoughts, he all but locked himself for six weeks in the church office of his brother, who was also a minister. He emerged with a new perspective, liberation theology, that sought to reconcile the fiery cultural criticism of Malcolm X with the Christian message of Dr. King.
James Cone changed the way we do theology. He could not understand how anyone could do Christian theology in America without talking about the black struggle for freedom and how anyone can do theology in general without talking about the oppressed. He once called himself “the angriest theologian in America” and explained that he was driven to rage by the failure of leading white theologians to forcefully condemn institutional racism, especially lynching. However, he remained hopeful that, “together we can create a society and world not defined by white supremacy.” “Hope,” he said in 2006, “is where . . . people . . . become willing to witness to God’s transcending racial bonding and move toward human bonding. We need some signs of that transcending. Where will that come from if not from the church?”
Indeed, God calls, and needs, the church to witness to God’s transcending Spirit. The Holy Spirit is blowing out bigotry and breathing into us new ways to see and embrace one another. God shows no partiality. God’s grace abounds and surrounds us all. Be astounded. Be transformed. Let us altogether rejoice in God’s Spirit and give praise!