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Sunday, July 8, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.

Embracing Diversity

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 48
Acts 10:1–17, 34–35

Christian worship is an act of human imagination that voices,
advocates, and insists upon a gospel perception of all lived reality.

Walter Brueggemann

Fourth Presbyterian Church has a relationship with the Downtown Islamic Center of Chicago. Recently, during Ramadan, our Muslim friends invited some of us to join them for an Iftar dinner—the evening meal they share after sundown after a day of fasting. While we waited for the sun to set, we listened to several speakers—one Jewish, one Christian, one Muslim. They each spoke from their particular faith tradition on the theme of “Embracing Diversity.”

Our Muslim friends, who come from many countries and races, chose the theme of “Embracing Diversity.” It’s understandable why. Since the 2016 presidential election, derogatory labeling, hate crimes, and other forms of intolerance against people who are not white in the United States have markedly increased. A travel ban has been enforced against people from seven countries, five of which are predominantly Muslim. The number of refugees officially allowed in our country has been slashed from 110,000 to 50,000. The president’s stated preference is that immigrants come from countries like Norway, instead of places like Haiti and Africa. The administration has ended the Temporary Protection Status for longtime undocumented residents of our country from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Sudan, and Nepal, even though the conditions in their homelands remain unstable and unsafe. Thousands more undocumented immigrants are now being deported or detained at the U.S. border, even those legally seeking asylum. Countless families are being divided. The official defining of who belongs in our country has become quite narrow and is based in fear of “the other.” It is no coincidence that all those “others” are people of color. No wonder our Muslim friends chose the theme for the evening to be “Embracing Diversity.”

I was the one at the Iftar dinner invited to speak about embracing diversity from the Christian perspective. I sensed eagerness in my listeners, perhaps because the most loyal supporters of our current administration are white evangelical Christians. How does their support of exclusive policies square with what Christianity teaches? It’s a good question.

Michael Gerson, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, claims roots as a white, evangelical Christian. He recently wrote an article in the Atlantic magazine entitled “How Evangelicals Lost Their Way.” He spelled out that many white evangelical Christians have decided that racism is not a disqualification for being president. Gerson ends his article saying, “This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way.” Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way.

Love of neighbor is the essence of Christianity. In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus was asked which commandment is most important, he answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with your all. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:28–31).

Even though these two commandments are familiar, they are radical. One of the original meanings of the word radical is “going to the root,” to the “fundamentals.” “Love your neighbor” is at the root of what it means to be a Christian. It is also radical because love of neighbor includes embracing diversity—a significant difference from what is happening in our nation today.

What we find in the Gospels is that Jesus Christ constantly expanded narrow definitions of who belongs in God’s family. For instance, take this story from Matthew 12:46–50:

While he was still speaking to the crowds, the mother and brothers of Jesus were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told Jesus, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

When I used to hear this scripture story, I thought Jesus was being a bit cold to his blood relatives. But now I hear something quite different. Jesus is teaching a radical contrast to the practice of tribalism that reinforces loyalty to one particular group and excludes others who are different from us. Jesus claimed a broad family, saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” It didn’t matter whether they shared the same ancestry or had commonalities in racial, cultural, or religious identities or were citizens of the same nation. He embraced diversity.

When Jesus interacted with people, he often intentionally sought out those who were treated as outcasts to bring good news, a healing touch, a place at the table. When he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he purposely chose the hero of the story to be a member of a “tribe” that was looked down upon by many of his hearers. His mind was opened by a Syro-Phoenician woman to understand that she, too, was included in the people he came to serve. He socialized so much with people whom others derided as sinners that he was attacked for it.

In the early church, when the gift of the Holy Spirit descended on a group of believers at Pentecost, everyone heard their own language being spoken. Those languages represented many different cultures. To everyone’s surprise, God’s Spirit is accessible to all and works through us all. Women as well as men were leaders in the early church. The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:28, proclaimed one of the most inclusive statements in the whole Bible: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Then we have today’s scripture story from Acts. The Apostle Peter, a fervent follower of Jesus Christ, had assumed that, of course, the only people who would receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit would be his people, the Jews. That was what his fellow believers thought, too. But God converted their thinking. First Peter had a powerful vision that showed him nothing was unclean. Then some men sent by a devout Gentile man named Cornelius showed up on Peter’s door and asked Peter to go with them back to talk with Cornelius. In the ensuing encounter that included a variety of people, Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. I truly understand now that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” What a dramatic paradigm shift. God shows no partiality. God embraces diversity.

Embracing diversity means we not only acknowledge the reality of our differences, but we celebrate them and view them as a manifestation of God’s creative design for humanity. We are called to resist efforts to make everyone conform to one type of person, which in the history of our country has too often been attempted, using as the standard being white, Protestant, employed, educated, American, English-speaking, male, and a citizen. Instead of forcing conformity or excluding difference, we are to respect and celebrate the distinctiveness God has created within the complex, colorful, and amazing human race.

We all are created in the image of God. We all are loved by God. Loving our neighbors means not being afraid of one another. Christians need to proclaim to the world that we truly are not a threat to one another. In fact, we are called to do the opposite—to move towards one another, to be reconciled, to care for the welfare of others, to welcome the stranger and feed the hungry.

I recently saw the movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which I highly recommend to you. It is a wonderful documentary about Fred Rogers, the Mr. Rogers of the PBS program for children that ran for about thirty years, starting in the mid-1960s. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, a lifelong Republican who read the Bible every day, and someone who radiated radical kindness, acceptance, and love. In the movie he articulates how important it is to convey clearly and often to children—and to adults—that love abounds, that every person is loved just as they are, and that we all are capable of loving.

One of the most touching moments in the movie shows a clip from one of his shows in which Mr. Rogers is visiting with a nice boy confined for life to a wheelchair. The harsh world seems to melt away as they sing together one of his familiar songs:

I like you as you are,
exactly and precisely.
I think you turned out nicely,
and I like you as you are.

What an important message for that child to know. What an important message for us all to know—about ourselves and about all others. It shouldn’t be revolutionary anymore that God loves all people. But it is. At Fred Roger’s funeral service in 2003, there were protesters outside carrying signs that said, “God hates fags.” Those protesters didn’t believe that God shows no partiality. They hadn’t heard God say, as Peter did, “Treat no one as profane.” But that is the radical message of Christianity. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. Amen.