February 7, 2021 – Reconciling Sunday – Pastor Teressa Sivers
God who is Justice; May the words that we speak, and the actions that we engage in, be a reflection of your Dream for all your people, for all your creation. Amen and Amen.
Audre Lorde was an outspoken, feminist, civil rights activist, born in February of 1934, and she died in November of 1992. Why don’t I let her introduce herself through the opening of her speech, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions.”
I was born Black and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a livable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority define me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.”
The opening of her speech came to mind as I spent time with our portion of Acts, chapter 10, for this week, and Peter’s stark statement to the gathered crowd at Cornelius’ house; “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders.” “You all realize it is forbidden…” Deviant… Difficult… “Wrong.”
We humans are so quick to assign wrongness, to declare someone or some group as forbidden, as deviant. Many scholars, especially Jewish scholars, argue that Peter is being a bit dramatic in his statement regarding dietary laws, holiness codes, and non-Jewish mingling. But I think, though he may be assigning the forbiddances a bit strongly to one particular source, there is definitely a deviance happening in this long, pivotal story of Cornelius and Peter. Whether it is because Cornelius is a Gentile, or because he is a soldier, or because he is complicit in the Roman occupation of the Promised Land, Peter crosses over into forbidden territory. As we will see next week, Peter must defend his actions to the powers that be in the Jesus Movement. He must explain himself for engaging in deviant actions.
Forbidden, deviant, difficult, inferior…just plain ‘wrong.’ When we think of working for justice, standing up for justice, speaking up for justice, our minds often go to large, world-shaking actions. As we mark Black History Month, our minds might go to the fight for Civil Rights: marches and sit-ins and demonstrations. We picture Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis leading the march in Selma. We picture the “I Have a Dream” speech by King in front of the Lincoln Memorial. We picture young people engaged in lunch counter sit ins, Rosa Parks on that bus, maybe even people like Elizabeth Jennings Graham from our children’s time. Or perhaps we remember the Women’s March on Washington DC in 2016, or all the Black Lives Matter marches and demonstrations across the country during 2020. We might hear Mni Wiconi—Water is Life—shouted from Standing Rock and solidarity gatherings across our nation, fighting for clean water rights.
But our scripture reading today with Peter and Cornelius, and the speeches and poetry of Audre Lorde and others, points clearly to the justice work that must ALSO happen in the every day—in our lives lived one moment at a time. Peter and Cornelius are not breaking down barriers at the city gates or in the marketplace square. This step of justice toward Beloved Community happens in Cornelius’ home, among his family and his closest friends. In this private, intimate setting, the wild and wondrous Spirit breaks down the walls of separation, the walls of human forbiddances. And yet, this barrier crossing shakes the entire Jesus movement, and redefines the community of believers across the known world. In today’s reading, Cornelius puts Peter on the spot, “Now, here we are…gathered in the presence of God…to listen to everything THE LORD has directed you, Peter, to say…we are listening!” And Peter speaks the sentence that converts the Church—I really am learning that God does not show partiality to one group of people over another.
This is justice work—living each moment with that sentence as the heart of our reality, of our identity, of our purpose. God shows no partiality. We show no partiality. We strive to create a world where no partiality is shown. We stand up for the vision glimpsed in the home of Cornelius, in the speeches of justice workers across the millennia, in the words of Audre Lorde. “I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of my other part of my identity. I know that my people cannot possibly profit from the oppression of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. Rather, we diminish ourselves by denying to others what we have shed blood to obtain for our children. AND those children need to learn that they do not have to become like each other in order to work together for a future they will all share.” Amen!
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said, “but it bends toward justice.” Justice—a world where no one is shown partiality, where no one is declared forbidden, where no one is considered deviant. That is our work—Beloved Community, sacred connections, acts of compassion, standing up—living up—for justice. It is that simple…and that complicated. How will we live justice today…tomorrow…all of our days going forward?
Before we join with one of our youth—Jackson Robinson—in speaking our fourth value this day, let us hear once again from Audre Lorde—a poem; “Who said it was Simple,” written in 1973.
There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
Let us speak our commitment to justice living-along with Jackson—Standing Up for Justice.
Standing Up for Justice: Throughout the Book of Acts, the movement of the Holy Spirit challenged the infant church to redefine who was included in God’s dream for the human community. The Spirit revealed to the early church that “God shows no partiality.” As those who follow the Spirit’s call, St. Paul’s stands for justice and works alongside those who are marginalized, oppressed, and silenced in our society and the larger world. We are constantly listening, learning, and acting to end “injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves (United Methodist Baptismal Covenant).” Our Beloved Community and connections to the sacred give us the courage and endurance we need to “realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice (Martin Luther King, Jr.).”