May 15, 2022
"When Outsiders Become Insiders"
Rev. Scott Landis
Lutheran pastor Sarah Scherschligt reminded me in her recent article in the Christian Century of a current film that has amazing relevance to our scripture passage today from the book of Acts. The movie Belfast won numerous awards this past season not only for its excellent screenplay and cinematography but, I think, because it touches some raw nerves still very present in our lives today.
Set in 1969 Northern Ireland, a nine-year-old Protestant boy, Buddy, has a crush on his Catholic schoolmate, Catherine. The whole town is in upheaval as Protestant loyalists make life miserable for local Catholic families by continuously harassing them they seek to drive them from the neighborhood. Riots ensue. Religious loyalties solidify. And in some cases, violence leads to death AND extremely puzzled children as they try and make sense out of what they are witnessing.
Buddy asks his father if he could have a future with Catherine. To which his father – who is very concerned about the inter-religious hatred replies, “That wee girl could be a practicing Hindu, or a Southern Baptist, or a vegetarian Antichrist. But if she is kind and fair, and you two respect each other, she and her people are welcome in our house.”
I think that a remarkably enlightened statement, but not a message I received as a kid growing up in small-town Pennsylvania. How about you? We were taught to be suspicious of “the other.” And “the other” comprised quite a few different categories in my town – be they black, or Jewish, or gay, or God forbid, Catholic. [Pause]
I invited folks, the other day, to reflect on the messages they received growing up about folks who didn’t look like them or pray like them or speak like them – “the other” in their lives. If we had the time, it would be interesting to hear your stories as well. Our situations may not have the same intensity of Northern Ireland in 1969, but I wonder if there were feelings expressed by your parents or respected elders – either verbally or non-verbally – regarding who belonged and who didn’t – who was in and who was out. Who do you remember as “the other?” [Pause]
In our story today Peter had some of his own baggage to get rid of regarding insiders and outsiders. Rather orthodox in his orientation to Judaism, Peter was quite happy teaching the Jewish believers of his Master, Jesus, as he opened the Hebrew scriptures to them, but God had broader ideas in mind. God gave Peter a vision that radically changed his personal understanding of God’s desire for ALL people. It was a realization that changed the future of the emerging church. [Pause]
His vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven laden with all sorts of “unclean animals,” which he was encouraged to kill and eat was difficult for him to digest initially (pun intended). But as he pondered this revelation, and he embraced the fact that it was from God, he knew what he had to do. It was essential that he share this new possibility of God’s open-door policy to everyone. He had to tell the story of his vision to all who would listen – especially those of his own tribe. God was not just the God of some – but the God of all.
It's important to note, Peter did not pitch his new knowledge by offering a carefully crafted theological argument to convince others of his vision. No, he simply told them a story of how God opened his eyes. His method is one we ought all pay attention. Stories, not arguments change lives. [Pause]
At a church I previously served, we put up a sign near our entrance to proudly proclaim our openness in welcoming ALL people. It was intended as an affirmation to worshippers as well as those just passing by. It stated:
IN THIS CHURCH WE AFFIRM:
BLACK LIVES MATTER
KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING
LOVE IS LOVE
WOMENS RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
TRANS LIVES ARE BEAUTIFUL
NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL
I assumed, everyone in the congregation agreed with these statements. Well, you know what they say about those who assume something. It will likely make a [a%$*] out of you and me. Turns out not everyone was as equally thrilled with the sign on our church lawn as I. I got a call one day from an angry parishioner who did not agree with our “Black Lives Matter” proclamation. Her rationale was based on what she saw reported on television depicting “Black youth” throwing rocks through store windows, looting and what have you shortly after the George Floyd video was released. She felt we were supporting a political movement and that was NOT the role of the church, and recommended the sign be taken down immediately. She said there were others in the congregation who felt the same way as she.
I also had Black and Brown folks in my congregation who spoke to me with equal passion. They felt affirmed by seeing the statement on our sign and were so grateful that they were finally being recognized by the church. They were proud of our congregation for posting the sign and wanted to let me know how important it was to them.
Suffice it to say, I had gotten myself into a situation. I was caught in the middle and triangulated at the same time. My sense was the only way forward was to bring the warring factions together and to talk-story as we say here. That’s exactly what we did. I invited them to come together and share their stories – about how this statement affected them – what it meant to them – and how it would affect our church as a whole. What happened was truly amazing.
The sign was almost irrelevant. Rather, it was their stories that took center stage. Recollections took the form of story as they spoke of their earliest memories of prejudices learned through messages they received. These incidents had become a part of their DNA. Stories were also shared of the pain others experienced of being looked upon with suspicion simply because of the color of their skin. Fears were revealed on both sides as story after story was told. Misunderstandings of what was seen on the television news were given a fuller explanation by a local public radio station reporter who was also a part of the group. You could almost see the lightbulbs going on as eyes were opened, tears flowed, and hardened hearts softened. Not everyone left in full agreement. A compromise was struck on the sign, but lives were changed that night not by argument – but by stories, and I left feeling as if we had all experienced the Holy Presence of God. [Pause]
It was not unlike those folks in the Book of Acts where the writer records, “Hearing it all laid out like that, they quieted down. And then it sank in, as they started praising God. “It’s really happened! God has broken through to ‘the others.’ God has opened all to Life!” [Pause]
Like Peter, many of us are carrying baggage adopted through our upbringing. It’s baggage that has affected our decisions and, in some cases, reinforced our prejudices based upon our fears and ignorance. But, like Peter, it’s baggage that must be released IF we are going to “Love our Neighbor” and open ourselves to the new possibility described in Revelation 21.
None of us is free of prejudice. If we think we are, we are only fooling ourselves. We all harbor suspicion or ingrained animosity toward someone or some group that we don’t fully understand. And itʻs work to listen to their stories. But it’s essential to build true community.
That doesn’t mean that we must agree with or affirm the beliefs or practices of “the other.” But it does mean that we, under the commandment of love, are called to affirm the humanity of all beings.
Animosity probably still exists between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast today. And I know that the minds of those sitting around the table in my office were completely changed after we left that night. But I witnessed through the power of story — as those gathered shared their lives from their hearts — is something we all saw the value in affirming.
We say it each week, “We welcome all, love all, and accept all into our ‘ohana.” What does the mean to you?