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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Prejudice and the Church - Special Post

I got such a positive reaction to my sermon on prejudice and Ferguson, Missouri that I decided to post it here. You can also get it off our web site or listen to the podcast on iTunes. Or you can watch the video here -

Confront Your Ungodly Prejudices
Acts 10:1-35 (Peter)
Dr. Jeff Ebert
Presbyterian Church at New Providence
New Community Church/Garwood
          Did you ever get your eyes checked and the doctor puts that big machine on your face with all the lenses? And then she flips back and forth between various lenses asking, “Which is better, number one or number two? Number one or number two?” Most of the time I just guess because I can’t tell any difference. The doctor could be using the same lens each time for all I know. But somehow there’s science in there among all those lenses so that the doctor can narrow things down and find the right prescription for your vision so you can see clearly.
            That’s what we’re doing in our Lenten message series “Daring to Dream Again.” We’re looking through a variety of scriptural lenses to help us focus, and see more clearly the dreams, the life, the future that God wants for us. Each Bible character we’ve talked about is a lens through which we look at ourselves, our own lives so that we get a better focus on our relationship with God. We’ve see how God gives us a new identity in Christ. Like it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a brand new person inside: the old way of life is gone. A new life has begun.” (TLB) That’s God’s great promise. We’ve learned that while we wait for our big dreams we can see daily evidence of God’s care and involvement.  We saw how bitterness and anger can corrupt a person’s goals and dreams. And how connecting with God Almighty through prayer can overcome the power of false shame.
Today’s message takes us in a whole new direction on a topic is often a huge blind spot for the church but one that can severely limit a Christian’s ability to sync up their life with God’s work in the world. Today we’re looking at Confronting Your Ungodly Prejudices. Our scripture is Acts 10:1-23. Open your heart to hear God’s Word.
            1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
            4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
            9About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.11He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.12It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
                  14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
            17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” 22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.   AMEN.
            Ferguson, Missouri. For years to come two different stories will be told about what happened on August 9, 2014. Two different narratives about what took place in an encounter between a police officer and a citizen. One story will tell of a black teenager, who, while trying to surrender, was shot and killed by a trigger-happy white cop; and the community rose up in civil disobedience against a racist system that oppresses minorities and devalues the lives of young black men. The other story will tell of  a young man, who stood 6’ 5” and weighted 289 pounds, the size of an NFL lineman, who had just committed a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store. And when stopped he punched a police officer in the face through the open window of his police cruiser, reached for the officer’s gun. The ensuing fight spilled out of the police car onto the street. The officer feared for his life and shot and killed his attacker. The  riots were caused by hoodlums who were just looking for an excuse to loot and burn local businesses. Two very different stories – two very different descriptions of the same event.
             How will those two groups ever come together? How do they ever get beyond raw emotion to separate fact from fiction? The tension between them is so great. How will you ever get people who believe the first story to admit that “hands up – don’t shoot!” didn’t happen, according to the Department of Justice report. It was false testimony from an unreliable witness that was spread by an eager media. How will you ever get people who believe the second story to admit that [18the police department was rife with prejudice, and that a systemic pattern of racial bias and unfair treatment of young black men created a tinderbox of distrust that quickly ignited into flames because of the shooting? Will the people behind those two stories ever be able to come together to just talk with each other in a civil or rational way? The gap seems so wide.
            If you can feel the tension that exists between the different perspectives surrounding the events in Ferguson, Missouri that’s about a quarter of the tension that existed between the Jews and the Gentiles in the ancient world of the New Testament. We need to feel the intensity of the racial hatred and distrust that existed between the Jews and the Romans if we ever hope to grasp the real impact of today’s passage and the power of the Gospel to transcend racial prejudice.
            You see, throughout the Bible God is always trying to get people to dream his dream, not just their own. God’s dream for the world is much larger than our puny dreams. In fact God’s dream often exceeds the capacity of our imagination. God is far more creative, more loving, more encompassing than we could ever imagine. Since the beginning of time God’s dream was that all people would worship him together with joy. The New Testament speaks of a church where all people would worship Christ alone and be welcomed into his Body regardless of age, gender, race, class, appearance, weight, accent or occupation. A church described this way in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” But that kind of church didn’t happen automatically. It began through a dream given to the Apostle Peter, who then discovers that God’s dream exceeded his dream in a way he never thought possible. Acts 10 describes a monumental turning point in human history and something we desperately need to rediscover in our own day.
            Let’s go back to God’s original dream. God had a plan in mind about how he was going to redeem fallen humanity. How he was going to solve our sin problem in a way that would satisfy both his love and his justice. And it had to be both, because God cannot go against his own nature. He can’t just ignore our sin, pretend it didn’t happen and welcome us into his holy presence, sin and all, because that would violate his own perfect nature. So God planned a way for both his love to be fully demonstrated and his justice to be fully satisfied. We now know that perfect love and perfect justice met at the cross in Jesus, the one and only incarnate Son of God who became our substitute. Through his death and resurrection Jesus is the One who brought us atonement, AT – ONE – MENT with God the Father. And God knew that the people on earth would have to have some way of understanding what he was doing. Some way of understanding that sacrifice would satisfy God’s love and justice.
            So, to prepare the way, he chose a group of people through whom he would bring this Savior and sort of set the table for his coming. God chose the descendents of a man named Abraham. They weren’t any better than any other group of people. God made a sovereign choice. He picked them, period. He chose the Jews to be his messengers to the world. In Genesis 12:3 God tells Abraham, as the spiritual and physical father of this tribe, “All peoples on earth shall be blessed through you.” God’s dream is for all people. All tribes. All ethnicities. All nations. God wants everybody. There is no discrimination in God. He wants all people to turn from their sin, turn to the cross, be saved through faith in Jesus, and become part of his forever family. God is crazy in love with every person on the planet, no matter what their zip code.
            But this chosen-ness by the Jews actually became a wedge issue that pushed them further and further away from other peoples. 500 years of slavery in Egypt taught them to be suspicious. They felt the sting of racism. They knew prejudice and discrimination and powerlessness from first hand experience. They knew the danger of pagan gods and false idols. And so when God liberated them from the power of Pharaoh one of the things they brought with them out of Egypt was a deep hatred for anyone who wasn’t like them. They had enemies galore. Armies marching against them, other tribes trying to exterminate them. Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, [Termites – no, that’ snot in there], Philistines, Babylonians, Assyrians, and finally in 63 B.C. the Romans. For almost one thousand years it had been non-stop kill or be killed; conquer or be conquered.
            The Jews feared extinction, so they did what any group of people would do. They learned to protect themselves by closing the circle. They closed the circle. You were either inside the circle and part of the group, or you were outside the circle and a threat. Sure, they identified themselves as God’s chosen people but they forgot that their role was to bless all peoples. They lost sight of God’s dream for the world and thought only of protecting themselves. They looked at everyone who was outside their circle as the enemy. The word “Gentile” applies to everyone who wasn’t Jewish. And by Jesus’ day this exclusion, this racial hatred had been codified and became woven into what the Pharisees taught as essential to their faith. They were taught that any contact with Gentiles would make them unclean before God. So, first century Jews wouldn’t eat in a Gentile’s home. Could not speak or be friends with a Gentile. In their made-up human religious regulations, recorded in what’s called the Talmud, it said that a Jew should not help a Gentile woman even if she was in labor, because that would just bring one more Gentile into the world. And the Gentiles returned the favor. There was bad blood both ways.
            We’re talking about major prejudice and deep-seated racial hatred. Remember all the first followers of Jesus were Jewish. Jesus came to the Jews as their Messiah. Jesus was the blessing they were to give to the world. The Jewish followers of Jesus never contemplated that they were starting any kind of new religion. They were simply fulfilling the promises that had been given to the Jewish people. They were considered a sect or sub-set of Judaism. No one had yet thought of them in any other way. And the Jewish followers of Jesus carried all their internalized prejudices with them right into the church. They brought those same feelings right into the church. Here’s a key point: distance amplifies the difference. As long as you stand apart – stand at a distance from someone or some other group – it is always easier to label them, demonize them, and treat them as the enemy, as inferior. Distance amplifies the difference.
            But you know what, God has a way of closing the distance. That’s what he did in Jesus. Jesus crossed the limitless expanse between God’s perfect heaven and our imperfect earth. He was born as one of us. In the flesh. He got close to us so that we could know what God is like. That’s why Jesus could say, “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” (John 14:9) It’s why the writer of the book of Hebrews could say, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” (Hebrews 1:3). God closed the distance.
            And God closed the distance in Acts 10 as well. In a vision God came to a Roman army officer named Cornelius. Cornelius served in a legendary battalion of 6,000 men called the Italian Regiment. The regiment was divided into 10 cohorts of 600 men each. Each cohort was further divided into centuries of 100 men. Each century was led by a centurion like Cornelius. You didn’t get to be a centurion by being a soft-hearted push over. In fact in battle if their  position was ever overrun by the enemy a centurion was expected to never retreat and to die at his post. They were hard core. And yet we’re told that Cornelius was a “God-fearer.” This was a term used for Gentiles who had become weary of the Roman gods and the excesses of the Emperor and the moral decay of the cultural elites. They had given up on their ancestral faith and had attached themselves to the edges of Judaism. They didn’t accept circumcision or follow the Jewish laws, but they would go to the synagogues and stand in the back and listen. They believed in the one true God. And even though they prayed and did acts of charity the Jews still regarded them as ritually unclean and wouldn’t have much to do with them. Cornelius responded in faith to the amount of "light" that he had received. He didn’t know the full Gospel yet, but something was tugging on his heart. It was the Holy Spirit. God honored the openness in Cornelius’ heart, came close to him. God orchestrates the events and led Cornelius toward salvation in Christ.
            So, Cornelius sends emissaries to find Peter. Peter has just had his own wild dream about eating all kinds of food that were forbidden by the Jewish dietary laws, all these foods that were not kosher and would make a Jew ceremonially clean. But according to Mark 7:19 Jesus already declared all foods clean because he was the personal fulfillment of all the Old Testament ceremonial laws. But Jews like Peter had a hard time letting go of their cultural training. The dream was God’s way of driving home the point to Peter that just like all foods were clean, all people were clean; and that no race, no people group was unclean in God’s sight. Christ’s Body, the Church, was for everyone – Jew and Gentile alike.
            And here we have to give Peter a lot of credit. Remember his last encounter with a Roman centurion didn’t turn out so well. Late at night in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Roman soldiers coming to arrest Jesus. Impetuous Peter pulling out a sword and slicing off somebody’s ear, and then he and the other disciples were all elbows and knees running for their lives. Roman soldiers were the ones who nailed Jesus to the cross. A Roman centurion stood at the foot of the cross and watched Jesus die. A centurion was the very symbol of Roman oppression. Cornelius and Peter could not have been more opposite.
            Peter shows an amazing amount of courage and boldness here. He first invites the Gentile emissaries into his home and then, as you read on in the chapter he goes with them to see Cornelius. That’s like Daniel walking into the lions den. In faith Peter overcomes his fear and his prejudice, and he closes the distance. He physically goes to Cornelius’s home. And while he’s there Peter says this: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:34-36). This is a total pivot point in the history of the church and the history of the world. From here on Christianity becomes a faith for the whole world, not the exclusive property of one group of people. The whole history of western civilization changed because of what happened in that room between Peter and Cornelius. The whole history of the world changed because Peter was able to overcome his ungodly prejudice.
            How about you? God cannot build his church with prejudiced people. And so it is important for Christians to examine their own hearts to see the obvious and sometimes subtle ways in which prejudice is at work – because prejudice will impede the spread of the Gospel and the health of the Christ’s church. There are so many ways prejudice is at work in our world. In the youth ministry: kids in the band don’t like kids in the chorus. Or soccer players and football players despise each other. Somebody goes to another school so you immediately write them off. And yet you’re in the same church! Maybe you’re prejudiced against poor people or homeless people who ought to just get a job and stop having babies. Maybe you’ve got a prejudice against people who smoke or who eat too much or people who constantly flaunt their exercise routine. Maybe you’re prejudiced against old people or young people or people with disabilities. Or you live on the other side of I-78. You live in a different township. There’s a part of you that pulls away from them. Or maybe it is racial. Racial prejudice goes in so many different directions. Mexicans don’t like Puerto Ricans who don’t like Cubans. Koreans don’t like Japanese who don’t like the Chinese. Armenians who don’t like Turks who don’t like Russians. And yet they could all be Christians.
            This all hit me pretty hard after the shooting and riots in Ferguson last summer because it felt like it was an impossible situation and our national leaders only seemed to fan the flames of discord. And I felt like God was saying I needed to do something. I knew I couldn’t fix the Ferguson situation but God was nudging me to ask what I could do locally, proactively to build bridges and help close the distance between groups before a tragic situation might tear a community apart. I recognize I’m the senior pastor of a fairly white, suburban, affluent church. It’s been great to see a steady increase in our congregation’s racial diversity over the years but that has not been a stated goal of the church. Our goal is to exalt Jesus Christ and diversity is a natural consequence of that. Exalting Jesus Christ is our goal and so we’re open to welcome anyone and everyone who shares that passion.
            A couple things happened. First, I got involved with a state-wide effort to mobilize churches to get involved with under-resourced communities called City-Serve. And naturally I first was thinking of ways to mobilize our church to get involved with our mission partners in Elizabeth and Newark and New York City. But something was nagging at about Plainfield. Plainfield’s a tough place that has never recovered from its race riots in the late 1960s. So I began talking with people who I knew worked in Plainfield trying to figure out what I could personally do. Eventually I met with the police director of Plainfield, Carl Riley. What a great guy. An African-American leader who really has a heart for the people of Plainfield. Turned out to be one of those God coincidences because he was trying to figure out how he would get the pastors of Plainfield to work together on community and police relations. I said, count me in. Long story short a couple weeks ago I was at a meeting at the Plainfield Police station with many of the Plainfield pastors. I was the only white face in the room, which is good for me. And at the meeting 15 pastors stepped forward, including me, to become official chaplains for the Plainfield police department. We’ll be trained. We’ll take shifts to ride along with police officers. In the warmer months we’ll walk the beat with officers, meet store owners, talk with people on the streets and at the schools. We’ll do suicide notifications or when there’s a fatality from an auto accident we’ll be there to assist the families. We’ll work with first time juvenile offenders on their community service and attempt to mentor them into a better future. In general we’ll try to build a bridge between the police department and the community so that there’s a positive clergy presence in case there ever is a police involved shooting or racially charged situation.
            Now, do I have time for this. No! But one of my guiding life principle is that there is always time to do what God wants you to do. There’s not enough time to do everything everybody else wants you to do, but there’s always enough time to do what God wants you to do. You make time. You say ‘no’ to other things when God gives you a greater ‘yes’. What I’m going to do in Plainfield isn’t going to rid the world of prejudice or racism, it’s just a small step in the right direction. It was Helen Keller who said, “I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

            What can you do? What can you do to close the distance? If you’re prejudiced against poor people maybe you need to take some shifts on the Relief Bus and see what their lives are really like. Maybe if you’re prejudiced against illegal immigrants, you need to go on the family mission trip to Mexico and see the reality of poverty that drives so many people to seek a better life in the U.S..  Look in your heart. Explore your prejudices. Do something rather than stay in your bubble. Close the distance. Walk across the room. Sit at a different lunch table. Do the little you can do. Be the kind of church that will make Jesus proud. AMEN.

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