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Conversion To Impartiality

Sermon
Sermons On The First Readings
Series I, Cycle B
Once upon a time a great and powerful king ruled over a vast territory. There was something very strange about this kingdom, however -- everything was the same. The people ate the same food, drank the same drink, wore the same clothes, and lived in the same type of homes. The people even did all the same work. There was another oddity about this place. Everything was gray -- the food, the drink, the clothes, the houses; there were no other colors.

One day a majestic and very beautiful bird flew from the west into a small village a great distance from the capital city. The bird deposited a yellow egg and flew off. The people were fascinated with their new possession since they had never seen anything but gray. They played with the egg and poked it. In the process the egg broke. Inside was a yellow powder. Anything that came in contact with the powder instantly turned yellow. At the outset a few people's clothes and some other objects turned yellow, but the people were soon so struck with their new discovery that the whole village was "painted" yellow. The next day the same bird flew from the west and deposited a blue egg in another small village. It did not take long before everything in this village was blue. This same scenario repeated itself on seven consecutive days as the majestic bird deposited seven different colored eggs in seven villages.

The king in the capital city, where all was still gray, heard about these strange events and wondered what the sign might mean. He called in his royal councilors and advisors and asked them if anything like this had happened in the past. They checked the ancient manuscripts and discovered that many generations ago the kingdom was ruled by a philosopher king. At the time there was much dissension, strife, and conflict in the kingdom. It was further discovered that the source of this dissension came about from the differences that existed among the people. The king, who wanted peace, believed that the only way to restore harmony was to eliminate all differences among the people. This is why all the people did the same things and all was gray.

The present king was worried that the various colors in the villages would again lead to dissension and strife. Thus, he ordered the royal archers to locate the majestic bird and slay it. The archers found the bird and their arrows were sent straight and true, but they had no effect on the bird, which simply flew away. If the bird could not be stopped, then the people must be, thought the king. Thus, he ordered the people to remove all the colors and return to gray. But the people, who were enamored with the new colors in their lives, refused to obey the king's order. Dissension, strife, and conflict ensued -- the very things the king was trying to prevent.

The king was unsure as to what to do until one day the beautiful majestic bird flew into the royal palace and deposited seven different colored eggs. The king was frustrated and angry and in a fit of rage he hurled the eggs in all different directions. They burst into an array of color. The beauty was so magnificent that the king, in a moment of inspiration, knew precisely what he needed to do. He now realized that the bird was a sign that he had been too exclusive in his way of thinking and change was needed, but he had ignored the sign. Thus, the king ordered that all the people must have all the colors. Again there were no differences and, thus, dissension, strife, and conflict ceased and all of the people lived happily ever after.1

The king held tight control on the lives of his subjects. In controlling the colors he controlled how the people thought and in general how they lived. He had one and only one way of thinking, one way of acting and responding to situations and, thus, he believed his way was the only way for all. But his perspective was quite limited; he understood life in his own way and lived it on his own terms. But through the intercession of the majestic bird he learned that he needed to be more open; he needed to be converted to a more inclusive understanding of life. He became converted to the absolute need to be impartial.

Scripture scholars say that Acts 10:1--11:18 is one of the most important passages in the whole Acts of the Apostles. This pericope speaks of the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman officer, to the "new way." The story is told is seven separate scenarios with today's first lesson being the climax. It is clear that Luke the evangelist wants his readers to understand the significance he is giving to the story. The use of repetition in the passage, telling the story of Cornelius' vision four times and Peter's dream twice indicates how strongly Luke wants us to grasp the narrative's importance for the fledgling Christian community. Luke tells us that Cornelius was a devout man who feared God and, although as a Gentile he was an outsider to the new community, he was willing to be converted.

The significance of this passage can be seen in several fundamental ways. First, it is clear from the narrative that we are being told that the young Christian community is beginning to reach out to people beyond its immediate purview; leaders of the new way are now ready to seek outsiders, Gentiles, who can be added to the Judeo-Christians who comprise the first followers of Jesus. Secondly, this passage demonstrates how the Christian community began to exercise Jesus' ministry of inclusivity in its application to converts. In his earthly life Jesus reached out in a preferential way to the many "outcasts" of his day -- to lepers, the poor, tax collectors, prostitutes, even women. Thus, we can see that the message of the gospel is now directly applied by the first Christians in how they will deal with the varied peoples they will encounter in their efforts to evangelize and spread Christ's message to the world. In this passage Luke creates a scene in which old divisions are broken down. Those who had been at odds with each other, namely Jews and Gentiles, are now brought together in one common community of faith. Peter aptly expresses this idea in 10:34, stating, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." In other words, God plays no favorites. God is not exclusive in responding to the needs of his people. On the contrary, God is fully inclusive in his relationship with all.

Today's First lesson is the climax of Cornelius' conversion story. Armed with the knowledge that God shows no partiality, it follows directly that the presence of God in the world, the Holy Spirit, should be bestowed upon this Roman officer and his family. This pericope is often referred to as the "Gentile Pentecost," an appropriate appellation since Cornelius is symbolic of all Gentiles to whom the Holy Spirit goes. The irruption of the Spirit descending upon Cornelius and his family confirms Peter's claim that God shows no partiality. Any potential dilemma concerning the baptism of Cornelius is hereby settled. If God has chosen this man and his family, and by extension all Gentiles, then the new way can do nothing but follow.

The scenario depicted in today's First lesson is an example of the theme of conversion that is predominate in Luke-Acts. The evangelist constantly seeks opportunities for people to find their home in the new way that Jesus has inaugurated. Individuals, like Cornelius, who are converted are emblematic of groups to whom the new Christian community must reach out in a special way. Jesus played no favorites and sought followers among all constituencies; God shows no partiality.

Human history is replete with significant examples of systemic injustice. One example of injustice is how governments, partial to some citizens to the detriment of others, were smashed because people were eventually converted to the need for inclusivity in all human relationships. We need look no further than our land to find one significant example of this reality. Even before the official foundation of the United States in 1776 this land existed half slave and half free, a manner of life that was totally inconsistent with the basic Christian principles upon which the foundational documents of this country, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, are based. The understanding that all people must enjoy "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" was not being followed for some. Abraham Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" of January 1, 1863, looked good on paper, but the reality was that many African Americans did not enjoy the rights and benefits of other United States' citizens. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed the situation accurately during his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, proclaimed on the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 during the historic "March on Washington." He told his audience that Lincoln's proclamation was like a promissory note given to slaves that had been repeatedly returned and marked "insufficient funds." Not until Dr. King and his faithful and courageous associates were able to break through the barriers of racism and discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a more inclusive attitude toward people of color in this land appreciated.

More recently in history we can see a repeat performance of the smashing of discrimination in the elimination of the apartheid system in the nation of South Africa. Two brave men, a white politician, F. W. DeKlerk, and a black freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, formed an unlikely alliance in bringing a new day to a nation in the midst of its darkest hour. In a rather short number of years these two courageous men were able to undo a system that had "enslaved" the majority population of a land for almost fifty years. South Africa, like the United States, Peter, and the king in the story, was converted to the need for an inclusive way of thinking. All people were to be equally valued and treated as full participants in the land.

The need for conversion to a more inclusive way of thinking is necessary for all of us in lesser or greater ways. This new or renewed way of thinking must begin with ourselves. Too often today people go about their daily activities with a poor self image. Many people in our contemporary world feel inadequate, believing that others can do things and they cannot. We often believe ourselves to be inadequate or insufficient in many things -- our intelligence, physical appearance, personality, athletic prowess, or worldly power or acceptance. We lower ourselves and raise others. When we think like this we, in a very real sense, have excluded ourselves from the equation of life. We, for many varied reasons, consider ourselves inadequate for the task or the possibility before us. We at times need to be converted to the reality that while we might not be the best in any one thing (although we just might be) it is wrong to denigrate, and thereby, exclude ourselves. Such an attitude subjugates part of God's creation. We are just as important and just as capable as the other person. Our need to be inclusive must obviously start at home.

Once we have come to grips with and have accepted our own person as valued, worthy, and important, then we can begin to be converted to a more inclusive understanding of others. This process is initiated by exercising an inclusive attitude toward others. Many times we possess attitudes which are completely contrary to the impartiality God showed in reaching out to the Roman Gentile, Cornelius. We hold and at times share with others exclusive attitudes that separate us from others. We place ourselves, our group, our institution, or our profession above others in an exclusive manner. Such an attitude leads us to believe that we have all the answers and that others have little if anything significant to contribute. We discriminate in our hearts and remove ourselves from others because of differences in race, ethnic origin, religion, political preference, sexual orientation, and even economic livelihood. Such an attitude of self-righteousness is ultimately detrimental to all concerned. It lowers the inherent human dignity of some and falsely exalts the importance and ideas of others. We need to transform our attitudes, as the king and Peter learned, to an understanding of life that appreciates all ideas, people, and ways of being. We might not agree nor participate in many of the varied ways people think today, but we are asked to appreciate the need to be more inclusive.

Once we have righted our self-understanding and attitudes to a more inclusive perspective, then we must demonstrate this renewed self in our actions and words. We are all aware that attitudes translate into action and words and, thus, the need for transformation is clear. At times, possibly without thinking or realizing it, we discriminate against others by associating with some people and refusing to be with others, by being pleasant to one group but totally ignoring another. Sometimes our actions and words are inconsistent with our Christian call, as articulated in the "Golden Rule," to love others as we wish others to love us. Since all people are created, as the book of Genesis tells us, in the image and likeness of God, actions and words that denigrate others or demonstrate a preference for one at the disdain of another are incompatible with our vocation as followers of Jesus Christ. He followed what the Father asked of him. We, in turn, must follow Christ's lead in being fully inclusive in all that we do and say. Our actions need not be overt. We can communicate a very anti-Christian philosophy of life in all sorts of subtle ways. We must, therefore, be ever conscious of what we say and do so that our lives communicate a Christ-like attitude and manner of life.

The king in the story refused to give his subjects the colors because he wanted to control their lives, but he learned the error of his way. Both the United States and South Africa practiced segregationist and racist policies of social discrimination that were only smashed when the futility of such approaches was revealed. Today, as the Easter season continues, we are challenged to discover and apply to our lives a more equitable, open, and inclusive understanding of life. God chose the Hebrews, but through the life of Jesus Christ all people for all time can enjoy God's benefits and the promise of eternal life. Jesus showed no partiality. Let us, therefore, reach out to others and demonstrate the boldness and inclusivity of God's love. This is the only route to holiness, the common vocation for all God's people. May we in word and action show the face of Christ to all we meet today and each day of our lives.

____________

1. "Colors," paraphrased from John R. Aurelio, Colors! Stories of the Kingdom (New York: Crossroad, 1993), pp. 134-136.

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