Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service.
My twins are now in middle school. I once enjoyed helping them with homework. Not so much anymore. Simple math has now turned into algebra and geometry. Science no longer involves fun experiments like creating volcanoes with baking power. They are using terms from chemistry and physics. Anything STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related evokes terrible memories for me—a post traumatic stress from high school. There is a reason that I became a professor of Religious Studies.
Yet there is one area that I can still be of assistance—the Humanities. I’m always asking them, “Do you have any writing tonight?” Whenever it’s the case, I go into full geek mode.
Yellow pad. Check.
Ball point pen. Check.
Thesaurus and dictionary apps. Check.
Writing space cleaned off on the kitchen table. Check.
This is why I’ve been in heaven this week. Zora Neale had a research paper on apartheid South Africa, and Elijah Mays on the Russian Revolution. For the past five days, I have been relevant again in my household!
Whenever we sit down to write, there are a few best practices that we recite together. Formulate a clear thesis. Draft an outline of key points that will support your thesis. Variegate your sentence structure. Start and end each paragraph with a powerful, pithy sentence whenever possible. And, finally, control your transitions. You never want your thoughts to come off as inchoate and disjointed. Be intentional about your use of conjunctions.
Because. However. Though. Yet. And. But. Or. These are all slight but essential components of meaning making. If you grew up in the 1970s or 80s watching Saturday morning cartoons like me, you learned this lesson from School House Rock. “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.”
Conjunctions add nuance. Conjunctions complicate narratives. Conjunctions establish meaning. They point to ultimate outcomes.
For instance, a sentence from Zora’s paper this week read:
Blacks, Indians, Coloreds, and sympathetic whites aligned to fight the laws of apartheid.The South African government banned the ANC for thirty years. However, the ANC operated underground and outside of South Africa, as people like Albert Lutuli and Oliver Tambo helped to weaken the laws of the apartheid era.”
Nuance, complexity, and a vision of an outcome were established by her use of conjunctions.
I want you to keep this in mind as we consider today’s New Testament lesson. It comes from the book of Acts. The book of Acts, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, provides an account of the early church. The book spans three decades following the crucifixion of Jesus. We witness his followers, once disciples, turn into apostles or delegates of Jesus. We see Peter, James, and eventually Paul become envoys—the literal meaning of apostle. They spread Jesus’s teachings about the kingdom of God, a renewal movement within Judaism at the time. It was a renewal movement because Jesus was not teaching anything new, per se. But rather he was reviving the rich tradition of love and justice from the Law and the Prophets. These were the teachings that the Jesus movement spread from Jerusalem to Rome.
In the tenth chapter of Acts, the Apostle Peter meets a Roman officer named Cornelius. Cornelius is a high ranking official. The Bible says that he headed up an Italian cohort of six hundred soldiers. But we learn something else about Cornelius. He is a “God-fearer.” In the first century, the term God-fearer described non-Jews who appreciated the teachings of Judaism. These were Gentiles who would attend local synagogues throughout the Empire. And Cornelius, being a God-fearer, requested that Peter come to his house and share with his household the teachings of Jesus. Thus in today’s Easter lection we read Peter’s sermon to the household—a sermon that I believe captures and encapsulates the meaning of Easter.
The first point comes when Peter says, “I now understand that God shows no partiality.” Looking at Cornelius’s sincerity and commitment to his faith, Peter now understands what Jesus was talking about. The kingdom of God is big enough for all.
In Cornelius Peter saw a man that was different than him ethnically and socially. Yet Peter then remembered how Jesus dealt with difference. He recalled Jesus healing the Roman centurion’s daughter. He recalled Jesus’s compassion toward a Syrophonecian woman. He recalled how Jesus treated the Samaritans. Peter realized that this was what Jesus was trying to teach him. God’s love is for the Jews and the Gentiles. It’s for the Hebrew and the Greek. It is for the Judean and the Italian.
This was radical news for those in the ancient world. Gods were often associated with tribes and specific regions. Gods were meant to maintain physical boundaries and cultural borders. But here Peter declares that God’s love is impartial and inclusive.
I imagine that Cornelius appreciated this message as much as some of us here today. For we still live in a world defined by partiality and exclusion. Think about the questions we ask one another. Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up? What do you do for a living? More often than not, these are questions we use to classify and categorize rather than to engage and embrace. We measure one another in order to decide whether one is “our kind of people.”
There are also physical markers that categorize and contain. Some never even get the benefit of a question. We carry our honor and/or our shame on our physical body. Maybe its gender. Maybe its skin color. Maybe it is the texture of one’s hair. Often it is our physical ability or disability, and even one’s physical shape. We use physical markers to decide who belongs where. We use physical traits to decide who deserves what.
I am so glad that none of this matters to God. Tall and short; slim and wide; light and dark; male, female, and trans—red, yellow, black, and white, we are all precious in God’s sight. God’s love is impartial and inclusive.
But though God’s love is impartial and inclusive, this does not mean that there are no expectations. Peter is not preaching a gospel of cheap grace or easy love. Peter makes clear our ethical obligation. In verse 35 it says that God’s love is impartial across the nations, and for all those who fear God and does what is right. Well, what is right? Let me quote the book of Micah. “Child of God, you already know what is good—to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.” In other words, if we accept God’s impartial and inclusive love, then we should act accordingly toward one another.
We are living in ugly times. Patriotism has devolved into nationalism. Cultural particularity is confused for ethnic tribalism. And the ideal of a global beloved community is being jettisoned for an insecure, xenophobic provincialism. We have made God as small as our hearts. God has become as narrow as our thinking.
This is why we are witnessing so much violence across the globe in the name of an angry, hateful God. Guided missiles are being shot by misguided men. We send drones to attack those afar, yet close our borders to those who are near. We beat our chest and declare country first, even if it means we think about the compassion of Christ last.
We’ve got God twisted. We have reduced the cross to a personal adornment around our necks. Some of us have even used our belief in Christ to baptize our own bigotry. As the author Anne Lamott put it, “It’s safe to say that we’ve made God in our own image when God hates all the same people that we do.”
Yet Easter can serve as our reminder. Peter’s sermon can serve as our inspiration. God’s love is impartial. God’s love is inclusive. And God’s love is expansive. God’s love is big enough for the Jew and the Gentile; the Judean and the Roman; the Christian and the Muslim; the Syrian and the American; the Mexican and the Canadian. God’s love is the inclusive conjunction that connects us one to another. No matter where you come from. No matter what language you dream in. No matter your skin tone. In God’s kingdom we can sing:
It’s no longer I,
but it’s you and me.
No more them or they,
but it is us and we.
We can march onward
to the victory.
If we are one in the spirit of love.
Now I can imagine that someone might be concerned that I am erasing theological difference. There is a difference between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. There is a difference between believers and agnostics, the devout and atheists. Thus, you might be asking, “Aren’t we called to treat our own like brothers and sisters?”
This is the same sort of theological question based on particularity that the exclusive religious elite used in their attempts to stop Jesus. “What is the greatest commandment of the Law?,” they asked.
Jesus replied, “Love the Lord thy God with all thine heart. And then love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“Who is my neighbor?,” they asked. This is when Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. For when a certain man fell among thieves, it was not a priest or a Levite—religious elites—who stopped to help him. But rather it was a Samaritan—a class of people that the religious elites literally viewed as dogs! A Samaritan proved to be the neighbor.
If we were to remix this parable for the contemporary moment, I can imagine a military veteran being robbed along one of our highways in America—let’s make him a Mexican American. First, a man walked by. A professed patriot. A “real American.” He was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat. Maybe this man thought the man was in the country illegally. Possibly he thought that the man should go back to “his country.” So this “real American” kept on walking.
Then a young lady walked by. She is a soon-to-be Harvard College graduate. She had a “Feel the Bern,” t-shirt on. She saw the man and immediately started to think about structural injustice. She thought about how it is a shame that white privilege and systemic evil would create these sort of conditions for this poor Mexican man. But then an alarm went off on her iPhone. It was her calendar. She was going to be late to her interview with Goldman Sachs. So she kept on walking.
Yet a Syrian refugee walked by. She saw the man. The Syrian woman recalled the compassion she received by a welcoming community in this country. She remembered how her fellow Muslims and local Christians helped with her family’s resettlement. This is why she felt compelled to stop and help this man in need.
This is what Jesus was trying to teach us about God’s love. It is impartial. God’s love is inclusive.
There is one more thing. Consider what we noted about conjunctions. Conjunctions expand meaning. God can love you and me. Conjunctions can also shape the course of a narrative.
Look at another conjunction in Peter’s sermon. After preaching about God’s impartial love, Peter is clear. This put Jesus on a dangerous path. There are those who embrace partiality. There are those who work hard to defend privilege. So because Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed, Peter pulls no punches. They hung him from a tree.
That is verse 39. What does the next verse say? “But God raised him on the third day.” God’s love is impartial. God’s love is inclusive. And God’s love intervenes. This is the meaning of Easter. New life. New opportunities. Resurrected hope. New possibilities.
Take a second to consider all of the negative clauses that you have experienced. Consider all of life’s storylines that have had you at your wit’s end. Now think about how God intervened like a contrasting conjunction.
For some it was that unexpected assistance from a friend; a random act of kindness and from a stranger; or maybe that moment when the stars just seemed to align on your behalf. I am neither too proud nor educated to confess my view. I believe this is when God intervened. God is that kind of conjunction.
For somebody here your heart was breaking. But God stepped in and provided the strength you needed.
Somebody here made choices you now regret. But God protected you from yourself.
And somebody here may have felt the pain of your own crucifixion Friday. But God raised your situation from the dead and provided you with a new lease on life.
God is that omnipresent conjunction. God is the impartial AND, and the intervening BUT. Easter reminds us that God is always present. And God can always rewrite the story.
When I think about how God intervenes in human history, I am reminded of one of my son’s favorite stories. It involves the Greek titan and champion of humanity, Prometheus. Prometheus’s love for humanity was expansive. It was inclusive. Thus, he was trying to keep Zeus from unleashing havoc on humanity.
Yet Zeus tried to outwit Prometheus. Zeus gave a jeweled box to Prometheus’s nitwit brother. He then gave it to his self-indulgent bride Pandora. Prometheus ordered the couple to never open the box. Yet the two couldn’t help themselves. And as soon as they opened it, all the ills of the world were unleashed on humanity. Evil. Mistrust. Despair. And pain. All seemed lost.
But Prometheus knew this day was coming. When nobody was looking, he placed hope deep down in the bottom of the box. Prometheus realized that no matter the pains, perils, problems, or perplexities of life, humanity can still endure as long as we have hope.
This is the message of the cross. God’s love is inclusive. Yet we can also have hope that God’s love can intervene.
This is why we can sing with confidence on this Easter Sunday.
I was sinking deep in sinking deep in sin,
far from the peaceful shore.
Very deeply stained within,
sinking to rise no more.
BUT the master of the Sea,
heard my despairing cry.
And from the waters God lifted me.
Now safe am I.
Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.
God's love is impartial. God's love is expansive. And God's love intervenes.