Saturday, May 12, 2012

Loving across our prejudices

Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

     It’s so easy to judge others negatively. Recently, we’ve had the opportunity to judge several mothers: Nadia Suleman, the mother of 8 babies in one birth, for her decision to file for bankruptcy. And the mother on the cover of Time magazine, breastfeeding her three-year-old son.  And a couple of weeks ago, there was the video of Alicia Silverstone, who chewed her baby’s food and then put it into the baby’s mouth. Why do we judge them? Because they did something we think is excessive or otherwise not in keeping with our own values.
When we judge someone because they are different from us, without knowing anything else about them, it’s called prejudice. We find all sorts of ways to prove we are right. We criticize the other’s decision-making process, we describe the psychological impact we anticipate because of the decision or action, we cite medical facts, we quote the Bible, and so forth. It doesn’t matter to us that there are opposing opinions and facts. We know we are right, and that’s all that matters.
When we choose to judge others, it makes it harder for us to love them. In our Gospel reading, Jesus commands us to love others as he has loved us. Jesus commands us – not suggests, not recommends, not strongly urges, but commands us – to love with his kind of love. In his life, in his ministry, Jesus loved all sorts of people, to the surprise of his disciples, and the amazement of the crowds, and the frustration of the Jewish leaders.
It is with Jesus’ love, and the Holy Spirit’s power, that we are able to even consider loving some people. Peter – one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples – had to learn this lesson. He dreamed the same dream three times; he was presented with a tablecloth full of foods obedient Jews would never touch. Each time he saw the dream, Peter said, “Lord, I never eat those foods, because they are not proper for Jews to eat.” And each time, a voice said, “Get up and eat! That which was once unclean has now been declared clean.”
Finally, Peter understood it was a message from God saying that the old rules were being broken. Once Peter understood this, he was sent to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, and his family. Cornelius himself had had a vision in which he was told that Peter would come to him. Cornelius was a God-fearer, meaning he was a Gentile who believed in the Jewish God, but he had not been circumcised and joined the Jewish community.
Peter told Cornelius about Jesus and Cornelius asked to be baptized. This is where we our text from Acts begins. As Peter observed the Holy Spirit’s presence among Cornelius’ family, he realized there was absolutely no reason to deny baptizing them. Cornelius is a sort of bridge between the Jews and the Gentiles for Peter, a person who helps him understand Jesus’ message is not just for the Jews.
Jesus challenged his disciples, the crowds, and his enemies to love all people the way God loves them. Jesus challenged his disciples to love the way a mother loves, fiercely, willingly giving our own lives for others. Jesus wants us to love like Stephanie Decker, the Indiana mother who lost her legs as she protected her children from the tornado that destroyed their home.
But, Jesus does not want us to give this fierce love only to those in our families; he wants us to give it to all people, even those who are different from us, even those who may be our enemies, even those against whom we are prejudiced.
It’s hard for us, though, isn’t it? Prejudices formed as children are particularly hard to let go of. My parents smoked cigarettes. I hated it, but there was nothing I could do about it until I was old enough to refuse to go to the store for them. (Yes, back then, children could go to the store and buy cigarettes if we took a note from our parents, or if the clerk knew us.)
My hatred for their smoking carried over into school. My attitude was that my classmates were bad, not worthy of my love, if they smoked. They were going to get into trouble – worse trouble than smoking in the bathroom – and I was a good girl. If I knew that someone smoked, I stayed away from them. I never had any friends who smoked.
That worked for 39 years, until I met Annie. Annie was one of the women with me on the trip to Eastern Europe. We discovered we had a lot in common, and we became instant pals. When I discovered that she smoked, I was forced to make a choice: not have her as a friend, or have a friend who was a smoker. I chose to have Annie as a friend. Today, I do have friends who smoke, but not many. I know that people who smoke are not necessarily bad or good. I understand a lot more about addictions, but I am still battling against that nagging prejudice.
If we read the paper, listen to the radio, watch TV, notice the billboards and lawn signs, it’s clear that we still judge one another today. The ways in which we prejudge each other include parenting styles, politics, religion, income and social status, size, color of skin, sexuality, nationality, criminal record, and more. The exact characteristics we prejudge may be different than they were in Jesus’ time, but we still like to judge each other, and sometimes we express our prejudices in hurtful, even violent ways.
Today is no different from Jesus’ time, even though we have had 2,000 years to learn to love the way Jesus loves. As we continue to read the book of Acts, we see that despite his vision and his experience with Cornelius and his family, Peter continued to struggle with accepting non-Jews as true Jesus-followers. In the end, Peter remained with the Jewish Christians, and left it for Paul to minister among the Gentiles.
Jesus commands us to love beyond the boundaries we establish for ourselves, for our family, for our congregation, for our world. Jesus commands us to love all others just as much as mothers love their children.
Even so, Jesus also knows how hard it is for us to love so well on our own, so he sends the Holy Spirit into our lives to help us. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can let go of our prejudices, or at least look at the whole person against whom we are prejudiced.
This week, I invite you – challenge you – to look for ways in which you pre-judge others. What factors trigger your prejudices? Are there prejudices you have overcome? What are you doing to learn to love others despite your prejudices? How can the Holy Spirit walk with you in your effort to love beyond the boundaries of prejudice?
Please pray with me. Jesus, you love us sacrificially, as a mother loves her children. And you love us unconditionally, without prejudice, across all boundaries. Teach us to love so well. Amen