Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
April 24, 2016
Epworth United Methodist Church
You’ve seen lots of optical illusions. Some are created by nature, like a visually large harvest moon or the flat surface of the earth. Some we create. Peter and other early Christians created their own optical illusions of a different kind. When they looked at someone who wasn’t part of the Jewish fold, someone like Cornelius, the Roman officer in the story today, they saw someone who was dirty, unfit, lesser than. We are aware from our vantage point that this was a terrible distortion of reality. As you know, traditional optical illusions don’t happen in the eye, they are a function of the brain. Our brain fills in the gaps, makes assumptions, and actually fabricates information! The cultural and emotional optical illusions of early Christians did the same. They made assumptions and fabricated information about those outside their circle.
We create our own cultural and emotional optical illusions. When we look and are able to identify a person outside of our circle of race, gender identity, orientation, age, economic or educational level, political affiliation, religion or nation, too often we see them as less than, unfit, or even dirty. Like the optical illusions on the screen, those perceptions are fabrications of our brain.
Jeannie Green is a member of a church I served in the past. She’s vision impaired but was able to see right through the optical illusions held by those around her one day. She was walking to the bus stop after work, but the bus stop had been relocated and she became disoriented. She was standing on the sidewalk of a busy street thinking, “What am I going to do?” Finally, she heard some young adults walking by and asked them if they could help her. She told them she was looking for the new bus stop. A guy with a deep voice said, “Come with me. Can I give you my arm?” As they walked along, Jeannie could tell he was wearing a big, bulky coat. They crossed the street. When they arrived at the bus stop, he told the woman standing there, “Make sure this lady gets on the bus.” Jeannie thanked them for being so kind. They said, “No problem.” After they left the other woman standing at the bus stop said, “Wow, they were scary. They looked like gang bangers.” Jeannie said, “They looked like saviors to me.” The other woman’s optical illusions blinded her to the goodness and kindness Jeannie clearly saw in those young adults.
We’ve seen the horrible consequences of fabricated illusions in the disproportionate percentage of young men of color incarcerated or killed by police, in hate crimes against the LGBT community, in violence against women, in the rejection of refugees, in neglect of the poor, in religious and political hate speech. That’s a discouraging list and you know it’s not exhaustive. That’s why Peter’s story is so powerful. He shows us that optical illusions of the cultural and emotional variety are not unsurmountable.
Peter realizes that the way he was taught to see non-Jews was an illusion. How does he come to see the goodness, the sacredness of the Centurion officer and others beyond his Jewish circle? At first glance we attribute it to the unusual vision Peter has of a sheet coming down from above, filled with creatures considered unclean to eat, animals that were eaten by non-Jews. God tells Peter to eat. Peter has the gall to argue with God, until God puts an end to it telling Peter he can’t call impure what God has created pure. Peter doesn’t know what to make of this until he is invited to visit Cornelius. He enters Cornelius’ home and says something ground-breaking: “You know that it’s against Jewish law for me to associate with non-Jews, but God has shown me that I shouldn’t call anyone unclean. I’m certain now that God doesn’t favor one nation or people over another.” This comes out of the mouth of a Jew who was taught that Jews, descendants of the Israelites, were a chosen people. That’s about as stunning as a politician saying that no political party is more valid than another or CAL students buying lunch for the Stanford Cardinals. Peter recognizes his own optical illusion and for the first time clearly sees the sacredness and goodness of Cornelius.
This is the place in a sermon when I want to stop to complain to the preacher, and ask where the rest of us can order a perception-changing vision like Peter. Talking to myself in public, I’d say, maybe you should make reservations in the Bed and Breakfast of a leather worker, because Peter’s new understanding started before that vision. Peter chose to stay in the home of the tanner Simon while he was in Joppa. Tanners, who worked with dead animals and foul smelling liquids, were seen as contaminated. Before Peter ever has his vision, he stepped beyond his own comfort and lived with someone outside of his usual social circle, someone seen as beneath him. Peter’s visit affected his vision.
How have you suffered from a cultural optical illusion? Maybe you were the one seeing what wasn’t there. Maybe you bore the brunt of a false perception. All of us have experienced both. To be honest there are members of this church and this world whose lives have been much more deeply affected by unjust, fabricated, systemic illusions than the rest of us.
What is more powerful than all of that? The working of the Spirit of God in a person with an open heart. Our eyes can only see what our heart allows. Ultimately, optical illusions of the cultural and emotional variety start there (in our hearts).
Peter’s heart was open to staying with the tanner Simon and visiting the home of Cornelius. When we step beyond the comfort of our circle of associates we begin to see through our illusions. That happened to Andrew and Jameel. Maybe you heard about them. Benton Harbor, Michigan police officer Andrew Collins saw Jameel McGee as expendable. Collins was determined to arrest someone on drug charges one day in 2005. When he arrested McGee, Collins said he was dealing drugs. McGee said it was all fabricated. McGee was sent to prison, and couldn’t wait to get out, so he could find and hurt Collins. Eventually Collins was caught, charged and locked up for falsifying many police reports, planting drugs and stealing. McGee was exonerated, but only after spending four years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Collins served only a year and a half. Today, both are back home in the small town of Benton Harbor. Not only that, but they ended up working in the same café, run by a faith-based organization. So, they had to deal with each other. Collins told McGee, “Honestly, I have no explanation, all I can do is say I'm sorry.” That doesn’t seem like much to me, but Jameel McGee is a remarkable person. He said, “That’s pretty much what I needed to hear.” Today, astonishingly they are not just cordial, they’re friends, close friends. McGee told Collins he loved him. Collins said, “And I just started weeping because he doesn't owe me that. I don't deserve that.” McGee says he didn’t forgive for his own sake or even for Collins’s sake, he says he did it "Not just for us, but for [all] our sake." He says it comes out of his faith and his hope for a kinder world.[i]
Let’s be clear; forgiveness is not simple or easy. Mr. Jameel McGee’s courageous and open heart created a way for God to do something most of us would call a miracle. His open heart opened his and especially Collins’ eyes. iHis open heart
How is your heart opening your eyes? Your eyes can only see what your heart allows. How are you expanding your circle of friendship? When we want to make a difference on a local level, it often begins with making a friend. Out of that alliance advocacy is more effective. When we move beyond our comfort, expand our circle, and examine our assumptions, we can gain a sharper visual acuity and a larger human community. And that’s no illusion! Amen.