“The Easter Gift of Comm-unity”
Ps. 148 & Acts 11: 1-18 ~ Northwood UC ~ May 15, 2022 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
When will the world come together? Valuing the gifts each bring? Celebrating our diversity and uniqueness? When will the world gather together…come together…come in unity…rather than continuing to live in the “us vs. them” world of separations, silos, and divisions?
I was reminded of a fascinating social experiment that popped up a few weeks ago on my social media feed. This social experiment occurred during the morning rush hour about 15 years ago (YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnOPu0_YWhw ). In the experiment, one of the premier violinists of the world, Joshua Bell played his $3.5 million dollar Stratovarius violin at a commuter rail station, L’Enfant plaza, in Washington, DC. The famous violinist was humbly dressed in blue jeans, a sweatshirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. And the entire event was captured on hidden camera. Bell positioned himself against a wall, beside a smelly trash can, and commuters on their way to the train would pass by. Bell left his violin case open for people to deposit spare change and he proceeded to perform six of the most complicated classical pieces ever written. In total, 1100 people passed by. Putting this in context, three days prior to this experiment, Bell had filled Chicago’s symphony hall where the cheapest seats sold for $100 each. The experiment began…after the first 3 minutes elapsed, 63 people passed by with no one taking notice. One exception was an elderly gentleman who slowed down, turned his head briefly, and then kept on walking. At 5 minutes, Bell received his first donation. It was a one-dollar bill from a woman who quickly carried on her way. At six minutes, someone stopped, and actually listened! Bell had an audience! During the 43 minute experiment, a total of 7 people actually stopped to listen for at least a minute. In terms of income, 27 people gave donations totalling a little over $37 – all given to a man whose talents regularly commanded an income of $1000 per minute. This event was what many would deem ‘the chance of a lifetime.’ An opportunity to hear the world’s most talented virtuoso, playing a priceless instrument, yet 1100 people did not choose to give the things they value ~ their time or their money ~ and this wonderful opportunity passed them by.
This social experiment resonated with me as I was studying the two scripture texts this week. To be sure, the post-Easter community were quite clear on who they understood God as valuing ~ who God favoured. They understood what God loves; they understood what God finds favour with; they understood exactly who God’s message in Jesus was for. For the community Peter was speaking to, they understood God’s favour to be for them…the Jewish people who were now following the way of Jesus. They were the ‘apple of God’s eye’ and they lived in the confidence of knowing they had God’s favour.
But there was a problem! Jesus’ way was drawing the circle wider; gathering everyone at the table; it was drawing people from outside the Jewish community to come in unity. The Gentiles, the non-Jews ~ in this text: the uncircumcised as they are referred to…. ‘those people who were eating the unclean things’…they were also beginning to follow Jesus’ way as well. Surely, they quietly thought ,surely not the circumcised ~ those not following the Jewish dietary laws, not following ‘their ways and practices’…surely Jesus had not come for ‘them’ as well as for ‘us’? And, as we discover, our faith ancestors behaved very similarly than most of us do today: they created worlds of divisions, of separations, of silos.
Now, to be fair, historians remind us that there was good reason that the Jewish community chose to separate from other cultures. Their tight community was necessary for their very survival. For such a small group, the likelihood of becoming dispersed amidst the many other larger neighbouring cultures was very real. They would easily have become lost in the coming generations if it were not for their isolating practices. Yet after Jesus’ teaching of God’s inclusive Way, they found that they were still continuing with isolating practices of circumcision, of dietary laws, and other ritual practices. Peter, himself a Jew, is criticized for broadening community…for eeating with these unclean Gentiles: Why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat their unclean food? How could you Peter? They are not ‘clean’, they have not found God’s favour like we have. Peter did not have the heart to tell them that apart from eating with the Gentile men, he also ate with the Gentile women as well, he was gathering with sinners, tax collectors, perhaps even prostitutes. He was a follower of Jesus, and he was called to gathering people in unity, gathering people in celebration of their wonderful diversity.
The Easter gift we explore this morning is the power of ‘comm-unity’ of ‘coming-in-unity’ ~ the power of community. The wall was being destroyed that had been erected between the Jews and Gentiles; they were becoming one in Christ; they were coming in unity. Peter’s vision described the wall coming down. A large sheet from heaven, ushering in a new reality, descending to the amazement of Peter and to all who saw this holy vision. Peter was hungry; he saw a plethora of animals, deemed unclean by Jewish dietary laws, he was prohibited from eating them. The Lord says, “Get up Peter, kill and eat”. But Peter faithfully protests, “nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth Lord” And God counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This occurs a second time and a third time. And then everything was pulled up to the heavens. After the vision, Peter is transformed. He sees the Easter power of ‘comm-unity.’ There must not be a distinction between ‘them and us.’ Peter tells them that there cannot be distinctions between Jews and Gentiles for Christ breaks down these walls. There can be no distinction between men and women; between slaves and those who are free. I invite you to take in this Easter gift of comm-unity, that is recorded in the book of Acts, that is a gift unto you. Behold this realization that in God’s vision there is no “us” and “them.” Take in the window of this timeless and defining moment in human salvation ~ when God and humanity marry. This is the power of Easter alive in every Christ follower’s life. Peter’s vision of oneness and unity in Christ – of no “us” and “them” of no Jew versus Gentile - was definitive for the early church.
And as we think about this 2 millennia later, it continues to be profoundly powerful for us today. While divisions of “circumcised and uncircumcised” do not exist, sadly we know that others do. The categories may shift. The class separations may change; however, Peter’s vision continues to have Easter power. As followers of the way of Christ, we are charged to ask ourselves, who are those whom our society names as “unclean”? Who are excluded? Would they be the poor? The homeless? The refugees fleeing to safety? Who are those whom our world names as “the others”? Would they be those who have skin colour different than ours? A sexuality different than ours? A way that seems odd to us? Who are the others? I wonder who the unclean are today?
This quest is something that we have committed as a congregation to pursue in our vision and mission. When we adopted a vision of ‘embracing all of God’s Creation with the love of Christ’, we meant ALL of God’s Creation…not just those who are like us. Our fourth Mission goal speaks further to this in our commitment to “be an inclusive and growing church that is responsive to the changing times in which we serve.” The power of Easter allows us to see “the others” as “us”. The power of Easter allows us to come-in-unity and create space for all, valuing other’s diversity, celebrating the broadening of community as we grow. This is why we offer programs for all ages and stages. It is why we sing both newer and older music. It is our action of celebrating the diversity of a community that lives out the vision that Peter teaches in this morning’s text.
I should finish the story of Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist. In carefully viewing the footage of the people walking by, briefly stopping to listen and making a donation, there was one common element that occurred. Whenever a child passed by, the children wanted to stop and observe and listen. Usually, the parents hurried them along and they didn’t stay. But, in one case, three year old Evy Parker stopped and took it in. The video shows this adorable child dressed in a parka holding her mother’s hand. Despite being pulled towards the door, she keeps twisting and craning to look at Joshua Bell. Her curiosity and interest to this curious occurrence continued until her mother forcibly carries her away. This pattern remained consistent with almost every child passing by. Every time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop, to observe, to listen. And every time, a busy, harried adult scooted them away.
What if we, for a brief moment, ~ STOPPED ~ and were embraced by the power of Easter and saw this profound call to ‘com-in-unity?’ It won’t be easy! Indeed, the powers of the world would like to drag us on our way. Yet, the way of faith is alive and growing in us to behold and embrace the miracles around us: in this case the miracle of ‘comm-unity’. I guess the battle for living in the Way of Christ will continue.