I recently had to share the story of how I came to be ordained and I started with this story of my boyhood. I am not going to share the long story of how I came to be ordained, but of how my past influences me even today. Some of you have heard parts of this story before but I share this snippet to show the importance to me of a theme I found in today’s lessons of coming home.
Some of you know that when I was really young, I grew up outside of Newark, New Jersey. Where I lived two blocks surrounded by big factories, one block white, the other hispanic. The big buildings of Westinghouse & Sherring pharmaceutical bordered the neighborhood along with a highway and railroad tracks & the nice neighborhood with the big homes & expansive green lawns. They were just building the Garden State Parkway blocks away to divert the traffic a block away.
My older brother and I played with the kids on our block. I had a friend at school, Gabriel. We met up after school to play & I found he lived in the middle of the other block with his mother. I was running a little late one day so I took a shortcut to school through the block where Gabriel lived. I passed by the big apartment building on the corner. I crossed the street. He wasn’t home. No one was at home. He had already left for school. I was just leaving that block when a group of older kids I didn’t recognize stood in front of me. They asked what I was doing passing through their block on my way to school. My stuff was ripped from my hands & thrown to the ground, one took a single bite of my sandwich & my apple, smashed the apple in the street & threw my sandwich to the ground. As my coat was pulled off it was torn & thrown to the ground. I tried to get my coat. I was seven and afraid. I wanted to go home. I was pushed to the ground, kicked & beaten. I left my coat and ran away. From a distance after school I could see my coat was no longer in the street, it was gone. I told my mother I lost my coat. In my young mind, I thought I learned what the older neighborhood kids told me, that the enemy lived in the other block.
Time passed and the older boys of my block were throwing stones back and forth across on both sides of the street at the group of other boys. Name calling persisted, as I stood and watched. Innocence soon left me. A stone of the right size hit the curb and bounced a few feet into the street. I thought, I’m fast, I’m small, they won’t hit me, I’ll retrieve it. I did and gave it to one of the older boys. It caught the attention of the older boys. So they devised a plan for me along with a dare. I accepted the dare to belong. I was to go all the way up to the fourth floor with a handful of pebbles to throw at a door and run. My daring lasted until the third floor where I carried out my shameful deed. I wanted retaliation against the violence done to me. The mother who rushed out the door yelling brought about all the reality of what I had just done. I was instantly ashamed as I bounded down the stairs to find no one on our corner waiting for news that the act had been carried out. I never told my parents. Word got around about the little blond boy who threw the stones because some weeks passed and a brick was thrown through our front window. That was enough for my father to leave his commuter job in NYC as a laboratory chemist and become a salesperson for industrial soap his company sold by the railroad tank car. We left for St. Louis in order to get us out of the neighborhood to give us a safe home. I felt responsible for destroying our home.
Where I volunteer at the women’s shelter I listen on the hotline to stories of homes being destroyed, in your neighborhood & mine by abuse & neglect under the title of domestic violence. The stories I hear are about the hopes and dreams of a home. A safe comfortable place to live, where people care for one another, provide for one another, and show love for one another.
When I was a kid growing up outside of Newark, I wanted that too. I wanted to be accepted by the people who were my neighbors. When I was threatened by the violence, I wanted to go home, to a safe, comfortable place, where love abides. I thought by contributing to the values of the neighborhood kids I would be securing that vision. My understanding of who I was to love was corrupted by me at seven. I have spent a lifetime learning the Wisdom Scripture offers, after an angry mother on the third floor of an apartment building speaking a language I didn’t understand brought me to a new awareness.
Today we heard the story of Peter’s vision, and of Jesus’ awareness of what must come in the days ahead. For Peter a vision of animals, some thought to be clean & others unclean. That vision taught him that God created all people, and God loves all people. Peter knows that we are called to love others. But Gentiles, non-Jews were outside his community, all non-Jews were unclean like some animals, they did not belong. A vision of animals of every kind coming down from heaven made him realize that God made all of creation including Gentiles, and all of God’s creation is to be embraced. When the Gentiles joined Peter praising God, the Holy Spirit came upon them all, and even the critics realized the gift of wonder in their midst. Our author, Luke uses this beautifully written story not to give us the chronology of time or the historical events, I believe he shared this story to tell us that all are embraced in the love of God, all are welcomed.
Jesus knows his time has come. He has challenged the social, societal, religious and political authorities to change their ways and begin to live by the values of equity, fairness, & truth held up to the community. So he prepares his followers with one basic rule known from the beginning of time, to love one another. This will be the sign. Not perfection, not achievement, not power, nor wealth, who your parents were, or from where you came, but only if you have love for one another. Then all will see.
I told you that story of my boyhood because some of you here have known violence in your lives. Some of you have felt the deep desire to get back, to retaliate for the wrongs done to you. Some of you have been deeply hurt, more than your coat was stolen, more than your food taken away, more than your body kicked. It may be that you struggle with forgiving the person who hurt you. But in the stories of Jesus we learn that unless we allow ourselves to be forgiven of the hatred we feel inside, for the pain that we endured, even the hurt we still feel, we will struggle to follow the way of love and Jesus’ last invitation to be a sign to the world. When you become a sign to the world, you invite those who are in pain, who have known violence, and yes those like me who have committed that violence. When you become a sign to the world, showing love for one another, you invite those filled with rage & hate, to come home; to come home to a safe comfortable place to live, where people care for one another, provide for one another, and show love for one another. Jesus shares with us today that if you have love for one another you will be forever, the sign to the world, to show – the way home.
May it be so.