Embracing Difference, Not Belief

Acts 11:1-18

CHANGE.

It’s not easy, is it?

Based on a real conversation…

Imagine that for the last 20 years of your life, you have always received the Sunday newspaper, and had your coffee and breakfast while you read it. Enjoyable, comfortable. Then, one day, you’re told that you now have the option to subscribe to the paper online. No paper, no delivery, just turn on your computer or use your phone…and it’s there. Though you remember plenty of times when your Sunday paper was either: not delivered; delivered late; delivered soaking wet; or missing sections—you still cannot fathom changing that routine. Reading the paper online? You admit that having the ability to interact with news stories and being able to even watch video or listen to audio related to the columns really excites you. A whole new world opens up to you. And yet, you just can’t. You keep ignoring the alerts and subscription notices. You hang on for dear life to that Sunday paper, hoping beyond all hope that it will get delivered while your coffee is still hot.

Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with this decision. You prefer the physical Sunday paper? Fine. No big deal. I myself still prefer paper books to books on Kindle. Point is, change is hard.

And I will suggest that change is even more difficult when there isn’t any participation [even if it’s minimal] in the new thing or idea that’s being proposed.

Say that you don’t cancel your Sunday paper subscription, but instead do both. You still receive the physical paper but also explore the online version. Any articles that intrigue you lead you to watch their respective videos online; you find yourself doing even more research and follow up. You use both mediums. You’ve changed, but you haven’t thrown out that which gave you comfort or safety. You’ve simply recognized that there is more out there, more to explore, more to the news than just your Sunday paper.

Change was hard too for the community in the book of Acts. See, Acts is really a sequel to Luke’s Gospel [same author, remember]. It’s an account [though not historical] of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth after his death. Remember that almost all of these followers identified as Jews. So they had certain customs and laws and even dietary restrictions and dress codes.

Their law also stipulated who they could share a meal with. The act of “breaking bread together” was a sacred moment. Sitting at table was a moment in which God was present.

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A person therefore could not render that moment profane by eating with people who were considered unclean. So Peter, in this story, is in trouble with his Jewish friends. Peter was eating with Gentiles, and particularly the Gentiles that most Jewish folk deemed unkosher to share a table with.

Embedded in this story is the dichotomy of people, the labels:

-Circumcised vs. Uncircumcised
-Clean vs. Unclean
-Gentile vs. Jew
-Judean vs. Roman
We could go further: male vs. female, kosher vs unkosher, head covered vs. uncovered, poor vs. wealthy, straight vs. gay, binary vs. non-binary, etc., etc.

And as I read this story today it brings me to certain experiences I have had recently. First, the Interfaith Peace Walk for Reconciliation in Center City Philadelphia.

I go every year. I reconnect with old friends. It’s fine.

But this year I noticed something. A lot of us who go on this walk are still reading the Sunday paper, and that’s it. Very comfortable, routine, safe. We walk and eat with those we know and are like-minded. I sat with a dear friend Ashvinder, one of the leaders in the Sikh Society of Philly, and she echoed the same concern. Ashvinder wondered what we were really accomplishing now with this walk—in a world in which faith communities are under attack by white supremacism and hate crimes, a world in which younger generations are becoming more and more estranged from their faith traditions because of xeno, homo, trans and other phobias.

I love and value this walk. It should continue. We need younger generations, though, to lead it now. We need their wisdom and experiences. We need their discontent and passion. Now.

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Just so you know, that’s me in the background. Where I should stay.

Then just recently, I was at New Hope Pride.

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A gathering of thousands of LGBTQ+ people of all ages. Some allies, too. Some curious onlookers too. A big parade that is lots of fun. Music, dancing, great costumes. A Pride Fair. Resources, networking, friendships, solidarity. A wonderfully colorful and beautiful gathering of people. We sit at table—transgender teens and older adults and those in transition. We sit together at table—gay and lesbian couples, bisexual couples, straight couples. We sit at table—allies and curious non-allies and LGBTQ-friendly business owners and wounded and hurt people and those feeling overwhelmed by the crowds.

It’s not enough. It’s a wonderful event. We must do more. People are targeted just because they are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. People are KILLED just because they are transgender.

Fast forward to an Iftar at Bait-ul-Aafiyat Mosque in North Philadelphia.

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We say the prayers for Ramadan and the fast and do the prostrations.

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We break the fast with dates and a samosa and then more food.

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We sit at table together—Muslims from West Africa, India, Pakistan, England, West Philly, the Arab Emirates. We sit at table–the Philly Police Chief, a city council person. We sit at table–some evangelical pastors and curious non-Muslim folk. We talk, we eat, we share. We debate—a little.

It’s not enough. Muslims are targeted and attacked. So are Sikhs and Jews.

My friends, what if the question we assume we ought to be asking is not the wise question:

What do we believe?

What if this is the question:

Who do we eat with?

Who is invited to our table? Who do we choose to eat with?

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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