Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for June 27th, 2021: The Opposite of Withholding, based upon Acts 10: 44-48
Jun 27: Acts 10:44-48 Gentiles Receive the Holy Spirit
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Sometimes, doing the right thing is doing the exact opposite of what you’ve been taught to do your whole life. Ruth Coker Burks learned that. In 1984, she was 25 years old and visiting a friend, Bonnie, in the hospital. She would end up visiting the hospital often enough that she noticed a door with a red bag on it. According to one article I read, she’d seen the nurses draw straws to see who would go tend to the patient in that room. It was obvious that they didn’t want to go in there. Burks, who has said, “God put blinders on me so I didn’t see danger,” decided to slip into the room one day. She also isn’t sure if it was simply curiosity or the Holy Spirit leading her. Whatever it was, the visit to that room would change her life.
In 1984, there was still so much that wasn’t known about what they were calling, at the time, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, the virus we now call AIDS. When you pair a frightening new virus with the fact that many of the first people who got it were gay men and transgender women, conditions were ripe for fear-mongering and hateful treatment of those who grew sick, and harsh treatment of people who were in the most vulnerable communities. Many of the first people who got AIDS were already disowned by their families. In some cases, people died so quickly that the support networks they built of friends couldn’t always take care of them. So many ended up in hospitals, like the one Ruth was visiting in Arkansas, with no family visiting and minimal care from staff. The young man whom Ruth met in that room with the red plastic on the door was one of them. Despite her calls to them, his family refused to see him because he was gay and viewed his diagnosis as punishment from God. Ruth stayed with him through his last 13 hours when his mother would not. And, when they also wouldn’t claim his body, Ruth made arrangements for him, finding a funeral home 70 miles away that was willing to handle his remains, and burying his cremains in her family cemetery.
Ruth would eventually bury 43 more men in her cemetery and help hundreds in their last days. Word spread that she would support people who didn’t have anyone else and essentially function as a hospice provider. It wasn’t easy to be known as someone who helped people with AIDS. People, including members of her church, chose not to speak with her. Pharmacists wouldn’t touch her pen after she signed paperwork. People spread rumors about her, too. But, she never wavered, offering compassion and kindness to strangers while so many people though she was irresponsible and misguided by doing so. There were some members of her church who would slip her money to cover expenses. Grocery store employees would share good, but expired, food with her to pass along to her patients. Drag shows would be organized as fundraisers to cover funeral expenses and fund medical care. On her real estate salary, with a little help from others, she would do right by people with few advocates left in the world. When all the local pastors refused to help with the funerals, she and her little daughter would just preside themselves, knowing that God was with them and surely would bless their simple services.
Ruth Coker Burks heard the same messages as the members of her church and her neighbors in the community: This virus was scary and most of the people who got it probably deserved it. They were taught who was and wasn’t righteous and who did and didn’t deserve their concern. Thank goodness that Ruth Coker Burks knew that sometimes doing the right thing is doing the exact opposite of what you’ve been taught to do your whole life. She said, in an article written in February of 2020, “God calls us to love people. It is very easy to do the right thing; it might be harder to deal with the consequences of that decision, but it is always worth it.” Thank God Ruth Coker Burks listened to that Holy Spirit nudge that sent her into the room with the red plastic on the door.
I’m really glad Becky told us some of the story that comes before today’s reading. It reminds us that, since the very earliest days of the Christian movement, people who follow Jesus have had a hard time really living out the wide welcome the Gospel promised. The earliest arguments were about how Gentiles might follow Jesus. Remember, Jesus was Jewish. His first followers were Jewish. His mission was deeply rooted in Jewish law and prophecy. In the book of Acts, he is understood to be the Messiah as prophesied in Isaiah. As this story shows us, for Jesus’ earliest followers, it wasn’t always clear how non-Jewish people fit into God’s kindom.
When you are a group that has been colonized by multiple empires, empires that have destroyed your holy city, installed puppet kings, take your money and call it a “tax,” and have soldiers harass you at major religious festivals, the rules of your religious faith and symbols of your culture take on a special weight. They help you maintain a sense of community in the midst of empire that would be happy to destroy you. When you have to work so hard to maintain an identity in the face of the empire, it can be difficult to discern what rules are necessary to follow God and what rules can be relaxed in order to better follow God. The fact that the Holy Spirit directed Simon Peter to go spend time with a centurion, someone outside of his religious community and a literal agent of the empire that threatened their homeland, would have been a surprise, to say the least.
Simon Peter says to Cornelius that it would usually go against his religious traditions to spend time in a Gentile household, but, as Peter says, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So, when I was sent for, I came without objection.” Simon Peter teaches Cornelius and his whole household about Christ. And, something incredible happens. In what the scholar Jerusha Matson Neal, in her commentary on the text, says is known as “The Gentile Pentecost,” the Holy Spirit falls upon all who would hear, and this Gentile crowd, like the multi-ethnic Jewish crowd on Pentecost, begin to speak in tongues and speak of God’s goodness. And, Peter, echoing the Ethiopian eunuch, says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” The answer, thank God, is no. As Ms. Burks said, it is worth the risk to push past the boundaries that we have learned to love people like God asks us to. Peter says to baptize the Gentiles. And, they are.
The scholar Choi Hee An says that this story reminds us that, through the Holy Spirit, baptism builds the Body of Christ across boundaries we often think are impenetrable. She says, “Our individual cultures are not erased, but we and they become one, in the sense of living with one another in mutual respect and support... There are no more others.” This is the kind of marvelous thing God can do when we are willing to listen to the Holy Spirit, who calls us to visit centurion’s homes and young men’s hospital beds. God’s welcome is always wider than we can imagine. May we never withhold welcome to the ones whom Christ would invite right in.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Two articles about Ruth Coker Burks:
David Koon: https://www.out.com/positive-voices/2016/12/01/woman-who-cared-hundreds-abandoned-gay-men-dying-aids
Gary Hines: https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/feb/02/ruth-coker-burks-20200202/
Commentary on the text:
Jerusha Matson Neal: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-acts-1044-48
Choi Hee An, "Sixth Sunday of Easter," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.