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How Big is Your God?

In this season after Easter, we find Peter confronted with a crisis of faith. He’s been a good Jew all his life and believing in Jesus didn’t stop that. After all, Jesus himself was a good Jew! And, as a good Jew, one was required to maintain a strict separation from Gentiles in matters of religion, marriage, and politics. There were even laws designed to maintain Jewish separateness, - for example, prohibitions against wines and cooked foods prepared by Gentiles. Until Paul’s mission to the Gentiles became so successful, gentile converts to Christianity had to first become Jewish proselytes. Becoming Jewish first was a deterrent to following Jesus because it meant two significant things (among others) – circumcision and following food laws.

It really was systemic racism, or prejudice, no different than anti-semitism today, or being taught to dislike blacks, Muslims, Native Americans, LGBT folks, or treat women as second-class citizens.

Anyway, it had been drilled into Peter all his life that consorting with Gentiles and eating with them was against the will of God, meant they had broken God’s law, and were unclean and unable to worship in the synagogue until they remedied that.Then Peter had a dream where God spoke to him three times (this seems to be a thing with Peter, he must not get it the first two times) and assured him that eating all these things that Peter has thought were unclean, really weren’t. God says to him, “Don’t make unclean what I have made clean.” Immediately after that, a Gentile named Cornelius was visited by an angel who told him to summon Peter and listen to what he has to say. Peter, newly enlightened about Gentiles, goes to Cornelius and says, “God has made it clear to me not to call anyone unclean or impure,” and “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality – rather, that any person of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” (Acts 10:34)

Finally, when the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household, Peter said, “I realized then that God was giving them the same gift that had been given to us when we came to believe… And who am I to stand in God’s way?”

We stand in God’s way when we get stuck on human limitations, prejudices and judgments and therefore limit God.

Can you think of a time when you were wrong about someone or something because of your preconceived notions?  Maybe it was a person you misjudged, or an understanding of God that you were challenged on?

Frankly, two of my dearest friends sort of scared me when I first met them! Keep in mind that I lived a pretty sheltered life. Julie walked like she’d kick someone’s ass for fun in her Harley boots and leather, while smoking cigarettes… and Tony was a really, really good musician who intimidated me in that arena, but he was also a truck driver, smoker, former drug addict. Turns out, inside of their slightly scary exteriors, they are full of mush and have hearts of gold. But I could have gotten stuck on my misperceptions, based in appearances, and turned away.

It is likely that Christianity never would have flourished and grown if Peter and Paul didn’t let go of their prejudicial training against Gentiles and start branching out outside of Judaism.

Here’s the crux of the matter in a brief story: Xenophanes, a 6th century Greek philosopher wrote, “If horses had gods, they would look like horses.” The implication is obvious… we’ve created God in our image, which is severely limited! Think about it. God only seems to like the people "we" like, God has been imaged as a white guy in the sky for a long time, and God gets angry, casts judgment and does out punishment because that is what we as humans want! But because we’ve essentially created God in our image, or the way we want God to be, we’ve severely limited God.

Rev. Jacqui Lewis, who spoke at the Richard Rohr conference in March asked us all, "Why do Christians want to worship a puny God?"Is God really so small as to not be reached by any other sincere religions, to say that Jesus is the only way to God, to get upset because someone ate and apple, and to only bless the land between Canada and Mexico? Not to mention the fact that this tiny God seems to prefer to have people in hell rather than in heaven.

Quaker pastor, Philip Gulley, in his book, If Grace is True, tells a story from when he was in college. Now, he’d been brought up to believe that only Christians would be saved. Billions of non-Christians would crowd hell. The thought of non-Christians in eternal torment didn’t disturb him though, because he’d been told that Christians were good people and non-Christians were bad people.

The first time he seriously questioned this worldview was when he was in college and saw the movie Gandhi and walked out of the theater forever changed. In Gandhi, he encountered a good man who was also a non-Christian. Suspicious that Hollywood had glamorized Gandhi, he read many of his writings and what others wrote about him. The more he read, the more he admired him. His words and actions reminded him of Jesus again and again.

One day Gulley shared his admiration for Gandhi with a friend.

The friend responded, “Isn’t it sad that he’s burning in hell?”

How small we’ve made God!

So, as loving as you think God is… think bigger! As forgiving as you think God is… think bigger! As kind, compassionate, peaceful, merciful as you think God is… think bigger! Know that this only applies to things that are expansive, life-giving and healing. God is NOT vengeful and punishing… that would be contradictory to all the other things we just said about God.

To confine God to what we feel or can understand creates a puny God! Any words I can use to describe God must fall short, because there are no words adequate to describe the ineffable Divine. If I think I can understand God or wrap my mind around God, then clearly I’ve created a God that is too small!

Through that crazy dream, Peter learned that when God is bigger our world expands. When God is bigger, we stop judging and start loving. When God is bigger, we respect and honor diversity. When God is bigger, there is no in group and out group.

Perhaps if our God wasn’t so puny, our world would look more like the town of Gander, Newfoundland, off the coast of Canada on 9/11. That day when planes flew into the twin towers, every plane in the air became a potential missile. The US shut down the airspace and thirty-eight big body transatlantic planes were rerouted to Gander. A town of just over 10,000 people took on another 7,000 – strangers from over 100 different countries. The people of Gander didn’t look at those planes lining up on the runway and worry about another terrorist attack, their only concern was for the people on those planes who were parents, spouses, grandparents, friends, neighbors, and children, just like they were.

The people of Gander and the surrounding fishing villages opened their schools, churches and community centers for the stranded passengers. The town's bus drivers, who were on strike that day, put down their picket signs and went back to work. Bakeries went into overdrive production, hospitals staffed up, and many of the townspeople opened their homes and offered their beds to the “plane people.” They even found a way to care for the 17 dogs and cats and two chimps that were also aboard the planes.

As donations of clothes, toys, towels, toothbrushes, pillows, blankets and bedding piled up, residents also began cooking. "It was like casserole city," said the president and CEO of the airport. 

One newspaper reported that:

The outpouring of kindness in the town only multiplied over the next five days. Gander residents took passengers sightseeing, moose hunting, berry picking and barbecuing. They entertained with music, stopped anyone walking down the street in case they wanted a ride and brought strangers into their homes for showers or even as guests for a few nights. They refused to accept money, though passengers later donated thousands to the town.

This story was so amazing that it inspired a Broadway musical entitled "Come From Away."

One article I read from September 2017 said that the crosswalk in front of Gander's town hall was now painted as a rainbow, and churches had raised money to welcome fivevsyrian refugee families into the community. Obviously, their kindness and compassion wasn't limited to one event, but was a way of life.

To me, limiting God and who God loves and accepts leads directly to how we treat others. The response of kindness, generosity and acceptance in Gander stands as a shining example of what happens when we truly tap into the infinite love and generosity of the Divine, when we see ourselves not as different from others, but as One. 

How big is your God?

Love & Light!