For instance, I love UCLA. And if you love UCLA, there is one school you definitely do NOT love – USC also known as the University of Second Choice, the University of Spoiled Children, and one of the newer ones – University of Suspected Cheaters. They have names for us too. University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians. Of course, that acronym would actually be UCLAA but what would you expect from a USC student? All kidding aside, really what would you expect? There is no doubt as to which school is the better school. For the cost of a public education UCLA is ranked as the 13th best school in the world and the 2nd best public school in the world. And athletically, it is also the school with the most NCAA championships in the country and is also the most applied to school in the country. But USC is good in football. At least they used to be until we beat them this year. Needless to say, the rivalry between UCLA and that other school is fierce indeed. In fact, one of our former football coaches, Red Sanders, was once quoted as saying playing USC is not a matter of life and death, “it’s more important than that.”
It’s not really more important than that.
And that’s a line we shouldn’t have to draw, but some people can’t seem to differentiate between a friendly rivalry and fanaticism. Take for instance the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama. Back in 2011, a rabid Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke whose love of the team possessed him to name his daughter Crimson Tyde after the school’s mascot, poisoned two iconic trees on the Auburn campus because Alabama lost to them in a football game. He was 63 years old. Certainly old enough to know better. But the violence isn’t just at college games. Bryan Stow was beaten outside of Dodgers Stadium because he was a Giants fan. Fans of the Vancouver Canucks rioted in the city because their team lost in the Stanley Cup. And two men were shot outside the Raiders – 49ers exhibition game for being fans of the wrong team. How in the world does it come down to this? It’s hard to believe there are people living in 21st Century America who don’t have enough sense NOT to do this to a fellow human being. But it happens. Prejudice is born of fear, and no one said that fear had to be rational or sensible. Prejudice is born of fear, and no one said that fear had to be rational or sensible.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
And I’m reminded of that today because we just celebrated his life this past Monday. And even though we’ve come a long way in achieving racial equality there is no doubt that we are still a nation filled with fear and hatred over the same nonsensical things we feared back then. That same prejudice that reared its ugly head back in the days of Dr. King still rears its head today. It may have changed shape or has a different target, but nonetheless, we still deal with that same looming specter of fear in our lives. But that is completely against what the Bible tells us. In every way, shape, and form, the Bible tells us that prejudice and intolerance are against everything that Jesus taught. In every way, shape, and form, the Bible tells us that prejudice and intolerance are against everything that Jesus taught. And we’re going to hear that in our Bible verse this morning. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to Acts 10, beginning with verse 23. Acts 10:23. Now just before this passage, a centurion named Cornelius receives a vision from an angel that tells him to send for Peter. Cornelius is a God-fearing, Jesus-following kind of guy despite being a Gentile, a non-Jew. He and his family are loyal followers of the Way (what they called those who followed the teachings of Jesus) and when Cornelius gets this vision he immediately sends someone to ask Peter to come to his house. At the same time this is happening, Peter receives a vision from God, as well. At first, Peter thinks it’s kind of weird and he doesn’t really understand. He sees this sheet falling from Heaven. A sheet. And it starts talking to him. It tells him to kill the animals around him for food, and Peter says, “No way! I’ve never killed anything unclean.” And this sheet…this sheet hanging in the air tells him, “How dare you. How dare you call anything unclean that I have made clean!” Peter realizes this is the voice of God. This happened three times before the sheet disappeared. And so that’s where we begin our reading. In it Peter has just been visited by Cornelius’ messenger and been asked to come to his house. Here now is the Word of the Lord.
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
Cornelius answered: “Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right…”
I have to give Peter a lot of credit here.
For his many faults, Peter got this one right. I love Peter because he is so much like us at times. He makes mistakes. He has faults and foibles. And yet he truly does have a heart for God as we see in this passage. It wouldn’t have been easy for Peter to overcome his prejudice against the Gentiles. Jewish children are brought up with the knowledge that associating with a Gentile makes you unclean. And being unclean is a big deal in Jewish society. It isn’t like in elementary school when you got the cooties from a girl and your friend sprayed you with anti-cootie serum. You had to go through a cleansing process and a waiting period of up to eighty days to be considered clean again. During that time, you couldn’t go to temple, you couldn’t associate with people, you were essentially an outcast. Being unclean might have even carried a connotation of loathing in Jewish society. So for Peter to even come to Cornelius’ house would have been a huge deal and Cornelius knows this. And he acknowledges this to Cornelius but says, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” And after hearing Cornelius’ story he says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right…” We’ve known this for 2,000 years and yet there are so many who still have difficulty overcoming their prejudices. Even in the church of Jesus Christ who preached, taught, and modeled love and acceptance for all peoples – even in the church prejudice and irrational fear can still permeate our beliefs and practices.
Dr. King once made a famous quote about this.
He said, “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” And even today that is still remarkably true. Sunday at 11 is still the most segregated hour in the nation. More than 50 years after Dr. King made that statement, only 15% of the nation’s churches are considered diverse. Fifteen percent! And only 7% in churches of less than 100 people. And the meaning of “diverse” is not as difficult as you might think. Those who keep track of such things have defined a diverse church as one that has 80% or less of one ethnic group. Eighty percent! It’s when the statistical probability of meeting someone of a different ethnicity is almost a certainty. So if you’re church is 80% white for example and 20% something else, you’re considered diverse. And yet only 15% of churches in the United States meet this criteria. We have black churches, white churches, Japanese churches, Korean churches, Tongan churches, Hmong churches, Hispanic churches, and that’s just in the valley! But is that the way God wanted us to worship? Is that the vision God had for his church? And yet it is still true that “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”
Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. King proclaimed his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
And nearly 50 years later we are still not quite there. We have come a long way, but we still have a ways to go. And if being Christian means anything, we must fight hatred and prejudice of every stripe. We must not cave in to social pressure and we must stand against the tide. We shouldn’t put up with people using racial slurs whether they are saying them to us or someone else. We shouldn’t put up with it when anyone lumps together people of any of race, color, creed, religion, age, or sexual orientation and belittles them or mocks them for being part of that group. We shouldn’t put up with it. And we should always behave in love and grace for that is the tremendous gift that God gave to us. Regardless of how foolish we think it is to root for USC when UCLA is clearly the better team. I want to challenge you this week to pray about those things in your life that you may have a prejudice against. They may not be racial prejudices, but can be anything from how you look at the opposite sex to something as simple as disliking people who wear baggy shorts. But it is important that we root out of ourselves those biases that make it hard for us to love others. Because if it means anything to be Christian, it means being a people of love and grace. And in Dr. King’s immortal words,
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!3
 Lonnie White from his introduction to the 75th Anniversary of the USC-UCLA football game. http://www.usc.edu/dept/pubrel/trojan_family/autumn04/F2_USCvsUCLA.html