"Perception and Deception," by Zachary Helton
A reading from The Acts of the Apostles: Peter preached to Gentiles, “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. This is the message God has sent to the people of Israel, the Good News of peace proclaimed through Jesus Christ, who is Savior of all. You yourselves know what took place throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee with the baptism John proclaimed. You know how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how Jesus went about doing good works and healing all who were in the grip of evil, because God was with him. We are eyewitnesses to all that Jesus did in the countryside and in Jerusalem. Finally, Jesus was killed and hung on a tree, only to be raised by God on the third day. And Christ commissioned us to preach to the people and to bear witness that this is the one set apart by God as judge of the living and the dead. To Christ Jesus all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes has forgiveness of sins through this Name.” Peter had not finished speaking these words when the Holy Spirit descended upon all who were listening to the message. The Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were surprised that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also, whom they could hear speaking in tongues and glorifying God. Then Peter asked, “What can stop these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have, from being baptized with water?” So he gave orders that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. After this was done, they asked him to stay on with them for a few days. This is one of our sacred stories, Thanks be to God.
Over a hundred years ago, the President of the United States was prepared to make a statement in front of a crowd of thousands. He meant his speech to be inspiring, a statement on the redemptive power of sacrifice, and many thought he did just that. Others… not so much. The next day, readers of the Daily Patriot and Union in Pennsylvania picked up their papers to read the following, review of the president’s speech: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.” The president they’re referring to? Abraham Lincoln. The speech? The Gettysburg Address. November 19, 1863. This underwhelming review caught national attention one hundred and fifty years later, in 2013, when the Patriot and Union, still a functioning newspaper, publicly retracted their statement. It’s funny, isn’t it, how two different people can look at the exact same thing and see something so different? It’s like that old picture of a rabbit that could also be a duck. Were the president’s remarks powerful and unifying speech, or the empty rhetoric of a vain tyrant? I guess I should amend that, shouldn’t I? It’s funny sometimes, how we can look at the same thing and see something so different, because other times, it’s downright horrifying. Gender, for instance – a biologically rigid identity or a set of social expectations? Brown skin – a value-neutral genetic difference, or a threat of some kind? Whatever it is we’re looking at, our perceptions are everything. Our story this morning picks up right after Peter has had this dream. In his dream, all kinds of animals, clean and unclean, come down from the heavens as a sheet, and a Divine voice from nowhere says “Kill and eat.” Well, having been conditioned his entire life to see eating particular animals as unclean, immoral even, he refuses. His perceptions are stronger even than the Reality before him, and so God corrects, “What I call clean, Peter, let no one call unclean.” And then, he wakes to find a messenger at his door, inviting him to their master’s house where many are gathered to hear Peter preach. There is one, small, catch, however, which will test whether or not he will heed the voice in his dream: It is an audience of Gentiles, as unclean and immoral to Peter as the animals on the sheet. Still, he grits his teeth and goes, careful to touch nothing as he enters the home of his host. He tell his story, preaches his sermon, and is ready to call it a day when, to his surprise, the Gentiles before him start bearing the fruit of the Spirit, just as he had not that long ago. The Spirit of God falls on them without discrimination or condition in a way that even his own people would not allow. And as Peter looks at the scene around him, he throws up his hands and lets his perceptions disappear into the ether. “Who has any right to dam up the waters of baptism?” he asks. “If God in them, who dares exclude them?” Before the distrustful eyes of Peter was the very Body of Christ, but through his own perceptions, he could not see. Before the skeptical eyes of that journalist from Pennsylvania was a speech that would go down in history, but through his own perceptions, he could not see. It is enough to make us wonder, isn’t it, what is happening here, right now, before our own eyes, that we just can’t see? When we practice letting go of our perceptions, the Reality before us may be much better than we imagine. The problem, which hasn’t changed over the centuries, is that we don’t see the world as it is. We see it as we are. We let our perceptions get in the way of seeing the truth. Take Peter, for example. The story he has been taught about Gentiles is that they are uncivilized and uncircumcised, ignorant masses that know nothing of God or God’s Anointed. His Bible clearly says it’s wrong to go into a Gentile’s home and that they have no part in the covenant. When Peter looks at these people, he doesn’t see them. He sees his idea of them. It is no different for each of us. Each of us look out onto the world through a filter of our own perceptions, the stories and definitions our minds have settled on to make things manageable. These perceptions are our inheritance, as Peter’s were his, passed down through generations and gleaned from the circumstances of our life. We cling so tightly to them we’re willing to fight, sometimes kill for them. But, as a wise teacher once said, every perception is a deception. There was once a young girl climbing a tree, and she was quite impressed with how high she’d managed to get. She placed her foot carefully on one branch below her and reached up as high as she could to take hold of the next one. Suddenly, however, she recoiled her hand as though she’d been burnt. Wrapped around the branch above her was an angry green snake. The girl very nearly fell, which may have killed her from that height, but managed to grab hold of another branch just in time. Holding perfectly still, she tried not to panic. At last, she found the nerve to start climbing down, but before taking that first step, she risked one more glance at the snake, but as she looked at it she suddenly felt quite foolish. The only thing wrapped around the branch above her was a vine, which meant her no harm whatsoever. As silly as it may sound, how often do we do the exact same thing, projecting all manner of fear-based perceptions onto our world, onto the future, onto the people around us? How much time do we waste being afraid when we could be contributing to the good with ease, all because we cling to perceptions which are, in fact, deceptions? Like Peter, we let our perceptions get in the way of seeing the truth. This tendency, far from just being a philosophical exercise, has consequences, and not just for our own well-being. The vine from the story, obviously, doesn’t have feelings, but if it did? When we look at the world only through the lens our own perceptions, we cause others to suffer. How many centuries of exclusion had the Gentiles faced in Israel? How much stigma was put against them and all who came in contact with them? We remember the story from last week about the Ethiopian eunuch who travelled so far and yet was not even permitted to enter the Temple. Going further back, how many had lost their lands or their loved ones at the end of an Israelite sword for no other reason than Israel’s perceptions? How might Peter’s audience have felt as this teacher they respected entered their house and looked at them as though they were untouchables to be avoided? I’m reminded of the cultural shockwave that made its way through moderate Baptist churches after the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. I worked in a church at the time, and while I watched the world celebrate, I watched as churches began to circle the wagons. Can we become welcoming of LGBTQ+ members? They began to ask. Is it possible that God could bless an LGBTQ+ union? Churches, including the one I worked with, began holding seminars and group discussions asking these questions, pulling from Biblical and historical sources, making rational and logical arguments one way or another… but among these having these conversations, (conversations with little to no LGBTQ+ representation, by the way) there were those making a different point. “Look around!” they insisted. “Look right in front of you! These children of God you’re debating about, they’re the very ones serving the vulnerable, loving their neighbors, lifting their voices for justice as God has called them to do! The Spirit of God is obviously in them, bearing fruit, and you’re so blinded by your perceptions that you can’t see it? Who has any right to dam up the waters of baptism? If God in them, who dares exclude them?” This is the same, egoic pattern of thinking that blinded Peter, and the same pattern that manifests as racism and sexism and xenophobia and fodder for political fires. We not only find ourselves trapped by our perceptions, but find our perceptions trapping others. When we look at the world only through the lens our own perceptions, we cause others to suffer. But, of course, there is hope. History and, indeed, this very community is full of people who have come into awareness of their perceptions as a fish might become aware of water, and, through practice and experience, have learned to let them go. If we can keep our hearts open, then any illusion can give way to Reality. Peter, thank God, was open. He was able to see the evidence right there unfolding in front of him, the people bearing the fruits of God’s Spirit right there before his very eyes. How on earth could he say something as ignorant as God doesn’t love these people or God’s Spirit isn’t in these people or These people can’t be baptized because they’re Gentiles? To put himself against them now, he sees, is to put himself against Reality itself. Where was once a king in a region that is now India. The Buddha had several monasteries in his territory, and they had long since gotten along, but one day, it came to the king’s attention that the Buddha had allowed an untouchable into his community, a night-waste collector no less. The king was disgusted and outraged, so much so that he ordered a chariot to take him to the Buddha that very day. The king intended to rebuke the Buddha, to warn him against such impurities and immoralities and remind him of the God-ordained social order. As he entered the monastery, however, he was stopped for a moment by the teachings of a young monk, standing in the courtyard and preaching. The king stood there for some time, spellbound by the monk’s wisdom and insight. He wondered to himself why the Buddha didn’t stick to such high-born sons and daughters as these for his disciples. He marched to the Buddha’s hut and delivered his speech as he’d rehearsed it, and the Buddha listened calmly. When the king was finished, the Buddha said, “Come. You may inform the untouchable of your concerns yourself.” The king then followed the Buddha back into the courtyard, where the Buddha introduced him to the same young monk he had been so captivated by only moments ago. The king bowed his head in repentance, and humbly, he let go of his perception and entered into a new relationship with the people of his kingdom. This is what experiences outside of our norm can do to us. Peter had his dream, but for the rest of us, this is the function of community and listening to others’ stories. It’s the role of prayer and meditation, to become more aware of our place in the world and our perceptions, to understand them and their limits, and to learn to let them go in favor of Reality’s beautiful, inclusive fullness. If we can keep our hearts open, then any illusion can give way to Reality. So, People of God, let us be mindful, like Peter. Let us become mindful of our perceptions that get in the way of seeing the truth. Let us be mindful of the ways we cause others to suffer at the hands of our empty judgments. Let us be mindful that, if we’re open, there is no illusion from which we cannot awake. Who has any right to dam up the waters of baptism? If God in this world, who dares exclude any of it? When we practice letting go of our perceptions, the Reality before us may be much better than we imagine. When we practice, we find that we live in a good, abundant, and beautiful universe. We find that it is all God, from start to finish, and that the Kingdom is truly at hand, all around us, right now. May it be so. Amen.
Invitation to Respond
Spend the next few moments reflecting on these questions:
· What is one person or situation that makes you angry or afraid? What is your judgment of that person or situation?
· Is it true? Can you absolutely know that for sure? Are there other possible ways of looking at it?
· Who would you be, right now, without that judgment/perception? Is this closer to Reality?