Your mother is hanging up clothes to dry. Outside in the Midwestern breeze, sunny and warm, a perfect day for it. You aren’t tall enough to reach, so it’s the perfect excuse to run around and hide behind the sprawling linens. Sometimes peering around, sometimes trying to see through them, glints of the sun’s light is catching your eyes as the white sheet catches the wind.
And you’re exposed, found out, as your mother pretends she hadn’t seen you until now.
Peter, in what some might attribute to hunger-induced hallucinations, has a bizarre vision, or is it a dream? Animals known and unknown, those known to be clean and those unclean, all of them together on one big white sheet that’s floating down on the wind from heaven; glints of the sun’s light shining through. Bizarre is one word for it. Repulsive is another, seeing all these animals together.
And this command of God’s to kill and eat. Why, what good Jew would eat something unclean?
Never, my Lord!
Yet God insists, “Do not call unclean that which I’ve called clean.”
And Peter feels exposed, found out, again.
You hear the story of Paul, how he spent his time chasing down the earliest followers of Jesus, and as the story goes, he persecutes them.
At first, he just dabbles in it; an accomplice by association. He’s only the driver, holding the coats and the keys and the beers while the others take care of business.
But it’s a gateway drug, and he quickly joins in the violence. Soon, Christians spread out in fear of arrest or beatings or death—much of it because of Paul.
As Peter is brooding over this vision, he is summoned by the servants of a man named Cornelius, importantly a Gentile. Uninhibited, Peter follows them to the house of Cornelius, and he asks why he was summoned.
Cornelius had a vision earlier, too, one in which a messenger told him to send for Peter.
Peter, walking into the home, notices all the others who are gathered, and he tells Cornelius that it’s forbidden for him to associate or visit with Gentiles.
You hear the story of a rally in Virginia. One that has since turned violent. You are appalled at what you see, and the chants that you hear.
Men who once would’ve hidden their faces behind the same kinds of sheets you hid behind as a child, now brazenly marching without anything covering their faces.
They are exposed, found out.
Except that they want to be.
You remember the story of Paul, that it goes on to tell of his journey to a city in present-day Syria. Damascus, you believe.
There, on his way, he’s intercepted on the road by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus.
Paul, why are your persecuting me?
Not just the people who follow Jesus, but Jesus himself. It’s stunning on many fronts. A man is blinded by the glints of sun, or is it the Son? Is it a vision, or is it a dream? Or is it simply that the skies were rent for a moment and he sees behind the scenes?
The image is enough to startle Paul into a sort of submission.
After all, he’s exposed, found out.
Peter is feeling more uncomfortable than Cornelius, you presume. After all, who brings up that they aren’t allowed to hang out with you because of your race?
After saying this, almost as if he’s thinking out loud every thought as it passes through his mind, Peter follows up with glints of the light of God’s Good News. He says that God told him not to consider impure or unclean that which God has called clean.
Paul’s conversion isn’t instantaneous. It’s rather gradual. His blindness caused by the brightness of light–or was it epiphany?– takes time to heal.
He is forced into dependence on someone else, a follower of Jesus, no less. One of those he’d been trying to kill.
You can’t help thinking what Ananias must’ve felt, and thought. How many times did he doubt that this man was changing? How many times did he think of ways he could end it, and maybe with it the persecution?
A week later, the violence has subsided. Counter-protesters line the streets of your neighboring city. By some counts 20,000; others still, saying 40,000 people marching together as one to denounce white supremacy and racism.
You wish you could’ve joined; what good American doesn’t stand against racism? What good Christian?
Never, my Lord!
It was in relationship with someone else, in this case Ananias, that Paul was converting, changing, growing. He had seen the light, and stayed with Ananias, and the story goes that scales fell from his eyes so that he could see.
So that he could see again.
See the way forward.
He stays with Ananias and regains his strength, and no doubt, learned more of what he had been ignorant about.
He had one image of who Jesus was, of who his followers were. But it was only after this, that he began to go and preach and teach and announce God’s new Way in the world.
Peter says to Cornelius, “It’s really true that God shows no partiality.” It’s almost as if he’s still learning to plumb the depths of such a notion. It’s as if the four corners of the sheet falling from the sky aren’t wide enough still for the kindness and mercy of God.
Peter preaches for a moment, even as he is learning firsthand, how all people, all races and nationalities and ethnicities and abilities and orientations and identities are welcomed into the Way of God.
It will take some getting used to, after all, you remember stories of Peter later in the Scriptures showing preference to Jewish Christians and being rebuked by Paul for it. What an amazing reversal of perspective that is. Paul, the Jew, who once persecuted Christians, tells Peter that Gentile Christians are equal. There is no partiality in God.
Indeed, conversion is a perpetual process; Peter, too, needed to grow and change gradually.
But he continued to learn, to grow, to listen. It was the only way he could change.
You start to wonder to yourself, what happens once this passes? When all the overt white supremacists are gone, then what?
You brood over this vision.
When black people say that their lives should matter, not that they should matter more, but matter at all; when they say this, you can’t fully comprehend it. Of course, their lives matter. They aren’t treated differently.
Never, my Lord!
Except, why would they be saying that, exposing themselves, letting themselves be found out, unless it was true for them.
You dig deeper, asking yourself, “Why am I so slow to believe what they’re saying? Is my hesitance to listen, to believe their experiences, is my insistence in doubting or discrediting or disagreeing with their experiences a sign of something more in me that I need to shine a light on?”
The more you reflect, the deeper you go, the more you come to realize that the white supremacists, the ones without sheets to hide behind, are hiding instead behind graven images of oppressors and traitors. And the more you’re honest with yourself, the more you start to wonder if the overt white supremacists have become the very sheet you hide behind.
And that to really do the hard work of racial justice and reconciliation, that sheet of yours must come down.
You know you’ll feel exposed, found out.
But you also know that converting is a perpetual process of growing and listening and changing.
Like Peter before you.
Like Paul before that.
Like your Pastor and so many other people of faith who have mistaken their privilege for the providence of God.
You know you have much to learn, like all of us, like everyone sitting around you every Sunday or standing before you hiding behind a pulpit.
But you also trust that by listening to the experiences of people of color in the US right now, and not just what you learned of their experiences 200 years ago, that you can begin to hear the voice of Jesus in their words, asking you and all of us here,
Why do you persecute me?
By listening to the experiences of those who are forced to the margins, of those who are kept there, we might at first be blinded, and startled by what we hear.
And many of these conversations won’t happen publicly; they won’t be heard on the news or read in books or articles. They will be conversations that turn to conversion because they are strengthened by the safety of real relationships.
Because conversion can’t happen alone.
It’s only then, you surmise, that the scales will begin to fall from your eyes, and you’ll begin to see again,
see the way forward.
You see a white sheet, falling.
The wind of the Spirit blowing.
And it exposes and finds you out.
But with it shines the light of the Son.
And it’s illuminating the way forward,
a way of repentance
and a renewed resolve to ensure
that justice is done,
that mercy is embraced,
that every marginalized life matters as much as the privileged ones.
Maybe it’s a vision,
or a dream,
or someone else’s.
Or maybe it’s your own sheet falling.
Or maybe it’s the scales falling again from your eyes.