Easter 5: Loving One Another When You’re “Worlds Apart”

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A still from the Heineken campaign “Worlds Apart.” You can watch the four minute ad here.

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35

The only moral commandment in the Gospel of John is this one: “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

It is the simplest and the hardest to follow.

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” 

This week has been a hard one in the news. You know, like every other week for the last few centuries. With every passing news cycle lately, though, it seems that we get further from being able to understand where our neighbors are coming from. You might’ve gotten into a slugfest with a friend or relative recently over the news. The possible topics — well, they’re many, and they’re important.

I am a person with strong political opinions myself. And I’m going to tell you exactly none of them in the next nine to ten minutes, because sharing an opinion is not so unlike telling a story: it’s like “reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” I can tell you what I think about just about anything in a sermon-length amount of time, but I can’t give you a full accounting of where that opinion came from. For that, you have to really know someone — their life, their story, their education, their heartbreaks, their joys. 

These days, there’s a lot of talk about civility and love and being nice. As if those are all the same thing. Anyone who has ever gotten into a sharp disagreement with someone they love knows that those are not the same things. Heck, anyone who has ever sat at a Thanksgiving table with that one uncle knows that those are not the same thing.

The Gospel reading is also set at a table, sans the turkey, and it also talks a lot about love. It begins with a hard thing that also might happen at your thanksgiving table after someone’s political tirade: someone has just stormed out of the room.

Judas, the one who had just left the table, the one who was going to betray Jesus, the one who was, presumably, evil. Judas, the one who has just gone to seal Jesus’ death. 

This could have been a time for Jesus to say “Don’t be like that guy,” or “Betrayers are the worst sinners.” Instead, he chooses this time to give them a new commandment: that they love one another.

Why? 

I think it’s because Jesus knows that love is messy and complicated and full of mistakes and pain and betrayal.

There is always more that we cannot know. Our job is to love, regardless of the label: Judas, betrayer. Trump supporter. Clinton voter. “Pro-choice.” “Anti-immigrant.”

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” 

Now, please don’t mishear me: this isn’t a call to be naive. I’m not saying that all opinions are the same. Because being nice and being loving aren’t always the same thing. Often they aren’t. This isn’t a call to stand aside and keep your opinions to yourself when people are being harmed. It isn’t a call for those who are oppressed to reach out and be super nice to those who don’t believe in their right to exist in the world peacefully. 

I’m calling you instead to love all people, whether you respect their opinions or not.

While it sounds nice to say that you respect all opinions, logic holds that not all opinions are created equal. Indeed, some opinions are harmful. You know that. I’m not asking you to set your opinions aside. I can’t ask you that, because I will not be setting mine aside. 

There are opinions and theologies in the world that I believe it is un-loving not to oppose. It’s my responsibility, and yours, and ours, to defend the right of every human to exist peacefully in the world.

But you know — I have yet to browbeat someone into agreeing with me. If we want to move the conversation forward, including towards a worldview that we see as right and just, we’d do a lot better to stop labeling and work harder to understand. To love. To see more of the wheat in the granary. To see more of the person behind the opinion.

Heineken tried out an experiment for a commercial series in 2017 called “Worlds Apart.” 

They assembled three pairs of people who had never met each other. Before the pairs met, they recorded videos detailing some political opinions. 

One was a woman and a staunch feminist, and her partner in the exercise was a man who believes that feminists are “man-haters.” One was a climate change denier, while his partner in the exercise believes that climate change is the greatest single threat to humanity today. Finally, one is a transgender woman and the other is a man who believes that people should live as whatever sex they were assigned at birth. 

But none of them knew those things about one another when they met. If they had, they probably would’ve never spoken at all.

Instead, they are introduced simply by their names and invited to put together an IKEA-style bar and barstools. Each pair introduced themselves and got to work on this very practical task. When they finished that, they were given an icebreaker question: “Describe what it’s like to be you in five words.” The answers were deep and intimate, as they each discussed what it’s like to be them. The answers weren’t all that different from one another: “I feel attacked. Misunderstood.” and “It’s deeply frustrating to be me.” Another person said, “I feel lucky.” Another: “Ambitious.” “Opinionated.” And another: “I am solemn.” 

The next question was “Name three things the two of you have in common.” The answers were “We’re both ambitious, positive, opinionated.” One person said, “I feel like we know one another better than people who have known each other for ten minutes should!” Another said to her partner, “You’ve got a glow!” 

The transgender woman said, “I served in the military,” and her partner said, without missing a beat, “I’m very proud of you already.” 

The man who doesn’t like feminism described a time in his life when he was homeless and had nothing, and how grateful it has made him for everything he has in his life.

I’m defining these people by their opinions and identities, but keep in mind: their partners to this point have no idea that they hold these views. They’re simply learning their stories.

Then, each pair finishes building the bar together. They crack open beers. Heinekens, of course. This is still a marketing campaign, after all.

Finally, an announcement comes over a loudspeaker: “Please stand to watch a short film.” 

Each watches as their partner appears on a screen, describing their views as they had before they met their partner:

“Feminism is just shorthand for misandry. [Man-hating.]” 

Another: “If someone said to me that climate change is destroying the world, I’d say that’s total piffle.” 

Another: “The transgender thing is very odd. We’re not designed to understand or see things like that.” 

Another: “I don’t believe the fight of feminism is ever done. I don’t think it’ll ever be done, if I’m honest with you.” 

Another: “I am a daughter. I am a wife. I am also transgender.” 

The camera pans to each face as they watch their partner on the screen. Eyes narrow. Smirks form. You can see recalculation happening in light of these new facts. At this point, I half expected this all not to go well at all. 

An announcement comes: “You now have a choice. You can go, or you can stay and discuss your differences over a beer.” 

The first two couples immediately say something to the effect of, “Well, I’m staying. We know each other now. And that seems like the productive thing to do.” 

The self-described “solemn” man who had expressed skepticism for transgender people begins to walk away quickly before he turns on his heel, walks back to the bar, and says, “I’m only joking.”

He sits. They discuss. 

He explains, “I’ve been brought up in a way to see the world as black and white. But life isn’t only black and white.” The woman, who is still as transgender as always, responds, “Yeah — I’m just me.” 

Towards the end of the conversation, the man says, “We’ll keep in touch. I’ll have to tell my girlfriend that I’ll be texting another girl, but we’ll have to get around that one.” The woman says, “I’ll have to tell my wife too,” and the man responds with a laugh, “She’ll have to lump it!” 

This commercial, my friends, is a bit contrived, but it tells us something about real love. Love costs us something. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It’s messy. We disagree and we yell and we fight but ultimately, love is really about acknowledging that we have no idea what it’s like to be someone else. 

That’s what we’re missing, and it’s the simplest and hardest thing. 

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” 

Hearing someone’s opinion on something is really just watching them reach into a granary. There is always more to tell than can be told. 

In the Acts lesson, Peter has that weird dream about how God told him to kill and eat unclean things (including lizards, I can never get over that) right after he was resisting allowing the Gentiles to join the community of Christ. Clearly, Peter thought, Jesus only came for the Jews, the ones who know God and care about God’s law. God says, “What God has made clean, do not call unclean.” 

You and me, and we are more than our opinions. More than that, though, having all of the right opinions won’t get us into heaven, either. Being correct about everything on the Internet won’t save you from yourself or the world. Being logical won’t be your salvation. 

We are all tangles of complicated stories and opinions. We are all walking contradictions. We all get it wrong all the time. One of the markers of even a passably well-adjusted adult is being willing to admit that we’re not perfect. 

If it is true, then, that we are all saved by grace, then our neighbors are too. Just as our “right” opinions won’t save us, our neighbors’ “wrong” ones don’t make them less worthwhile as human beings. “What God has made clean, do not call unclean.”

You better still hear me: cling hard to your opinions. You fought for them and you formed them out of your own experience and learning. Remember that, as John Dickerson of 60 Minutes says, opinions are like filters: they’re pretty useless unless you run things through them. So run things through them. Read everything. Work out your views and refine them. Learn more about them and learn to defend them.

Whether you and I are inclined to agree about things or not, I say these things to you. Work for justice and what is right. Defend the vulnerable. This is your baptismal call. 

It is also your baptismal call to love your neighbor. And this is the simplest and hardest thing.

So let us continue to reach into the granary and pull out more and more handfuls of grain. Though you can never fully understand my story because you have not lived my life — and I can never fully understand your story because I haven’t lived yours — we can still share. We can still love one another. We can all still discuss over drinks. I will not call unclean what God has made clean.

So let us come to the table where all of our grain is made into one loaf — the body of Christ. And may we, different as we are, remember: none of us is perfect, but Christ is with us all. Amen.

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