The
year 1976 was an important one in my childhood. It was the year my brother was born. It stands out to me not just because my brother was born, but because as a child I kind of thought the whole country was throwing a big party to get ready for the addition
to our family.

It
was the bicentennial anniversary of our nation. There were flags everywhere, at least where I lived in Texas. There were all sorts of references on TV to Uncle Sam and to the stars and stripes and to our great nation. I think there were some special stamps.
I remember having a USA-themed birthday that year- I think my mom baked me a rocket-ship shaped birthday cake that was red-white and blue with “USA” down the side of the rocket ship.

The
whole country was celebrating, and through my six year old eyes, it was tremendous; it was kind of magical that I was able to be a part of these people as I heard the foundational stories of our nation told and retold that year. I felt proud to be a part
of it, even at six.

I
have been curious about nationalism lately. I studied an article in the Journal of Ethnopolitics recently which analyzed the roots of the kind of destructive nationalism we are currently experiencing around the world. It claims that virulent nationalism
has its beginnings in the kind of softer, gentler latent nationalism I experienced that year in 1976; that we all experience much of the time without thinking about it.

Latent
nationalism isn’t unique to the US. It works to build up an artificial concept of belonging to something, to the nation, and emphasizes a pride in belonging to that thing. It may emphasize buying from within the nation rather than outside it; it may emphasize
the uniqueness of the nation by showing weather maps that stop at its borders on local news channels; and flying flags so that the nation is solidified in the common conscience. It actively or passively draws lines around people to reinforce who is in and
who is not. In the case of my 1976 self, the latent nationalism existed to make me feel good about belonging to the group of the USA. “Nationalism does not exist by itself, but has to be promoted and its members have to be convinced to belong to this group.”
The nation is not a naturally occurring community.

It’s
usually about here when a few people will start to think about getting up and walking out of the sermon. I’m not disparaging the United States of America. I’m just asking us to consider, for a moment,
how
we are members of this country, a country I love. My bigger question is how that love can turn into an exclusive kind of nationalism that may turn virulent.

It
feels like virulent nationalism is on the rise globally. Xenophobia here in the US is on the rise, Brexit in the UK, Erdogan in Turkey, Dutarte in the Phillipines, neo-nazi revival in Germany– it doesn’t seem like we have to look very far to find exclusive
nationalist movements finding new life all over the world.

The
article I mentioned suggests that the latent, or seemingly harmless nationalism that helps us define who is “in the nation” is related to the turn to virulent nationalism. Because nationalism does not happen naturally and must be curated, it waits dormant
as we buy our postage stamps and reinforce that we belong to something special, which also means someone else doesn’t. The flag waving doesn’t mean anything negative per se. But any ideological, economic, institutional, or social shock to the system activates
the latent definitions of who is in and who is out; the traces that have been drawn in very thin lines, drawn to enforce the idea that the nation exists only because someone is not a part of it, starts to rupture into large fissures. Those shock events might
look like the collapse of Communism, which lead to ethnic nationalism in Bosnia and elsewhere. The global economic crisis of 2008 has been linked to the rise of Donald Trump, the collapse of autocracies in the Arab world in 2011, and the crisis of the EU.
Shocks to our national system widen the gaps between the perceived us and the perceived them.

We
usually perceive those gaps as harmless until the shock comes along and threatens us. We like to keep in our foundational myth that the US was colonized by adventurous European anglo settlers fleeing persecution. But we like to skip in our foundational myth
that our history includes the conquest and murder of indigenous peoples, and that our prosperity was built on the backs of African slave labor ripped forcefully from their native land. So then our selective latent story comes to roost when a shock threatens
other aspects of survival, and the lines get thicker and thicker about who is in and who is out, about who is us and who is them, about who is seen and who is not, until the false construct of nationalism becomes the only real story we understand and the threats
to that latent story must be purged, because we don’t know how to learn a new story.

But
the story in Acts and our gospel reminds us this morning that as followers of Jesus, we are constantly on guard against letting those latent stories shape us. Our foundational story is a different one altogether.

The
story in Acts even catches Peter by surprise. He was accustomed to a story of having lines drawn around the Jewish people. To become a follower of Jesus, you had to become Jewish. You had to follow Jewish dietary law; to be kosher. But then Peter gets gob-smacked
by this vision, this dream, which he is here repeating to others. In this dream, something like a big checkered picnic blanket came out of nowhere and it was full of all the animals that he could not eat as a Jewish man. And a voice told him to eat from them
anyway. And Peter understood that the story he had learned about the boundaries of who was in and who was out were all wrong. Peter had to have a new story. Without even realizing it, Peter had drawn boundaries around who was in and who was out. And then
he realized– this God I follow doesn’t draw boundaries. Nobody and nothing is outside the love of God.

And
that– that– its really great news! We have a God who is so generous with love. Everyone, everything is seen! Everyone and everything is loved. Everyone and everything is worthy. God doesn’t make junk. And God expects God’s people to include that in our
foundational story! Generosity is God’s fundamental disposition– God’s love flows into everything and everyone without reservation. God’s postage stamp includes everybody and everything, and God’s flag represents the love of all. All.

And
so the fourth gospel today calls for generosity of love: “I give you a new commandment, to love one another.” This fundamental disposition of God which we are called to take on as our story is to turn outward, to love. Transformative generosity is never
about the status quo. The lesson from Acts today has, for the last few decades, been one of the key texts calling the church to include LGBTQ people in the full life of the church. We are not there yet, but we are a lot farther than we have been. Generosity
is the fundamental disposition of God. It changes things.

Breaking
down the barriers between Jew and Gentile was the big issue for Peter, and breaking down the barrier between straight and LGBTQ people has been a movement in this age. But the theme is timeless: our fundamental story as followers of Jesus must be generosity
of love to all of creation. It is our primary concern. Everything else falls from that.

I
know its a mess out there. I know you want to mourn for Alabama and for military escalation and for immigration meritocracy and all sorts of other things. And we should. And we should work for a more just society.

But
look, we are followers of Jesus. When you follow Jesus you don’t follow the beat of the drummer out there! We have a different story, even and maybe because of the story out there. The church has one purpose. That is to work alongside God for the kingdom
of God. We are a love laboratory.

We
come here together to practice this generosity thing, to try to love each other as best we can. We come here with our latent stories from out there to let them go, to learn a new story with each other and to try to love each other. We come here to practice
letting our guard down, to practice seeing as Peter did- even when we don’t want to have eyes to see- that everybody and all creation is clean, even when we’d really rather it not be. We come here to practice being loved, because that’s not always easy either,
to let someone in. We come here to practice disagreeing in love- because it’s important that we learn to love each other when we don’t agree. We practice moving over when somebody wants to sit in our pew, even though we don’t really want to move over, because
welcoming the stranger helps us break down our attempts to go back to that other story. We practice messing up and getting angry, and coming back to this table again and again, because that’s what generous people who love generously do, even though it’s really
hard. And we practice saying the hard things: you hurt me, I’m sorry, I was wrong– even when we do it through clenched teeth. But we do these things because we practice our story, loving each other, claiming the other’s belovedness in God’s great generosity.
And we need community to do that. You can’t practice this stuff alone.

And
in this love lab we don’t always get it right. But that’s why it’s a lab. We keep on in this experiment. And something mysterious happens. We get better at it and are changed by it. And we go out into the world, and it becomes easier to take this thing
that grows here in this laboratory and we infect others out there with it. And the generosity of love spreads. The thing that starts here in this petri dish bursts outside of these walls. It can’t be stopped, if we don’t get in the way. And it changes the
world.

Because
the story we learn here isn’t just the story of us as followers of Christ. It is the story of all creation. It’s the story of love incarnate. Do you hear the story? Of course you do, St. Paul’s. You’re living it. Keep letting the love lab flourish here,
St. Paul’s. And then go out and infect somebody with a new story.

Rev. Canon Jeff Martinhauk
Easter 5C, May 19, 2019
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35


Sources
Consulted:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17449057.2018.1532633 

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