Fifth Sunday Easter, Year C – April 24, 2016 : Who was I that I should hinder God?

“Who was I that I should hinder God?” Peter says.

I’ve been wondering this week about how I have been hindering God,how we have hindered God in who we look down on, leave out, or discriminate against — either knowingly or unknowingly.

For Peter it was a huge realization that God did not discriminate against Gentiles. Those who had not been circumcised were give the same gift they had been given in Jesus Christ; the Holy Spirit had fallen on the Gentiles just as it had on the apostles and believers at Pentecost.

For many of us, when we think about discrimination in the U.S.,racial discrimination quickly comes to mind. It’s been with us since the beginning; has gone through many changes and iterations; but is still very present. I’ll never forget how this reality hit homeback when I worked for the Forest Service in Oden, Arkansas.

As you come into Oden headed west on Hwy. 270, there was (and still may be) an old building off to the right with these big words painted on it for all to see: WHITE TOWN.

I was on a project one day with forester Alton James, the only black employee in my district. Alton lived in Hot Springs, because his wife refused to live in Oden.   I’m sure she had not missed the big WHITE sign board.  Alton was young and optimistic and didn’t seem to mind the hour-long commute from Hot Springs, nor being the only black person in Oden.

But we got on the topic of discrimination and he shared a recent experience that he had had at the Hot Springs Mall. It had been a beautiful day and Alton was riding high and feeling good as he entered the mall —until he noticed an older white woman ahead of him look back, and in an exaggerated gesture, she grasped her purse and clutched it to her side. (pause)

In that brief moment Alton’s high spirits burst like a balloon.

Who am I that I should be hindering God?  The cutting edge issue in the Episcopal Church around discrimination, and certainly one being dealt with in society in general is transgender equality.

The Rev. Gwen Fry from our diocese has been very active in this struggle. Gwen, formerly Greg Fry, served successfully as a priest and rector in another diocese for two decades and was serving in an interim position here in Arkansas when he announced his plans to undergo gender transition. Greg discussed this with his vestry and congregation. They seemed prepared and willing to go through the process with him.

It ended up being too much for them, though; They dismissed Gwen as their interim priest.

That was a couple of years ago.  Gwen has served as supply priest and has done housecleaning and other odd jobs to earn a living, but she has not been able to find a full-time position as priest.

Who am I that I should be hindering God?

As I learn more about our criminal justice system and the struggles of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons, I keep hearing Jesus say, “When you have done this to the least of these,  you have done it to me…”

For most men and women released from prison, the most immediate needs are housing and a decent job.  But in trying to meet these most basic needs  they are confronted by huge obstacles.  They are less likely to be hired than any other disadvantaged population—and when they are hired, they are the lowest paid.

Prospects are really bleak for African-Americans with criminal histories; a white person with a felony conviction can get a job easierthan a black person who has never even been arrested.

Over the past 20 years, the number of major employers who screen for criminal records has shot up as high as 90 percent.  And access to hundreds of trades and professions is virtually off limits because of occupational licenses that require license holdersto be of “good moral character” — a phrase widely interpreteds excluding people who’ve been in prison.

Because of these licensing restrictions those returning home may find themselves barred from jobs that they had before going to prison, or from occupations for which they were trained while in prison.

Stable and affordable housing is also critical to successful reintegration. But private landlords require what many formerly incarcerated people do not have—credit references, recent employment history, previous rental experience. Many landlords ask point-blank whether prospective tenants have ever been arrested or convicted. If they have spent time in prison and are honest about it, their chances for getting housing are greatly diminished. Even public housing can be difficult to acquire,  because in recent decades the federal government has cobbled together policies that place tough restrictions on access to public housing for people who have criminal records. However minor the offense, they can be prohibited for some time from returning to their families  who live in public housing, or from renting a public housing apartment on their own. Cut off from both public and private housing,  those who were formerly incarcerated often end up living on the streets.

Who am I that I should be hindering God?

Peter was not a bad guy. He just had preconceived notions, like all of us, about the way things are; about the way God is. But Peter was willing to listen, to be open to an unexpected word from God.  As difficult as it was; as entrenched as he was in his religious views,

Peter eventually opened to a new perspective.

Which is exactly what we are asked to do when Jesus commands that we love one another.

Set us free, O God, from the bonds of prejudice and fear, that we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God that you have given us through your son Jesus Christ. Amen. 21 April 2016