Rev. Joe Connolly
“Peter was still speaking and had not yet finished these words when the Holy Spirit was upon all who were listening to the message Peter was sharing.” — Acts 10:44
I want to start my comments today with a little history— local history. The Chenango Canal was built and operated in the mid-19th century. It was a 97 miles long towpath canal.
For much of its course this waterway followed the Chenango River and followed what would today mostly be along Route 12 from Binghamton to Utica. It provided a significant link in the water transportation system of the northeastern United States and more specifically connected the Susquehanna River to the Erie Canal.
Mostly Irish and Scottish immigrant laborers built the ditch— digging by hand— using pick and shovel, chipping through rock, wading through marsh. They were paid $11 per month. $11 a month was three times the wage of a common laborer in that era.
The canal became fully operational in 1836. As a comparison, the Erie Canal opened in 1825, just 11 years earlier. But hindsight tells us, as these things go, 1836 was a little late in the grand era of canals on this continent.
Needless to say new technology caught up with the canal. In 1848 trains first arrived in Binghamton. That new technology, the arrival of the ‘iron horse’ spelled the eventual end for the canal. The railroad built north up that same Chenango River Valley.
The canal closed in 1878. Let me do the math for you. 1836 to 1878— that means the Chenango Canal was open and operational for a grand total of just 42 years. Even in that earlier time, 42 years was less than a single lifetime.
Of course, all technology has its day. The railroads were eventually replaced by the so called ‘horseless carriages.’
But rather than think of these changes in terms of the technology, I want to invite you to think of them in terms of people. With each technological innovation— from the canal to the iron horse to the horseless carriage— these innovations meant two things for people.
Each transition meant fewer jobs, fewer people needed to do what had been done before. For many each transition meant learning a new technology. Each of these transitions also and importantly meant a profound disruption in the workplace and a profound disruption in the economy at large.
Here’s good news and bad news: change is still happening. There is much talk these days about driver-less cars. Indeed, they are happening and they will happen on a much larger scale than is current.
But that will not be the big change. The big change will be driver-less delivery trucks. Supermarket and store deliveries, deliveries of packages to your front door will be automated, done without any need for human involvement. That means less jobs. Imagine the disruption to the economy when most of the jobs in the trucking industry just disappear. (Slight pause.)
In a recent New York Times article Dov Seidman, C.E.O. of an outfit which advises companies on leadership and how to build ethical cultures said, “What we are experiencing today bears similarities in size and implications to the scientific revolution that began in the late 16th century. The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, which spurred that scientific revolution, challenged our whole understanding of the world— the world right around and the world beyond us— and forced us as humans to rethink our place within it.”
“Once scientific methods became enshrined, we used science and reason— thinking— to navigate our way forward. The French philosopher René Descartes crystallized this age of reason in one phrase: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes’s point was that it is our ability to ‘think’ that most distinguished humans from all the other animals on earth.”
But the technological revolution is forcing us to answer a profound question— one we’ve never had to ask before. ‘What does it mean to be human in the age of intelligent machines?’ Machines, after all, now think. The answer, says Seidman, is the one thing machines will never have: “heart”— humans have heart.  (Slight pause.)
We hear these words in Luke/Acts in the section commonly called Acts: “Peter was still speaking and had not yet finished these words when the Holy Spirit was upon all who were listening to the message Peter was sharing.” (Slight pause.)
In this reading the message Peter offers starts with these words (quote): “Now I begin to see that God shows no partiality and I truly understand that in any nation anyone who is in awe of God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” What this tells us about where Peter is at should be obvious.
Even at this late point it is evident Peter maintains a resistance to the radical inclusion and inclusiveness of all humanity. But this— radical inclusion and inclusiveness— is a key portion of the preaching of Jesus.
In Peter’s defense, for me that raises a simple question. Why should all humanity be included? What is it in a proclamation of Jesus which insists on inclusion and inclusiveness? (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest the proclamation of Jesus says… God is present; the proclamation of Jesus says God is real, the proclamation of Jesus says God is with us, says God is active. For me that is why an insistence in this passage that the Holy Spirit is present is a pivotal point. This is a proclamation that the presence of the Spirit of God, the presence of God, is a given. God is here, with us, now.
I therefore also want to suggest a proclamation of the Gospel inherently insists God loves us. With God there are no outcasts. With God there is no one who is less than any other. God loves each of us. God loves all of us. God loves humanity. Put differently, God has heart. Indeed, this is the way we usually hear that same idea: God loves. (Slight pause.)
That beings us back to the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Seidman said we have the one thing machines will never have: “heart.” We love. And the Gospel message, the message of the Spirit of God, the message of the presence of God, is that we are all included in the love God offers and… God wants us to love one another. (Slight pause.)
In a couple of moments we will have our blessing of the stuffed animals. These hare inanimate objects, are they not? However, they can also represent the love we have. And sometimes that representation is helpful for us.
So let us understand how God relates to us: love. Let us understand what makes us human: love. Let us understand God invites us to love one another. Let us understand what radical inclusion and inclusiveness really is. Let us understand how it is really defined: love. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Earlier I asked the question what does it mean to be human. One could argue that to be human means to experience constant change— changes in the workplace, changes in the economic system, changes in our family situations. For the most part and as a species we don’t like change. Fine. Let me suggest the constant in our lives is the presence of God and the love of God.”
BENEDICTION: May the Spirit of the God of light and love, the God of truth and justice, the God of song and joy, the God of all, be with you this day and forever more. Amen.
NY Times ~ The Opinion Pages ~ Op-Ed Columnist ~ From Hands to Heads to Hearts ~ Thomas L. Friedman ~ JAN. 4, 2017. Note: these words are occasionally paraphrased to fit the context of the sermon. Hence, any misrepresentation is the fault of this writer.