A Sermon for 19 May 2019 – 5th Sunday of Easter
A reading from Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
In Take this Bread: A Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-first-Century Christian, Sara Miles tells of the first day she walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California. Raised by parents who wanted nothing to do with the religion for which each sets of their parents had been overseas missionaries; at forty-six, Sara walked into the building down the street from her house one day. From the start, she was struck by the beautiful, sun-drenched rotunda of the space where chairs where configured in a circle around that to which every detail of the building’s architecture pointed. Sara writes: there, “in the center of the open, empty space (that) was ringed high above by a huge neo-Byzantine mural of unlikely saint figures;” there, was a table (p. 57). That morning, for the first time, Sara heard the words she would hear every other time she gathered with others for worship in that place. Amid simple a cappella songs, the standing and sitting that accompanies the pageantry of most any Episcopal service, the listening, and the joyful dance that led worshippers up to that table; Sara heard a woman announce: “Jesus invites everyone to his table” (p. 58). Though never having received the bread and fruit of the vine before; Sara went forward to taste and see.
Sara would come to learn that this little church intentionally had been crafted by two priests who had grown weary of ossified Episcopalian worship. From the building, to the rock-hewn baptismal font out back, from the beautiful liturgy, to the body of believers who were “mostly highly-educated, liberal, middle-age San Francisco professionals, with” in Sara’s words, “a sprinkling of Republicans, older people, and younger families . . . a congregation of 150 artists, scholars, theater designers, psychologists, and composers” – many of whom had spent years away from religion but were looking for a way back into a congregation that would accept them for who they were. Doubts, difference, and all. Sara stood among them around that table that winter morning and as she ate the crumbly bread and drank from the cup of sweet wine, Sara writes: “Jesus happened to me” (p. 58). From that first time around that table, her life dramatically changed.
I’m not sure what would happen if someone like Sara came into our midst. ‘Cuz within a year, she went to her new priests to ask if it would be possible to begin handing out bread from that very table to the ethnically and economically different, hungry people who lived all around St. Gregory’s building but never set foot in the door. From the moment Jesus happened to her. From the moment she first heard the words, “Jesus invites everyone to his table,” Sara – a woman who started out as a chef in New York long before women were accepted as chefs. Having ingested Jesus at that table, Sara wanted to feed others too! From nothing, she began what would become one of San Francisco’s busiest food pantries. And when they couldn’t keep up with the need, Sara found ways to replicate the model at various locations nearby. She firmly believed what was said each week in worship: Jesus invites everyone to his table! With loaves of bread literally given from that same table every Friday, the face of St. Gregory’s Episcopal church began to change.
Long has the church struggled in sharing The Table with others. As early as the first days of the Acts of the Apostles, the first followers of the Way weren’t so sure with whom it was okay to eat. As Jews who had gotten on board behind the wandering rabbi from Nazareth, they believed that it wasn’t kosher to dine with those who were different from them. It makes no sense really that they clung to this notion, because the gospels tell story after story of Jesus sitting at table with those who were not considered ritually clean. In fact, when a woman from Syrophoenicia reminds Jesus that even Gentile “dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” her faith is blessed. Her daughter instantly healed. The One the apostles had been following – the One they had been watching welcome those often-considered outsiders, touching those thought untouchable, inviting the most unlikely to come follow. Jesus, the One from whom the first disciples had been learning, ate in the homes of tax collectors and Pharisees. The gospels tell the stories of a Holy rebel. The ultimate table-turner who freely shared what he had been given. How in the world could those to whom he had entrusted his mission so blatantly missed his point?!
According to Acts of the Apostles, Peter is swarmed in Jerusalem for eating with uncircumcised men! It happened that Peter – the one often considered Jesus’ lead disciple – was off on his travels. Preaching the good news of the Risen Christ. Healing powerfully in his name. Staying in the city of Joppa, Peter was asked to come to Caesarea by a man named Cornelius. Long years Cornelius had prayed to God. Giving alms and dedicating his whole household to the LORD despite the fact that he was a member of an Italian Cohort – a centurion serving Rome, who himself was not a Jew. It can be hard for us to understand all the fuss. Most of us today don’t even know the background of our ancestors. We don’t build our guest lists based on whether or not each guest is circumcised! Oh, we have the safe circles in which we mostly live and move and have our being so that many of us may never have sat down to supper with someone who wasn’t born in the United States. We may never have eaten with someone who doesn’t speak our same language. We might know a few folks of another religion. But have we intentionally invited them over to our homes or set up a date to meet for dinner after work? Maybe we’ve experienced such divergent ways when traveling internationally for a mission trip. But how often in the past week have we entertained at our tables those who are radically different from us?
For me the question is an unfolding journey. Because I was raised in a small town in Wisconsin where it was drilled into us as youngsters that “If you’re not Dutch; you’re not much.” Difference spanned the gamut of from which part of the Netherlands did your grandparents come? In our little town of 1,800, we worried about how blonde your hair was and if you were ready every summer to participate in Holland Fest. All four churches in town believed they were so very different, though all four were a part of the Reformed Theological Tradition. And you wouldn’t dream of becoming friends with the one or two Catholics who went to services outside the village limits. We were proud to be Dutch – counted among the much who worked hard. But it didn’t take too many years of living until it was clear to me that my own mother was a red-head and my best friend in high school was a dry-witted brunette. None of us really were the same – but if you wanted to color outside the lines, that too would have to be done outside the village limits. In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “God made us different that we might know one another, and . . . how we treat one another is the best expression of our beliefs” (p. 225). Had I never met those different from me, I literally would not be here today. Neither would you. Despite how awkward it can feel sometimes when we’re not sure if we all agree on the same table etiquette, why in the world would we refuse to eat with those who are different from us?
It would take a startling vision from God for Peter to abandon his prejudices. On the roof at the home where he was staying in Joppa, Peter found himself in a dream-like trance while he prayed. Something like a sheet descended from the heavens with all sorts of animals in it. It’s recorded that Peter was hungry and a voice told him to go ahead and eat. Protesting that the animals held in the sheet weren’t all ritually clean, Peter refused to eat. Lest we think the vision is just about what foods to eat, the voice Peter heard clearly told him – three times: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Wasn’t that how they were treating the Gentiles? Not so sure they were clean in the eyes of God, though according to the story the Creator of all made all good. Very, very good!
It certainly can complicate things trying to eat with those who are different from us. ‘Cuz like did you know that not everyone in the world wants to drink sweet tea? And I can tell you as a first-hand witness that not every Presbyterian Church in this country has ever even heard of pimento cheese sandwiches! When we sit down at table with different people, we might have to learn how to eat other foods. Literally finding that the Jewish family down the street is grateful to stop to observe a holy Sabbath rest each Friday night. The Buddhist neighbor could teach us a lot about keeping centered in peace through silent prayer. Someone who’s not even sure there is a God might be the first one at our door in a crisis – their commitment to relieving human need coming from their own experience of compassion when catastrophe struck their life. The other night I was blessed to listen to a passionate, young African American women tell about the way she has begun a Soulful Sunday circle in a local park. As she held my broken foot to offer me healing energy, she talked of the young people who join her to sit in the quiet on the earth, be guided in a heart-centered meditation, and re-grounded to go back out into the world for another week. . . . Isn’t it amazing to think of us all at one Table? Bountifully eating our fill of food that truly nourishes?
About us all dining together, one biblical commentator writes: “A change of heart comes when one sees the Spirit at work in the stories of strangers, recognizing in them the same Spirit that is working in one’s own life. People need first to see God at God’s surprising work. Theological reflection comes afterward, either to bring what has been seen into coherence with past thinking, or to make a reasoned break with that thinking” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2, Lewis S. Mudge, p. 252). That’s how Peter and the believers in Jerusalem finally understood. As Peter eloquently proclaimed to Cornelius and those gathered in Caesarea: now “I truly understand,” he said, “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears the LORD and does what is right is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35). For indeed, God gives the Spirit to all that leads all to Life! (Acts 11:18).
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)