May 19, 2019 Worship Sermon - "The International Brunch"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35
One of my favorite Sundays here at Christ Lutheran Community Church is the first Sunday of June. It’s not a holiday that you will find on any of our church calendars, although sometimes it coincides with Pentecost and when it does it’s especially cool. The first Sunday in June is when this congregation has its international brunch, when all our members are invited to bring a dish that represents their ancestral heritage. I love it because we get to enjoy delicious food that comes from all over the world: Swedish meatballs, collard greens from the south, plus dishes from Liberia, Pakistan, Tanzania, and more. In some churches, a potluck dinner means that you get to try thirty variations on tuna noodle casserole (which I love, by the way); but at our international brunch, you’re almost certain to encounter a recipe that you’ve never had before. It’s one of the blessings of living in a culturally rich community like Upper Darby.
In our reading from Acts, Peter – who was one of Jesus’ disciples and a leader of the early church – had his own private international brunch… one that makes ours seem mundane by comparison. While he’s staying at the home of a man named Simon, Peter has a vision of a huge sheet being lowered by its four corners from heaven. It must have been a really huge sheet, because in it were all the earth’s four legged creatures and reptiles and birds. As the sheet is being lowered, he hears a voice – which he recognizes as the voice of the Lord – telling him, “Bon Appetit! Eat hardy!” Peter responds the way many Americans would if they were invited to eat a dish made from dog or cat. His face gets all scrunched up and he says, “Ewwww! No way Lord. I’ve never eaten anything that gross!”
Almost every culture has foods that are considered inappropriate for eating, but those foods are not the same from culture to culture. Americans might squirm at the thought of eating dog, but they’ll happily chow down on the beefsteak that other cultures would find absolutely revolting. Food and culture are closely related, so just as cultures vary from place to place, so dietary customs vary from place to place. And certain foods carry tremendous emotional significance. They remind us of our home, our family, our history. So messing around with people’s diets can be truly disorienting for them.
Peter is put in that very disorienting state. He’s asked to eat foods that his culture deemed disgusting. Even more than that, these were foods that his religion prohibited. To eat them would have been counter to God’s law… counter to the Bible. So, Peter was being asked to do something that ran against his culture and his religious beliefs, upsetting him on a deep visceral level. God had to repeat the vision three times, and still Peter wasn’t sure what to make of it.
After Peter had the vision, though, something happened that led him to realize that the vision wasn’t just about food. The Holy Spirit directed Peter to go to the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Peter was supposed to tell Cornelius how to experience life with God through Jesus Christ. Now for Peter, this was just wrong for a number of reasons. For starters, Cornelius was a part of the occupying power that so many people in that region hated. But even more than that, Cornelius didn’t follow God’s law. He didn’t follow the dietary laws that were written clear as day in the scriptures. And he wasn’t circumcised, which was a requirement for every male, stretching all the way back to Abraham. A person who wanted to be in a relationship with God and a member of God’s community had to follow the laws that God had given way back when God led their ancestors out of Egypt.
When the Holy Spirit told Peter to go to Cornelius and invite him to be a part of God’s community, a light went on in Peter’s head. He made a connection between the vision of the animals in the sheet and the Holy Spirit calling him to preach the good news to Cornelius. “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean,” the voice in the vision told him. And Peter realized that the vision wasn’t just about food; it was about people.
God was doing a new thing. God was including people who had formerly been excluded… excluded for good reason, because they hadn’t been following God’s law. But now, God was doing a new thing. The story of Peter and Cornelius tells us that God is no longer interested in setting up cultural boundaries to distinguish between God’s people and everyone else. God is opting for inclusion rather than exclusion.
If you look at our reading from the Gospel of John, you’ll see that there is just one boundary that defines what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: love one another. Jesus says, “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” All the ways we humans divide ourselves into groups, all the labels we put on each other, all the customs we develop to show who’s inside our group and who’s not, all of these are subordinate to the greater law: that we love each other.
On the inside cover of your bulletin, you may have noticed that we started printing a welcome statement that our church council adopted last year. A statement like this shows that this community is not defined by all the cultural boundaries that humans use to divide people into groups. Our cultural inheritance doesn’t determine whether we can be a part of this community.
This doesn’t mean that anything goes or that any type of behavior is appropriate. As a community, we can’t tolerate behavior that would hurt other people, because that would run counter to Christ’s command that we love one another. So white supremacists aren’t on our welcome statement. Or, perhaps we could say, if you’re a white supremacist, you’re welcome, but you’ve got to leave your white supremacy at the door because that type of behavior is not welcome. White supremacy runs counter to what we learn in today’s scriptures, because it seeks to elevate ethnic and cultural boundaries that God is not interested in maintaining.
Last week, as I was greeting people after the service, someone said to me, “That was a good sermon, but you didn’t really say anything about repentance.” It was a fair critique. Every sermon should include an invitation to turn away from that which prevents us from receiving the abundant life that God wants for us. And since our reading from Acts speaks directly about Gentiles receiving the repentance that leads to life, let me proclaim it clearly. Just as Peter repented of his old way of thinking, so we need to repent of our tendency to build walls that separate people from God’s grace. We need to repent of the obstacles that we put up that prevent people from fully living as people of God. We need to repent – to turn away from – our racism, our xenophobia, our chauvinism, our political polarization. These things are killing us and we need to stop. What God in Jesus Christ has made clean, we must not call profane. As God in Christ loves us, so let us love one another.
Christ Lutheran Community Church
Christ Lutheran Community Church