Sunday, April 24, 2016
What God has made clean
Scripture Lesson: Acts 11: 1-18, page 130 Sermon Title: What God has made clean Preached on 4/24/2016 I could make the statement that we live in a small world, but statements don’t always have the impact of a good story, so let me share with you a story. On Tuesday I went to the bank – and there I ran into long time member of First Presbyterian Church, Dr. Herald Pryor. Now that’s not the story. You already know that we live in a small town where you run into people you know in the bank. The point I want to make is that this is a small world, so here’s the rest of the story. Dr. Pryor asked me where I was last Sunday since there was a substitute preacher. I told him that the Session was gracious enough to want me to have a Sunday off, so I was able to go with my family to spend the weekend at Fall Creek Falls in the Cumberland Mountains. Dr. Pryor then shared with me this story: he was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany after World War II and was given a two week leave and he took the opportunity to travel to Switzerland. There he was taken aback by the majesty of the Swiss Alps, staying in a little hotel in Luceren (Lou-seern) called “The Beautiful Scenery” (that’s the English translation). Once, during his two week stay he had a table in the dining room and was there for the evening meal in his army uniform. Since he was there by himself an elderly couple who spoke English invited him to share their table. To make conversation Dr. Pryor was talking about how beautiful the scenery was, the mountains, the lakes, the snow, and the woman said to him that “yes it was beautiful, but not quite as beautiful as the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee.” Isn’t that a wonderful story? And so you see that, yes, it is a small world, and the point is made by sharing a story – not launching into an argument, not by making a statement – and that’s important to remember because so often when we are trying to make a point we present data, accumulate facts, and should we become a little defensive in our opinions we might raise our voices to make our point, but in doing so, rather than convincing our friends and changing their mind, instead we may find that they no longer wants to be our friend. It’s true – get into a good political debate and see what happens. Challenge the taboo of talking about religion in mixed company and watch as the dinner guests excuse themselves from the table. If you make it your practice to tell people what’s on your mind you can get into trouble, but something different happens when you share a story. That’s what Peter does in the 11th Chapter of the book of Acts. “Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” It’s hard for us to understand what circumcision has to do with anything – you might think this is a private issue not to be discussed in decent company, so even though we are in the midst of a bathroom debate at the state capital it’s still hard to understand why this issue of circumcision mattered so much to the early church, but it did. It mattered who you sat with, and if you were a man and wanted to be a Christian, at this point in time the thinking was that you first had to become a Jew and that meant circumcision. Here Peter disagrees with the norm. He and the Apostle Paul both contend in the Book of Acts that we are saved by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ alone and not by the kosher food that we eat, not by any rite of purity or initiation involving the flesh, but rather than start an argument with these guys or try to make the theological point that stops them in their tracks, Peter just shares with them a story: “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. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’” Now, I’ve read some good Bible Scholars talk in some pretty profound terms about what this means for you and for me, but I’d rather share with you another story to help explain what I believe this Scripture lesson has to say. The year after I graduated college and before I started seminary, I worked for a high-end lawn maintenance company in Atlanta. Sara and I had just gotten married. Somehow we convinced her parents that marriage was a good idea – I was after all making $7.50 cents per hour. One morning I remember distinctly. I was approaching the shop a few minutes before 7 and I noticed that the car in front of me hit a rabbit and killed it. I didn’t think much about it, pulled into my normal parking spot and started loading up the lawn mowers, weed-eaters, and edgers on the truck I was assigned to drive like I did every day, when one of the guys on my crew rode up on his bicycle with one hand on the handle bar and the other holding that dead rabbit by the back legs. Before he would help me finish loading up the truck he wanted to clean that rabbit, and somehow or another he convinced me that it would be a good use of our time to stop by his apartment on our way to our first job so he could put the rabbit in his refrigerator. I had never seen anyone clean a rabbit, but I’ve grown up removed from agrarian culture. I’d also never eaten chitlins before Ron Neal taught me how, and I didn’t know folks ate rabbit either before that guy on my crew from a rural town on the gulf side of Mexico convinced me to stop by his apartment so he could put it in his refrigerator. I guess all that happened on a Tuesday, and at the end of the day on Friday my co-worker with the rabbit invited me back to his apartment for a drink and something to eat. I was too polite to refuse, but was pleasantly surprised to see that steak tacos were on the menu and not rabbit enchiladas. I was also surprised to see that not only my coworker but five other guys from the company all lived in that little one-bedroom apartment, the same size as the one Sara and I shared back then. I was invited to sit on one of the coveted couch seats, and by the end of the afternoon we had shared so much food and so many stories that we were no longer co-workers, we were friends. Miracles happen over shared meals and shared stories. The issue that Peter was facing: one group of believers was sitting at one table, the others at another and the divide was bridged with food a story, but today it’s not just that those who are a little different sit at different tables most of the time, but even families have a hard time sitting down to eat in one place and if that’s the case, are we friends or are we co-workers? Are we individuals or are we family? What was dividing the Church in the days of Peter was this issue of circumcision – and what divides us today? Everything. The great Bible Scholar and author of that well-read translation of Scripture called the Message, Dr. Eugene Peterson, shares the story of a time when his wife Jan was invited to speak at a women’s conference. These women all longed for advice regarding their families who it seemed were all the time running in different directions. “How can we be a stronger family,” they wanted to know. Jan just gave them one challenge – sit down and eat dinner together for at least 5 meals a week – but the ladies were incredulous and told her that doing so would be impossible. Can you believe that? But it’s true. That’s where we are, and I won’t try to convince you by arguing with you because all I have to do is tell you that in Chick-fil-a there are boxes on the table and if a family can place their phones in one of those boxes without removing them for an entire meal than the restaurant staff will reward them with a free ice cream cone. Who would have ever thought that a family would be rewarded for talking to each other at the dinner table? If you thought that it was strange that Peter be chastised for eating with uncircumcised believers how much stranger is it that today children and parents are forgetting how? I suppose that what was true then is still true today – there are forces in our world that are trying to pull us apart. But if we are pulled apart, forced to sit at different tables or drawn into isolation, numbed by television, seduced by the internet, disconnected from the people right next to us, are we not easy prey for the evil one? So God calls us to remember that we must not call unclean what God has made clean – and what God has made clean is not the table where you sit all alone – but the table where you are joined by people who already are or will quickly become family. Of course – that’s a lesson we have to be taught in today’s world because we are forgetting so much about community that we should have remembered, and Susie Baxter shared with me a story of a mother who was doing just that for her children. She took them out for a Blizzard at the Dairy Queen, but they wouldn’t say thank-you, nor did they so much as acknowledge the young woman at the cash register who handed them their desert. So the mother took the blizzards from her children’s hands, threw them in the trash, and explained “that one day, if they were lucky, they would work a job like that young lady. And I would hope that people would see them. Really see them. Look them in the eye and say thank you. [She said] we are too old to move through our days without exercising manners and basic human decency.” God calls us to relationships, because it’s relationships that matter, and to finish making my point let me share with you the rest of Dr. Pryor’s story: Through the course of his dinner in that Swiss hotel, Dr. Pryor learned that the English couple had three daughters, and that one had married a high ranking officer in Hitler’s military. They had given grandchildren to the elderly couple, and they asked Dr. Pryor to try and deliver a letter to this daughter married to the officer because while they longed to know how she and her family were, the infrastructure of much of Europe had crumbled during the war and they had been unable to make any contact. Dr. Pryor was diligent in tracking the couple’s daughter down, and as an officer in the army himself, he discovered where this German officer had been stationed, but on locating the town, he also learned that the place had been bombed to the ground and that the daughter and her family had likely not survived. But that’s not where the story ends. Several years later the details began to fade in Dr. Pryor’s memory. He told his wife that he knew something interesting had happened during his stay in Switzerland – something with an English couple who had a daughter who was married to an officer in Hitler’s military, but you know how details can get. Well, Larue Pryor just went to the place in her room where she stored all the letters he had sent her, because all those years later, she still cared about the stories he had shared with her. Now, in our world of fragmentation and isolation where friends are few and families are scattered, where everyone knows how to form an opinion but we are forgetting how to build a relationship, be mindful that while we are well trained in the work of building up walls, it seems to me that our God is so very interested in teaching us how to build bridges. My charge to you today is a simple one: eat together, share your story, and see what happens. Amen.