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Sermon: Man v. Food

May 2, 2010

Acts 11:1-18

As you are flipping through the channels on TV some night, you may find yourself watching a man eat very large quantities of food.  His name is Adam Richman, and he is the host of a show called Man v. Food.  Richman first explores the signature dishes in one particular city, and then takes on a “food challenge.”  The challenge usually has to do with devouring the monster on the menu, such as an entire plate of Atomic Hot Wings in Pittsburgh or a 13-pound pizza in Atlanta.  You should definitely not plan your family’s menu using Man v. Food as a guide.  One critic said he could “feel [his] arteries clog just from watching.”

The show takes advantage of a fact we all know: each area has its own unique dishes.  If you’re going to Texas, you’ll look for good barbecue.  You might want to sample the crab dishes in San Francisco, or the Cajun food in New Orleans.  People who come through San Pedro should try some mostaccioli.

Our food might be a reflection of who we are, but it also might define who we are.  The kind of food you eat might show others that you are a part of a group.  If you habitually eat haggis, that sends a message that you are Scottish or Presbyterian, or perhaps that your taste buds no longer work properly.  But food can also exclude.  If you do not enjoy our food, you can’t really be one of us.  Or, in some cases, there are foods that we don’t eat, and if you do, you can’t be one of us.  Food can make or break community ties.

That brings us to our scripture today.  As you know, the Bible—both the Old and New Testaments—has lots of food laws.  Many of these describe certain foods that should never be eaten.  Some of them instruct the faithful to eat some foods only at certain times.  Some give instructions about how the food should be prepared.  To call them laws sort of trivializes them.  These are not like speed limits.  The scriptural food laws are about community, about how to be in relationship to God and to the faithful community of God’s people.  Throughout history, our experience has been that these food laws often draw us together into community, but they also exclude certain other people.

In our lesson today, Peter—one of the foremost of Jesus’ disciples—was called out by the other leaders to answer the serious charge: “Why did you eat with those people?”  You’ll notice that they didn’t complain that Peter shared the good news of the risen Christ with them.  They didn’t complain that Peter had used the wrong hymnal.  They didn’t fuss over the fact that he didn’t form a Board of Trustees right away.  They said, “Why did you eat with them?”  That is a community question.  By their food choices they have shown that they are not ours, and we are not with them.

If you were to back up a chapter from today’s reading, you would see that initially, Peter would have agreed with his good friends.  He would have been willing to do business with them, perhaps even preach to them, but he could not have gone in to eat with them.  “But,” he said, “something happened to me.”

Peter said that he had been praying.  It was about noon, and he was starting to get hungry.  As happens to many of us, when we get hungry, the mind wanders.  Peter thought that was happening to him, because he saw a large picnic blanket coming down out of the sky.  On this blanket were a number of repulsive creatures, yet a voice said to Peter, “Kill and eat.”

Peter knew better than that.  Those creatures on the sheet were not food animals.  They were not the kinds of things that civilized people eat.  So Peter said, “No, thank you.  There’s a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich downstairs with my name on it.  I have never eaten anything unclean, and I’m not going to start now.”

The voice answered Peter.  “What God has called clean, you must not call unclean.”

If this sort of thing, a “vision” you experience when you are tired or hungry, you won’t put much stock in it.  You certainly aren’t going to forsake your deeply-held religious commitments over a one-time delusion.  But it happened again.  Again the picnic blanket with the unclean animals, and again the voice from heaven.  “What God calls clean you must not call unclean.”  And then, it happened a third time.

At that moment, as the heavenly voice was still echoing in the air, three men arrived at the house looking for Peter.  The men pleaded with Peter to come to the house of a man who was a Gentile.  Peter, who might just an hour before have declined the invitation to visit someone not included in the circle of community, went to visit this man and his household.  The result of Peter’s shepherding visit was remarkable.  The entire household believed and was baptized.  And even more remarkable than that was that the Holy Spirit of God confirmed the event.  The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit just as did the apostles on the day of Pentecost.  God taught Peter in that moment that the people who had seemed to be excluded from the circle of community because of their food choices, were not really excluded from God’s circle of love and care.

*     *     *     *     *

I had an excellent week at the Ken Callahan workshop in San Diego this past week.  Ken always shares with us a week of grace, and good fun and good friends.  One of the most helpful concepts he shared with us this week was the idea that God’s grace lives in the world.  And when the Church is in the world, God’s grace is in the Church.  You see how this is the reverse of the way we often think.  We often imagine that God’s grace is located in the Church, that it is our possession, and when people come to us, to the Church, then they receive God’s grace, too.

Peter learned that truth.  Peter had imagined that God’s grace resided in the community, in that group defined as the Church.  God taught Peter that grace was erupting in the house of a Gentile, and Peter had to go there to experience the life-giving fullness of grace.  Suddenly, Peter’s whole notion of where the circle of community begins and ends was thrown into confusion.  God’s circle, he discovered, is a lot bigger than any of us give God credit for.

One of the more fun conversations I had this week was with a colleague about the kind of bread served at communion.  Here, we offer two different kinds of bread.  Some places always use King’s Hawaiian bread.  Some places always use homemade bread.  But my colleague said that during the height of the swine flu epidemic, they switched to wafers because it seemed to them to be more sanitary.

I almost fell on the floor.  Wafers?!  This is the body of Christ, not the cardboard box in which the UPS man delivered Jesus to the door.  I said to him, “How could you do that?  Wafers are terrible.”  It’s like eating cardboard, though, granted, cardboard tastes better.  So we had a long discussion about the appropriate type of bread to use at communion.  But there again, it comes down to food.  Food is an emotional subject because it is so closely tied to who we are, who belongs in the circle of community, and who doesn’t.

But though my colleague and I do not agree about the bread to be used at communion, there is one thing about which we do agree: everyone is welcome at this table.  There is no clean or unclean here.  I might have difficulty expanding my circle of community to include everyone.  I might struggle sometimes to be welcoming and full of grace.  But this is not my table.  It isn’t even the Church’s table.  This is the table of Jesus Christ.  You are welcome here.

When the invitation comes to receive the bread and cup, the invitation is for you.  The circle of God’s love and grace includes you.

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