God Breaks Through

Coach John Wooden said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” In Acts 11, we see that Peter and the council learned something new about God. What new things is God teaching us today? We worship our amazing God and give thanks that there is more to learn!

Read Acts 11:1-18, Isaiah 56:1-8 here

Listen here:

Did you know that Friday was World Giraffe Day[1]? This is a giraffe weevil.

Trachelophorus_giraffa_male_01Did you know there was such a thing?  It kind of looks like something Dr. Seuss made up, doesn’t it?

Would you like to eat one?  I wouldn’t.  But in Madagascar they sauté them with some butter and eat them. They taste like shrimp.[2]

Giraffe Weevil cookedHow many of you would try it?   Can you think of any insect that you would eat?[3]

Some of you are brave, but most of us probably think of insects as uneatable, even disgusting.  A baby doesn’t know this yet and will put everything in their mouths as part of their exploration of the world.  We have to teach them that insects are bad to eat.  What do we do when we see them doing this?  We say, “Ew! Spit that out! Don’t touch that!”  (We’d better move on. This is starting to bug me.)

In our story for today from Acts, Peter has had a vision of God telling him to eat animals and birds that he would normally avoid. Peter probably had disgust at the idea of eating them, just like most of us do at the idea of eating insects.  Peter came from a Jewish family and would have been taught as a child that certain animals and birds and insects and sea creatures were “unclean” according to the instructions Moses gave them in the book of Leviticus.[4]

In the section that we read today, Peter is recounting an experience that is described in Acts chapter 10.  Peter has had a vision of a sheet full of creatures coming down from the sky and hears the voice of God telling him to kill and eat these creatures.  Peter protests.  “No, Lord, I have never eaten anything unholy or unclean.”  But God says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”  It happens three times to make sure Peter gets the message.

Soon afterwards, some men arrived who had been sent to bring Peter to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion.  Normally Peter would have avoided going to the house of someone who is not Jewish, just like he would have avoided eating food that isn’t kosher, but Peter has just had this vision.  God has broken into Peter’s way of thinking and caused him to question his understanding of these boundaries.  In addition, the men tell Peter that Cornelius has also had a vision. Cornelius has seen an angel who tells him to send for Peter and ask Peter to tell them about a message of salvation.

The vision of the animals and eating unclean food is a metaphor that God uses to teach Peter a deeper lesson. Peter explains this to Cornelius, saying, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)  In other words, no one is better or worse than another.  Everyone is someone God loves.

It’s not the first time that God had tried to get the Jewish people to see that God’s love is for all people.  In our Old Testament reading for today from Isaiah, God says that foreigners and eunichs who love God and serve him are not to be kept out of the temple.  “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) They’re to be included according to their attitude, not their birth or physical condition.[5]

We see this in the story of Ruth who is a foreign woman, a Moabite, who turns to God and is welcomed into Israel.  In the New Testament, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a man who is shunned by Israel’s religious leaders as unclean, but through his good deeds the Samaritan demonstrates that he knows the heart of God.

The people of Israel were not getting the message, though.  So when Peter comes to Jerusalem he finds that his friends are angry because they’ve heard that he went to the house of a Gentile, and, even worse, he ate with a Gentile.  The fact that they know this means that one of the people who had been travelling with Peter came back ahead of him and told the story.[6]  But they didn’t tell the whole story, just the salacious part.  So Peter has to explain in detail why he broke the law.  He’s telling them that he did it because God told him to.  And as further evidence that this was God’s will, he saw the Holy Spirit come to Cornelius and his household as he was telling them about Jesus. Peter says it was the same thing that people saw when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost: tongues of fire, the sound of wind, and people speaking in other tongues. Peter concludes, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)

When Peter’s critics hear this, they change their tune.  “They were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” (Acts 11:18)  They stop giving Peter a hard time about eating with Cornelius and people begin to be more accepting of the idea that the gospel is for all people. Accepting the Gentiles begins but continues to be a problem.  There’s a big church council meeting about it (Acts 15), and Paul addresses it in many of his letters. Relations between insiders and outsiders is an ongoing struggle for the early church.

We still struggle with this today. We naturally avoid people who are different from us.  Sometimes we react to people in much the same way we react to the idea of eating insects.  This happened to a man who had fallen on hard times and was living on the streets in San Antonio.  One day he asked a woman to tell him the time.  A simple request for her to look at her watch and tell him what it said.  Instead she looked at him with disgust and quickly walked away.  He was probably dirty.  His clothes were worn.  It’s hot in San Antonio, so he probably didn’t smell very nice. On the outside he looked pretty rough, but on the inside he was a vulnerable human being, just like each one of us.  Of all the difficult things he must have endured living on the streets, this woman’s disgusted reaction is the one that had hurt him the most.

We celebrate the words of Psalm 139:14 which says, “I praise you, God, that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. I know that well.”  We give thanks to God for how he made us, but then we look at someone who is made differently and see them as less.  But God made them, too.  Aren’t they also fearfully and wonderfully made?

Coral Worms SamoaGod made this, too.  Would you eat it?  It’s brown, so it might be chocolate or coffee.  If we look closer, we can see a little better. Coral Worms Samoa zoom

Now we can see that it looks like piles of little strings.  Fried onions?

Nope.  Fried worms.

 

 

Before they’re fried, they look like this:

fly-mastery-palolo-worm-500x332This is a worm that lives in the coral in the ocean near Samoa, and this food is called “palolo.” It’s a rare delicacy for Samoans because the worms only come out of the coral when the conditions are right, usually in the spring, and it doesn’t happen every year.

Our Administrative Assistant Karen Thorpe grew up in Samoa. Her father was a missionary, and they moved to Samoa when she was four.  I asked her if she’d ever eaten palolo. She knew right away what I was talking about. She had tried it once, but she wasn’t as impressed with it as the rest of the country.

Karen’s father had learned the same lesson that Peter learned through his vision and his experience with Cornelius – not to think of anyone as common or unclean, and not to avoid people who are different.  Karen’s family weren’t the only white people on the island.  There were other missionary families, who lived together in a separate neighborhood with people who were like them.  But Karen’s family didn’t live there.  Instead, they lived with the Samoans.  Those were the people they had come to reach and build relationships with, and to do that they needed to share their lives with them.  Over the course of the twenty years that Karen’s parents lived there, they earned the trust and respect of their neighbors, and when they left, the church they served continued to grow.  Now instead of a mission field, Samoa is an established church district on its own, and they send missionaries out to spread the gospel.

Karen’s parents were willing to go where God sent them – to the people of Samoa.

Peter was willing to go where God sent him – to the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion.

Cameron Anya and MeMy classmate Anya was willing to go where God sent her as well – to the AME church.  That’s Anya in the middle.  When Anya first moved to Charleston, SC after college, she wanted to go to a multi-cultural church like the one she’d attended in San Antonio, but she couldn’t find one.  So she decided to make one, and she started attending an AME church.  She kept attending and became a member.  After a few years she answered the call to preach and began the journey to ordained ministry.  Now she is the pastor of an AME church.  Out of the 500 pastors of AME churches in South Carolina, only two are white.  One of those is Anya.

You may remember that four years ago this week a tragic shooting occurred at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston.  A man showed up at a Bible study, sat through most of it and then shot nine people.  They’re now known as the Charleston nine.  Anya wrote an editorial for the Charleston newspaper about that.  As people were remembering those nine people again this week, I thought of Anya’s words and how much Peter and Paul and Jesus would have appreciated them.  She says:

“I’ve sometimes had white church leaders tell me that they’re disappointed that black people don’t come to their churches, because their churches would welcome them with open arms. I ask them what their motivation is for wanting black worshippers in their congregations. Is it just to validate the white churches’ proclamations of openness? And if not, if the motivation is that you want worship on earth to look more like worship in heaven, with people of all ethnicities together, then why don’t you go to a black church? Why ask them to be the ones to leave their comfort zones and venture into unfamiliar territory? Why not take that initiative yourself?”[

Why not take the initiative ourselves and go to people instead of waiting for them to come to us? This could apply to any type of people we are wishing would come to our church.  We need to go to them.

I don’t think we talk enough about how going is what we are to be doing.  At the end of every worship service, in the benediction, there is always the word go.  Not always emphasized, not always said directly, but it’s always implied. It’s not that we’re kicking you out.  We could hang out here all day, if you want, but we come here for a purpose: to get recharged and renewed.  And we are to go out with a purpose:  to share what we have received – the gospel.  The good news of God’s love and grace which is for all people.  All people.

We talk a lot about getting people to come, but I want us to start talking instead about where we need to go.

To whom are we being sent?

God didn’t wait for us to come to him.  He came to us as the baby Jesus.

Peter didn’t wait for Cornelius to come to him. God sends Peter to Cornelius.

Karen’s dad didn’t wait for the Samoans to come to him.  He went to the Samoans.

Anya didn’t wait for a church to become multi-cultural.  She went to the AME.

  • Who are we being called to reach? Ask God and go.
  • Who might we be dismissing as too different from us?  Ask God to open our eyes and go.
  • What obstacles or boundaries or fears do we need to overcome?  Ask God for help and go.

Let’s be asking God to break through and show us the way forward.

[1] https://giraffeconservation.org/world-giraffe-day/

[2] https://www.travelchannel.com/shows/bizarre-foods/photos/10-most-bizarre-foods-in-the-world

[3] Here’s which insects are kosher: https://www.ou.org/torah/halacha/dalet-amot-of-halacha/kosher-worms-insects/

[4] Kosher laws discussed at length by Moskala, who concludes: “No consensus exists among biblical scholars for the rationale of the laws of clean and unclean animals/food and no adequate theory has been developed which satisfies and gives a consistent explanation of the Pentateuchal dietaiy laws. 2. Some truth may be found in most of the explanations, and it may not be necessary to select only one of them. Not one factor but a combination cf them determined what was clean and unclean as God chose what was best for His people.” (Moskala, Jiří. 2001. “Categorization and Evaluation of Different Kinds of Interpretation of the Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals in Leviticus 11.” Biblical Research 46: 5–41. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a6h&AN=ATLA0001328743&site=ehost-live.)

[5] Derek Kidner, New Bible Commentary

[6] Lloyd Ogilvie, The Communicator’s Commentary: Acts

[7] Rev. Anya Marsalek Leveille,  “Churches play key role in fight against racism,” July 4, 2015. https://www.postandcourier.com/opinion/churches-play-key-role-in-fight-against-racism/article_9f498e59-b37b-5c05-a887-54b95806cc01.html

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