Monday, May 03, 2010

Rules for Eating: Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

I am willing to bet that every person in this sanctuary not only has their own particular “rules for eating,” but can also rattle off at least two other sets of rules. That’s how prevalent the notion of “the right and wrong way to eat” has become in our culture. For most of us, arriving at those rules is a more or less casual affair. We go along in life, we figure out what works for us. For some of us, it’s “stay away from dairy,” for others it’s “no nuts, not ever.” Some of us feel better if we don’t eat past a certain hour in the evening; for others, that’s just when we’re getting really hungry. Many of us feel better if we do without certain foods; at the same time, we have the ones we absolutely, simply cannot do without.

The powers that be, those who look after the public good, have their $0.02 to add to the conversation. There’s the venerable USDA food pyramid. It breaks the diet down into grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans, oils and what they euphemistically call “discretionary calories.” Alas, by the time we have eaten the requisite 6 ounces of grains, five-to-six servings of fruits and vegetables, and so on and so forth—all those things we need to maintain health—well, we don’t have a whole lot of discretionary calories left. Still, the Food Pyramid is the gold standard for Americans: it tells us what we may eat, urges us to eat a variety of foods within those possibilities, and promises that general good health will follow.

Other have submitted their health-based proposed rules for eating, everything from Dr. Dean Ornish’s claim that we should eliminate all fat from our diets to Dr. Robert Atkins’ claim of the precise opposite—that we should eat that fat! But health is not the only consideration when constructing rules for eating.

Several years ago, writer Barbara Kingsolver and her family decided to spend an entire year eating only food they’d raised themselves or food that was raised in their own neighborhood. If something didn’t fall into one of those two categories, they would learn to do without it. Her book chronicling that year is called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and it’s had a profound impact on the way many people are re-thinking their own rules for eating. A friend of mine—who also lives in the northeast—says she and her partner are working towards this goal, but there is just one thing holding them back: the avocado.

Of course, young parents often have rules for eating that boil down to two basic tenets: 1, Eat your food. And 2, Food goes in your mouth, and nowhere else.

As even this little tour through some of the better-known examples demonstrates, rules for eating often have to do with more than simply eating. They may be aimed at solving problems ranging from the epidemic of obesity to coronary artery disease to the problem of getting spaghetti off the walls. In the case of Kingsolver and the “locavore” movement, the problems being addressed are spiritual: we are disconnected from the source of our food. We rely too much on the “industrial food pipeline” and not enough on our neighbors. We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: food is always so much more than food. Eating is always so much more than eating.

We have a reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles, a book that tells us stories about the early, post-Pentecost church—the time after the resurrection, when Jesus’ friends are spreading the Good News through their own preaching and healing. In our reading, Peter is trying to explain an experience he has had, in which everything he had ever believed about the rules for eating has been dismantled and tossed away, at the instigation of God. Here’s the scenario. Peter, like Jesus, was raised a Jew, and so ate according to the laws laid down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Here’s just a sample of Peter’s understanding of the way God wanted him to eat:

Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cleft you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you. And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat their meat, and you shall not touch their carcasses.

~ Deuteronomy 14:6-8

The rules for keeping kosher have been interpreted in a variety of ways. Some have tried to make the case that they were actually beneficial for health in the desert climate of the Ancient Near East, and that may be true. But the meaning of these rules in scripture is clear: honoring God’s instructions about eating has to do with the fundamental way in which Jews identified themselves as belonging to God. Their rules for eating, as well as other observances, made them a people set apart, God’s chosen people. Food is never just about food. Eating is never just about eating.

Back to Peter. He sees a vision—he’s recounting the vision today. In the vision, he sees all kinds of food—food considered unclean, inedible for a Jew—all this food, being lowered from heaven, and a voice commanding him to kill and eat. And he resists. He says no. Three times he says no. (Because, after all, this is Peter, and he likes to do things in threes, I guess.) And finally, he gets it. What he gets is this, in the words of the voice from heaven: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter is still puzzling over this vision when he is approached by representatives of Cornelius—a Roman centurion and God-fearer, who has had a simultaneous vision that he should see Peter. Please understand: as far as Peter’s beliefs are concerned, Cornelius is every bit as unclean—and therefore, as unacceptable—as that food was. When Peter comes to Cornelius’ home, and preaches the Good News to him and his family—well, it’s Pentecost all over again. The Spirit falls upon all the hearers, non-Jews that they are, and Peter sees it as God’s will and baptizes them.

And now Peter is back in Jerusalem, among the circumcised believers, those who are undoubtedly still keeping kosher, and he is asked a question: Why are you eating with these people? So Peter tells the story, he tells how his rules, not just for what to eat, but how to eat, with whom, were exploded, by a loud and clear message from God combined with his own experience of seeing the faith of Cornelius and his household. Peter concludes the story with a rhetorical question: “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?”

For Christians, food is never just about food; eating is never just about eating. One could make the argument (and some have) that the early Christian movement, beginning with Jesus and continuing with his friends and followers, was almost entirely about table-fellowship. One could argue (and some have) that Jesus constantly pushed the boundaries of who is to be welcomed to that table. Jesus has no regard whatsoever for notions of clean and unclean, and he does his best to subvert and undermine them whenever he can. Here we find Peter following in his beloved master’s footsteps, and making the radical, truly scandalous judgment that the gospel is not to be fenced in, especially when God has made it so very clear: God gives the gifts of faith indiscriminately, to whomever God wishes. And the community is called upon to shift, spread out, and make room for another at the table.

And so here we are. Ready to gather around this table. And the gospel calls upon us, demands of us today that we know, in our hearts, as Peter knew, as Jesus knew, that the table of God is a radically welcoming place. Our rules for eating here have been expanded, opened up, so that we can make way for Jesus, the One who calls and welcomes each of us, who calls and welcomes all, the One who is the very welcome and love of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 comment:

Jeremia said...

Thankyou, Magdalene, for your clarifying explanation.
I have been struggling with this passage for a long time.
With Hope and Bless: